C Pam Zhang makes a splashy debut with her searingly unique novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a Western set in the gold rush-era mid-1800s that follows two young sisters, Lucy and Sam, trying to survive on their own after the death of their father. Zhang has described her novel as “an immigrant book, a book about loss, a book about tigers and buffalo, a book asking who can claim a land, a book made up in my effing head that is now real, and weighty, and coming out in 2020. I’m crying. I hope it touches you too.”
Believe me, we were touched—and desperate to know more. Here’s what we found out.
Did you set out to write a Western? How did this action-packed story, these scrappy characters and this epic setting evolve?
I didn’t set out to write anything! The first draft of this poured out of me from a few images that came into my head; it felt more like I was channeling something. But as I worked on the novel, I realized that this book was made possible by my years of moving to and away from Northern California, and the way that particular location haunts me. I have very strong but conflicting feelings about this landscape, from awe to unease, rejection to comfort.
Did you grow up watching or reading Westerns? What sort of research or travel did you do?
I read Little House on the Prairie far too many times as a child. For a few years I lived in Salinas, California, the home of John Steinbeck, and read his oeuvre without quite understanding it. In our culture it’s easy to absorb Western tropes passively, through osmosis. While working on this book, I read up on history and took a road trip through some of the old gold rush towns in Northern California, including a place called Locke, which was populated solely by Chinese immigrants. Most importantly, I’ve spent many hours in cars traversing this part of the world, and that feeling I got, the golden-soaked sun, informed this novel. I wanted the feeling more than the fact.
“Home is, I think, a sense of complete belonging, a place where you feel your right to exist in your truest form isn’t questioned.”
Lucy and Sam’s parents are complex, enigmatic characters, and your book repeatedly asks, what makes a family a family? How does your own background inform your writing? Will you share any details about your book’s intriguing dedication to your father, whom you say is “loved but slenderly known”?
That dedication is my take on a quote from King Lear, in which Lear is described by his daughter in this way: “Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” I think we often know ourselves very thinly, because that self changes over time. This is especially true for those who migrate, leaving old selves behind. And if it’s hard to know oneself, how much harder is it to know someone across a generational divide? Family members really only see one another in narrow contexts. To imagine a father who has only ever been a father to you as, say, a young man, or a lover, or a villain, is an enormous and mind-breaking feat.
You’ve said that for years you’ve felt both haunted and pressured to write a “Sad Immigrant Story.” On your website, you describe yourself as “Born across one ocean, dragged over another. Went willingly every time after. Strange stories. Reluctant realist. Brown / Cambridge / Iowa educated. Lived in 13 cities & still pondering home.” Tell us a bit more about your background, and how you approach another question that your novel repeatedly asks, what makes a home a home?
My family moved around a great deal, and as a kid I felt each uprooting as a trauma. Now transience has become a core part of me, so much so that I feel uneasy if I’ve lived more than a few years in one place at a stretch. Home is, I think, a sense of complete belonging, a place where you feel your right to exist in your truest form isn’t questioned. That means my definition of a home is necessarily small: a room, a smell, a person.
I’m also interested in that phrase “Reluctant realist.” Explain how you managed to make tigers such a big part of this book, and why.
Tigers were my bull in the china shop, to mix animal metaphors. They are there to fuck up the fabric of reality, to declare that this is not a straightforward historical book. I chose tigers because they’re a part of Chinese culture as I understood it growing up, and I wanted to implant a bit of my family mythology into the mythology of the American West.
Did any special talismans help during the writing process? Like a glittering gold nugget or an old photo?
I’m not talisman-keeper, but a superstitious side manifested in my writing ritual. I took the same SkyTrain ride to the same café in Bangkok every day until I completed the first draft. In that café I faced the same direction and looked out the same window. (I tried to get the same table, with its optimal mix of dimness and light, but was slightly more flexible there because I couldn’t physically remove other customers.) For a later draft, I went to the same coffee shop in Brooklyn and sat at a counter facing a long mirror. There’s something there about editing and looking yourself in the eye.
“As a woman living and working in tech in the 2010s, I think about my gender presentation and the ways I can twist it to my advantage or disadvantage—but women have been thinking about that since the dawn of time.”
The book begins with the epigraph “This land is not your land.” Did you grow up hearing the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land,” and if so, what feelings did that evoke?
I spent some formative early years in the public school system in Kentucky, and sang “This Land is Your Land” with a hand over my heart (and spoke the Pledge of Allegiance this way, too). I was moved to tears by the majesty and beauty evoked in the song’s idyllic version of America—all those the golden waves of grain! I stopped reciting the pledge, eventually. But I am still moved by the beauty of the song, even though I now know that its images are pure fantasy in many ways, and that the desire to cling to a bucolic (very white) myth of America is toxic. That tension is at the heart of my novel.
The story is narrated in a unique staccato style that you’ve described as “a made-up voice that’s a mix of Wild West slang and pidgin Mandarin in the mouths of immigrant orphans in a speculative Gold Rush California.” How did you come up with that style, and was it difficult to maintain?
The style was born of constraint: I have a character whose gender identity is uncertain to the narrator, and so the narrator avoids using gendered pronouns. This omission radically changed the shape of the sentences, the construction of thought. That rhythm became so intrinsic to the book that I can’t imagine any other way. The introduction of pidgin Mandarin and Old West lingo also felt natural to this family that exists at the juncture of cultures—it felt inevitable to these characters in this place. Style is so intertwined with the fabric of this book—its location, its characters—that I honestly don’t think I could write in quite this way again.
Despite being set in the past, this book tackles many modern themes of sexuality, gender identity and secret-keeping, as well as, of course, issues of prejudice and immigration. How did current-day issues inform your version of the Old West?
It’s true that these are current-day issues, but they’re also very, very ancient ones. As a woman living and working in tech in the 2010s, I think about my gender presentation and the ways I can twist it to my advantage or disadvantage—but women have been thinking about that since the dawn of time. It’s like pouring the same water into different-shaped containers: The containers may change with the era, but it’s all the same water. Women have always been taken advantage of; families have always kept secrets; there has always been prejudice against immigrants. In setting my book outside of the present day, I could shine a light on common struggles and make them feel timeless, make them feel epic.
What’s one question you wished I’d asked about the book?
In a lovely Instagram post, [BookPage’s fiction editor, Cat Acree] described the book as a “eulogy for the land.” That resonates deeply. I sometimes worry that the classification of “historical” or “immigrant,” overshadows another crucial theme of the book: how human activity in the name of profit has ravaged the land. I wrote the book while California was either in drought or on fire.
Lastly, I love your book’s gilded cover. Could you share any stories about the book’s physical evolution? Or about its title?
The very first version of my cover had the golden evocation of sun and heat, and it had the colors, and it had tigers. The designer and art director, Grace Han and Helen Yentus, did an incredible job of portraying the book’s themes on the cover: historical but modern and sharp, vital and alive and haunted by place. But those tigers were a journey! We went through many iterations to find the perfect ones. I ended up finding a friend of friends, the illustrator Maggie Han, to paint them in watercolor under Riverhead’s guidance. I love that my tigers are graphic and blue—it feels as modern and bold as I hoped, not at all what you’d expect with a straightforward historical novel. I’m so, so grateful to have worked with women, immigrant, and Asian American artists along the way.
Author photo by Gioia Zloczower