Interview With an Author: Yangsze Choo

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Yangsze Choo and her latest novel, The Fox Wife
Author Yangsze Choo and her latest novel, The Fox Wife. Photo: James Cham

Yangsze Choo is the New York Times bestselling author of The Ghost Bride (now a Netflix Original series) and The Night Tiger, a Reese's Book Club Pick, and a Big Jubilee Read selection for Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee. She lives in California with her family and loves to eat and read (often at the same time). The Fox Wife and all previous novels would not have been possible without large quantities of dark chocolate. She recently talked about The Fox Wife with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Fox Wife?

In Chinese literature, foxes are thought to have supernatural powers and to be able to turn themselves into very attractive people. Wily tricksters they will steal your heart as well as any money or gold wine cups that you happen to have lying around. As a child, I loved reading stories about these mysterious creatures, who seemed both willful and oddly vulnerable since they're also exterminated by humans wherever they're found. When I began writing The Fox Wife, I wanted to write a novel from the point of view of one of these outsiders, the stranger who knocks on the other side of the door at night.

Are Bao, Kuro, Shiro, Snow, Tagtaa, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

The most delightful part about the writing process for me is when characters suddenly begin talking and moving around in the story. That's how this novel evolved for me. For example, I started Chapter 2, and suddenly the words "the detective" appeared on the page. I thought, "Who is this detective?" but I kept writing, and the character of Bao, a school teacher turned detective, materialized. I could see scenes from his childhood, including his (un)fortunate run-in with foxes early on, and it was really interesting to follow the story as it unfurled.

None of the characters in the novel were inspired by real people, but I did think a lot about animals and how to preserve a slightly inhuman feeling about their interactions. Shiro and Kuro appeared organically as the world of the foxes and their own unique society became apparent. I enjoyed writing about Shiro in particular because he has an animal amorality, a carelessness that all the foxes share, but is particularly pronounced in him.

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?

Yes, there was a completely different subplot, which had to be removed because the book was getting too convoluted. At the time, I felt rather sad about losing it, but I think that the novel is much better for being cut. There were also lots of other little side stories about foxes that I wanted to add as footnotes or marginalia but also didn't make it. I was inspired by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I love, that has copious footnotes!

In the notes at the end of the novel, you say that you researched stories about foxes in Asian literature prior to writing The Fox Wife. How long did it take you to do your research and then write the novel?

Oh dear. I must confess that I'm a very slow writer, so The Fox Wife took about three or four years to be finished, including all the revisions and having to cut it almost in half because it was too long. The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that one gets to indulge one's hobbies in the name of "research" and go down various rabbit holes. I knew quite a lot about Chinese foxes before I began, but I very happily looked up lots of history as well as the origins of the fox cult in northeastern China. It is a folk religion with ancient roots in animism and likely harvest gods as well.

Did you have a favorite out of all of the stories you read (or maybe a couple of favorites)?

The thing that struck me about these purported "histories" of foxes was how odd they were. Many of these accounts were disjointed and didn't always make sense. In a strange way, that made them more convincing, perhaps because most eyewitness accounts aren't always smooth. They mostly involved strange happenings, and what I was struck by was that people really had no idea how to explain being lost in the woods, or how a stranger might have vanished on a mountain path, or how an illness might have spread. We, humans, are always searching for patterns, and the fox, which is an opportunistic animal that hangs around human habitations, must have often been a likely scapegoat.

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

I hadn't really known about the whole phenomenon of fox mediums or people (usually young women) who claimed to speak for the fox gods. My understanding of foxes came primarily from Chinese literature, where they're considered seductive tricksters. I didn't realize that in northern China, fox mediums would also tell fortunes and dispense advice in the name of these creatures. Often, they had a social role as mediators.

What's currently on your nightstand?

A book about sandwiches. It's called Open Sandwiches: 70 Smørrebrød Ideas for Morning, Noon and Night by Trine Hahnemann.

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

I went to see an exhibition of the surrealist painter Magritte a few years ago, which I still think about. I'd seen his paintings before in books, but it wasn't until I stood in front of the actual works that I appreciated his mastery of creating a visual world that feels like you're falling into a dream.

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

A day spent wandering around and sightseeing in Japan with family and friends. Culminating in a very fancy dinner at a ryokan, or traditional inn, with hot spring baths!

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

Goodness! I've never thought of that. How about: "You have just won the Powerball jackpot! Would you like to accept it?"
"Yes, please!" and then lots of thank yous and feeling like I was going to pass out because I must be dreaming…

What are you working on now?

I'm writing my fourth novel about plants. As a gardener myself, I find nature fascinating, which you can probably tell from my novels featuring animals and the world in which humans are no longer the masters of their fates. I'm not quite sure what the next novel is about yet, but it's probably about ginseng, said to be the most prized herbal medicine in East Asia. The fact that the root resembles a human has always fascinated me.

Thank you so much for having me. I love the L.A. Public Library, and it's been a pleasure and an honour!

Book cover of The fox wife
The Fox Wife
Choo, Yangsze