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Interview With an Author: Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Jenny Tinghui Zhang and her debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky
Author Jenny Tinghui Zhang and her debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky. Photo of author by Mary Inhea Kang

Jenny Tinghui Zhang is a Chinese-American writer. She holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming and has received support from Kundiman, Tin House, and VONA/Voices. She was born in Changchun, China and grew up in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. Four Treasures of the Sky is her debut and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Four Treasures of the Sky?

The inspiration came from my father, actually: one evening, he was driving through Idaho for work when he passed by a town called Pierce. He saw a historical marker on the side of the road that detailed an event in 1885 where five Chinese men were hanged by white vigilantes for the alleged murder of a local white store owner. My dad wondered, “What were Chinese doing in Idaho during this time?” He brought the story and the question back to me, and asked if I could write out the answer for him.

Are Daiyu or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Not specific individuals, but perhaps the amalgamation of several individuals. Daiyu’s character, in particular, was inspired by the Chinese girls and women who really were stuffed in buckets of coal or crates of china, and shipped across the ocean to work in the brothels. Madam Lee is very loosely based on Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in San Francisco.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Initially, I planned to write the novel like The Poisonwood Bible, where each character has their own chapters and storylines. There were other big things that changed, particularly around the ending, that I won’t spoil for readers just yet.

How familiar were you with this history of Chinese immigrants in late 19th century United States prior to writing Four Treasures of the Sky? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?

I regret to say that my knowledge of Chinese immigrant history in the United States was paltry—from my Intro to Asian American Studies course (which I didn’t take until my last year of undergrad), I knew about the Chinese Exclusion Act, some of the legislation around immigration and quotas, and Angel Island. What I could not have prepared for upon writing this novel was the sheer number of incidents like the one that happened in Pierce. I highly recommend reading Driven Out by Jean Pfaelzer and The Chinese Must Go by Beth Lew-Williams, two books that were integral to the writing of this book. My research process was layered—layered as in, I did bits of research with each draft. Having never written anything remotely historical before, I was worried that the research of it all would bog down the writing and creation. So, during the generative stages of writing this book, I only allowed myself to do as much research as would permit me to move forward in the scene or the narrative. With each subsequent draft, I would commit to honing in on one aspect—life in Zhifu, brothels in San Francisco, train routes between California and San Francisco, life for Chinese immigrants in Idaho and the West, legislation and rulings, clothes, food, etc. I did this until I felt like my book was ironclad, and I suppose by then, it had amounted to a lot of research—but it didn’t ever feel overwhelming because I tackled it bit by bit, and was making incremental progress on the novel as I did so. I highly recommend Scrivener for anyone writing something with tons of research involved!

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

There isn’t a lot of research or knowledge about what life in the Chinatown brothels in San Francisco was actually like—this is partly due to the fact that there wasn’t much interest or value placed in documenting brothel life for historical purposes. But, what little I did learn about these women’s experiences was surprising and disturbing, and what I wrote in the book was as close to the truth as I could muster: indeed, a girl would go from a ship, to what they called a “barracoon,” to the brothel. From there, her lifespan in the brothel was very short—often less than two years. Then, to the cribs, and afterwards, death. Another factoid I always like to call out is that in the 1870s, the population of Idaho was nearly 30% Chinese. That’s such a big percentage! There’s a myth of the West that doesn’t often include minorities, but the numbers don’t lie: we were there. We existed.

The way that Daiyu is smuggled from China to the US is horrific and almost unbelievable. Were people actually subjected to that? Was that the worst method that you discovered or were there ones that were even worse?

I’m afraid so–you can read all about it in Lucie Cheng Hirata’s research, titled, Free, Indentured, Enslaved: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century America.

Have you ever taken a class in, or practiced, Chinese calligraphy?

I have not, but my grandfather, my Lao Ye, wrote beautiful calligraphy.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Toni Morrison
Kazuo Ishiguro
Alexander Chee
E. J. Koh
Edith Wharton

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It can be such a wild and emotional ride—some days you will feel like you’re drowning and other days you will feel such euphoria! That’s alright. I promise it’s normal and you are not alone. So many of my anxieties during the time leading up to publication were around worst-case scenarios that I had spun up in my head. What if people hate the book? What if I have disappointed my community? What if I got one piece of research wrong? Try to ground yourself in what’s real. I found that the best way to do that was by making sure I was spending time with things that didn’t involve my book, like my friends, my family, my hobbies and frivolous passions. Take walks. Do something physical with your body. Get into the practice of forced relaxation, if you can. Remember that this is your dream, and it is supposed to be fun.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I had so many, but I’ve been telling people, The Stinky Cheese Man! That book made me laugh and laugh, and I would likely still laugh today if I read it. When I was in middle school, I was absolutely obsessed with Les Miserables.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, for obvious reasons.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

This is such a saucy question—A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles! (I’m so sorry.) It was for a book club, and I just didn’t have time to read it before we met up.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Sex & Taipei City by Yu-Han Chao.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

How To Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I saw Everything Everywhere All At Once last week and I still couldn’t tell you what happened to me. I laughed. I cried—no, I sobbed. I gesticulated wildly in amazement. There’s a point in the movie (the rocks!) where it just hit me that I was witnessing something so special and devastatingly true, and from there, I was in another dimension. I was wearing a mask in the theater, and all of my tears were pooling underneath it until I had created a little tropical habitat down there. But yes, this movie. This movie! Michelle Yeoh, an absolute icon. Ke Huy Quan, such a tender and gentle portrayal. Stephanie Hsu, arguably the best part of the film for me. Jamie Lee Curtis, terrifying and magnificent. James Hong—I mean, it’s James Hong! It’s the intergenerational trauma. It’s the parent-child relationship. It’s the audacity of these filmmakers to do what they did. I urge everyone to see this movie—it’s the movie of a lifetime.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I have many perfect days in mind, but I think the one I would most welcome right now is a leisurely run around Town Lake, a big bowl of phở or bún bò huế, curling into a book and then an afternoon nap, then an evening with my closest friends and loved ones—preferably dancing or laughing or singing karaoke (or all three!). And eventually, late-night ramen.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Question: What is Daiyu’s enneagram? Answer: I think she is a 1! Or maybe a 4? (Experts, help me out!).

What are you working on now?

I am playing around with my second novel, but the most important thing for me is to rest so that I can come back to writing feeling energized and eager. I guess I’m working on restoration J.

Book cover for Four Treasures of the Sky
Four Treasures of the Sky
Zhang, Jenny