Recently, I read an extraordinary novel called The Ghost Bride. Set in 1890’s Malacca, in old Malaya, it is the story of Li Lan, a young Chinese girl whose once-prosperous family has fallen on hard times: her mother is dead, her father has become an opium addict, and the little money there is in the family is dwindling fast, and will soon not be enough to support the household, including the few servants who are left. As a result of this, Li Lan’s father makes her agree to a terrible bargain: his only daughter will be betrothed to a dead man, the only son of the rich Lim family, who died some time before. Li Lan is desperate to escape this fate, and she tries every means to stop it from happening, especially as she has fallen in love with the new heir of the Lim family, their handsome nephew, Tian Bai. But in so doing, she must venture into the shadowy reaches of the afterlife–and soon places herself in terrible danger, as she plunges into an adventure like no other, from which there might be no return..
It’s one of the most beautiful and magical books I’ve read in a long time. In character, setting and story, it is rich, vivid and totally absorbing, and it ends very satisfyingly, as well. I’m not the only one who thinks so–first published in 2013, the book was a Carnegie Medal nominee, a New York Times bestseller, a favourite of Oprah Winfrey, and garnered all kinds of other acclaim and honours.
Enthralled by the novel, I wanted to know more about its author, first-time novelist Yangsze Choo, and so I went to her website, which is a most engaging blend of posts on books and posts on food: clearly an author after my own heart! After that, I contacted Yangsze and asked her if she’d be interested in an interview. I was very pleased when she agreed. And so, today, I am delighted to present this interview. Enjoy!
Your first novel, The Ghost Bride, is a remarkably accomplished and assured debut, and was a stunning success, garnering great acclaim. Can you tell us about the first steps towards the novel? How did you begin your career as a writer? And what was the journey towards publication like?
That’s very kind of you – I’m so grateful and appreciative to be a novelist, though sometimes I still pinch myself in disbelief! I’d been writing bits and pieces ever since I was a child, but always thought of it as a hobby, one which gave me private satisfaction and which occasionally amused friends and family. The whole journey towards publication was really thanks to my husband, who started circulating part of The Ghost Bride to friends, and a lovely writer friend who encouraged me to look for an agent. So I googled “how to find an agent” and starting looking things up on a couple of websites. I think agentquery.com was one of them and querytracker as well.
Perhaps it was good to be ignorant, because I didn’t realize how daunting the whole cold-querying process sounds like – if I’d known, I might have given up before I started! However, I’d like to encourage aspiring writers to keep writing and submit your work. In fact, you don’t need any special contacts. I didn’t have any, and there are plenty of authors who came from the slush pile, just like me – it happens surprisingly often and you mustn’t give up!
The idea of the ‘ghost bride’–of a living girl being promised in marriage to a dead man– is both intensely creepy and arrestingly strange. How did you first come across the notion, and was it the initial inspiration for the book? How did you develop or vary it for the purposes of your novel?
Before I wrote The Ghost Bride, I spent 8 years working on a long and terrible novel about an elephant detective. In the course of writing this disaster, I happened to be digging around in the local newspaper archives (those were the days of scrolling around in microfiche) in search of elephant trivia when I happened to read a line about how spirit marriages had declined amongst the Chinese. At first I was confused. Then I realized “Ohh… this is the marriage of the dead” which I’d heard about before. And right away, I saw this scene in my head. This girl writing in her diary, in a dark room lit by a flickering oil lamp, about how she was going to be married to a ghost. I went home and pretty much wrote the first chapter of The Ghost Bride as is. Then I tried to shoehorn it into a subplot for my elephant novel (a bad, bad idea). And eventually, it became the novel that it is.
Li Lan, the main character and first-person narrator, is an attractive and very believable character. How did she first come to you?
I’m so glad you enjoyed her! It really was a scene and a narrative voice that suddenly appeared, so that I felt that I was recording what was unfolding. I think that’s important for characters, when you feel that they’re talking and making decisions by themselves. I tend to write by the seat of my pants, without planning, which is awful when things go badly and you’re stuck (I once got stuck for more than a year!), but wonderful when things really start to move and it feels like you’re watching a movie unwind. And then I also had to try to keep her in historical character. I think there’s a penchant for kick-ass heroines now who can do kungfu and break doors down, but I tried to give Li Lan experiences in keeping with what a young lady in 1890s colonial Malaya might have known and done. So sometimes she sat down and cried, which wasn’t always the most exciting thing, but I felt was probably accurate for someone who was going to be dismally married off to a dead man.
Er Lang is a wonderfully enigmatic and romantic character, with that disturbing yet playful and earthy quality of fairytale, too. How did he come to life?
Oh dear! Er Lang started off as a minor character who then started taking over various scenes, dispensing advice, and generally trampling all over my vague plans for Someone Else, but he was very fun to write. I realized that I looked forward to whenever he appeared because events always took an unexpected turn, and so he got to stay. By the way, initially the book had less romance and a lot more food, and my agent and editor both said that it could do with a romantic boost and, um, fewer nine-course banquets… I have to say they were probably right!
The evocation of the afterlife and the afterworld in The Ghost Bride is extraordinary, and in your afterword, you mention that it’s a mix both of traditional Chinese beliefs, and your own imaginative creation. Yet it feels completely seamless to the reader, with the logic of dreams as well. How did you go about combining all those elements?
There’s a long tradition of strange, ghostly stories in Chinese literature, such as Pu Songling’s classic “Tales of Liaozhai”, which I was fascinated with when I was younger. It’s a rich and marvelous world, where beautiful women turn into foxes and palaces into beehives, and I was always deeply curious about what happened in these stories, which were often presented as actual histories. When I was writing The Ghost Bride, I wanted to bring the reader to that colourful world, where dreams and reality mix and you’re no longer sure exactly where you’ve wandered.
You know modern Malaysia well, but how did you go about recreating the rich texture of the atmosphere of 1890’s Malaya, specifically Malacca, which is the this-world setting of the novel?
My uncle used to live in Malacca, and we’d go and visit him when I was a child. It’s a port city with a fascinating past, especially since it changed hands so often. There are old houses and lots of ghost stories associated with it, which together with the ruins of the fort and the open grave where St. Francis Xavier was temporarily buried, gave me all sorts of lurid ideas when I was younger. In addition, my dad liked to collect old books, and growing up our house was filled with history books and accounts of British travelers in SE Asia. When we’d run out of things to read on rainy days and were feeling absolutely desperate, we kids would start on the history books. In retrospect, that was very helpful in establishing the time and setting! Later, when I was writing the book I also went to the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, which was having a fantastic exhibition on old batik sarong. Harvard’s Widener and Yen Ching libraries were also troves of information.
What are you working on next?
I think the challenge of writing a book for the first time is that one is so tempted to put everything and the kitchen sink into it. In fact, the current novel that I’m working on is also derived from a subplot of my ill-fated elephant detective novel (it’s rather horrifying how many things I tried to squeeze into it!) but I’m grateful because it’s subject matter that I’m interested in. I wonder whether you’ve ever felt like that yourself: if in some ways we’re all writing one enormously long, complicated book, even if it jumps through time and settings? I get that feeling, for example, from authors like Haruki Murakami and Isak Dinesen.
In any case, my new book is another strange tale of colonial Malaya, this time set in 1931, but still full of ghosts and murders and bizarre superstitions. I’ve always wanted to write a murder mystery, so that’s part of it, though I’ve learned my lesson and there are no pachyderm detectives in it. Ahem!
And anything else you’d like to add!
Thank you so much for having me – it’s been a pleasure and an honour! 🙂
Yangsze’s website is here.
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