Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.
The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.
The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.
If the 21st century sees another one of these big blowouts, it won’t be pretty, given the tensions in today’s China. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll hold off for a couple more decades, thank you, and I won’t be around any longer to witness it, presuming I’m still a resident of the country, if the next blowout does prove to be inevitable.
Getting back to the Taiping Rebellion. It has always remained a mystery to me how so many people could be killed. I mean, isn’t there a limit to the number of people it is possible to kill? The Nazis, who had the benefit of modern weapons, were confronted with this problem in the early years of WWII. There was only so many people they could machine-gun in the pits before the gunners became too exhausted or freaked out to continue. They found their solution in the scalable approach to mass execution of the gas chambers and crematoria. Like most wars, the Chinese Civil War of the 19th century was a chaotic affair and had nothing like the organization required for industrialized slaughter. We do know that most of the victims died of starvation, but how did the armies achieve this, who were themselves often starving yet laying waste equally to farmers, livestock and agriculture, the very means of sustenance they needed to survive?
A good introduction to the Taiping Rebellion is provided in Jonathan Spence’s account, God’s Chinese Son. He tracks the inexorable progression of the disturbed loner and Imperial exams reject Hong Xiuquan, from his initial wanderings in southern Guanxi Province collecting Christian sympathizers to the mad tyrant occupying one of China’s greatest citadels, Nanking, from 1853 till his death in 1864 (the same length of time, incidentally, that Hitler controlled Nazi Germany). Yet Spence’s account falls short in that he has almost nothing to say about the devastation. It’s as if he had written a history of Nazi Germany without addressing the Holocaust. Even with the help of the Imperial forces — both sides were responsible for the slaughter — how could so many people be mowed down? It’s a burning question I’ve always wanted to know.
James Lande’s Yang Shen or The God from the West (Book 1), by contrast, thrusts us right into the action in 1860, the momentous year when the slaughter was at its peak, when the Taiping broke the siege of the Imperial troupes surrounding Nanking and began marching on Shanghai and British and French forces marched on Beijing and sacked the Summer Palace. As its brightly designed cover reminiscent of a 1950s or 60s adventure novel suggests, the narrative starts off as a sea novel, with an exciting sea battle. The American clipper Essex is ferrying a shipment of arms from Hong Kong to Shanghai for secret sale to the Chinese in contravention of neutrality policies prohibiting mercenary activity. It’s commanded by the novel’s protagonist, Fletcher Thorson Wood, who is based on the historical figure of Frederick Townsend Ward (1831-62). His mission is to put together an army of Westerners and Filipinos to fight off the Taiping through superior weaponry and secure a safe and profitable Shanghai for business. The rest of the book’s action takes place largely along the Yangtze between Shanghai and Nanking, with much shifting back and forth from Shanghai to the other locales.
If there is one thing that justifies this marvelous novel for me, it’s that it explains how some of the mass slaughter occurred. Those living in the walled cities that fell one by one only to be retaken by the other side were, as a rule, decimated — looted, raped, but primarily removed to free up food. The bulk of the destruction took place along the Yangtze and surrounding countryside. This was marshy land, and canals and waterways were the primary means of travel. The clashing armies moved by boats and war junks. The very thing that protected self-sufficient rural communities surrounded by water made them vulnerable to an aquatic army. With no space to flee, they were sitting ducks. Everything was set to fire. Those who weren’t shot or burned to death starved to death. What we have here isn’t really warfare in the traditional understanding. There were battles, but most of the death consisted in the murder of as many unarmed civilians as possible in any given area. In other words: genocide. Then multiply literally by many more millions across the region.
In Lande’s account we learn close up what it’s like to tunnel your way under the wall of a rebel-controlled city and be greeted with swords stabbing you as you emerge from the hole on the other side. Or have feces and sewage and boiling oil poured over you as you climb the city wall and your ladder pushed out from under you. Lande’s lens also zooms out to take in the larger view with battle tableaux that often rise to the sublime:
Fletcher peered through a telescope out over encampments of rebel tents along the shore opposite Heart-of-the-River Island. The fluttering banners and flags and bright uniforms of a rebel column could be seen three miles distant trudging north through the thick mud of towns and villages west of Nanking. In the wake of the rebel army lay the ruins of smashed wooden stockades that for months had protected imperial regiments camped near the southwest corner of the city. More stockades nearby roared and crackled with white heat like huge crematoriums, encircled now only by armies of decapitated imperial dead.
The language crackles with energy: “Tom watched as dragon’s blood filled the sky above the western horizon. The dark red flame kindled ablaze water yellow with windblown loess from Mongolian deserts and ochre loam from the Yangtze River watershed, transmuting the sea into a revelation of ruin.” He’s also good at mimicking the voices of an epic cast of characters, such as the Shakespearian twang of the English pirate Fokie Tom:
Hang it all! What’s wrong with that blasted buoy? Storm make it drag anchor? Villagers divine it offends the fong-shway of the place, violates that barbarous geomancy of wind and water they invoke to measure the pulse of the sea-dragon king, and move it to where it can’t offend the spirits, frighten the fish, or bring flood, famine, and foraging rebels? Or pirates? No, villagers wouldn’t move it, they’d sink it or burn it; but pirates would move it, and leave it where it would ground some skylarking ship.
Puritanical critics advise against any use of alliteration in literary prose, an injunction I counter with this animated passage anthropomorphizing Wood’s vessel as it enters Shanghai port:
Essex approached the harbor like a timid yet restless green sailor, slipping gingerly into his first noisy grogshop, bowled over by the rush of girls to get at his towrope. The anxious ship would not turn, and her momentum advanced her past the channel into the flux where the current shoved at her hull, the wind blew on her bow, and she menaced the lighters and sampans sculling headlong around her. She bellied up to the chow-chow rip, slammed against it, and offered drinks for all. But the flow out of Soochow Creek surged up and bounced her back out into the channel before she could swallow. She picked herself up, blinked at the light, shook her sails a few times, gazed about for a new bearing, and then staggered away, chastened but cheered by her narrow escape.
Every character major and minor is limned with the same fine-haired brush: “Alexander was a slight young man of twenty-eight years, in a linen sack coat with Carnelian Vest and a broad-brimmed straw hat. His short, light-red hair, sea-blue eyes and pale, freckled skin gave him a sprightly appearance – some old-country codgers expected him to sprout diaphanous wings and fly up into the nearest tree or rafter.” What’s most remarkable about the novel is the consistency of the style throughout. Even the longueur passages of drawn-out protocol among Chinese and British or American authorities are depicted with an extraordinary attention to dialogue and historical particulars. Indeed as if to underscore this intent, Lande lays out each chapter as a theatrical set piece with a “Dramatis Personae” at the head listing the attendant cast of characters like a play. There is not a scene in the entire tome that is unequivocally superfluous. As with all very good writing, you know at the outset that a second reading at a later date will reveal the book in an entirely different, and richer, aspect than the first.
The book is almost frightening in its relentless, machine-like control of plot, description and dialogue from start to finish. And there’s the rub. If it’s the product of a kind of literary genius, it’s not an artistic but rather an obsessive-compulsive genius. Artistry has a flexible quality to it, an elasticity that knows when to expand and contract; the artist is always in control of the zoom lens. Lande’s lens is stuck in zoom-in for most of the narrative, as if broken. Everything, and I mean everything, is attended to. Of course, Lande wants us to see the fruit of his three decades of background research that went into the book. If nothing else, it’s an exhaustive, highly informative and rewarding work of history. And he cares about all the details, such as the 2,500-word passage describing the setting up of a 6-pounder field gun to replace the 24-pounder cannon the Essex lost after the ship is grounded on a shoal, before it gets off its first round at an attacking pirate junk. Here’s an excerpt showing the microscopic level of detail we’re talking about:
The spongeman threw his weight on the rammer and forced the cartridge to the bottom of the bore, checking the mark on his rammer to be certain the round was all the way in. Rammer withdrawn, the spongeman and loader stood to one side, and the spongeman called out:
“Gun loaded, sir!”
The Pendulum-Hausse rear sight was affixed to its mount on the base of the breech. The elevation screw under the cascabel was turned to raise the gun to the 2º mark on the sight, for a range of 800 yards with spherical case shot. The rear sight was removed and put back into the leather pouch. The gun commander checked the direction of fire.
The ventsman moved the trail to the right when the gun commander tapped with a handspike on the right side of the carriage, and to the left when the left side was tapped. The gun commander raised both arms. The ventsman returned to his post.
This fanatical attention to every particular has a leveling effect, reducing such passages to lists. Lande does break up or punctuate the lists with dialogue and other stylistic diversions. A literary artist, on the other hand, knows when to compress or cull, and then expand for comic effect. The ability to zoom in and out is not just a rhetorical device, it’s a form of humor, the supreme form of humor in writing, really: the selection of which items conventionally regarded as serious are to be put before the funhouse mirror. This is what makes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick essentially a comic novel, though one needs to be somewhat well-read to appreciate this. It’s not just the religious symbolism of the dead whale’s interior and its precious substances (spermaceti oil, ambergris) that occasions Melville’s flights of poetic fancy; the distorted reality inside the whale is meant to be funny rather than horrifying, and hence intriguing and absorbing. To use a Russian Formalist expression, writers don’t just capture reality, they change it by making it strange. A classic example of a novel stuck solely and willfully in zoom-in mode is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. Over the entire narrative (including footnotes that go on for pages), we don’t get much farther than a flight up an escalator, as the author obsesses at great length on the mechanics of shoelaces, plastic straws, staplers, toothbrushes, etc. Baker’s fresh insights into the most pedestrian of objects and experiences makes it one of the oddest and funniest books ever written.
One curious feature of Yang Shen is the minute attention to characters’ clothes. This does not appear to be for comic effect, but to catalogue the author’s knowledge of period apparel: “Mrs. Fitch was tightly corseted in a black broadcloth carriage-dress; her gray-streaked brown hair was drawn back under a quilted black poke-bonnet, and across her shoulders lay a lace-trimmed Paisley print shawl from Scotland, popular since Queen Victoria built her castle at Balmoral.” During the pirate attack, three of the crew are mortally wounded and brought down to the saloon, where Hannah Fitch (wife of the ship’s wealthy owner Cornelius Fitch) and her daughter Elizabeth attend to them as best they can. Elizabeth is beautiful and is eyed enviously by Fletcher, though their class disparity rules out any future romance. That’s okay, this is a sea and a war novel after all, and a good enough one that you don’t mind the absence of the opposite sex in the rest of the book any more than in Moby Dick.
In one touching scene when alone in her cabin to catch her breath, the dazed Elizabeth removes her blood-stained dress (down as far as her undergarments) and mulls over which among her hundreds of dresses in her eleven trunks is appropriate for the circumstances. Lande revels in the riot of fabrics and the sublimated eroticism of it all (much of it quote-worthy). This is safe territory and places the book squarely in the benign tradition of Victorian fiction, with displaced impulses substituting for overt sexuality. A modern writer of a more perverse cast (can an artist in our era not be?) would have taken more liberties with Elizabeth — you know, roughed her up a bit — considering the setting does occur during a pirate battle.
Let’s have a bit of fun with this and imagine the Essex hadn’t gotten its 6-pounder working in time and they were overrun by Fokie Tom’s pirates. Of course, they would all have quickly been massacred and the book stopped dead in its tracks — except for a plot twist. “Well, well, well,” we can imagine Fokie Tom saying upon discovering Hannah and Elizabeth down in the saloon, a big smile on his face. “What the bleedin’ devil ‘ave we ‘ere, a couple pretty little bitches.” Now, it would be no fun leaving the two women for last, and the slaughter is delayed; the Essex crew are tied up and gathered in the saloon to watch. As each piece of fabric is carefully detached from Elizabeth’s body by sword, the itemization of a wealthy 19th-century girl’s apparel could be unveiled (for our edification) in more effective fashion than a mere list. Depending on how long we keep the tap of depravity turned on, Fletcher’s surreptitious wiggling free and dramatic rescue could take place just as her chemise is about to come off or somewhat later, after the pirates have all had their turn with the women. Given the high-resolution recording capabilities of Lande’s zoomed-in lens, the results would be interesting.
It might be objected there is nothing in the historical record to justify such a liberty in the story. But that’s the difference between the writing of history and a historical novel. There is only one rule regarding departures from the facts: they need only be consistent with the personage’s character, and plausible in the context. Lande is well informed on the challenge of historical fiction and expands at greater length in the interview below.
A word of warning about the Kindle edition, which I presume most buyers will opt for, with its attractive $4.99 price (considering the amount of text and the decades of effort and care that went into it). Once you’ve loaded it onto your Kindle, you’ll notice the book length is a shocking 55,450 location units. According to one conversion standard, this is equivalent to a printed book of 3,330 pages. I myself was almost scared off until I paid closer attention to the table of contents (which not all readers can be counted on to do) and realized the book is duplicated in the Kindle edition by a second version with Chinese characters inserted after every line of dialogue among Chinese speakers. There are also many added pages of notes and appendices (called “Underfoot”). The actual length of the unduplicated narrative is a more modest 328,000 words, equivalent to a 1,000-page novel or so, still quite substantial but manageable. Personally, I would have streamlined the Kindle edition by eliminating the duplicated version and hiding the Chinese characters and appendices in instantly accessible hyperlinks. The paperback edition, meanwhile, squeezes the Chinese-text version and appendices into 556 pages with small font and is priced at $20 (note that this is the 2nd edition; avoid the $12 1st edition which has errors).
IC: What got you interested in this particular time period in Chinese history?
JL: The late Ch’ing Dynasty was where I found Frederick Townsend Ward, after looking about for other times when Americans and other Westerners were involved in events in China. Ward I read about in Jonathan Spence’s To Change China: Western Advisors in China, and after further research decided he was the best subject for a novel about the encounter, sometimes the clash, between Americans and Chinese. That period, too, offered a great deal for a novel due to all the extraordinary events happening then, in the 1860s, when the British and French were at war with China and the floundering Manchu regime was in a death struggle with the rebels of the Taiping. Years of research permeate the narrative of Yang Shen. I began with Richard J. Smith’s Mercenaries and Mandarins, read through most of the books in his bibliography, then through most of the books in the bibliographies of all those books. Research then moved on to the world of the 19th century including, for example, antebellum America, New England, merchants, piloting and navigation, Victorian society and all the other references a historical novelist would consult until the list reached over 1,600 titles, about a third of which are cited in the reading list at the back of the novel. These incorporate both the Western view and the Chinese view of events then; about 250 titles are original or secondary sources in Chinese found in major US university libraries; about 800 titles are stuffed into just about every cabinet aboard my trailer. I learned how to read memorials in the original Chinese using John King Fairbank’s Ch’ing Documents: An Introductory Syllabus and used them to inform both narrative and characterization. On junkets to Old and New England, I studied more original sources, and in China reconnoitered many of the locations that figure in the novel.
IC: Your protagonist Fletcher Thorson Wood is based on Frederick Townsend Ward. Why write about this minor historical figure — what is so special about him?
JL: F. T. Ward made a lasting contribution to the Chinese people of that day. He was able to do so by learning to work together with the Chinese in mutual respect. His experience was significant because of his initiative in establishing an army to protect Shanghai from the Taiping rebels, his genius in sweeping aside the local prejudice that held Chinese to be inferior soldiers, and his contribution to the military thinking of key Chinese officials of the era. In particular, Li Hung-chang who, influenced to a degree by his association with Ward, was one of China’s major statesmen for decades to follow. Ward’s role is overshadowed by Chinese Gordon, who assumed command of Ward’s army and made a larger name for himself, however Gordon would never have come to notice in China if Ward had not first organized and developed the Ever Victorious Army as a unique irregular fighting force.
IC: Yang Shen is called a novel. Could you elaborate on the line you’re drawing between the writing of history and fiction?
