An interview with Bo Caldwell
This page includes two interviews with Bo Caldwell and a letter she wrote on her experience writing City of Tranquil Light. In the video Q&A below, she explains how being diagnosed with stage one breast cancer affected her approach to completing City of Tranquil Light, and in the written interview she answers questions about the inspiration for her novel - her grandparents' lives as missionaries in China.
A Video Q&A with Bo Caldwell
In Conversation with Bo Caldwell, Author of City of Tranquil Light
It's been nearly ten years since your first novel, The Distant Land of My Father, was published. What took you so long?
That's a question I've asked myself. Part of the answer is that life intervened. I started the novel in 2002 and wrote perhaps eighty pages, and although I didn't like them much, I've come to accept that mediocre first drafts are often part of my process. In 2004 I was diagnosed with stage-one breast cancer (I'm now healthy and cancer-free), so that fall and the first half of 2005 were given to chemo and radiation. It took another year for my head to clear enough to write fiction, and I returned to the novel in 2006 and finished it two years later. The other part of the answer is easy: I'm a slow writer, something I've made peace with.
City of Tranquil Light is based on the lives of your grandparents, who were missionaries in China and Taiwan. Where did you draw the line between their experiences and the fictional characters of Will and Katherine?
The biggest difference is that unlike my characters, my grandparents had five children. I chose not to deal with fictional children because they would complicate what felt like an already complex story. Also, my grandparents lived in five different cities in China and worked in Taiwan after the Communist takeover of China. I had my characters settle in one place so that I wouldn't have to keep rebuilding cities, and I chose to have my characters stay in the United States once they returned because I wanted to focus on what leaving China meant for them, on aging and on their marriage. Finally, while my grandparents' lives were certainly the primary inspiration for the book, I was also inspired by the lives of other missionaries, and I incorporated parts of their stories as well as my grandparents'. The line between what really happened to any of these people and what I made up or exaggerated is already blurry and, in my experience, will become more so as time passes.
China has played a large role in both of your novels. What does the country mean to you?
China represents a connection to my childhood and to my family. It's where my grandparents lived most of their lives, and where my mom and her siblings grew up. Family dinners with my grandparents were always Chinese food, and I used to help my mom make chiaotza
- steamed dumplings - when I was little. All my aunts and uncles knew how to make them. Everyone in my mom's family had at least a couple of pieces of Chinese furniture in their homes, and my grandparents had many Chinese items. So in a weird way, there's also a connection for me between China and home, although I've never been there.
In the book, you create a richly detailed vision of China in the early twentieth century. Can you tell us about your historical research into this period of Chinese history?
I'm not a fast researcher but I'm thorough, and I learn much more than what appears in the novel. I started with historical books about China, mostly from the library and used-book stores, then read biographies and autobiographies of missionaries who'd served in China, many of whom my grandparents had known. These books presented history through a narrower lens; I saw how historical events had affected specific individuals and places, which made those events more real and immediate.
How did you decide to tell the story from two different points in time?
Trial and error. The first draft was entirely in Will's voice, and early readers said the story needed more of Katherine, for which I am very grateful. Someone also mentioned the word journal. At first I thought her journal might appear all in one section, but once I started writing it, I began interspersing it and enjoyed the dialogue that began to take shape. And I learned that rather than echoing or contradicting what Will said, Katherine could enlarge upon it and expand it, which appealed to me.
Will's and Katherine's faith brings them together and gives their lives both challenges and purpose. Did writing about their love and faith have any impact on your own marriage and/or faith?
Writing about Katherine's decline made me value the present with my husband. We're both healthy and (relatively) young, and I hope we have lots of years ahead of us. But writing about Will watching Katherine's decline caused me to be more grateful for what we have now. And yes, the novel affected my faith strongly. When I started it in 2002, I tried to imagine my grandfather's faith and to portray it accurately, but when I returned to the novel in 2006, after chemo and radiation, I no longer wanted that distance. I came to believe that although it was riskier to write about my own faith and what was in my heart - instead of hiding behind my grandfather - it was also more worthwhile.
City of Tranquil Light tells the story of two extraordinary lives, filled with hardship and joy. What did you learn in writing about those lives?
I learned about the cost of marriage, which I first saw with my parents. My mom and dad were married for fifty-six years, and when my dad passed away in 2000, I watched my mom lose him then begin her life without him. She was very brave, and although the way in which she did that was remarkable, it still broke my heart. When I read biographies of missionaries, I saw one spouse or the other go through the same thing: this devastating separation after decades of companionship. But I also saw them survive it, as has my mom, and go on to live good lives. If you marry and are fortunate enough to grow old together, one of you will lose the other. But people survive that, and they even thrive, despite that great loss. That inspires and encourages me.
