Last week, I shared the first part of my interview with Ying Chang Compestine at The Arts House here in Singapore. Here is the second part of our transcribed interview.
In your Author’s Note, you shared that many of the scenes and characters found in Revolution is Not A Dinner Party are inspired by real places and actual events that happened to people from your childhood. I found Ling to be a really spunky, quick-witted, articulate young girl with a great deal of fire in her belly.
I hope you feel that way about me now that you’ve met me.
Oh definitely. Would you say that you were like Ling as a child?
Yes. As I was writing, one reason why it was easy for me to get into the character of Ling’s voice is because I kept a diary when I was little. During the Cultural Revolution, we were constantly afraid that the Red Guard would come search our home, so I couldn’t really use a notebook for my diary. I wrote my diary on pieces of paper and would hide them in different parts of my house. Before I left China, I took all of them with me. When I was writing this book, I went back and read those diaries from when I was nine, ten years old and it was like my childhood voice just came back to me.
As difficult as it was to relive your experiences all over again, it was something that you felt you really have to do.
It was really my way of coping with losing my parents to cancer. After their deaths, I really felt that I had lost touch with China. And writing this book kept me close to China.
Did you talk to any of your two brothers that you were publishing this novel? They’re both based in China, right?
Yes, they’re both based in China and cannot read in English. Someday, I hope that this book would be translated into Chinese, and they’d be able to read it. Well, we’ve talked a little bit about me writing the book, but I don’t think we got into the details.
Ling also valued her long hair dearly in this novel – which eventually in the story she had to cut off (I’m not saying why since people would have to buy the book to know this part of the story) – did you experience giving up something as precious to you as a child growing up in Wuhan?
That part was fictionalized, but one of my friends had to go through that. And many times my hair got close to being cut by the Red Guard. That’s why even today, I keep my hair long.
Were you as fearless as Ling at the time? As outspoken?
I was very afraid at the beginning. But to survive, I had no choice, I had to be strong. And I think that’s what made me go to the United States by myself to attend graduate school without any money. When I look back now, I probably would not do it again. But I was young, and I thought, what could be worse than going through the Cultural Revolution?
That’s true, if you could go through that, you can go through anything.
I had 200 dollars when I landed in San Francisco. I worked two to three jobs to support myself. During my second semester, I got a Dean’s scholarship.
I lived with an American family. In exchange for free room and board, I babysat their children. I learned about investing and saved all the money I made as a teaching assistant at the university. By the time I graduated, I had 20,000 dollars invested. I always joked with my husband “Remember who paid for our wedding?”
One of the highlights for me in this particular novel is how Ling learned the ropes of bartering food from the market. I’ve always thought that this is her ‘coming of age’ as she learns how to use her wits and resources to find food for her and her mother – how similar is this to your own experience? And food was rationed at the time too.
That’s right. We constantly had to barter to survive. Just imagine having just one pound of sugar and one pound of meat every month for an entire family. We had to go through so much trouble just to get basic goods like a bar of soap. For years, I washed my hair with cheap detergent. At the time, washing hair with a bar of soap was such a luxury!
During that time, was there any particular food that you were craving for?
The pan-fried eggs, just as I described in the story. My mother cooked me two eggs for Chinese New Year. Later I found out, she traded my favorite floral blouse for them.
I taught my son how to make those pan-fried eggs. During my book tour, my publisher held a banquet in NY and served it as an appetizer. It’s just an ordinary dish, right? But even now, it’s still very special to me.
I don’t think I would ever look at fried eggs the same way again. I also like the fact that the ending of the novel was not about Ling finding her way to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but finding her own courage and strength within her.
And hope. I want my reader to see that there’s hope. Actually, I just received a letter – I receive a lot of fan mail but this one was special. It was handwritten and forwarded to me by my publisher. A 14 year old girl shared with me about the difficulties in life; her divorced parents and the challenges she faced at school. She said that when she finished my book, she knew that things will get better, and that there’s hope. I read it three times and was very touched by it.
When you were a child growing up during the time of Chairman Mao, did you ever dream that your life would be everything that it is now, with your TV appearances, your travels, your cooking show, and your novels?
I think I’m a dreamer. I daydreamed all the time because that was the only way for me to cope with my difficulties at the time. And I was hungry all the time. I had no friends because I was singled out as the bourgeoisie child.
One of my dreams is to travel. I want to see the Pyramids, Pompeii, and travel around the world. It was my father who gave me that strength and hope. And he told me that one day I could. At the time, I wondered, how could I? We had no money and no freedom, yet I kept dreaming. Today, I feel very blessed that I can live the life I dreamt as a child and have the freedom and opportunities to travel the world.
I think what makes this novel really very special for me is that it has a transformative aspect to it. I loved that part in the book where Ling was being asked to apologize to Gao, another character in the story. While she didn’t want to apologize for something that she didn’t really do, the apology, the humiliation turned into a moment of triumph for her. So I feel that the mere act of you writing this novel is transforming something painful into something beautiful.
Thank you! I really appreciate you seeing it that way. It relates back to the Chinese tradition of sacrifice. We learned to sacrifice for our friends and our family. I see that as the first lesson I learnt as a child: to sacrifice to save my mother.
Ling was never a victim in the story. Regardless of the circumstances happening around her, she remained true to herself. She was empowered in a sense.
