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Night in Shanghai
The forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese jazz age, and a...
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Ask The Author

Created: 11/25/14

Replies: 7

Posted Nov. 25, 2014 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
BookBrowse

Join Date: 11/16/10

Posts: 49

Ask the Author

During early January 2015, participants in this discussion posted questions for the author. Below are their questions and her answers. But first, an opening message from Nicole Mones:


What a terrific group! I have really enjoyed reading your thoughtful, insightful comments, so many of which not only carried the issues into your own lives, but gave me new things to think about, too. Not to mention how much fun it was getting to know all of you a little, through the discussion....

Lorik, I travel with my pillow, too--whether all over China, or just out of town for the weekend. And I loved Suzie's response to the "inch of time" adage, that we spend our health chasing wealth, then spend our wealth chasing health. Exactly right.

Huge and heartfelt thanks to all of you for reading, and for participating so fully.

-- Nicole Mones


Posted Jan. 12, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
Alta

Join Date: 01/12/15

Posts: 4

It seems to me that not only has Nicole Mones done serious research in order to write this novel, but that she knows Chinese. Is this true?

Q. It seems to me that not only has Nicole Mones done a very serious research in order to write this novel, but that she actually knows Chinese, and I am curious to know if this is true. Many historical novelists use words from the language of the culture they are writing about as some kind of an exotic spice, but unlike them, N. Mones seems to have a deep knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

A. You are right; though far from fluent, I have been conversationally comfortable in Chinese for a long time. That's because I started doing business in textiles in China back in 1977, an era when very little English was spoken in the country. Despite spending a lot of time there since the 70s, and even though I had a commercial visa which gave me a surprising amount of freedom, I was totally unable to move around, see things, and communicate with people at first--because I couldn't talk! After five years of frustration, I finally went back to school at night while at home in the U.S. It took time--I was in my late thirties before I could dream in Chinese--but it was worth it. I am almost completely illiterate, and abstract conversations still lose me, but Mandarin made all the difference in understanding China. For me, language was a lens, bringing the civilization behind it into focus. Language mediates all society's thoughts and feelings and memories--it governs everything.

During the 18 years I ran my little textile business (for which I traveled back and forth regularly), I was a fly on the wall, watching China modernize, close up--and arriving as I did in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, I saw a lot! But it was the language that gradually made it possible for me to understand what was in front of me.

With a continuous history of almost 5,000 years, the Chinese language absolutely sparkles with metaphors and references and sayings that somehow gather in this long river of culture--making it an invaluable tool for someone like me, not just to nail cultural nuances, but to deliver fantastically picturesque curses and insults as well. What fun that was! I really enjoyed deploying the Chinese language in this book, especially choosing fixed expressions, many of which have their own legends and stories attached.

By the way, Night in Shanghai is being translated into Mandarin right now, for publication in China.


Posted Jan. 18, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
kimk

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 279

Expert

What led you to write about this particular time period and culture?

Q. What led you to write about this particular time period & culture? Had you known about WWII China for a long time, or did you discover things like the role of black musicians, how China tried to help the Jews escape Germany, etc. relatively recently?


A. Though I signed my first commercial contract with a Shanghai textile mill in 1977, and in the 38 years since have been in that city so many times, still I never thought of writing a novel about that city until I stumbled across the forgotten history of black American musicians who were recruited to Shanghai in the 1930s, from the west coast of the United States. As soon as I started reading about their experiences, first as the kings of nightlife, later struggling to survive as war broke out, I felt it was a great, untold story that I simply had to write.

At the time I began, I was already aware that 25,000 Jewish refugees had managed to survive the war in Shanghai, but that was all I knew. A little research led me to the story of Ho Feng-Shan, who is Wikipedia-able in English, but it was my amazing trilingual researcher who uncovered documents verifying the 1939 Jewish Resettlement Plan in a Chinese military history database. My mind was blown by this--so was his!

This grand, failed plan to save 100,000 more from the Holocaust had been almost completely forgotten by the English-speaking world. Of course, I could not let it be put away in a drawer again. I had to rewrite the novel to include it.


Posted Jan. 18, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
kimk

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 279

Expert

Do you have a musical background? It seems like you captured the process perfectly.

Q. Do you have a musical background? It seems like you captured the process perfectly. As a musician who, like Thomas, needed to stick to a written score, I appreciate your understanding and portrayal of how difficult improvisation can be for someone with classical training.


A. I was so lucky to have a strong classical music education. I studied piano in the preparatory program at Peabody in Baltimore--the same conservatory that allows Thomas to sit in the back row of classes in theory and notation. I took the same classes, but unlike Thomas, I completely lacked the talent to become a musician, and stopped studying at 18. I still read classical and baroque (ineptly) for pleasure.. never could improvise... still can't... but you know what? Everything I know about writing, I take from music.

I did not study literature or writing. My degree was in history. My only artistic training was in music. When I need ideas on how a novel might unfold, I sit down and sight-read a sonata, How wacky is that?


