Janie Chang, author of Three Souls and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.
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IFOA: Three Souls is your first novel. Which part of the writing process proved most challenging for you?
Janie Chang: Sustaining interest. I worried about pacing and story arc and how to keep the story interesting. When you’re working on a book-length narrative, you need to sustain interest, especially when you get to the middle. I had nightmares about a meandering, pointless story arc.
When I discussed this concern with my mentor, Shaena Lambert, she pointed out that I had already set up the story in three parts and suggested thinking in terms of a story arc for each of the three parts instead of hanging everything on one, big arc. This must be so obvious to experienced novelists, but I felt as though a hundred light bulbs had switched on over my head!
Dividing up the story arc actually made handling pace somewhat easier, but keeping things dynamic—what an exercise in vigilance. I scrutinized every chapter, every day, to see whether the story was flowing or had run aground. And thanked the writing class where I learned how scene, narrative and exposition control pace.
Inspiration and a good plot get you pretty far, but without applying craft and structure, you won’t express it well or in a way that enhances the story.
IFOA: The novel is based on your grandmother’s life. How does your family feel about the way you’ve told her story?
Chang: You know how at readings you start off with a little intro speech? For some reason I always feel obliged to explain that although the novel is inspired by my grandmother, in real life she did not have a steaming hot affair with a Communist poet. So I guess for the sake of her posthumous reputation, I’m the family member who feels a bit apologetic for that bit of fiction.
As for the rest of the family, since my paternal grandmother died from tuberculosis when she was only 42, none of us from this generation ever knew her. And everyone understands it’s just fiction. It helps that I’ve already written down all the family stories my father told me, so the family knows that whatever is in Three Souls, there is documentation that helps draw the the line between fact and fiction. I think they’re more interested in how I’ve portrayed life in our ancestral town during the years of the Chinese civil war.
At the same time, I”ll admit I’m not brave enough to write a novel based on living members of my family. I’ve seen friends wrestle with memoir, and it can get quite fraught, sometimes even confrontational. When does documenting the truth cross over into betrayal?
IFOA: Tell us a bit about the research you did for this book.
Chang: Historical events were easy to look up: dates of conflicts and incidents. What was more difficult was learning about relationships from that era—family, servants, business, romance. The most useful resources were memoirs by Chinese women that covered that time. I also read Chinese novels (translated) written during those years. The decades before the Second World War were times of transition, both social and political.
I knew what relationships had been like in my own family, but what if we had been an anomaly? You want your characters’ options and behaviours to be consistent with their environment—or in this case, to rebel plausibly against their environment.
But truth is stranger than fiction. A friend of the family, who is Chinese and who majored in Chinese literature, read the manuscript and pointed out a few places where she felt characters behaved implausibly—in particular the meeting where the fathers arranged their children’s marriage. But that incident was absolutely based on a real event! And because it was so unusual, it made its way into family legend.
IFOA: Which author are you most excited to see at this year’s Festival?
Chang: You want me to come up with just one? I’ll need a pack mule to carry around all the books I want autographed. Fortunately for the pack mule, I’ll have met some of those authors already at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival the week before. I love SF/Fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay.
IFOA: What are you working on now?
Chang: Novel #2 is at the research and synopsis stage.
Janie Chang has a degree in computer science from Simon Fraser University and recently attended SFU’s Writer’s Studio. Three Souls is her first novel. She will be discussing how she makes the past relevant in contemporary fiction with authors Dennis Bock, Paul Harding and Jim Lynch on November 3.