Saturday, May 16, 2020

Aimee Liu talks about GLORIOUS BOY, the excruciating process of writing, creating a memorable silent character, her shapeshifter dad, and so much more

Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of FACE, CLOUD MOUNTAIN, FLASH HOUSE, and her newest, GLORIOUS BOY.

And the raves for GLORIOUS BOY are racking up! Just look at these:  
“The most memorable and original novel I've read in ages.” - Pico Iyer
  • “For readers who are unafraid to be swept away” -  STARRED review in Booklist
  • “Riveting… a fascinating, irresistible marvel.” - STARRED review, Library Journal

    Thank you so much for being here, Aimee!
I always think that authors are haunted into writing their books. What was it about this time period (of course it is absolutely fascinating), that haunted you into writing this book?

When I first started writing this story it was set in the 1980s on an unnamed island that was very loosely based on the Andamans but otherwise imaginary. An anthropologist I know had told me about the Andamans – the 60,000-year-old tribes and primeval forests and isolated British colonial outpost, Port Blair, which began as a penal colony for Indian rebels in the mid-1800s -- but it wasn’t easy to get much information, since this archipelago was off limits to westerners until the end of the 1990s.

So I made up my vision of the island around the dream that provided the seed for my plot. In that dream, a young local girl who takes care of a little American boy hides with him as his parents are evacuated from their tropical home during a rebel uprising. Her reasons for hiding him involve a mixture of love, jealousy, and fear of abandonment, and the child is easy to hide because he’s mute and trusts the girl completely. Only when she knows his parents have fled does she lead him out of their hiding place, but when she hears the screaming sirens and reaches the emptied house, she suddenly realizes what she has done – and what danger they face.

The combination of that dream and the mystery of the Andamans is what haunted me into writing Glorious Boy… but my imagination kept hitting a wall until my husband and I finally visited these islands in 2010. One of the first things you notice there are all the blood red beach bunkers remaining from the Japanese occupation during WWII. I learned that a handful of British were left in Port Blair after the Japanese invasion, and some were executed on trumped up charges. I also learned about British spy missions back to the islands during the war -- and the extraordinary role that the indigenous tribes played in aiding the British.

I immediately shifted my dream plot back four decades and started the whole book over with layers and layers and layers of new meaning. It took a very long time to get to a final draft, but I never hit another wall.

I’m always interested in structure and I loved the way you moved back and forth in time, and into different points of view. How do you plan your books? Do they emerge organically? Or did you know this was what you wanted all the time?

Ha! This book had soooo many different structures along the way! At one point I charted it as a spiral. At another, it all laid out chronologically. I tried to start at the end and work backward, like a mystery, but that forced me to give too much away.  I kept thinking of the old adage, “Start on the day when everything changes.” The trouble with that is that there are 2 critical days when everything changes.  The most dramatic is the day of the evacuation when the three protagonists – the family -- are all separated. The other is the day much earlier when Claire and Shep, little Ty’s parents, decide impulsively to marry and head off for the Andamans together.

I decided to lead with the moment of separation that launches the plot’s suspense. But the setting and emotional situation are so complex and foreign to my readers that I had to travel back in time after setting the plot wheels in motion. I had to slow down to set things up and bring readers into this strange and extraordinary world, and also to lay the groundwork for the main characters to be able to take action as they later do.

My primary model for this structure was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which also opens with a violent family separation, then backtracks in time before catching up with itself and moving forward.

You’ve written numerous amazing books. Do you find that the process changes with each book?

The process is always excruciating for me. In that sense it never changes. Otherwise, each book is entirely different, depending largely on the original inspiration.

My second novel, Cloud Mountain, was the biggest and the fastest, in part because I’d “practiced” part of the story in my first novel, Face, which also taught me how to write a novel. Also, Cloud Mountain was very closely based on the true story of my grandparents’ interracial marriage and the historical circumstances around them in America and China during the early 1900s. I’d spent a decade collecting that research and testing it in Face. I also found that Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose gave me a structural model, much as The Goldfinch did for Glorious Boy. So I felt as if I knew what I was doing.

The others are all much purer fiction, leaning a lot on research and some source characters but demanding much more of my imagination for plot. My imagination is extremely unreliable! I often feel as if I’m crawling through the story on my hands and knees in the dark, just praying I’ll find my way out.

Ty, the young silent boy, is one of the most unusual and unforgettable characters. Can you talk about your decision to make him silent?

Ty was silent in my origin dream, but I didn’t know why or how. Then, in much the same way that I “found” the macro plot in the WWII history of the Andamans, I found Ty’s true character in a book called The Einstein Syndrome, which describes late-talking children who, like Einstein and many other physicists and musicians, are a frightening mystery to their parents when little but grow up to be brilliant thinkers and artists. Then, to my astonishment, I realized that I actually have a child like this in my extended family, which helped me to feel my way through the challenges these kids present to their parents. It wasn’t difficult to imagine just how frustrating it must have been to raise such a child in the 1930s, when no one knew or spoke about such nuances in child development. The guilt and fear and impatience would have been overwhelming for any caring parent. Even more than in a typical parent-child relationship, the bond would depend on close emotional attunement.

In Glorious Boy a great many of the conflicts in the story flow from the glitches in attunement between Claire and little Ty – and from the much stronger organic attunement that he shares with Naila, the young girl who intuitively understands his silent language.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been working on and off for several years on a memoir about my father. What haunts me about that story is his deathbed request for a mysterious box, which he said contained millions of dollars. Suffice it to say that, when I found the box that fit his description shortly after his death, it contained not money but photographs. And in the search that he requested, I also found countless documents, letters, and artifacts about relationships I’d never heard of, including family members my father had never mentioned. I’m still making sense of all this, and of my father’s genuinely inscrutable personality, which was reflected in his brief Hollywood career as a “Eurasian” actor playing everything from houseboys and Number One Sons to spies and diplomats in the 1930s. Like many mixed-race immigrants of his era, he was a shapeshifter who never let anyone into his inner world – perhaps not even himself. And yet I always felt deeply connected to him, without really understanding how or why. And he tapped me to find the box.  So that’s what I’m working on.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Q/Did I write Glorious Boy with the expectation that it would be published on the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII?

A/ No, I most certainly did not! I probably would have been thrilled if that idea had crossed my mind. And quite possibly, that thrill would be misplaced. At least one bookseller has warned me that the shelves will be flooded with WWII novels this year.
Ah well. All I can say is that my book is far from your typical war novel, and it will introduce you to an unforgettable place and time -- and I hope an equally unforgettable cast of characters.

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