WRITERS TELL ALL
"I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same": An illuminating interview with Yangszee Choo!
Matthew Turbeville: I am so excited to get to talk to you about these genre crossing, nail-biting, beautiful and unforgettable novels with you. My first question regards your actual writing style though: when do you decide an idea is right, how do you decide it’s something you want to pursue longform and long-term and what is your writing process like? (Morning/night writer, how your revisions go, where you like to write, by hand or computer or otherwise?)
Yangsze Choo: Thank you so much for having me! I wish I could tell you that I get up every morning at five, exercise enthusiastically, and then sit down to write, but the truth is far more mundane and disorganized. Mostly, I feel that I’m bumbling around, doing housework and making repeated visits to the refrigerator for “inspiration”, all while yelling at my kids to pick up their clothes…
In order to write, or perhaps be any kind of creative (which includes drawing/painting/building bicycles etc.) I think one needs a lot of blank, empty space. For me, that translates to silence, so unfortunately I have been relegated to writing late at night after the house is quiet and my kids have gone to bed. This is terrible because I’m actually a morning person and don’t like being up late at night. There have been times when I was writing certain ghostly passages in The Night Tiger when I frightened myself and had to eat large quantities of chocolate in order to recover.
I write organically (that is to say by the seat of my pants) and often discover the story as I write it. This is why it takes so long for me to write books. The Ghost Bride took about five years, and The Night Tiger four years.
MT: What authors inspired The Night Tiger and The Ghost Bride? What authors today helped you develop your own voice as a writer and author these great, now well-known novels? What book or author do you feel helped you grow most as a creator?
YC: There are so many writers that I adore—Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen, Susanna Clarke, Yoko Ogawa, Tana French—to name just a few. I think what they all have in common is the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world, where snow is falling outside a grand house in Copenhagen, or a professor who has lost his memory and experiences each day anew. When you read a really good book, there’s this frisson of excitement when you snuggle in deeper into the story and fall into another world, forgetting all that is before you and becoming someone else for a little time. That’s the magic of reading. I hope we never lose it.
MT: You have a lot of the mystical and magic in your writing—there’s horror, there is this place between magical realism and fantasy, and you balance everything so well. How do you feel this differs from other writers, and how do you manage to balance so many elements so well? You can easily move from one genre to another, combining all into one supergenre, the great Yangsze Choo novel. How did your own type of novel come about?
YC: Thank you for your kind words—I’m so delighted and honoured that you enjoyed my books! Actually when I started writing, I just wanted to write a story that seemed interesting to me. So I put in all these elements, including dreams, ghosts, and promises. Also, murder mysteries! I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel or mirror worlds—places where things are not what they seem, whether that’s the Chinese world of the dead, or a dream world where people talk to you in deserted railway stations.
Speaking of railway stations, I remember very clearly traveling by train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, in those days when we still had the old trains and it took about eight or nine hours, rattling along very slowly and stopping at all these small towns. There was something both magical and tedious about such a journey, watching the towns appear and disappear, and long stretches of the track winding through green jungle, all while looking out for interesting landmarks. That, and my own nostalgia for a historic Malaya long gone, led to many of the elements in The Night Tiger.
In some ways, you could say that all novels are a journey of some sort, and The Night Tiger in particular does remind me of one. The strange occurrences in the book are like landmarks or signals that you watch out for from a train window. And from time to time, a door opens or closes to somewhere new.
MT: Speaking of your own type of novel, how hard is it for someone—an author, any author—to invent a way of writing all their own, and outside of yourself, who do you think is the most creative and unique in telling stories today?
YC: I am a huge, huge fan of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The first time I saw that book, it was in huge pile stacked in the front of a bookstore. I didn’t know anything about her or the book, which had just been published. They had two colours of the hardcover, so I seized one, flipped through the first page, then bought it to take home, where I spent the next two days devouring it. That is a very happy memory and one that I’m sure fellow book lovers have also experienced with different novels—that sensation of discovering something new and wondrous, a world that you had no idea existed. That’s the kind of feeling that I would love to give readers in turn.
MT: You talk a lot about curses, ghosts, magic, fate—what draws you to these ideas, and why do you think they’re important today? When looking at these recurring ideas and themes in your novels, what do you feel you want the reader to take away from the novel upon finishing the book?
YC: Sometimes I wonder whether we are continuously writing the same book, or the same story: exploring, turning, and examining it anew. I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami’s, and I get that feeling from his novels. Yet I really enjoy them and love being immersed in his world and prose. Mirror or parallel worlds has been a theme for my own writing, and how we as humans can accept the existence of completely contradictory ideas (ghosts and dream messages, interspersed with scientific data!) and be emotionally ok with all of them.
Part of this is the world that exists in your own head; one where events move towards a purpose that may exist or not—who is to say which one feels more real to you? That is the dream-like feeling that I think we all occasionally get and that I’ve tried to capture in my books. It is an escape and also a terror and delight.
MT: Which book was the hardest to write? What do you find makes things hardest to write for you, and how do you get over these hurdles and to the finish line—and so well!
YC: I’ve only written two books so far (though I’m working on a third right now), but I’d say that The Night Tiger was harder to write than The Ghost Bride, partly because it was such a complicated and ambitious narrative, weaving two storylines together at once. It also covered a number of subjects—colonialism, men and women, foreigners and locals, dreams and reality—that I’m still vaguely shocked that I managed to squeeze them in!