JL: Line? What line? Immediately, history and fiction merge into one, and a novel runs through it (apologies to Norman Maclean). I suppose the question of whether Yang Shen is history as fiction or a historical novel arises because an answer is not clear from a reading. We adhere closely to historical fact, but strive to keep digressions consistent with that fact, and there are many voices, some invented in order to round out the sensibilities of all the dramatis personae. Lessee now — what is history as literature, anyway. History told with a literary flair, say Gibbon or Macaulay (so Yang Shen quotes Macaulay, in History of England: “I cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history.”)? Tuchman’s The Guns of August, Washington’s Up from Slavery, Hughes’ The Fatal Shore? Or is it a historical novel imbued with literary qualities, like say War and Peace? I’m not certain there is engaging history as literature well told that does not rely on the craft of the storyteller. The liberties taken by Yang Shen include filling in empty spaces (“The columns supporting the House of History are so far apart that a novelist could drive wagonloads of fictional detail between them” — James Lande), filling out brief anecdote (Folkie Tom and Dick Savage, Delevan Slaughter in the book, are only footnotes in history), inventing events (the Fitch soiree, breaking the siege of the Kiangnan Taying, Fletcher and the Loyal King glaring at each other across the bone-whitened river bank at Tanyang), and giving breadth and depth to thin historical depictions of people (what more would we know about Frederick Townsend Ward if his letters were not burnt by his family?). These liberties taken render not just what was possible, but what was probable according to the historical record. The abundant interior monologue reflects our bias for thought as well as word and deed, for both the added dimension of character and for frequent irony. Perhaps Yang Shen should adhere more closely to one approach or the other. Not everyone cares for my method of telling the story. Tom Carter called it “an historian’s historical fiction,” which probably means that for his taste there is too much historical fact, too much detail. A writer with a better understanding of, and more concern for, the market for fiction these days would probably have lightened the load for the reader.
IC: Where did you get all your nautical knowledge?
JL: Reading mostly. In the Yang Shen reading list there are just under two dozen references about clipper ships, maybe a half dozen on river steamers, and four more on early steamships. Alan Villiers The Way of a Ship was an early inspiration, Dana and others provided period detail for ships and sailing, and I spent time in San Diego with the first mate of the square-rigged bark Star of India, learning the ropes, as it were, reviewing ship handling, and even blocking out aboard the Star actions later described happening aboard Essex in the novel.
IC: Were you influenced stylistically or in any other way by Melville’s Moby Dick?
JL: Moby Dick has a noticeable presence in the novel, mostly where lines from the book occur to characters in Yang Shen. I prefer to develop as rich a texture for principal characters as possible, and so portray much of their thought in the narrative, and part of one’s thought is often given over to what one has read, as well as other experiences. In the 1860s, Moby Dick would have been read by some seafarers, and other contemporary reading that appears in Yang Shen includes The Last of the Mohicans, The Origin of the Species, Great Expectations, Emerson, Margaret Fuller’s Women in the 19th Century, Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and so on. As far as style is concerned, any book written with much descriptive detail and convoluted plot is likely to be compared to 19th century style, to Melville, or Dickens and the lot. One reviewer even mentions Victor Hugo. However, I feel no conscious influence of such writers — only my own desire to write text with substance, which comes from a belief that little can be closely understood without adequate detail.
IC: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
JL: Jane Roy, my high school English teacher, gets the shout-out I suppose, or the blame. She praised a couple of my adolescent stories, rather more I think because they simply stood out and not for any quality. I suppose I had “promise.” I was an impressionable youth when the Army sent me to China (Taiwan) and I came of age there. The latent urge to write combined with that experience roused me to write about Americans and Chinese. In college I attempted a couple of novels while taking a few writing classes and getting a degree in Chinese Language and Literature, then returned to Taiwan and started a romantic melodrama called The Cinnabar Phoenix that fell back into its own ashes, largely because my reach exceeded my grasp. I was offered a $10,000 option by the author of Tamiko, Ronald Kirkbride, when he passed through Taipei looking for new writers, but I had not the confidence to incur so large an obligation and leave some poor schmuck shy ten Gs if I couldn’t finish the book. After that I shelved writing thinking I might try again in another ten years when I had more maturity. In 1981, without any further training or experience as a writer, I began the catastrophe we know now as Yang Shen, exhausting thirty years and well over a half million dollars of expenses and lost income, full of puerile confidence I would succeed.
IC: Do you suppose that all that Chinese writing in your book is any less a distraction?
JL: No, the Chinese writing is a distraction, more so than, say, Spanish or French in an English novel. I have hoped that readers who do not know Chinese will quickly start to just skip past the Chinese writing, but some who do not have demanded I lose the Chinese characters entirely, which I did somewhat in the eBook of Yang Shen, which has a version without characters at the front, and the full text following. There are some good reasons for having the characters, however, and which I have set forth at the end of the Underfoot, which is a section of notes for each chapter which I hope readers will glance over as they read in the novel. My explanation in the Underfoot is lengthened by examples, but in summary the reasons are (1) to present meaning, emotion, or sense that has a unique expression in Chinese, but for which there is no direct equivalent in American English; (2) to represent native Chinese idiom – way of saying a thing – when distinctly different from American; (3) for the visual impact of the Chinese written character. Spanish phrase and idiom in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls have an effect on the American ear that helps create for the reader the Spanish world of the novel, and Chinese language in Yang Shen does the same, for the eye as well as the ear; (4) to identify names of people and places with less ambiguity – there are many confusing methods of romanization for Chinese names, but the characters mostly are always the same.