I might appear that way. But there were a lot of moments, believe me, where I felt very uncertain about what I was doing. I felt very lonely and sad, and I think the reason why I became a writer today is perhaps because I spent many hours by myself, daydreaming and contemplating about life.
You also mentioned in your website about your rituals, that a typical day for you consists of beginning your day with some form of exercise?
I used to do a lot of tai-chi and badminton. Now I’m doing a lot of Zumba dancing. I always do some form of exercise before I sit down to write. Are there any badminton players here? Next time I come back, I will challenge you to a game.
I’m sure Ying can beat you hands down.
And the loser has to pay for lunch.
You also noted that you used to be very uneasy writing just a very simple note in English, so how did you learn the ropes of really writing your thoughts and expressing your emotions, and articulating it so perfectly and beautifully in English?
I’m not very gifted with languages. I’ve always admired people who can speak three or four languages. I’m still struggling with just two languages, but I’m a perfectionist. Every time I write something, I make sure it’s perfect. I always tell people, if I put my name on something and send it out, it has to be the best it can be. And I get a lot of emails from writers who want me to introduce them to publishers and help them get published.
I tell them, if I introduce them to my publisher, I am also putting my name on the line, so the work has to be of high quality. It took a long time for people to convince me that not every email I send has to be perfect. It used to take me so long to write an email. So now, I write succinct emails. But if I am writing something for publication, I work very, very hard.
Ying does not only write fiction and picture books, she also writes cookbooks.
My fifth cookbook, “Cooking With An Asian Accent” had just come out. And I also write a lot of feature food articles for magazines. For three years, I wrote a food column called Yin &Yang Dinner for Martha Stewart.
What is the one dish that you are most famous for among family and friends? Your specialty?
My specialty is forbidden rice with nuts and cranberries. When I think about a recipe, it’s not just a recipe; it has to be a balancing of yin and yang. In other words, it has to be healthy, since I have always try to be healthy from my body to my eyes with the use of a outback vision protocol you can find online. Forbidden rice is not only exotic, as you know the Chinese emperor used to eat it, recent research also show that it has a lot of antioxidants.
Do tell us a little bit more about The Secrets of Terra-cotta Soldier, this is your most recently published novel, released this January.
I wrote this book with my son. We started when he was in high school, and that was the time when I felt I was losing him. He’s a very handsome and popular young man. He was so busy and I didn’t get to spend much time with him. We had always talked about writing a book together, but we couldn’t find a subject to write about. And finally, I sat him down and told him it was now or never. Though he reluctantly agreed, he was fascinated with the first emperor of China, the secrets of the tomb, and the terra cotta soldiers. And I was very interested in the similarity between the emperor and Chairman Mao and the period when the farmers discovered the first terra-cotta soldier, during the Cultural Revolution.
When Revolution became successful, everyone wanted me to write a sequel. I want to write about the Cultural Revolution, but not a sequel of Ling’s life. And so, here in The Secrets of the Terra-cotta Soldier, a modern day boy, Ming becomes friends with the terra cotta soldiers. Through their friendship and stories, we made the connection between the first emperor and Chairman Mao, the two most ruthless leaders in Chinese history.
How was it like working with your son?
It was a bittersweet experience, and that’s why in the acknowledgement, I thanked my husband for calming the stormy sea. When he comes home from work, he never knows what he would walk into. We sent the first draft to our editor, one of the best children’s book editors in the US. He buys only a handful of books a year and he bought the book based on my previous works, and I was very honoured.
At one point Vinson was very tired of working on the book and resistant to rewriting the second part of the book. He pressured me to send out the first draft. Knowing the book we sent out was nothing close to being perfect, I wanted him to learn a life lesson. A week later we received a very candid email from the editor. The email is one of many reasons I respected him so much.
Later I joked with the editor that if the book ever won a big award, I would share his email with the public.
What the email said basically was that he was disappointed with the manuscript. It was nothing like my previous works, and he wondered if he had made the right decision to allow me to co-author with my son.” After Vinson read the email we sat down and talked. I told him that in my whole career, I always had my editor tell me, “Ying, this is good enough. We’re ready to publish.” And I would always be the one to say, “No, we can do more.” This time, it was the opposite.
Vinson said “Mom, I will do whatever I can to make this the best book it can be.” That was when we had a written contract for our work schedule. During weekends and holidays, we would work five hours together each day. On school days, we worked three hours.
On the days Vinson trained for the cross-country state championship, we would work together after he finished his homework. Sometimes, he would be too tired to stay up. I would continue working after he went to bed and he would pick up from where I left off in the morning. He worked on the book till the day he left for college. During the final stages we continued to work via Skype. The book is getting great reviews, and it’s been called one of the three best books by The Morning Call magazine in the US.
A few months ago when I went to Shanghai, I met with the head of creative development at Oriental DreamWorks, and she is reading the book and considering making it into a film. I don’t know if they will buy the movie rights, but I’m honoured.
The most important thing for me is when we finished the book, Vinson told me that he learned a life lesson — you have to work hard to achieve something great. The experience is a lifelong memory for both of us.
So how did the Editor respond to the glowing reviews your book is now receiving?
Oh, he’s the nicest editor you can hope for. He’s met Vinson, and they get along great. Vinson kept telling me “I can’t believe how nice he is!” And the editor is the one who also bought my upcoming picture book, The Real Story of the Emperor’s Clothes.