Mingmei Yip is the author of five novels, including The Nine Fold Heaven, which was just published; Skeleton Women; and Peach Blossom Pavilion. She also has written two books for children, and five books written in Chinese. She lives in New York City.
Q: How did you come up with the idea and the characters for The Nine Fold Heaven?
A: It started with my Skeleton Women book. “Skeleton woman” in Chinese means femme fatale—very talented and beautiful women who can turn you into a skeleton they’re so powerful….When I was a child, people would call other people skeleton women. Then the phrase disappeared.
I was at an academic meeting, and a scholar was doing research about skeleton women in China. That was three years ago. I was awakened by this term. I listened to the lecture, and I thought, I am going to write a novel!
A lot of them are spies. Most of these women in China in the 1930s and ‘40s spied on politicians to get state secrets. A few were executed; it was very sad.
When I started to write the novel--I have three [skeleton women] in the novel: a magician, a singer, and a gossip columnist—I didn’t want Camilla [the singer] to spy on politicians. I would have to get into the politics; that would be too complicated…I changed it to gangsters; everyone can relate to that. Then I had to do a lot of research on the gangster world in 1930s China. It was kind of scary to me. It had nothing to do with my life or my world.
Q: What type of research did you do?
A: There was not much in English, so I had to do a lot of research. I already knew some gangsters’ names; they were famous. I Googled them in Chinese. Google is very superficial—you can’t depend on that. Then I had to buy books. I know some book sites in China. I was somewhat lucky—I was able to get a few books about Chinese spies in the '30s.
Q: Do you have a favorite among the characters you’ve created?
A: Just like my children, of course I like all of them. The first one I like very much, the young prostitute in Peach Blossom Pavilion. She was tricked into prostitution and finally found happiness. I like to write about very strong women characters. She was a scholar’s little girl, at 13 she became a prostitute—she had no choice. They are thrust onto a path they didn’t choose. She used her own resources to get out of the prostitution house and achieve a certain happiness.
Most of my novels involve this type of situation for the women. I have met women who went through the Cultural Revolution and found a way out and achieved success. My life is not as miserable as the protagonists’ but I had a rough time in my own life—that’s why I like to write about strong women who use all their resources to get what they want in life. That’s very important. I didn’t have [many] resources; my father was a gambler. When I was a teenager he gambled money away and my family didn’t have much left. When it’s a limited situation, there’s motivation for you to get out.…
Q: You’ve also written children’s books. Do you prefer one type of writing to another?
A: A novel is more satisfying because it’s long and I can include my own thoughts, my own world-views. It’s very multi-layered and very satisfying. It’s much harder to write—you do research, you get writer’s block.
Children’s books are a lot more fun, they’re easier, the pages are much [fewer]. For children, I do my own illustrations, so it’s almost as difficult. The writing is easy, but the illustrations are very difficult, just like writing a novel. I do a draft first, and then [have to decide] where to place this animal, [in a way that] catches children’s attention. Sometimes I do three or four drafts, I’m not happy, then I do it again, add color…After I have all this in mind, the rest is easy, I just paint it….
Q: How do you incorporate your knowledge about art, and also about music, into your novels for adults?
A: I read about music, painting, calligraphy, philosophy, poetry. I incorporate it into my novels. All this background… in Tai Chi, in Chinese medicine, in tea ceremony, I really go into it. All this helps a lot in the novel-writing.
In Petals From the Sky--it’s about nuns--one of the nuns performs a tea ceremony. I know about the tea ceremony, so I can make the character perform a tea ceremony. When I write it into the novel, I don’t want to just show this and that. I want to incorporate it into that character. She is very meticulous. A tea ceremony is very meticulous. She had great suffering in her past, her life is chaotic, and she wanted to rechannel her life, and performing the ceremony is a way to regain order.
In the first novel, the prostitute plays the qin. I play the qin. The older prostitute told her to keep a pure land in her heart, to keep a secret space in our hearts that no one can step on. The instrument in Chinese history is revered, a sacred spirit. That’s why prostitutes play that instrument, to keep a pure land in their hearts.
Q: You’ve also published some books in Chinese. What can you tell us about them?
A: I’ve written five books in Chinese. I was a professor in the past, and two are academic books about music. I also have a book on Zen Buddhism with painting and calligraphy. One is a book about music for the general public, and one is a collection of essays.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing my sixth novel. It’s about a ghost bride--in ancient China, when there are two girlfriends [with children the same age], and they promise them in marriage when they are very young….The problem is, in ancient China, the death rate of babies was very high. In my novel, the baby boy dies, and the baby girl still has to keep the promise to marry the ghost. It starts with the wedding, and then she runs away. … She runs into a community of celibate women who are embroiderers. The novel is not really about embroidery, but about her fate—how she finds her own happiness. It’s a convoluted plot; she gets married four times.
Q: Do you ever base your characters on real women?
A: No, but in the first book about the courtesan--they are all very well versed in the literary arts—I researched a lot about courtesans. Sometimes I might have a composite character, but it’s never really based on one, it’s not my style. I don’t need to base it on a certain person.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb