Thursday, April 10, 2014

Q&A with author Nicole Mones

Nicole Mones is the author of the new novel Night in Shanghai. Her previous novels are The Last Chinese Chef, Lost in Translation, and A Cup of Light. Her books focus on China, a country in which she has spent a great deal of time. She is based in Portland, Oregon.

Q: Many of the events in Night in Shanghai are historical rather than fictional. How did you research the book?

A: I did more research than you can imagine! There’s powerful magic in verisimilitude, and I like to leave no detail unstudied.

Some of the research was just my life… it was my privilege to sign my first commercial contract in Shanghai in 1977, and the city as I came to know it then, in the immediate wake of the Cultural Revolution, was physically almost unchanged from the 1930s and 40s.

So many of the vanished jazz and entertainment venues portrayed in this book, along with the vintage look and feel of the city, are within my personal memory.

For example, 20 years ago I was able to explore the Canidrome, before it was torn down. Throughout the decades, I have also listened to many Shanghainese elders share their personal memories of the jazz age, and of the war. I began listening to these memories as soon as I started learning Chinese—back when you still saw older women with bound feet!

Of course I pored over many histories, and in secondary sources, I’m especially indebted to the scholarship of Stella Dong, Lynn Pan, Andrew Jones, Poshek Fu, and Gunther Schuller.

First-person accounts by jazz musicians, memoirs by other notables who lived or worked in Shanghai, vintage maps, and even letters of the period were all incredibly important to me, because through these primary sources, I could see streets, I could hear voices.

Finally, my wonderful researcher Daniel Nieh combed the Chinese internet to check details. Everything is accurate—the price of a steamship ticket, the old name of a street, the turn of a phrase in mid-30s Shanghai pidgin. That’s why Night in Shanghai feels so alive… because it’s true!

Q: What balance between the fictional and the historical did you seek to achieve?

A: I love blurring the line between fiction and history! This novel was so exciting for me because everything that happens in the book really happened, and all the minor characters really lived.

It’s real history—a true side of World War II, in Asia, that you never see depicted—and in the center of it, a very passionate fictional story about love, jazz, and survival.

My goal was to set this fictional story in events so real and so accurate that the whole novel would burst to life—and you would see Shanghai’s nightlife, feel the syncopation on the dance floor, hear the bombs explode, notice the sharp rank scent of blood. The story is true, and so everything is more real.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Thomas Greene, Song Yuhua, and Lin Ming?

A: These three main characters, along with the Jewish refugee violin player David Epstein, are the only fictional characters in the book. Thomas Greene is an African-American pianist from Baltimore who is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra; he leaves behind the Depression to find wealth and respect in China.

His recruiter is Lin Ming, the illegitimate son of Shanghai’s top crime boss, who becomes his closest friend in China. Lin’s sister Song Yuhua belongs to the same crime boss, and though she and Thomas fall in love, contact between them is forbidden.

So far, all these characters arise naturally from the narrative, and yet that does not begin to explain how they are created. Sometimes characters just stand up, fully formed, like Song Yuhua—a young girl so desperate for her freedom that she secretly joins the Communists and risks her life by spying on her master.

I did not really create her; I just got out of her way. She showed up, bristling with ideas and desires, announced her place in my novel, and played a role in everything that followed. She was alive, and still is. I can’t explain that. I don’t think anyone can.

Q: Music plays a major role in this novel. Why did you decide to make that one of the important themes in the book? 

A: One way I have chosen to write about China is to focus each novel on one discipline or art form—archeology, art history, haute cuisine, and now music.

I have loved all of these, but music is special to me, my first love. I learned to read music at the same time I learned the alphabet. I studied piano through my youth, and to this day music is the only art form of which I have a formal understanding.

I never went to school in creative writing; the only theory I know is music theory. I did take those classes at Peabody, just like Thomas. So I approach a novel as I would a sonata. I see themes and subplots interacting in my mind like lines in a fugue.

Naturally it was a wonderful experience for me to write a novel about a musician! Mind you, I have never been half the pianist that Thomas Greene is. One of the myriad joys of writing novels is that you get to imagine what it would be like if you were really good at something rather than only so-so! 

It’s also a fun challenge to tackle expressing each discipline or art form in words. Can I make the reader taste it, hear it? By most accounts, The Last Chinese Chef totally nailed the portrayal of Chinese cuisine, in words. See if Night in Shanghai doesn’t do the same thing for music, in words.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am considering doing a novel on the Shanghai Communiqué—Nixon and Kissinger’s negotiations to open China—from inside the Chinese point of view. Perhaps Song Yuhua will be involved as translator. I wonder what Thomas Greene would have been doing in the meantime?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! Please go to my website and watch the trailer. Chinese film director Po-Chih Leong loved the novel so much, he made this cinematic trailer which brilliantly tells the story of the novel in three minutes. Also on the website are wartime galleries—captioned historical photos of the people and events in the novel. See the magic of Night in Shanghai for yourself!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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