I'm thrilled to have Virginia Pye (brilliant, funny, warm) here to talk about her astonishing second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I'm not the only one raving about it. Author Gish Jen has called it, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking…a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Kirkus writes: “There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unflinching look…shares truth in its own way.” Her debut novel, River of Dust, was published in 2013 by Unbridled Books and was chosen as an Indie Next Pick and a 2014 Virginia Literary Awards Finalist. Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, too. Thank you so much, Virginia!
What sparked the writing of this book? (I know from reading your acknowledgement pages, but the story is so great, I’d love for you to tell it here.)
A central character in my debut novel, River of Dust, is a young American missionary wife and mother living in the rugged northwest of China in 1910. Grace is a naïve ingénue at the start of the story, but as she faces greater challenges and dangers, she grows in wisdom and worldliness and eventually becomes a powerful woman. In my next novel, I wanted the story to focus on a more mature and confident woman who, if anything, must learn to be less impulsively decisive and strong willed in the face of challenges. As I tried to think of female role models who were strong, my grandmother came to mind. One evening when she was living as an American missionary in Shanxi Province during Japanese occupation, Japanese soldiers arrived on her front porch and accused her of using a radio to communicate with Chinese resistance fighters. It was a silly idea, because the radio she owned didn’t allow for two-way transmission, but the Japanese insisted. The story goes that my grandmother was so unimpressed by the Japanese and unafraid of them that she actually swept them off her porch with a broom. In Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I wanted to write about a woman whose confidence borders on hubris and who must work to become a more thoughtful person.
The premise is intoxicating--a young mother is torn between helping the Chinese fight the Japanese, but she also needs to save herself and her son while she can. It’s a difficult moral choice, and her plight opens a window into the political situation of the time--and makes it very human. Can you talk about this a bit, please?
Like many writers, I feel torn between wanting to be politically active and the realities of a “job” that keeps me alone at my desk for many hours each day. Also, as a writer, I tend to be an observer, and yet I wish in a way I was a more active participant in political life. This tension plays out in Dreams of the Red Phoenix through Shirley, who thinks she wants to retire from the world, but then is drawn into the urgent stream of human need. After the Japanese attack she sees the Chinese suffering all around her. She has the nursing skills to help them and fairly quickly she realizes she has no choice but to lend a hand. This experience opens not only her eyes, but her heart as well. She ends up feeling at one with the people she is helping.
But she also must care for and protect her son. In her enthusiasm for her new cause, she loses sight of how Charles, though a teenager, still needs her. I think every mother has moments when she convinces herself that her child will be fine without her; she can step away. And sometimes that’s true and the time is right for the child to be independent. But sometimes, we just wish it were true—whether because we’re worn out with parenting, or because we’ve become excited to enter a new chapter of our own lives. Dreams of the Red Phoenix weaves a mother’s conundrum of how to parent a teenager through a story set in a dramatic and violent political moment in a faraway land.
What was the research like for this novel? Did anything surprise or disturb you?
For River of Dust I had been lucky enough to use my grandfather’s journals to help me gain a feeling for that earlier time period and language. My grandmother left very little writing behind and none of it gave a sense of her voice. So I delved into other descriptions of 1937 North China. It was a wildly confusing and complicated time with at least four different factions fighting for power: the Nationalists, the Communists, the Japanese, and the traditional warlords. Most foreigners, and most Chinese as well, had only a partial understanding of all that was going on around them, but I had to understand the history myself. So I started by reading Jonathan Spence’s excellent The Search for Modern China, which incidentally begins in the year 600, just to give a sense of the vast range of China’s history that the modern period begins then!
I also read a good number of autobiographies from that time, especially those by American journalists, including Edgar Snow. But most helpful were the stories of three American women living in China in the 1930’s: Helen Snow, Nym Wales, and Agnes Smedley. When I discovered descriptions by Smedley of her experience traveling with the Communist Eighth Route Army in the mountains of northwest China and her visits to Mao in hidden army caves, I knew I had found a unique setting to use in my novel. As with River of Dust, the research helped ground me, but then I took extensive liberties that I hope China experts will forgive.
How was writing this particular novel different from writing River of Dust? Does one novel build on another, do you find, or are they completely different animals?
