September 2016

Peter Ho Davies

A saga told in four voices
Interview by
In his electric second novel, Peter Ho Davies unravels the complicated relationship between the U.S. and China through four immigrants’ stories that span more than a century and a half.
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In his electric second novel, Peter Ho Davies unravels the complicated relationship between the U.S. and China through four immigrants’ stories that span more than a century and a half.

Your previous novel, The Welsh Girl, was set in Wales and England during the Second World War. This book makes a leap to the United States and also with its timespan, which covers a century and a half. What interested you in exploring the Chinese in the United States?
Oddly enough, and despite the differences you rightly note, the initial impetus behind The Fortunes is very similar to the one behind The Welsh Girl. I’m half-Welsh on my father’s side, half-Chinese on my mother’s, and both books are driven in part by a desire to understand those different heritages. I’ve also now lived half my life in the U.S., after growing up in the U.K., so I was also drawn to the immigrant experience of Chinese Americans.

What kind of research did you do?
Lots of reading, of course, to try to get a handle on the historical materials, and lots of time in museums, but I also got to visit several important settings for the novel in person. I travelled the route of the Central Pacific across the Sierra Nevadas, both by train and car, to get a feel for the terrain. I was also able to go to China and see many of the same sights as a couple of my protagonists.

This novel tells four distinct stories in four very different voices. Yet there are similar themes and even things like jokes that show up in more than one segment. It works brilliantly. What made this form interesting to you and what were you hoping to accomplish with it?
I’m glad you liked it. In truth the form came as something of a revelation to me too as I worked on the book, evolving over the course of several years in response to the material. I think of it now as a kind of multi-generational novel about a community, Chinese Americans, whose history (from the “bachelor society” of the Gold Rush to the recent influx of baby girls adopted from China) is one of broken or discontinuous lines of descent. The characters in the four sections of The Fortunes aren’t related by blood, but they are bound to one another in some essential sense. The recurring themes, the jokes, the images, the echoes and “call backs” in the language are all there in place of those bloodlines, to suggest those affinities. My background as a short story writer, particularly in putting together a couple of collections of stories (and talking with my MFA students over the years about how to do that) was a touchstone too. Stories in a collection I’ve found are often in conversation with one another or linked in subtle ways.

The Welsh Girl also had some historical figures in it—Rudolph Hess, for one. What are the challenges of mixing real-life people with characters you’ve imagined?
That’s a great question, and the answer tends to vary depending on the historical figure involved—how well known or well documented they are primarily.

In the case of Hess, a notorious figure in the Third Reich, there’s a great deal of information known, but also a notable historical “gap” in regard to his motives and mental state after he crash-landed in Britain in 1941, and subsequently claimed amnesia for much of his time in Allied hands. That “gap” where the factual record is obscured or not agreed upon provides a space for fictional speculation which I explore in The Welsh Girl (though it’s a license I’d have been wary of taking in regard to any other figure in Hitler’s inner circle given the ethical stakes involved in fictionalizing such figures).

In The Fortunes, a principal character, Ah Ling, is a manservant to Charles Crocker, one of railroad barons who built the Transcontinental. Even though he fills a pivotal role—his example is supposed to have inspired Crocker to hire thousands of Chinese to work on the railroad—Ah Ling is only ever mentioned in passing. Essentially, history says such a man existed (though there’s the possibility that he’s an apocryphal figure, part of an anecdote made up by early hagiographers of Crocker), gives him a key moment on stage . . . and yet says nothing more about him, leaving him a kind of blank slate. I found myself fascinated with this mystery man—a figure who inspired an early wave of Chinese immigration—and what he might have thought about his role.

By contrast, The Fortunes also features the early Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong as a character, someone who’s much better documented. There are several fine biographies that I consulted, and a wealth of other material, not least a lot of interviews Anna May gave in her own lifetime. And yet, even in her case there’s some license to be had. Should we believe everything she said in interviews, say? These after all are celebrity interviews, often exercises in self-promotion, and not necessarily revealing of her true self. So again, there’s a possibility of a “gap,” a space into which fiction can flow.

Can you talk about the final segment, Pearl? By the end, I was sobbing. Without giving too much away, can you talk about John’s emotional relationship to his own identity and what the journey to adopt a child symbolizes for him?
It’s heartening to hear that. I confess I like to make readers laugh, but also to move them to tears, and I enjoy books and movies that do both (reflecting their mixture in life, of course). In fact, I suspect those responses often work in tandem. Laughter, after all, is often a release of tension, and frequently depends on surprise.

