Susan Barker Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Susan Barker
Photo: Derek Anson

Susan Barker

An interview with Susan Barker

A conversation with Susan Barker about The Incarnations.

How did you approach writing a novel that contains so many other intricately weaved stories within itself?

Compared to the writing of my previous novels, my approach to writing The Incarnations was haphazard, disorganized, and lengthy. I moved to Beijing in the summer of 2007 in order to research a new book. I wanted to write about modern China and the impact of the rapid social and political change on ordinary Beijingers. I also wanted to interweave several historical stories into the novel, as China's history is so fascinating and rich with narrative possibility. I would like to say I approached the research and writing of The Incarnations in an orderly and systematic manner, but the truth is that I pretty much began researching all of the narratives at once, with only a hazy idea of how they would be structured into a novel.

For years I kept many notebooks full of jottings I made while walking round Beijing, or while reading about life during the Tang Dynasty, the Cultural Revolution, and the other eras in the novel. The contents of these notebooks slowly evolved into Driver Wang's story and the five historical tales. I wrote about five or six drafts of The Incarnations and the process was disorderly—I returned to different sections at random and in nonchronological order, figuring out how they fitted together along the way.

The stories from the incarnations throughout history are extremely vivid and distinct from each other. Did you find it difficult to switch from period to period? Did you change anything about your writing process to accommodate this narrative flow?

Once I had done the preliminary research it was fairly easy to switch between the historical eras—in fact it was quite invigorating and fun to be writing about seventh-century Tang Dynasty Chang'an one week, and then switch to the nineteenth century and the Opium War the next. Almost like time-traveling (albeit very slowly and limited by variables such as work ethic, imagination, and typing speed).

Not only does the novel jump through history, it also moves backwards into Wang's life. Why did you decide to frame the story in this way?

We are the sum of our experiences; our present selves are shaped by the events that occurred in our past. I wanted to tell the story of Wang's childhood, his detainment in the mental institution, and ill-fated relationship with Zeng Yan, in order to offer the reader more insight into Wang's behavior in the present day. Wang Jun is a very passive character, but this doesn't mean he is not multifaceted and complex. I wanted to show the reader the formative experiences that made Wang Jun who he is.

Describe your research methods for the novel. China has such a rich and long history from which to draw: how did you narrow down which time periods to include for the incarnations?

I researched the contemporary sections of the novel by exploring Beijing by bus, taxi, and foot, and making notes about what I saw. I spent about five years living in China (on and off) between 2007 and 2014, and this observational method of research was ongoing throughout that time. I also read as many books on modern Chinese society, politics, and culture as I could get my hands on.

Though I knew I wanted to weave historical stories into the novel, I initially wasn't sure which eras to write about, so I read books that gave an overview of the last two millennia of Chinese history from the Qin Dynasty to Chairman Mao. When I encountered a historical incident or figure that I found fascinating, for example Genghis Khan and the Mongol Invasions, or Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty, I would deepen my research into that individual or era. I found that as I read and made notes, ideas for plots and characters would emerge from my research. Sometimes straight away, sometimes over several weeks or months.

Do you have a favorite of the incarnations? If so, which one and why?

My favorite incarnation is Concubine Swallow in the "Sixteen Concubines" story, which is based on an actual historical event. Emperor Jiajing was the eleventh emperor of the Ming dynasty and was alleged to have been a sexual sadist who tortured his concubines. One night in October 1542, sixteen of the concubines crept into his bedchamber in the Forbidden City and attempted to strangle him with a silken cord. However, the assassination plot was thwarted and the concubines were executed.

I wanted to fictionalize and write about this regicidal plot from the concubines' perspective because I admired how they fought back against the emperor, and were willing to sacrifice their lives to do so. I also enjoyed writing in the voice of Concubine Swallow—she is so scathing, darkly humorous, and self-loathing.

The novel centers on the idea of reincarnation, but the characters do not directly grapple with whether or not they believe in it. How did writing this novel affect your thoughts about reincarnation? Did you learn anything new about reincarnation from your research or through writing the novel?

At the risk of demystifying the novel, the use of reincarnation was initially a narrative device; a way of structuring and bringing together all of my separate research interests in China past and present. However over the years, as I wrote draft after draft of The Incarnations, the reincarnation aspect gained substance and became the essence of the book.

As well as structuring the novel, the idea of reincarnation and recurring souls also links to one of the themes of the book, which is the cyclical nature of history. The taxi driver Wang Jun keeps repeating the same destructive mistakes in each of his past lives, due to the innate flaws in his nature (wrath, self-interest, possessiveness, jealousy) that recur life after life. I also hoped to capture how the history of civilization is repetitive too, with the same vastly destructive power struggles playing out across the generations, arising from the same innate human flaws.

I am not sure whether or not I believe in reincarnation. Perhaps I do in my more irrational moments, but it's a vast leap of faith to believe you've had past lives. My sister once met a medium when we were teenagers, who said that she (my sister) and I have been linked together for several past lives, but obviously I am skeptical.

With so much history embedded in the story, readers cannot help but become intrigued by China's past. Were you aiming to incite readers' interest in Chinese history and culture? Is there anything in particular you hope for people to take away from reading this novel?

I wasn't aiming to incite readers' interest in China's past, but if The Incarnations encourages some readers to want to learn more about Chinese history, then that's fantastic. I hope that the historical sections of The Incarnations offer the reader a glimpse of each era (though my fiction often deviates from historical truth into more surreal and fantastical terrain). I mostly hope that readers are moved and engaged by The Incarnations, that the book entertains.

Are there any writers that stand out as influences for you?

When it comes to contemporary writers I really like Nicole Krauss, W. G. Sebald, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz, Lydia Davis, Jenny Offill, David Mitchell, Peter Hessler, Sarah Hall, Zadie Smith. I can't say how much they influence me, but reading amazing fiction always inspires me to write.

The end of novel brings Echo into the cycle of incarnations; have you thought about writing a sequel to The Incarnations?

I have no plans to write a sequel to The Incarnations, but I am half-tempted to write the Watcher's "Sorceress Wu" story (which is the title of the story in the letter Echo opens on the very last page of the novel). I really enjoyed writing the character of the Sorceress Wu (the mother in the Night Coming story)—she was just so vehemently evil! I'd like to tell the story of how the Sorceress Wu lost her husband to bandits and turned to witchcraft. She probably wasn't always evil. I imagine a series of tragic events made her that way.

What did you learn from writing this novel that may help you with future projects?

I spent six years writing The Incarnations and in the process of drafting and re-drafting the book I probably learned myriad technical things about characterization, plotting and structuring multiple narratives, and crafting prose. Other than aspects of craft, researching and writing The Incarnations was a lengthy and challenging undertaking (challenging for me at least) and completing one lengthy project always lends you courage to commence the next one—faith that, no matter how long it takes, it can be done.

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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The Incarnations jacket
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Readalikes

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    Ifa Bayeza

    Ifa Bayeza is an award-winning playwright, producer, and conceptual theater artist. Her works for the stage include Amistad Voices, Club Harlem, Kid Zero, Homer G & the Rhapsodies, and The Ballad of Emmett Till, winner of the... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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