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Elsa Hart Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Elsa Hart
Photo: Jason Gray

Elsa Hart

An interview with Elsa Hart

Author Elsa Hart describes her international experiences and explains what drew her to 18th century China, the setting of her first novel Jade Dragon Mountain.

How old were you when your international experiences began?

I was born in Rome, Italy when my father was a foreign correspondent for U.S. News and World Report Magazine. When I was two, we moved to Moscow (at that point, the Soviet Union). These years of my life were characterized by fairy tales, my mother telling me the stories of ballets that we saw at the Bolshoi theater, and snow castles. In 1991 we moved to Arlington, Virginia, where we lived until my father began work at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, Czech Republic. I attended the International School of Prague. I moved back to the US in order to attend Swarthmore College. I lived in the Pacific Northwest and St. Louis before visiting China for the first time in the summer of 2010.

What brought you to China, and what were your initial impressions of the country?

My husband conducts research on the impacts of climate change on flowers of the high Himalayas. After I graduated from law school in 2011 we moved to Lijiang, the city that has grown up around the old town of Dayan, where we lived until October 2013. We split our time between a small apartment in the city and a field station on Jade Dragon Mountain.

I was living in a rural city in China, having taken just one Chinese class in my life. Every time I spoke in Chinese, I'd see the look of incomprehension in the person I was talking to, whether it was someone selling me vegetables or asking me where I was from or checking my ticket on the train. I wanted so much to communicate, and I had so much in my head. Especially hard were the times when I wanted to convey gratitude at a deep, warm level to someone – mainly the field station staff members – who had given us great comfort and help and hospitality in spite of our cultural and social awkwardness. But I could only say 'thank you' over and over.

Writing the book was a way to push myself as hard as I could to express what I wanted to express, to fight for the correct words, to hold an entire story and set of characters in my head. It was a way to communicate and connect with an imaginary audience when I could not converse with my neighbors in the way I wanted to. Writing the book was reassuring, liberating, emotional, and yes, sometimes agonizing.

What inspired you to write Jade Dragon Mountain

It began with the Astronomical Observatory in Beijing, built hundreds of years ago, now a lone tower in a knot of elevated highways. On the flat roof, iron dragons hold the instruments in silhouette against the Beijing smog. European Jesuits designed these tools for the Emperor of China.

With these silhouettes and this history in mind, I traveled southwest to Lijiang. From my window I could see Jade Dragon Mountain, a symbol of permanence rising over a city that celebrates its past even as construction crews replace the old family courtyards with luxury hotels.

Everything came together on the mountain. Helping my husband with his botanical fieldwork, I spent days at a time up in the alpine meadows and limestone crags. In the silences, the mist would creep through the valleys. The silhouettes of the oak trees, the last of the ancient forest, reminded me of the astronomical instruments in Beijing. The jingle of a bell as a yak grazed, invisible in the mist, made me wonder if the trade caravans of the old tea horse road were there, close to me, unaware of and undisturbed by my reality. It was a haunted place, full of ghosts. That was when I knew I wanted to write a mystery.

What was it about the time period—the early 18th century—that intrigued you?

The book is set in 1708, and I chose my historical period with care. It is a strange, liminal time between ancient and modern China. The fledgling Qing Dynasty was asserting its control over China's borderlands. At the same time, China and the West were encountering each other in an atmosphere of mutual curiosity, misunderstanding, and ambition. There is a distant rumble of what is to come in later years – Opium Wars and Cultural Revolutions and Economic Superpowers. I was inspired by history, and by contemporary reality, but in the end, the world I tried to evoke is one outside of time, a world at once familiar and strange, populated by travelers, storytellers, scholars and exiles, and presided over by Jade Dragon Mountain.

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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Books by this Author

Books by Elsa Hart at BookBrowse
The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne jacket City of Ink jacket The White Mirror jacket Jade Dragon Mountain jacket
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Read-Alikes

All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Elsa Hart but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Author Image Not Available

    Jean-Luc Bannalec

    Jean-Luc Bannalec is a pseudonym. The author divides his time between Germany and coastal Brittany, France. Death in Brittany, the first case for Commissaire Dupin, was published in German in March 2012 and sold 600,000 ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Jade Dragon Mountain

    Try:
    Death in Brittany
    by Jean-Luc Bannalec

  • Martin Davies

    Martin Davies

    Martin Davies is the author of mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes's housekeeper: Mrs. Hudson and the Spirits' Curse (2004), Mrs. Hudson and the Malabar Rose (2005), and The Conjurer's Bird (2006). His most recent work ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Jade Dragon Mountain

    Try:
    The Conjurer's Bird
    by Martin Davies

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