Friday, March 15, 2013

Q&A with novelist Jennifer Cody Epstein

Jennifer Cody Epstein
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of two novels, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, which was just released this month, and The Painter from Shanghai. She also has worked as a journalist, and she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q: Why did you select the title The Gods of Heavenly Punishment for your new novel?

A: I chose the novel's title after discovering an old scroll online by the same name. The scroll is a so-called "Hell Scroll" painted in the 12th century--it shows the demon Tenkeisei consuming the ox-headed deity Gozu Tenno. The violence in it is more of the bloody variety than the fiery, but the title really grabbed me--it seemed to sum up my book's themes so perfectly. So I have my main character Yoshi thinking about it during the firebombing, and unconsciously adding flames to the image in it in her mind. 

Q: How did you come up with the array of characters, both American and Japanese, who are featured in the novel?

A: The characters really came to me piecemeal. I'd initially conceived of a novel centered mainly around a young girl and her mother (Yoshi and Hana Kobayashi). But as I researched the bombing I came to realize that what I really wanted was to explore the event from both American and Japanese eyes, and so I began to look for other possible characters in the research I was doing.

I came up with Cam Richards--the doomed, downed bomber pilot from the Doolittle Raids--after becoming fascinated by that heroic mission; it seemed an interesting way to bring the aerial perspective in in a somewhat unexpected way.

Hana Kobayashi came from a memoir I read by an American journalist who spent 1937 in Tokyo and met a woman very much like the character I ended up creating--someone equally influenced and shaped by West and East, and really fitting into neither culture.

I created Yoshi's father, Kenji, as a builder/carpenter because I wanted someone who would be able to represent Japan's nationalism in a realistic and understandable way, and also because I wanted to take the novel to Northern China and the colonies Japan built there during the 1930's and '40s, since they were in large part the catharsis for the Pacific War for Japan.

And I included Anton Reynolds after reading about Antonin Raymond's role in the firebomb testing programs in Utah in 1943--after learning he'd spent decades in Japan building modern buildings there, then helped the U.S. military figure out how to destroy the country he'd helped to construct I realized I just had to get into his head and the complexity of his motivations.

Lastly, Billy Reynolds was a character I'd sort of seen from the start--an American Occupation soldier who helps to redeem and save Yoshi after the war. What I hadn't anticipated was connecting him to Anton in that way, but it made the most sense for continuity to make him Anton's son--and I liked the added nuance of having him also have a background in Japan before the war. 

Q: How much research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I probably did more research than I had to--it's a bit of a habit of mine! But I think that's also why I love writing historical novels--the research part is always so fascinating for me, and really enriching. I love learning about the things I'm writing about (as opposed to writing about things I already know about, which I think many writers do).

So I cast a wide net--tons of books, several movies and documentaries, a trip to Japan to talk to firebombing survivors, a few trips to aerial museums (some of which very kindly let me climb around in B-25 bombers--so cool!) and the like. 

Q: Your first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, is based on the life of the painter Pan Yuliang. Why did she strike you as a good subject to write about, and did you consider writing a biography instead of a novel?

A: Pan was fascinating to me from pretty much the moment I learned about her, which was at an exhibition at the Guggenheim here in New York. It was a Modern Chinese Art retrospective, and hers was the first painting I saw when I walked into the room--a lush, boldly-painted and quite overtly western-styled self-portrait.

It looked like someone had stuck a Manet or a Van Gogh into the (very Chinese) mix by mistake, and I immediately went over to check it out. What I learned about her story--just in that small bio that accompanied the painting--absolutely stunned me. My first thought was: Why does no one know about this woman? 

And no--I didn't really consider writing a straight bio--first off because after ten years as a journalist I was really ready to try to write novels. But also because her story was pretty perfect for fictionalizing. Not only was it one of those "stranger-than-fiction" real-life narratives, but there was so little real information about her out there beside her copious artwork that it left lots of room to imagine and create. That made it less daunting for me to approach, for some reason. 

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I'm casting around for my next novel at the moment--I have several in the running! One is another fictionalized memoir that I may work on in collaboration with its subject (an extraordinary man who survived the "child soldier" armies of Uganda), and I've got a joint project I'm contemplating with my husband that would be an update of a classy, old mystery novel. 

But I'm also preparing (slowly) to plunge back into Asia--probably somewhere in Southeast Asia this time, but with a more modern-day twist thrown into it. In short, many balls in the air. We'll see which lands first!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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