Backstory

A brief account of how the novel came into being (originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review)

Last night I dreamt I had murdered.

The body was packed in the cargo of an ocean liner about to set sail. My escape was certain. Treading water, I watched as a crane hauled packages on board. But then, a single box came loose and fell into the sea. The cardboard melted away and my grisly crime was exposed. The victim’s head and severed limbs floated by. I turned and swam desperately to shore. A woman sought revenge. She chased me. I ran. She laid traps I fell into and escaped by a breath. Then, she was close on my heels. She was about to capture me. Left with no way out, I jumped out of a building.

Midair, I awoke in fright, with just enough time to think “that ending is too easy, you can do better.”

During daylight hours, I’m feeling my way through my first novel. It is like being trapped in an oil spill, dragged by unseen currents to an unknown destination.

I began writing a story in the summer of 2006. New to Shanghai, inspired by my surroundings, I clipped along. By then, I had a travel book under my belt, a few short stories, bushels of articles.

At one of the city’s plentiful Starbucks, I plugged in my computer and bashed away, writing 40-odd pages of a chirpy tale.
Then it occurred to me that two characters in my novel were demanding more prominence than I had planned. Also, they wanted another nationality.

Why? I asked. They stood in a picket line with their arms folded. I resisted. They stood their ground.
I gave in and began a fresh story.

Twenty pages later, they tapped me on the shoulder. They wanted their tale to begin in a different place, far from where I had put them.

It was across mountains, and quite a few decades in time.

I said this was not acceptable.

They said they were not asking.

They got their way.

I began again.

I was given to understand that I was not in charge, that things would go better for me if I listened, ear to the ground for signs of movement. Like  a forest creature, the story demanded seclusion, space and silence to show itself.

Last spring I spent a month in the beatific Hudson River Valley in New York State at a writers’ residency, working on the novel’s first draft. It came in driblets, spurts and gushes. By the end of the summer I had the bulk of the story. But it needed refining. Only, a strange thing happened.

I was unable to look at it. It was like a pile of laundry, or medical insurance claims that I could not bear to tackle.

My mother visited from India. My cousins came from Washington, D.C. A friend from London stayed.

The months ticked by.

I pretended I had not written this novel-that-needed-so-much-attention. I was free. I ignored the novel. In fact, I abandoned it. If anyone asked (and everyone did) I grimaced.

My husband and I went skiing in north China. I got the flu. I recovered. I spoke on my first book at a conference in New Delhi and spent time with my siblings and extended family. I did a book tour in Singapore. When vicious snowstorms hit China over the Lunar New Year, we fled to Thailand.

I felt like an escapee.

Then, in early March, walking along a street west of the Huangpu River, I tumbled off the pavement and twisted my ankle, tearing a ligament and injuring two others. The doctor ordered crutches, no movement. I was resigned to immobility.

I had not even a second’s doubt that the novel had awoken, reached out a leg and tripped me to get my attention. I sighed and pulled out the dusty manuscript along with a red pen.

And realized that I knew what to do.

I solved a few problems, cut 40 pages and tightened the pace.

My ankle finally better, I headed to the mountains outside Shanghai and lived in a bamboo forest in a reconstructed village dwelling. I worked without cell phone and Internet connections. The peasant woman who cleaned my lodge helped me light wood fires in the stove, for it was chilly.

Peering over her shoulder, I decided that writing a novel is like building a fire. There is the same need to breathe on it, blow at it, rearrange sticks and kindling and blow some more. For a long time, there are only embers. With luck, it bursts into flame, takes on a life of its own and maybe warms a few lives.

I sense I am close to being done with the story, but I know better than to hurry it along.

This morning, Shanghai is buzzing. Cars are honking. Petunias on my balcony nod in the breeze. Just now, there was a traffic jam at an intersection in the old French Concession area where I live.

A blue delivery truck knocked an old man off his bicycle. He lay on his back, unmoving, staring up at the sky. Then he got to his feet. He looked dazed and rubbed his knees. His white construction-site helmet had probably saved his life. A crowd gathered.

What would he do next? Was he okay?

What if he was part of an underground Buddhist sect and had mastered the flow of qi through the body?

Could I put him into my next novel?

Which—perhaps because it’s spring—is pushing through from beneath, like a new leaf.