Monday, May 5, 2008

"The Painter of Shanghai" Author Interview: A Conversation with Jennifer Cody Epstein

Kelly Hewitt
: I have to say first and foremost that The Painter From Shanghai is a really wonderful book. It has been on my bedside table since the day it arrived.

Jennifer Epstein Cody: Thank you! I love to hear that.

Kelly: When reading the book I wondered whether or not your had read any of the Chinese historical fiction of other modern authors like Anchee Min, Lisa See, or Dai Sijie?

Jennifer: I have. I read and enjoyed Madame Mao and Wild Orchid, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. And I loved Balzaac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Other writers I came across whom I admired and got a lot from were Ye Zhaoyan (Nanjing 1937: A Love Story) and Shan Sa (The Girl who Played Go).

Kelly: Speaking of historical fiction authors I recently came across a piece you wrote in which you reexamine some of the works of Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl Buck. (Click here to read the article). What is your final verdict as far as Pearl Buck is concerned? What books would you suggest readers read?

Jennifer: I actually concluded, after reading a lot of Buck’s work and about her life, that she’s vastly underrated as a writer. As Peter Conn (who wrote an amazing biography about her) told me, a lot of her stuff isn’t very good—but (and this is the part the Nextbook editors cut!) some of it is very good. The truth is, she wrote such an astonishing amount—over 70 works in her 80-odd years (and she didn’t start writing until her late 30’s!) that it would be shocking if some of it weren’t weak; and as she actually wrote in large part to support her various philanthropic causes I think she should get more of a break. That said, I think really do she gets a bad rap that male writers like, say, John Updike and Philip Roth don’t for having an uneven body of work behind her; in part because she’s a woman, and is seen as largely a “woman’s writer.”

As far as specific works: I happen to think The Good Earth is pretty amazing (as, incidentally, do a number of Chinese scholars now, who are translating her work into English in China because it takes such an unprecedentedly close and accurate look at rural life in pre-revolutionary China). The second book in that series is also supposed to be very strong. I also enjoyed Peony (about Chinese Jews in the 19th century—the one I centered the Nextbook piece on). Dragon Seed, about Chinese defending China against the Japanese attack of 1937, is also supposed to be really great; that’s on my bedstand. And The Exile and The Fighting Angel, her biographies of her missionary parents - are supposed to be amazing. They’re really what won her her Pulitzer.

Kelly: As the title indicates, art plays a major factor in this book. You write about painting in such a detailed manner that it both made we wish I could paint and wonder if you yourself are a painter. Have you ever picked up a brush?

Jennifer: I did—just for this book, actually. It was educational in that it gave me a sense of process and color; although the strongest sense I got was that the world is lucky I decided to be writer and not a painter!

Kelly: There certainly seems to be a rebirth of interest in Chinese art and culture in the last ten years. Would you agree with that statement? What do you think has caused it?

Jennifer: Wow—big question! I am—despite the title and subject of my book—no expert on Chinese art. But I think the interest is probably reflective, in part, of a greater interest in China in general right now. It’s a huge country and growing superpower to which our own economy and business interests are increasingly linked, and those things necessarily make people want to know more about it. America also has such an large and growing Chinese-American population that I think it no longer seems nearly as “exotic” or far away as it once did. And, of course, there is so much dynamism in Chinese art and in Asian art in general, much of it due to the energy that comes of Eastern and Western techniques being united in ways that have something new and exciting to say to the artistic traditions of both hemispheres. That’s largely what attracted me to the subject of The Painter of Shanghai to begin with; I was fascinated by the way Pan Yuliang’s work both evoked Matisse and Cezanne and quietly blended that influence with traditional Chinese brushwork.

Kelly: Have you ever visited China?

Jennifer: Many times. I backpacked through it with my mom when I was in college (that was an experience!) and then visited it quite a bit when I lived in Hong Kong (from 1995-7). I was lucky enough to have work that sent me to Shenzen and Guangzhou a fair amount, and a boyfriend who lived in Shanghai—which gave me a great opportunity to explore the city.

Kelly: What was the moment like when you discovered the real Pan Yuliang? Did you know that you wanted to write a book about her right that moment?

Jennifer: I was actually the Guggenheim with my husband and some relatives—roughly ten years ago. The exhibition—which was amazing--was on Modern Chinese Art, and there was just one image by Pan Yuliang on display. But it drew me over immediately; it was a typical Pan Yuliang in that it was very evocative of Matisse and Cezanne, and the bright, bold colors and distinctly Western setting (as compared to the huge propaganda-style images and much more subtle ink paintings around it) really stood out for me. I went over to see more and when I read about Pan’s story (prostitute-concubine-Post-Impressionist icon; really?!) it just blew me away. I’d never heard of her before—but I couldn’t, at that moment, understand why---it struck me that everyone should know about her. My husband, a filmmaker, was the one who said “Hey! This should be your first novel!” I looked at him like he was crazy…but obviously, the idea grew on me.

Kelly: It is very rare that an author of a historical fiction novel would add a Selected Bibliography at the end of the book. Why did you decide to do add a bibliography? How did your publisher feel about the extra pages?

Jennifer: The book was actually over 700 pages when I first submitted it, without the bibliography; I think the fact that I wrestled it down to under 500 impressed my publishers enough that they didn’t gripe about giving a couple of pages back! I actually added it because for me, bibliographies are great resources—in fiction and in nonfiction. If you’re interested in a book’s subject—and obviously, I hoped people were interested in mine—it’s always nice to have a sense of how an author shaped their story, and a place to look for further reading.

Kelly: Your main character, Pan Yulaing, really existed although your book is a fictional account. I have read that some of her paintings and works can be found online. Do you have a particular website you would recommend?

Jennifer: Sure-some of them are on my website. But the vast majority of her work that remains is, to my knowledge, now at the Anhui Provincial Museum. You can link to that through my site as well, or else just go here and here.

A straightforward Google Image search will also get you to a bunch of her individual works.

Kelly: The inevitable last question. What are you currently working on and when can we expect another book?

Jennifer: The “what” is something set in Tokyo during World War II. I actually have far more experience in Japan than in China (I lived there for five years and speak the language fairly well) so it’ll be a nice change! As for the “when….” Hmmm. All I can say is I hope it won’t take another decade!


Cheryl said...

Great interview. This is a new author to me but I will have to check out her books

Julie P. said...

Wonderful interview. I read this book a few weeks ago and LOVED it! One of my favorite books so far this year.

Marg said...

I added this to my TBR list a while ago. Reading this interview just makes me want to read it more!

Darla said...

Just brought this book home - all due to reading your interveiw.


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