The two novels are companions, not sequels, though they do have much in common. Caleb Carson, the minister in Dreams of the Red Phoenix is the nephew of The Reverend in River of Dust, and partly chose to go to China because of the heroic stories he heard about his mother’s brother. The settings in both novels are similar, though not precisely the same. I got smarter in the second novel and did not name the town where the story takes place, so it could remain clearly fictional. But the two books do share key themes: they each explore what it means to be a foreigner in a foreign land, especially during times of crisis and danger. Both books are about confidant, stoical, strong, and good-hearted Americans who are somewhat blind to what goes on around them.
Writing Dreams of the Red Phoenix was a lot of fun, as was doing the research for it. I felt a certain ease as I did it, I’m not sure why, but perhaps because I’d already delved into one corner of Chinese history from an American perspective. I think of the two books as cousins, and I’ve recently completed a third novel that will round out this fictional family portrait.
There’s a terrific sense of page-turning tension through the book. How difficult was that to sustain?
I love plot. As a literary novelist, I’m not sure I’m supposed to admit that, but I do. I love upping the ante on my characters to see what they’ll do next. When faced with a dramatic moment, I try to hold their feet to the fire even more. I love the surprises that occur when that happens. My job is to have the story stay on the rails. The characters need to remain true to themselves, even when the plot becomes more exaggerated. If the characters don’t respond realistically to challenges, then the reader isn’t going to buy the twists and turns. So strangely enough, character, even more than story line, is what makes the tension work.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Right now, I’m in the middle of a move from Richmond, Virginia, where I’ve lived for the past seventeen years and have raised our two children, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I grew up. My husband and I are moving for his work. He’s an art museum director and now runs the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, which everyone should visit when up in the Boston area. This transition is radical for me and for our whole family. I haven’t lived in Cambridge for thirty-five years! It’s wild to be back. My new home is around the corner from the bus stop where I used to wait every afternoon of middle school for the city bus to take me out to Belmont. I never thought I’d move back, but here we are. So, I’m a little distracted from writing, though I’m eager to send my third China novel off to my agent, which I hope to do soon.
But what’s most obsessing me quietly and persistently is the South. All the years while living in Richmond I tried to conceive of a novel inspired by mother’s side of the family. They were Southerners with deep roots in South Carolina and Georgia. Whatever I write about the South will necessarily reflect that I’m a white Northerner of Southern extraction who lived in the South for almost two decades and raised Southern children but has now moved back to the North. This book will show the North/South divide, which I believe exists even today, from the perspective of having one foot in each camp. That’s what’s obsessing me, but it’s anyone’s guess how it’ll find expression in fiction.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
As always, I think you covered the bases. I’m amazed you have time to write your own wonderful novels and also delve so thoughtfully into the work of fellow writers. Thank you for reading and thinking about and sharing Dreams of the Red Phoenix.
Here’s something fun: I’ve only visited mainland China once, and it was after writing River of Dust. I went there in 2014 for the Shanghai Literary Festival, which I highly recommend. It’s for English speakers and draws a wonderfully international crowd. While there, I met with a book group of women from all over the world. They loved River of Dust, and really got it, because, like my characters, they were living as foreigners in China. I was so relieved that the book resonated with ex-pats.
Also while in Shanghai, I met Mick Jagger. Yup, me and Mick. He came into the bar where the Literary Festival was taking place and, oddly enough, no one was talking to him, so I sidled up and we started chatting. He had just arrived in China at four that morning and was scheduled to do a show that evening for a massive 20,000 seat crowd. So naturally I asked him how he handles jet lag. He was friendly, and helpful, and pretty soon we were joined by others who listened as he shared his jet lag tips—homeopathy, light lamps, hydration, and naps.
As he spoke, I tried not to stare to closely at him, but part my brain was screaming: you’re talking to Mick Jagger! You are standing inches away from the man. I found myself trying to memorize his face—and his clothes, which couldn’t have been more ordinary. He’s a petite guy. Super skinny with large, bony hands. But that face! So iconic, like Mt. Rushmore. And as craggy as Mt. Rushmore, too. I wanted to reach out and poke his cheekbones to see if they were real. Definitely a stranger than fiction moment.