People have asked me whether I wrote each story out separately, and then put them together. The sad reality is that I’m not organized enough to do something like that. I wrote the whole book pretty much as the reader experiences it—one chapter at a time, swapping out the narratives. Part of it is that I didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I really couldn’t plan. This absence of outlining has been both my bane and a source of unexpected joy.
MT: There are also elements of lots of crime, intrigue, and mystery in your novels. What do you think is so important about writing of crime in today’s world? What are your favorite crime novels, and do you believe every novel is, essentially, a mystery?
YC: My youth was spent reading pretty much every Agatha Christie novel I could get hold of, and later on, other favourites include PD James, Ian Rankin, and Tana French among others. I do think that all good books contain some sort of mystery, though it appears in different guises. Whether it is the unraveling of a relationship, the demise of a dream, or the discovery of a dead body… the mystery is what calls out to us as readers to examine and explore, not just the world of the novel, but our own hearts as well.
MT: What are the connections between your novels? How do you feel they play together versus separately? Do you feel like you made a natural transition from one book to another easily? Which book is your favorite, and which was hardest to accomplish?
YC: I once heard a great quote from Elmore Leonard when he was interviewed on NPR. When asked which was his favourite book, he replied “the one I’m working on”. I thought that’s so helpful—you have to love the book that you’re currently working on, otherwise you’ll be tempted to give up (I know I often am!).
In terms of the two books I’ve completed so far, I’d have to say The Night Tiger is my favourite, and was also the harder one to write. As I mentioned earlier, that’s partly because it was much more ambitious than The Ghost Bride. Also, I noticed later that I tried to write each novel in very much the historic vein appropriate to its time period, so The Ghost Bride is written as a Victorian Gothic novel, with vocabulary and imagery.
One thing that I enjoyed about writing The Ghost Bride was being immersed in the Chinese world of the dead, with its antiquated imagery (even for that time), and burned paper offerings. It’s a world rich with superstition and ritual, where cultural expectations constrain behaviour. Yet that was also a little difficult to deal with in terms of plot, as I tried to keep my protagonist, Li Lan, historically accurate to a sheltered girl from a once-wealthy family. I was also learning about pacing and plot as I wrote that book, and there are definitely things I would have done differently if I had to rewrite it today! But I suppose all writers feel like that to some extent—a novel is never quite “done” or good enough.
The Night Tiger is set in 1931, when they had electricity and trains, so that was a lot more entertaining to write about! I’d read Somerset Maugham growing up, which helped with the background of colonial Malaya, and I have also always loved the crumbling, gracious colonial bungalows left over from that era in Malaysia. One thing I noted was that 1931 was closer to the 1920s in terms of fashion and popular culture. Beyond that, the fact that The Night Tiger is a dual narrative allowed me to play around with characters and setting in a faster and more complicated way. I really enjoyed that, though it was also rather challenging.
MT: Some authors are outspoken about the number of books a writer should author in a certain period of time. Do you ever say, “Hey, I’m moving too fast” or have any beliefs of your own? How long does each book take you, and how many more books do you have in you currently? I know I have a thousand books fighting in my own head, waiting to be written.
YC: Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m a very slow writer. I often feel terribly guilty about that. It took me about five years to write The Ghost Bride, and four for The Night Tiger. In between, I got stuck and had to put each novel aside for a while when I ran out of ideas.
A great deal of fiction writing for me occurs off the page, when I’m walking around or doing something mindless, and an idea will pop up. That’s the best feeling, though it doesn’t always happen and sometimes I go for long periods of drought. It’s very hard to sit down and write. I know other people who are much more disciplined and can do this, but for me, the creative process requires a lot of empty space, including silence. That’s very hard when you have kids barreling around the house and shouting!
MT: With violence, with crime, we also see magic related between the two, and controlling the two, in your novels. What do you feel is the connection between these elements, specifically magic and mysticism and crime?
YC: I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same, except that they start at different ends of the tale. Both address the mystery of a crime or someone’s passage into death, and both require an audience or a detective to unravel what happened. And in the end, there is some sort of resolution or reason. The magical part, I suppose, comes from our wishful desire to know exactly what happened, and that can manifest in many ways, from a talking crow to a message from the dead. Or perhaps, it is simply the possibility of a neatly wrapped answer.
MT: What do you have planned next? Is there a book being published, a work in progress, or some other book we should be looking forward to which is only in your head for now?
YC: I’m currently working on a third novel, which I’m excited, hopeful, and despairing of, depending on which day (or time of day!) you talk to me. The story itself is still being formed, but I wanted to write about snow and a cold climate. I spent part of my childhood in both Germany and Japan, and some of the most vivid and poignant memories I have are of snow falling. The silence, the soft cold, and the feeling that the whole world was being made anew when you woke up to a thick blanket of snow. So I started off by setting my new book in Manchuria (northern China) in 1908, but we’ll see where it goes. I’m still trying to figure that out!
MT: Thank you so much for being interviewed by us at Writers Tell All! We are so happy to have read your books and look forward to reading much more from you in years to come. Please feel free to stop by any time, as we will always be fans, and please let me know below if you have any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments you want to share with our reader. Thank you so much!
YC: It’s been my pleasure and honour. These were such fun and wonderful questions. Thank you very much for having me!