IC: This volume is only Book I and there are two more volumes to go – when will you finish?
JL: At the rate I’ve been going on Book II it will need at least several more years. Book I takes the story up to the first defeat of the Foreign Rifles in early July 1860; Book II then continues on through 1861 into the first part of 1862 when the Imperial general Li Hung-chang brings his Huai Army to Shanghai; Book III takes up with our hero’s association with General Li and ends in September 1862 with our hero’s final campaign. Over the past year or so my steam engines have been throttled down to low ahead in order to navigate around obstacles like old-age and ill health and dwindling enthusiasm for a book in which very few people take an interest. When I haven’t the moxie to work on Yang Shen, I fill in with other projects for Old China Books, editing the memoir of a 95-year-old woman who grew up in Southern California in the 20s and 30s, and editing my Yang Shen journals for publication. These distractions cause further delay.
IC: How can you expect to finish this book or any others now that your waning powers languish on many years past the allotted span of more famous writers like Steinbeck, Faulkner, or Hemingway?
JL: First of all let us set aside those fellows, with whom there is no comparison. They are lodestars for the rest of us lesser lights, the definition of talent and persistence, their accomplishments something to strive for. As noted earlier, like Harry under Kilimanjaro, I have, if not entirely destroyed, at least compromised my “talent” by not using it and at this late date am scrambling to make up for the loss. I might live long enough and join the roster of Artful Codgers. Maclean wrote River at 74; Doerr published her first novel at 74; Updike was still scribbling at 76, Marquez at 81, Bellow at 85. Elmore Leonard is 87, Doris Lessing is 94, and Herman Wouk is 96, and they’re still writing. Will-o’-the-wisps? Maybe, especially if I don’t find a way out of the doldrums. Square-riggers were becalmed in the Horse Latitudes for weeks, occasionally a month or more, but with luck found wind in their sails before they starved. Dismasted and weather-worn, I may still be able to get up some wind that would take me into a current. Or maybe I’m not in the doldrums at all, maybe I’m already the walking dead and just don’t know it yet, won’t lie down like I’m supposed to. Imagine a gnarled hand gripping a broken quill pushing up through the soil above a coffin and scribbling in the dust.
IC: How far along is Book II now?
JL: To the sixth chapter, which describes the Foreign Rifles assault on the city of Tsingpoo in August of 1860, and which is proving particularly difficult because of a change in style. In Book I and the earlier chapters of Book II, the thought of many characters in the story has been liberally depicted to offer readers a perspective of the hearts and minds as well as the words and deeds of these people. The style has been mostly indirect interior monologue set off with “he/she thought” tags, and less often direct interior monologue in which thought is not set off with tags and weaves in and out of dialogue and narrative. In the current chapter there is no narrator at all – only the thoughts of the characters, slipping between direct interior monologue and more chaotic stream of consciousness (not so chaotic however as, say, Faulkner). The chapter has five sections, and each section has four voices. The thought of these characters occurs simultaneously but with shared events that serve as markers to help the reader follow their sequence. Work on the chapter progresses slowly due to the necessity of working up backstory for two characters. For example, little has been said about the origins in North Carolina of the Foreign Rifles second-in-command Hannibal Benedict, and nothing about his experience as a Senate page in Washington DC, or the time he spent in India, and only a little about his service in the Crimean War, all of which must be researched and then assembled as plausible experience that will crowd into his stream of thought.
IC: Why is Yang Shen overburdened with features not common in a novel?
JL: Well, a glossary is not uncommon in a historical novel, for example M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, and is as necessary for readers unfamiliar with 19th century India as for those who know little about 19th century China. Sepoy and punkawalla are as little known to today’s readers as samshu and Parthian shot and it would be rude to include 150-year-old language in a novel without a simple expedient for finding meanings. Links to websites for a novel or blog and URL to videos like trailers are also common now in eBooks, and why not print editions? The other “features” such as an Underfoot (aka notes) and reading list, and the maps, drawings, tables, and pictures expand the context of the story and, presumably, add to the enjoyment of the novel for readers who choose to look at such things.
