I recently finished reading The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstien. It’s a fictional account of Pan Yuliang a painter who mixed traditional Chinese painting with Western influences. The novel was fascinating and I was thrilled when Jennifer agreed to answer some questions.
First off, a really simple question, when did you know you wanted to write?
I actually just finished a blog about this! I remember asking my dad at around 6 or 7 what kind of job "thinking about stuff and comparing it to other stuff" (e.g., "the windshield wipers on the window sounded like a sad woman") was; I was talking about metaphors, but of course I didn't have the word then. I clarified it more fully for myself at 12, when I was chosen to be my middle school's first "Author's Corner" author. I had a short story--about a magic swing set — "published" outside the principal's office (e.g., stapled on the wall, along with a broody author photo). Everything about the experience seemed right to me.
In The Painter from Shanghai you give such clear images of color and texture, like images caught in a frame, it really gives the reader the impression of an artist. Do you paint?
I did paint a bit for this one; I took oil painting lessons for about a year, and also worked with a friend who's a painter in deconstructing one of Pan's paintings and trying to re-construct it (with pretty dreadful results, to be honest!). I also spent a fascinating day at the Student Art League in NYC and watched Frank Mason's class at work. That was really cool.
On your site you said that you first saw Pan Yuliang’s paintings as an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. What about her life and her art caught your interest?
First off, the paintings themselves were just so fascinating to me — and so very different from anything else I was seeing in the exhibition where I first discovered her. They drew me over immediately; and when I saw her life's story arc (as it were) I was hooked. I just had to find out what kind of a person makes that extraordinary leap, from doomed prostitute to celebrated artist.