Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Next Big Thing

A couple weeks ago, my friend May-Lan Tan , a wonderful writer, asked me if I wanted to participate in a project called the Next Big Thing.  May-Lan's also a very talented artist, so my interview page is going to look pitiful by comparison.  Here goes.

What is the working title of the book?

The Fortress of Light is a novel whose plot explores the power of the movies as a storytelling device. The story alternates between a current day digital special effects studio and Mongol China, though it’s a Mongol China that already has the movie projector.

 Early movie film stock was celluloid which was flexible but also perishable, because it was highly flammable.  In order to show movies safely in a crowded public space, they had to develop projection booths with fireproof, usually concrete, walls. In the novel, the title refers to both the projection booth and the human imagination.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

About three years ago my wife and I went to a Silk Road exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.  Being Chinese-American and old enough to remember a time when multi-culturalism wasn’t a word used by ordinary people, I was fascinated to see how much mixing of cultures took place under Kublai Khan centuries before public service announcements. It’s no accident that Marco Polo might be  the most famous individual from the 13th century.  I not only share a name with him (more or less), I made him a character in my book.

Into which genre does your book fall?
I call it ‘Silk Road Punk’. Steam Punk is a science fiction/alternate history genre where modern devices are re-imagined as creations of the Victorian era, so flying machines might be powered by steam engines and computers might be mechanical instead of electronic.The Chinese already
knew about the camera obscura and the zoetrope. The Persians had Greek fire.
It also has bits of romance, ghost story, and what they used to call the ‘novel of ideas’.  There’s a lot of stuff in it about the nature of storytelling that threatens to push the book towards the “L” word, though not the L from the TV series.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
 It’s a ghost story in part, so I guess it’s fair to use actors who are dead. I’d love to have Sessue Hayakawa, who played Hollywood romantic leads in the silent era and Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress who couldn’t get the lead in the Good Earth over a Caucasian actress.  I’d also want John Cho (Harold and Kumar), Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern), and Julianne Hough (Dancing with the Stars).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Two teenagers make romantic comedy movies in Mongol China.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The main character is a ghost with an eight-hundred-year-old case of writer’s block.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My father loved to read.  I’d give him books for birthdays and Christmas. We’d both read them and talk about them. He died when I was twenty-two.  I’ve often thought about how stories and storytelling connect us to people who are no longer with us.    

Six writers  I'm tagging
Wendy Fleet
Myra Sherman
Sarah Amador
Patrick Fanning
Shirley Kwan
L. McKenna Donovan

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The Haircut Lady

 For the last eleven years, I've gotten my hair cut by the same woman. My wife, who's not Asian, was convinced that most people who work in those ten dollar haircut places have no idea how to cut Asian hair. My guess is that it might have more to do with their working in ten dollar haircut shops. We happened upon this one woman who happens to be a Cambodian immigrant and my wife decreed that I should always go to her to get my hair cut.

I've since followed her to three different salons. Somewhere around year eight after talking about Asian restaurants, vacations, learning that she never learned to swim because she almost drowned in the river as a child when her family was trying to leave Cambodia,her family's real estate misadventure (they bought 6 rental houses at exactly the wrong time, for about a year I kept wondering why a woman who owned 7 houses was cutting my hair). I eventually learned that she sings in Cambodian and performs for weddings, birthday parties, and other gatherings. Most recently someone she didn't really know asked her to sing at her daughter's sixteenth birthday party. 

First I was surprised thata sixteen year old living in Santa Clara county would want Cambodian singers at her birthday party. When I was that age, the last thing I wanted was any hints of being that different. Times change and people get smarter I think. I then asked the inevitable American question. "Are they paying you to sing?"  link to Khmer singer not my haircut lady

She looked at me, "No, I coldn't charge for singing. I do it because it's fun."

"I'm sure they'd be happy to pay a little bit." She was driving across a couple counties, spending hours at strangers' parties, etc. Surely these people were taking advantage of her.

"They probably would, but I couldn't do that."

But why? I thought. Obviously after going through 6 foreclusures, having to sell your hair salon, etc., she could clearly use a little extra cash. 

"I just couldn't charge people. It would change things."

Here I was getting my hair cut by a female-Cambodian vesion of Searchiing for Sugarman

Somewhere between the time she was aksing me for the 200th time if I wanted gel in my hair (yikes!) and my saying "No, not this time." It struck me that she's maybe saner about what she does than I am about what I do (the writing thing). 

She sings because she loves to sing. She only sings in Cambodian. She loves knowing that people appreciate her singing and ask her to share it. She simply doesn't want to equate it with money. I'ts not about that and it's not for that. It's sane, admirable, quite beautiful in a way that I can't quite grasp because I'm maybe too American except for my hair. 

I've asked her if she had a CD, Mp3, or something, but maybe it's almost better that I have no idea what her singing sounds like. 

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