Sunday, July 9, 2023

Q&A with Rita Chang-Eppig


Photo by Lily Dong Photography



Rita Chang-Eppig is the author of the new novel Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. She lives in California.


Q: What inspired you to write this novel, which is based on the life of the legendary pirate Shek Yeung?


A: I think I first learned about Shek Yeung from a book when I was a child. She was essentially a footnote--the book spent a lot of time talking about her first husband, who was a famous pirate commander, and then there was one sentence that said something along the lines of, "He had a wife, and she helped him with his pirating."


I remember thinking there had to be more to the story, but I never thought I would write a whole book about her until around the time of the 2016 election. As everyone probably remembers, there was a lot of discourse going around about women leaders.


I found myself thinking about women leaders throughout history, but because of my personality, I was less interested in the women leaders who were "good role models" and more interested in the ones who were morally complicated. Shek Yeung naturally came to mind.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you see as the right balance between history and fiction?


A: I started by reading a lot of books and unpublished dissertations, which really helped me think about the sociocultural context of the time. This was immensely helpful because history often provides better character motivations and plot points than anything the author can come up with on their own.


Then I was fortunate enough to be able to live for about a year in Taiwan to do on-the-ground research.


Because Taiwan is so geographically close to southern China and because many immigrants have traveled over to Taiwan from China, Chinese maritime culture is still alive and well on the island. There are life-sized replicas of junk ships, library archives, worship festivals for the sea goddess Mazu, etc.


This was also immensely helpful because there are some things that one just has to experience in person. For example, you can read books about shipbuilding, but ultimately, until you are standing on the deck of a life-sized ship, you don't really understand the scale.


I don't think there's only one correct answer regarding the balance between history and fiction, but I can tell you my personal philosophy: For me, history provides a kind of skeleton. It gives the novel a structure, tells us when specific things occurred, who was involved, etc.


But for a novel to feel like a complete being, to be "fleshed out," as it were, the fiction writer needs to fill in the interpersonal dynamics, the thoughts, the feelings, and so forth. If there is too little history, then the novel feels too, pardon the pun, unmoored in time. If there is too little fiction, well, then you have a history book. 


Q: The writer Anna North said of the novel, "This heart-pounding high-seas adventure is also the moving story of a girl with no options who finds a way to survive, and the costs and consequences of that survival." What do you think of that assessment?


A: I loved Outlawed, so I was so happy to get such a nice blurb from Anna. I think she's spot on. I wrote this book with the intention of making it thrilling. I mean, it's a novel about pirates! I'm pretty sure it's illegal (per maritime law or otherwise) to write a novel about pirates that's boring.


At the same time, I never wanted the focus to move away from Shek Yeung the character. I don't think character should ever be sacrificed in favor of plot and vice versa. 


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Between you and me, sometimes I regret the title a little because once interviewers started tripping up trying to say it aloud, I thought to myself, "Oh no, it's a mouthful!"


But I still like the impetus behind the title. Because there are so many instances in the book when things are not what they seem, I wanted a title that made readers stop for a moment and reconsider. Typically, we think of the sea as deep and the sky as blue/red/whatever depending on the time of day. So I inverted that.


I also decided to go with the color red instead of blue because of course the color is evocative of so many things: blood, fury, passion, the color of the flag of Shek Yeung's fleet, which was actually called the "Red Banner Fleet."


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A new novel, but it's still in the early stages, so unfortunately I don't feel super comfortable discussing it yet.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Many of the main characters were real people! Some of them may seem like the products of a fanciful imagination, but honestly, I couldn't make them up if I tried. For example, there is a woman pirate in the book who speaks English fluently and is an expert markswoman. Sounds like an action-adventure trope, right? But nope, real person!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment