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Online At-Home

Qiu Xiaolong, interviewed by Cara Black
October 2003


Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.

These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Qiu Xiaolong interviewed by Cara Black.

[author photo]Shanghai native Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced "chew-shao-long") is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao. Qiu's interest in English literature and poetry developed when he was bedridden with bronchitis while in his teens. Qiu moved to the U.S. in 1988, studying at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on a Ford Foundation grant. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Qiu decided to make the U.S. his permanent home. He was able to get his wife, Wang Lijun, out of China, and they currently live in St. Louis with their daughter Julia. Qiu, who earned a doctorate in English in 1996, now teaches literature at Washington University.

Death of a Red Heroine won the Anthony Award for best first novel in 2001. Along with his Inspector Chen series, Qiu is also the author of Treasury of Chinese Love Poems: In Chinese and English, a collection of his own translations of some of his favorite classical Chinese verse.

--Janet Rudolph


Cara Black: Your books are so evocative and speak to the recent Chinese past, specifically the Chinese Cultural Revolution and post-Tiananmen Square, does the Government give you a hard time when you go back? Do people speak freely with you, or do you sense hesitance or avoidance on the officials part or friends to discuss life in China today?

Qiu Xiaolong: I was worried about the official reaction when Death of a Red Heroine first came out, but the Chinese government must have been too busy with other concerns to notice a book written in English. Nobody talked to me about it during my subsequent visits back to China. Then about one year ago, a friend of mine got in touch with Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, which started translating the book into Chinese. And I have just got a copy of it this month. That fact the novel can be published there really surprises me. At the same time, the Chinese version also surprises me with its dramatic changes and cuts. In the English version, the story happens in Shanghai, but in the Chinese version, Shanghai has become "H city." All the street names have consequently changed too. Not to mention the removal of politically sensitive words or sentences. So Shanghai has been shanghaied, or I have been shanghaied.

CB: I remember when we spoke during your visit to San Francisco, and I asked you if you liked Chen Chao, your protagonist, you said, "Not really." Has that changed? Would you share dim sum with him now?

QX: Chen is a survivor in the given social structure. I would have liked him to do more, but as a man who continues to thrive in the system, Chen knows what to do and not to do. At the same time, he is also a man informed by conflicting values and ideologies of his time, more or less symbolic of the society in a transitional period. So in that sense, he is an anti-hero in modernist sense rather than a hero. Still, I would like to share dim sum with him; as an emerging Party official, he could have easily claimed reimbursement for the meal from the bureau.

CB: There's a suggestion, no, a whiff, of possible romantic entanglement with the FBI female agent... will this go anywhere in your next book? Will Chen Chao ever come to the U.S. to work on a case?

QX: It does not go anywhere in the next book, When Red Is Black, which will come out early next year. In the fourth book, however, I'm thinking about a reunion between Chen and Catherine in the U.S., but that will only be part of the whole story. Nor will it be that romantic, though an entanglement it is.

CB: The historical and modern China come alive in your books. Does your life in St. Louis, teaching and with a family, influence your perspective on writing about China? Does it give you a needed distance?

QX: "A needed distance" is the very word. I used to write in Chinese, in China, and writing here in English has not been easy, but it provides me with a different perspective, as if I were both an insider and an outsider simultaneously. And with a value system too, so to speak. There are two lines by the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo, which I have quoted in one of the books, "You cannot see the true face of Mount Lu, / Because you are in the mountains."

CB: The poetry writing side of your detective harkens back to the classical aspects of Chinese culture. Was this deliberate or did he spring to life as a poet in your consciousness?

QX: In the tradition of classical Chinese literature, there is a lot of poetry in fiction. Much more than in my novels. So you can say it is a deliberate imitation on my part. As for Chen, he wrote poetry long before he became a cop. The road not taken leads to an inner tension, which gives him a needed distance too, especially in his imagination of what he might have been. Besides, there are certain moments of lyrical intensity, as he would like to feel, which may come out more expressively in poetry. Or the emotion is too complicated for him to describe in a rational or even totally conscious way.

CB: My husband, who's from Tokyo, loved reading your book in Japanese. A confessed foodie, he wonders if you cook as well as some of your characters. Are you able to find ingredients from Shanghai in St. Louis?

QX: I love eating (with friends) as well as cooking. At home, I find myself an occasional cook when we have guests. One problem is of course the lack of genuine Chinese ingredients. Unlike in California or New York, we have only limited supplies here. Last week I was in LA, and I brought back home a ton of Chinese moon cakes and a special Shanghai vegetable, which, contrary to my expectation, shrunk out of proportion when I got back in St. Louis.

CB: Do you have a self-imposed goal when you write? Every day, so many pages or a word count? What would be your ideal writing day?

QX: Not exactly a self-imposed goal. Not every day, but when I start writing a book, I make a point of putting in at least a couple of hours every day. As for my ideal writing day, a productive day is the ideal day. Perhaps three or four hours in the morning, two or three hours writing in the afternoon or in the evening, but those have to be quality hours. In reality, I can sit for hours in front of the computer without having produced anything decent.

CB: Is there anything you wish you could change in your character's lives or persona now that you are on your third book, i.e. their dialect, the color of their eyes, job or romantic life? Or if not, how do you see your detective's growth in future books?

QX: China has been changing dramatically, and so should the characters in my novels, especially Chief Inspector Chen. Not so much in his position, as in his response to the social changes. For Chen, there is a sort of increasing realization about what he can and cannot do as a cop, even though that does not really prevent him from trying to do a good job. So he grows less idealistic in his way, which I do not like, and which he himself cannot help. Of course, there are changes for other characters too. Peiqin, for instance, is one of my favorite partially because she is almost perfect in the first book. So in When Red Is Black, she shows a more realistic side of a struggling Shanghai wife in a more and more materialistic society. It can be a bit too exhausting for her to keep such a perfect pose all the time, though she remains as my favorite.

CB: Is there anything you are glad you didn't know when you started writing and then getting published? Any words of wisdom you can share about what to avoid in the publishing and promoting life?

QX: I did not know much about publishing and promoting when I first started writing Death of a Red Heroine. Because of my ignorance, I did not worry too much about it. I did not have an agent when I sent my manuscript to Soho, which responded quickly. Of course I did not know then how lucky I had been. So perhaps all I can say now is: try to write the best you can without worrying too much about other things in advance.

CB: I get hungry when I read your books. What's your favorite local dumpling/noodle restaurant in Shanghai? If I said you sent me, what would they do? Roll out the red carpet or tell me to try a place down the road?

QX: In fact I get hungry too. One of things I miss about China is the food. To write about those delicacies is like my Remembrance of Things Past. Recently someone suggested to me to write a book about Shanghai food. I have not decided yet, but I'll take your comment into consideration. My favorite restaurant was a small noodle place called Small Family located in a shabby lane with only three tables, but it has mysteriously disappeared. So I have to send you to another one, Apricot Blossom Pavilion, where a friend of mine works as the manager. You would be treated as "the distinguished guest," with something perhaps more surprising than the red carpet.

CB: Do you see living in China again in your family's future?

QX: Difficult to see that in the near future. I brought my daughter back to Shanghai about one year ago. She was born here. While in Shanghai, in an effort to get onto the backstage, she said to the usher, "I'm an American," and later to me, "It will be fun to visit Shanghai once in several years." She surely knows how to make her future plan, including mine.

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