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.
How much time did you spend researching Pan Yuliang and China once you finally decided you wanted to write a novel?
Oh, jeez! I'm a bit of a research addict — but even by my standards it was a lot. I think I'd read up on her and taken Chinese history classes at Columbia for at least a year or two before I felt ready to start writing my prologue; and even then I continued to research in tandem with my writing. As the book took roughly ten years from conception to publication, I'd say — well, roughly ten years. The interesting thing is that I never got bored — the whole world of it just fascinated me.
As a writer you pour so much of yourself into your character and novel, how much of Yuliang is you?
That's a great question. I was actually just talking to a friend who's a memoir writer now beginning her first novel, and she was saying how daunting it was to have to leave "real life" for the first time. The funny thing for me, though, was that I really wasn't leaving "real life" so much as trying to find points of empathy and life-experience intersections with Pan's life and my own in order to better understand her. And to my surprise, there were a lot. Obviously, I've never been a prostitute, can't paint, and didn't live in pre-Revolutionary China. But the struggle to become an artist against seemingly insurmountable odds was something I could relate to. The importance (and drawbacks) of sharing your life with another person or people as an artist; the necessary selfishness that is key to working, was something else. The creative process itself was also something I found I could relate to somewhat; the insecurities, euphoria’s, and oddly (but necessarily) obsessional elements that help you start something seemingly impossible, and see it through.
It's hard to come up with an exact formula of how much of the character I created is myself, thinly veiled (or perhaps painted over). But it was enough that after my husband read the last draft from start to finish he totally started laughing. "You've totally turned her into yourself," he said. (I still haven't figured out if that was a compliment!)
You hit on some pretty heavy subjects in the book such as the Chinese tradition of binding a woman’s feet, prostitution, and communism. All of which a huge part of Yuliang’s story, but was it hard to balance?
It was — particularly the prostitution, as in the past (at least in Asia) it was this rather than her actual art that dominated people's impressions of Pan Yuliang. I was very focused on trying not to do her the same disservice; I didn't want to write about prostitute who could paint. I was trying to get into what kind of a woman could escape prostitution, transcend it, and then go on to create such extraordinary work despite that horror in her past. And to try to see — if I could — how the trauma of the brothel went on to shape her development as an artist. So that part was particularly hard for me; I think I ended up cutting out about five further chapters on the brothel section because I didn't want them to overshadow the more important part of her story — about her art.
What kind of response has The Painter from Shanghai gotten from the overseas markets?
It's still early days in terms of publishing; it came out in the UK in April and only just came out in Holland. After that it will appear in (so far) Spain, Italy, Brazil, Poland, Germany, Vietnam, Romania, Russia, and Serbia — so certainly, overseas publishers (outside of France, for some reason) have been very receptive. In terms of sales it seems to be doing well in the UK considering the market, although not much review attention for some reason. I do self-Google on occasion (well, maybe on many occasions) and interestingly enough, the foreign markets the UK publisher controls — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India — all seem to be responding really enthusiastically. I got terrific writeups in the South China Morning Post, the Tsing Tao, the Indian Express and the Malaysian Star, for example; and there seem to be a lot of overseas Chinese teens chatting about me on their blogs. Which is fascinating and — at times — really bizarre to read; I really never saw myself as writing for that audience (who am I to tell a Chinese reader about a Chinese painter??). But it's also enormously gratifying.
How much time do you spend reading when you are working on a novel? What kinds of things do you read?
I probably spend about half my time reading and researching, the other half — which never seems like enough — writing. What I read tends to depend on the subject, but for Painter I read a lot of contemporary and classical Chinese short stories and novels, a fair amount of Chinese history texts (anything by Jonathon Spence is highly recommended), several English-language novels set in China (Pearl Buck was a surprise discovery for me; I actually really loved a lot of her work) and, of course, books about the painting process and the art world and Paris and Shanghai in the 1920's and 30's. Some of my favorite experiences were tracking down old guidebooks to those cities (I just love old books; one of my dreams is to make enough money to buy a first-edition Wharton or Dickens) and then just immersing myself in them. It was like time travel. For the novel I'm working on now I'm reading a lot about World War II, a lot of classical Japanese novelists (Tanizaki, Mishima, and Dazai–whom I just love) and also trying to brush up my Japanese (I was fairly fluent at one point) to read Japan-based novels and memoirs as well.
What’s your next project?
As you've probably gathered — Japan! Something set against the firebombings of Tokyo in 1945. There will be some familiar themes but some new stuff too, hopefully. I'm about two chapters in and already really enjoying it (well, as much as you can enjoy writing about firebombings, I guess).
Thanks so much Jennifer for you’re time and a great interview.