Posted Jan. 20, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
AntoinetteC

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 20

Tell us about how you researched the novel.

Q. Tell us about how you researched the novel. Did you travel to China? Had you been to China before starting the book? Thank you!


A. I love research, it is one of my all-time favorite things to do... plus I love reading about, thinking about, and spending time in China. So naturally I put tons of research into my four novels set in China. Before writing The Last Chinese Chef, for example, I contributed many features on Chinese cuisine to Gourmet Magazine, which gave me a strong knowledge base. But never before have I researched a book as thoroughly as Night in Shanghai! I spent almost two years researching it in English (many of those who were there left behind letters and memoirs), while my researcher was combing sources in Chinese and even in Japanese.

I have been to China countless times since my first textile-buying trip in 1977, at age 25, and many of those visits have been to Shanghai. Of special help to me with this novel was the fact that the Shanghai I first got to know more than 35 years ago was very little changed, physically, from the Shanghai of the 1930s and 40s. Many of the locations in this book, while no longer standing in 2015, were still intact when I arrived. The Canidrome, for example, served as the city's flower market in the 1990s, and I explored it avidly. It has since been torn down. Shanghai's cityscape today is like a fantasy, with an architectural style that appears to come straight out of the Jetsons---but the cityscape I saw when I first arrived, and which I came to know, was the same one Thomas Greene saw, in his time.

By the way, my website (http://nicolemones.com) has many historical images documenting the lives of the African-American musicians in Shanghai, the outbreak of war, and China's efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. Also, a 3-minute video trailer, made by a Chinese film director. Please check it out.


Posted Jan. 20, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
AntoinetteC

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 20

I'm interested in the process of writing a book. How do you go about it?

Q. I'm interested in the process of writing a book. How do you go about it? Do you set aside time each day to write or do you write as the spirit moves you? Also, do you start with compelling characters in mind first, or with the time & place you want to portray and then fit the characters into the setting?


A. I think first you need to have that drive, that determination, that compelling urge to do it, because it is a long and difficult process. For me, inspiration and commitment were the critical first steps. After that, I treated it like a job, even when I was writing my first novel, and had no reasonable expectation of getting it published. I had committed to it, and so my husband and I agreed it would be a task I did almost every day, like a job. Since I had to do other things at the same time, like change diapers, and sell Chinese textiles, it's not like I did it eight hours a day, or even every day. But I kept at it.

Honestly, though it is counter-intuitive, I think motherhood helped. When the children entered school, I learned I had to focus during those five or six hours available to me on school days--I could not fool around. Throughout those years, my writing work day was the school day. Recently, our nest has become empty, and I am free any time I choose, around the clock.., but guess what? I am not writing any faster.

As to what inspiration sparks a novel, I think it can be any number of things. Sometimes I start with a really affecting character I want to portray (Lost in Translation). Sometimes I feel driven to write a novel because I have knowledge of something amazing that I think people will enjoy knowing about, such as Chinese haute cuisine (The Last Chinese Chef). And sometimes I stumble on a true story that has somehow been overlooked, and really deserves to be told---as in Night in Shanghai. Whatever your inspiration is, if it captures your heart, and sinks a hook into your brain that will not let go, it can carry you through the process. Good luck!


Posted Jan. 21, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
sherria

Join Date: 04/16/13

Posts: 15

Did you feels, at times, that you were wrestling the story away from Song and Lin Ming?

Q. Did you feels, at times, that you were wrestling the story away from Song and Lin Ming? They were both such strong characters with singularly interesting storylines, it must have been hard at times to steer the novel back Thomas's way.


A. You're right, it was hard sometimes to go from one point of view to another, hard in an emotional way, almost as if I had to leave a friend behind for a time. But for me, this is a good problem to have. I feel I can create a richer novel by telling the story through more than one voice, and when these voices start carrying the story forward on their own, and making their own goals and dreams part of it, that’s when it comes alive. But it was also a challenge for me to keep Lin and Song in balance with Thomas because, after working in China through my adult life, I know the Chinese world behind Lin and Song much better than I know the world Thomas came from—even though, like him, I am from Baltimore. I found my way into Thomas’s character through music.


Posted Jan. 22, 2015 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
juliaa

Join Date: 12/03/11

Posts: 160

Expert

What led you to end the story the way you did? Are you perhaps contemplating a sequel?

Q. What led you to end the story the way you did? Are you perhaps contemplating a sequel?


A. I ended Night in Shanghai the way I did because that is the way it would have happened. Expected or not, it was inevitable. Its roots were there from the beginning, in who Thomas and Song were, and in every choice they made as the novel unfolded.

But is it permanent? While I might not write a sequel per se, I might bring Thomas and Song back, years or even decades later, as a subplot in a separate novel, for another chapter in their story. As you can see by reading Night in Shanghai, I love to mingle true historical events with fiction—and in the same way, I love the idea of using continuing characters to connect one novel with another. It's another way of blurring the lines.


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