IC: The same question pertains to the section of notes you call the “Underfoot.”
JL: In the Underfoot rests “much of the impedimenta that missed the sailing of Yang Shen and was stowed away out of sight” where it would not hinder the narrative. Sometimes when a secondary source was paraphrased and credit was obligatory a note was put in the Underfoot rather than clutter the narrative with footnotes better left for dissertations. And there also are the icebergs of information of which only the tips appear in the narrative. Often it seemed a shame to discard such fine things as Chinese junks, walled cities, Chinese official ranks, piloting Chinese rivers, the sternwheeler Vulcan, the pedigree of the real river steamer Confucius and the architecture of her fictional namesake, historical events adapted to fictional purpose, or biographies of actual people adapted as fictional characters, and much more. The Underfoot serves like a “behind the scenes” or “the making of…” feature now often found on movie DVDs and provides more information about the story.
IC: What sort of things do you do when not writing?
JL: For several months of the year I spend time in southern California’s Anza Borrego desert volunteering with the State Park’s paleontology program, working in a collection of vertebrate fossils from that area that go back seven million years. In 2014 I took several months of the summer to conduct an amateur survey of the intertidal ecology of the California coast. For the past two years you might have come upon me in a small truck camper boondocking in places like Joshua Tree National Park or exploring caves across the southwest into New Mexico. For the publisher Old China Books, I’ve been editing a memoir, some journals, and experimenting with videos and audiobooks, and from time to time have put on the Old China Books book blog posts about progress with Yang Shen Book II.
IC: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
JL: At my peak ten or so years ago, I was up at 6:00am and wrote on a laptop until about noon, broke off for exercise, had an early dinner usually watching a movie, then went back to work again at about 4:00pm and worked until 10:00pm. Generally I was dry camping in the wilds and had no Internet access and was not distracted by email and such things (email and online research were done weekly at local libraries). I did this seven days a week, excluding driving days between campsites and utility days for shopping, laundry, and so on. My target was 1000 words a day for 20 days which yielded about 50 pages in a good month. Since 2010 this routine has fluctuated. Now I try to be working by 7:00am, break off at 2:00pm or so, and most of last year sat out with two martinis reading until 4:00pm, cooked and ate dinner watching a movie, and then went back to work at around 7:00pm for another couple of hours if I haven’t hadn’t had too much to drink.
IC: How did you go about publishing the book?
JL: When Yang Shen Book I was completed in 2011, I had copies printed POD at Lightning Source, after securing permissions, working up all the design myself, including the cover and proofreading. I then put the book into eBook formats and uploaded a .mobi file to Amazon and other online Book retailers. Before this I had built a website for Yang Shen, preceded by website for the publisher Old China Books, and later started a WordPress blog and created three videos for the novel, one a trailer, to which there are links in the blog. The cover had two iterations, starting with a red and yellow concoction for the first edition that one person remarked looked like a Chinese restaurant menu, and then morphing into the present blue cover with the Jack Spurling clipper ship for the second edition. As I proofread and edit the books myself, the second edition was issued after removing over 400 errors. Temporarily there was also an eBook edition titled Yankee Mandarin from which was removed all the Chinese writing and the other impedimenta, but leaving the glossary. Before long KDP (the Kindle police) decided it was the same book as Yang Shen and removed it from Amazon. Recently I spruced up my YouTube channel to better support marketing the novel. Marketing, of course, for a POD book, at least this one, has been a washout. The crux is that there’s no point in paying a lot of money for advertising that the book will never make back in sales. No need to dig this money pit any deeper.
Old China Books is a cyberpublisher, existing only in cyberspace at oldchinabooks.com. OCB was created to publish books related to China of the 19th and earlier centuries, in particular the historical novel Yang Shen As their concerns converge, greater understanding of the encounter between America and China seems merited, as it occurs today and as it happened in the past. OCB may serve in a small way as a bridge to further understanding. Nevertheless, we also are expanding our list to embrace other works as well, including journals, memoirs and poetry.
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Other China book reviews by Isham Cook:
In praise of concubines: Interview with Lloyd Lofthouse
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China