NICOLE MONES: NIGHT IN SHANGHAI TOOK ME FIVE YEARS
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Nicole Mones published last year her latest book Night in Shanghai. The novel is very interesting adventure that is taking place in the Asian city. Our next guest is a cultural ambassador of China. Her non-fiction articles appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. Are you ready for the next cool interview with another inspiring author?
– Nicole, your last book Night in Shanghai was accepted very well by the readers. How did you decide to write the story?
– The last hundred years of Chinese history have always enthralled me, maybe because as someone who started doing business in China at the close of the Cultural Revolution, I’ve been able to observe China’s present stage of modernization pretty much from the start. I feel that the struggle to modernize–personally, socially, economically, in terms of governance–has been the story not just of the current era, but of the whole last century in China. Shanghai has always been at the forefront of this modernization, and I wanted an original and different story that would bring it to life. When I stumbled on accounts of American jazz musicians who had been recruited to Shanghai during the 1930s, I knew I had found it.
– What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
– The biggest challenge for me was reimagining the novel to include a major, and unexpected, research discovery—and I didn’t even discover it, my brilliant researcher Daniel Nieh did. He was combing through a Chinese military history database, pursuing an unrelated question, when he stumbled on documents detailing the Jewish Resettlement Plan of 1939, which aimed to save 100,000 additional Jews from the Holocaust by establishing a Jewish resettlement zone along the Chinese-Burmese border. It failed, of course—but not before two lives (and a pile of money) were lost trying to make it happen. Amazingly, my draft of Night in Shanghai already had some of the plot elements needed to include this true story: Shanghai’s Jewish refugee musicians were already integral to my protagonist’s survival during the years of the Japanese Occupation in Part Two, and H.H. Kung, the architect of the Jewish Resettlement Plan, happened to already be a side character. Rewrite the novel? Of course. But it was a challenge.
– Tell us something more about your main characters Thomas and Song? Are they 100% fiction or it’s close to someone from your real life?
– Thomas and Song are 100% fiction, but much about both of them is based on stories people who lived through that era either told me personally, or left behind in published memoirs, letters, and essays. Beyond that, at a certain point, characters just come to life and become themselves—that’s when it becomes interesting. By the Way, Thomas, Song, Lin, and David Epstein are the only fictional characters. Everyone else in the novel really lived, and everything that happens in the novel really happened. It was really fun to place a novel in the middle of true events and fill it with historical personalities, and to be able to write an epilogue at the end, to tell the reader what became of everyone in real life.
– Grammy Award winner Ben Harper praised the novel. How deep you dug into the research to present by the best possible way the life of an American musician in China almost century ago?
– I love music, it is the language I admire most, and something I always wanted to write a book about. Like Thomas, I grew up in Baltimore, playing the piano, but unlike him I completely lacked the talent to become a musician. However that is one of the great things about writing novels—the chance to live a few lives that are out of one’s reach.
The real key for me, in understanding the word of 1930s black jazz musicians in China, was reading their own published accounts of their lives in Shanghai. The trumpeter Buck Clayton was very important to my research; he published an autobiography late in life that dealt extensively with his years in China; he also took countless photographs, and donated them to the University of Kansas. (You can see these photos on my website, nicolemones.com.) Even some non-musical figures, such as the poet Langston Hughes, stopped in Shanghai in the 1930s and later published detailed descriptions of the jazz scene and African-American life there. Indeed, so much had been quietly written about the period, by the people who were there, that I really didn’t have to make anything up, which is unusual for a novelist.
– How much time you need to finish the story and to publish it?
– Five years.
– The Last Chinese Chief is your most popular book. You show an example how the food can heal a human heart. Do you think it’s possible to happen in the real life?
– I don’t suppose food could directly heal a person’s heart, at least not by itself, but in Chinese culture the link between dining and togetherness is so powerful that it’s a perfect metaphor for the novel, because it is people who heal the heart. Also, food is appreciated in China as a real art form, so when people gather to enjoy the work of a talented chef, they feel uplifted—it becomes more than just a meal.
– Lost in Translation was described as a novel about love. The character of Alice seems very complicated. Was it difficult to create her identity during the write up process?
– Actually Alice Mannegan was one of the few characters I have created who really seemed to write herself. Perhaps that’s because she was based on a real person. When I was young, I was close to a young man whose father was suspected of having committed a racially motivated murder during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. in the early 1960s. The burden of second-hand guilt lay heavy on my friend, and he moved to Hong Kong and refused to return to America. Then, he was killed in an accident. Looking back, I think I started writing the novel a few years after his death in order to play out his story and give it an ending. Because I had been a woman working in China since a young age, it was easier for me to imagine the character as a woman, and in this way, he became Alice Mannegan.
– Who are you?
– Even though I have worked with China throughout my adult life, I feel like a true child of America—all of my ancestors, including early colonists, indentured servants, and Native Americans, gambled on the New World when it was a vast wilderness. Maybe that is why an ancient culture such as China’s has such appeal for me. I love research, and learning new things, and writing books, but my children are my most worthwhile accomplishment.
– What are your writing habits?
– I try to write every day in which there’s a large block of time available to do it. When I am working hard on a book I try to add at least 1000 words a day, but as I do a tremendous amount of rewriting, a book always takes several years. Right now I am writing several unrelated things at once, which is oddly restful—when I feel temporarily stuck on one thing, I switch to another, and let the first story rest.
– Do you have plans for your next novel and would you give us some hints about the story?
– Sorry, I am still trying to decide which of my several projects will be my next novel.
– What are you doing to promote by the best possible way your book?
– I have toured all over the U.S. to present historical images, video, and film clips of 1930s Shanghai, as I tell the story of Thomas, Song, and everything that happens in Night In Shanghai. These historical images are all on my website, along with a three-minute video trailer made by a Chinese film director—nicolemones.com.
– Did you remember your expectations about China before your visited the country in 1977?
– That’s a great question. You are really talking me back. Before I went to China to buy textiles for the first time, in 1977, I knew almost nothing about China. It was closed, and had been since before I was born. What went on inside China was speculated about, but not really understood. So I felt like I was leaving the known world, and I was young enough for that to be purely exhilarating
When I look back on how I must have appeared to them, a young woman dropping into their traumatized world 6 weeks after the government formally ended the Cultural Revolution, they probably felt the same way—like I had come from another planet. We were strange to each other. But I opened my eyes and started learning then, and I’m still learning. There is so much to learn about China.
– Would you describe the Top 3 positive qualities of Chinese people from your great experience?
– Endurance. Intelligence. And a powerful shared legacy of cultural refinement.
– Ask yourself a question (And don’t forget to answer!)
– Anything else we should know? Please go to my website and watch the trailer. Chinese film director Po-Chih Leong loved Night in Shanghai so much, he made this cinematic trailer which brilliantly tells the story of the novel in three minutes. Also on the website are wartime galleries—captioned historical photos of the people and events in the novel. See the magic of Night in Shanghai for yourself!
To learn more about Nicole Mones visit her Web page
Take a look at her books: