Reciprocal interview at inside-out china.
Four years ago, I joined Zoetrope, the online writers community started by Francis Ford Coppola. I hope the day comes when I can thank him in person. None of us knows the number of writers who've benefited from his sponsoring this free, immensely useful space where writers exchange reviews of work-in-progress, pass along writing and publishing tips, and provide endless encouragement to one another. One requirement of Zoetrope is this: for every story you submit, you must review five others. I was getting a bit discouraged with my initial reviews (the first stack is assigned, after that you can choose) when, anxious to submit one of my own stories for dissection, I encountered Xujun Eberlein's "Swimming with Mao." I hate quoting myself (sort of :) but all this time later, I stand by what I wrote then: "This is a magnificent story, well rendered...and will be published. Good luck!"
(Clears throat) Right again. That story does not appear in its original form in Apologies Forthcoming, this fine collection by Xujun. But "Feathers," its cousin, does, and it alone is worth buying this book. Never mind that the book won the Third Annual Tartts Fiction Award, which is how this volume came to print. With my laudatory review of Xujun's work, we struck up a friendship. Learning that we lived only a few miles apart, we agreed to meet in the garden of the Newton Public Library one sunny October day. Since then, we've visited each other's gardens but...mine pale next to hers. For example, the three-summers'-long-in-its-building "Chinese Garden Wall" as Xujun and her husband, Bob, call it:
What impresses me most about Xujun's work is not her fine writing or her rare eye for the unusual twist or that she's writing about a subject most of us know nothing about: growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China. It's that she's in the small, elite group of prize-winning writers who are not native speakers in the language that they write. Born in Chongqing, China, she moved to the US in 1988, earned her Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from MIT, worked as a software developer, then chucked it all only a few years ago to write. Her list of publications and awards is significant. Just a few weeks ago, she won an Artist's Fellowship from the Massachusetts Arts Council.
Xujun is currently doing a "virtual blog tour" (see below for explanation); today is my turn. Since others are reviewing her book and asking her traditional questions that writers get once they cross the line to "author," I decided to query her about the connection between gardening and writing, passions we share:
You're doing a blog tour with your new book. Could you explain what this is and why it's advantageous for authors?
It is an experiment – so I’m not sure how advantageous it is yet. We'll see. A blog book tour is a low-cost alternative for a physical book tour, which I'm sure you have more experience with it than I do. In a blog tour, a writer traverses from blog to blog instead of city to city during a concentrated period.
Blogs that participate in the tour are referred as "stops." At each stop the blogger either interviews the author-on-tour or reviews the book or does both. The idea is mutual promotion as both sides are motivated to drive traffic to each stop. Ideally a participating blog gets exposure from the author's network and the author gets exposed to the blog's readers. Seems a good idea, right? However, in reality things don’t always work that well. For example, the topic of the book may not be attractive to the blog's readers; blog readers are not necessarily book lovers [ed. note: mine are!]; popular blogs are difficult to book while eager bloggers might not have much of a readership yet, etc. So, while a blog book tour does not cost the author much other than lots of organization and preparation time, it may or may not be effective.
A main advantage of a physical book tour is that its stops usually take place at bookstores or literary bars or someplace with a similar nature, which means the audience is book lovers. But such a tour is expensive and most small presses are not able to organize let alone pay for these tours. Everything has two sides, as ancient Chinese wisdom believes.
You're a talented writer as well as a talented gardener. What similarities do you find between writing and gardening?
That's a fun question. Writing labors both the brain and the body, while gardening relaxes the brain and fosters contemplation that indirectly helps writing. Another difference is that gardening can be instantly gratifying, while writing might never be. The similarity, I think, is that both are labors of love, without which one can't sustain either.
How old were you when you began writing creatively? How old were you when you began gardening (creatively)?
Creative writing goes way back to when I was a child, and I published my first story (in Chinese) at 21. Gardening, however, was impossible when I lived in China. No one had a private garden in the city, though there are many public gardens and parks. The countryside was another story. During the late 1970s, as a high-school graduate, I was sent to the countryside for "reeducation" for about four years. The story “Disciple of the Masses” in my book gives a good picture of that type of life. There I learned to grow rice and vegetables, but no farmer wanted to waste soil on inedible flowers. Whenever I picked wild flowers to put in a glass bottle (no vase was available), the villagers laughed at me.
But in other places there were flower farmers who made living selling the flowers they planted; this was especially true in the suburbs of Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. I wish I were sent to those farms instead. LOL.
I began gardening only after I moved to the US and we bought our first house in Belmont. In my Wayland home now, my garden has taken a much large scale and, as I told another interviewer, to me this is one of the best things about living in the US.
Do you think you'll ever write a book about gardening? If so, what focus might you give to it?
Who knows? In early mornings of the summer, when I patrol my garden for hours, shoes wet with the dew and heart soothed by the cool breeze, I always feel I ought to write about the senses. Perhaps I will have a collection of essays someday about gardening and contemplation and thinking.
Do gardens play a theme in Apologies Forthcoming? If so, how and why?
Not gardening per-se, however almost every story in the book has scenes related to flowers and nature. This was not intentional, but I guess, as a Chinese adage goes, "writing goes with the writer's nature," and I couldn't help it. Here is a passage in the opening story, "Snow Line:"
Carrying Qian-qian in his bike's handlebars, Shiao Su rode through the twisting alleys, where there were no traffic police, to arrive at the West Suburb Bridge farmers market. Before Shiao Su locked up the bike Qian-qian was already off bouncing along the gravel road. Her slickers kicked the small stones up and away; she was humming a children’s song. Ahead of her, wicker and bamboo baskets of green, yellow, and white vegetables arrayed with purple, blue, pink and red flowers, all lined up on both sides of the road. Farmers, both women and men, cried out under the golden sun, "Come on here, mine's selling cheap!"