As for John . . . he’s a mixed-race writer, as am I, and so there’s a natural temptation, a kind of invitation even, for readers to think of him as an autobiographical character. I do share things with him—not so much the specific events that befall him (I’m the godfather to an adoptee, but my own son is not adopted), but certainly much of his angst about identity. The earlier figures in the book, Ah Ling, Anna May and others, are all in their own ways struggling with the burden of representation—they are examples, or models, or icons—and in that regard they all reflect a certain writerly anxiety of how we represent others in fiction. I figured with John I could come out from behind the curtain a little and fess up to the writerly version of that burden . . . even while John himself is only a very partial representation of myself. The upshot is that John is me and he’s not me, neither one nor the other, but both in a sense, just as my Anna May is partly the historical figure, partly a fiction built on her . . . all of which is analogous to the way I think about Chinese-American identity. The phrase implies a duality, an either/or—and I think a lot of so-called hyphenated Americans feel at some point a need to choose—but it’s the “bothness” than I’m interested in, and which I think is both richer and truer.

You currently live and teach in Michigan. Are there things that you are still getting used to about the United States? Things that you miss from Britain?
One of the early seeds of The Fortunes, and my interest in the Transcontinental Railroad, was a cross-country train trip I took from Boston to San Francisco, 20 years ago. That was a couple of years after I’d come to the U.S., and what struck me powerfully then—and has stayed with me— was the sheer continental scale of the country. It’s almost as if the very word “country” means something subtly different in the U.K. and the U.S. It was typical back then, say, for friends from home to ask me how I was finding America. But that train journey impressed on me how simply impossible it would be to try to speak about the U.S. as a whole when my experience was only of one region of it (the Northeast where I’d been living and working to that point). To have asked me about Texas, say, would have been akin to asking a Londoner about Berlin! I don’t mean to say there are no regional differences in Britain, of course—The Welsh Girl is very much about such differences—but the size of the country and its long history have tempered them, as have institutions like national newspapers and the BBC. And indeed, when I go home to the U.K. now it can feel a little claustrophobic at times—everyone reading the same paper, watching the same show—albeit I also like the way the nation “stops” for certain events—an England soccer game at the World Cup, say (woeful as the team has been of late).

Of course, the short answer to the question is that I’m still getting used to the idea of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. And what I miss about Britain, post Brexit, is the sense of my own claim on Britishness as a non-white.

What kind of kid were you? A big reader or writer?
Both, and as a teen, at least, a big reader and writer primarily of sci-fi. This was back in the day when blockbusters like Star Wars were typically released several months later in the U.K. than the U.S., and we’d deal with our impatience by reading the novelization first! I might still be devouring movie-tie-ins if it weren’t for a great book of Paris Review-style interviews with science-fiction writers by Charles Platt (Dream-makers) which turned me on to some more challenging writers in the genre, including Kurt Vonnegut who turned out to be my “gateway drug” to literary fiction.

At the same time, the interviewees in Dream-makers made writers seem cool but also accessible. Many of them, Vonnegut included, had science or engineering backgrounds, and my father was an engineer. Back then, Martin Amis was probably the most famous young writer in Britain, but his dad was Kingsley Amis and being a writer seemed something you were born into, like the royal family. It was hard to imagine how to become one. But I could imagine becoming an engineer (indeed, I majored in Physics in college), and those writers allowed me to imagine taking the next step to becoming a writer.

As a creative writing professor, what is some of the advice that you give your students? What is the some of the best advice you’ve been given?
I love teaching and have been lucky to have wonderful students most everywhere I’ve taught. My MFA students at Michigan, in particular, are exceptional—so good and often at such a young age (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten in here when I was starting out!). They’re all very different as writers and people, as you’d expect in a field of individual expression, so it’s hard to offer generalized advice, but one thing I often talk about is patience, since it’s maybe the only thing, young, talented writers tend to lack . . . by virtue of their very youth and talent. Youth is a traditional “enemy” of patience, after all, but talent can be too since we expect talent to be an accelerant, expect it to make things come easily. I like to give them that Flaubert quote, “Talent is long patience,” a line that seemed cryptic to me when I first came across it at their age (it almost seems like a bad translation from the French) but which has come to make more and more sense to me.

Like many contemporary writers, a lot of the best advice I’ve been given myself comes from Charles Baxter. I’m a great admirer of his essays on writing, but I was also lucky enough to be his (very) junior colleague when I first started teaching at Michigan. I’m going to forget his exact words, but I can recall him—in that spirit of patience, I mentioned above—encouraging me not to publish something too soon, not to let it go until I’d done my best with it.

What are you working on next?
I’m always a little uneasy about talking about new work—it’s less out of superstition than the more practical consideration that whatever I’m working on tends to change so much over time before it appears (if ever). Still, it’s a perfectly natural question, and I hate to have nothing to say . . . so I confess to occasionally inventing projects just to have something to answer! When The Welsh Girl came out I used to claim to be writing a kids’ picture book called “A Child’s Christmas in Whales” featuring—naturally!—a lobster called Santa Claws. In the same spirit, I can confide that right now I’m at work on a zombie novel (first line: “The dead were getting quicker”). And holding out hope for my invitation from Marvel to pen a superhero comic (it’s high time for a new—Asian!—Captain Britain, I think).

Author photo by Dane Hillard Photography.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Fortunes.

Get the Book

The Fortunes

The Fortunes

By Peter Ho Davies
ISBN 9780544263703

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