Do you think you could endure the hardships your grandparents endured?
My gut response is no - I love the comforts of home - but we endure what we have to endure, don't we? I'm also not sure I could have stayed as long as they did and remained so faithful to a calling. But I don't think my grandparents knew they could do those things, and although I haven't endured anything like they did, I've surprised myself by the ways I've gotten through some challenges in my life, and that's something that excites me: we don't know how we'll be in a crisis. We often respond in ways we never dreamed we would, or could, a fact that gives me hope.
On Writing City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell
When I began writing City of Tranquil Light
, I was jumping ship. I had been working on a novel I knew nothing about save that it was set in London in 1953 and that it told the story of an American couple who move there after losing a child. The choice of a specific time and place was the result of my first novel, which was my first try at historical fiction. I had found I loved writing with the parameters of a historical setting, and I wanted to do it again. Never mind the fact that I didn't know what the story was.
Not surprisingly, I couldn't get anywhere with the London novel. I wrote a paragraph here and there, a few sentences I thought might work in ten pages, or twenty or thirty - somewhere down the line. It was like building a house without a blueprint. On a Friday in the spring of 2002, I decided that if I could get five pages together - if I could, from all those paragraphs, come up with five pages in a row - I would be encouraged and perhaps be able to get to work in earnest. Although I sat down at the computer that morning willing and determined and patient, I stared at the screen and at my sad little paragraphs and had no idea whatsoever how to move forward. I'd hit a wall.
But around three o'clock in the afternoon, my plan changed. Something inside of me said, Go back to China
. I knew exactly what that meant: my first novel, The Distant Land of My Father
, was based on the life of an uncle of mine, and much of the story took place in Shanghai. I went downstairs and found the memoir my grandfather had written for his children and grandchildren late in his life, the story of the work he and my grandmother had done during their many years as missionaries in China and Taiwan. I read those pages in a way I hadn't before; I saw my grandparents' commitment to their work and the struggles they faced, and I saw the passion they had felt about their faith and the people they came to know and love in northern China. I glimpsed their marriage, which was one of deep affection between two complementary opposites, and I saw my grandfather's tenderness and love for my grandmother. I also saw scenes and the possibility of a novel, and I abandoned the London novel without a second thought.
A novel based on my grandparents wasn't my idea; for much of my writing life, my mother had commented that the story of her parents' lives would make a wonderful book. I'm embarrassed to say that until that spring afternoon I had dismissed my grandparents' lives as too dull and simplistic for fiction. But as I reread my grandfather's memoir and began to ask my mom about my grandparents, I learned how wrong I'd been; I saw conflict and danger and heartbreak in their lives, as well as joy and fulfillment. I began to see my grandparents as my mother had seen them, and as I read the biographies and autobiographies of other American missionaries in China, I found similar stories. I saw a pattern emerge in the later lives of many of these men and women. Most eventually returned to the United States, usually to be near their children (now grown) and grandchildren, but also because of illness or frailty. I was moved by the contrast between their lives in China and their later lives in the United States: after enduring decades of war, famine, illness, personal danger, and great hostility toward their work, these people settled safely in the suburbs, where they walked in rose gardens and played with their grandchildren and lived out their days. I was struck by the sacrifice that must have been involved in leaving the people and work that had been at the center of their lives, even with the reward of the comforts of modern life. I also began to feel that missionaries often get a bad rap in fiction. While there were certainly those who exploited the people they had come to serve, there were also many who poured out their lives for strangers and for their faith. And I wanted to tell their story.
That story was one of marriage, of leaving one home and finding another, and it was one of faith. When I began the novel in 2002, I tried to understand my grandfather's faith and to present it accurately; I tried to see the world through his eyes. Then life intervened. In 2004 I quit drinking, and three months later I was diagnosed with stage-one breast cancer. I found myself unable to write fiction for a couple of years; when I tried, shortly after chemo and radiation, to look at the novel, it was like looking at someone else's work. I couldn't find my way into the story or my characters' heads. So I waited, and when, in the fall of 2006, I returned to the novel, I was a different person. The combination of sobriety and a serious illness had affected my faith deeply, and I was no longer writing about my grandparents' faith. I was writing about my own.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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