This is the fourth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Emily X.R. Pan. Her debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is coming in spring 2018!
Since there’s almost nothing out in the wild (i.e. Goodreads) about the book, we’ll get an exclusive first look at what it entails through this interview. But first, an aesthetic collage to represent the story that I put together.
Since I haven’t read the book, this is based on what I gathered from the interview below. As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”
SW: First question is mandatory and the standard for this interview series: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are welcome to list multiple because it’s probably impossible to choose just one.)
Emily: Ooooh. I think it would have to be the breakfast dan bing. But I’ve been vegetarian for quite a long time now…if I were to go back to my non-vegetarian days it would probably be a toss-up between oyster omelettes and ba wan.
SW: Danbing is the ruler of all breakfast foods, in my humble opinion. I eat so much of it when I’m in Taiwan. Simple but satisfying.
Since the Goodreads synopsis that’s available is rather cryptic, can you tell us a little more about your upcoming book, The Astonishing Color of After?
Emily: Sure! So the Goodreads synopsis says: “A girl is convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird after dying by suicide, and attempts to find her in Taiwan.” Well, the main character is named Leigh Chen Sanders, almost sixteen years old, and she’s dealing with quite a lot. She’s a dedicated visual artist, butting heads with a father who’s not exactly supportive of that pursuit. She’s navigating the complications of falling in love with her male best friend. She’s also biracial, and has never met the Asian side (her mom’s side) of her family, and has no idea why. It’s in the midst of all this that she loses her mother. So Leigh goes to Taiwan to find the bird, and there she meets her Taiwanese grandmother and Chinese grandfather for the first time, and starts to uncover all these deeply buried secrets that help her connect the dots of her broken family history.
SW: I was already sold when I first read the book deal announcement, but now I’m even more invested. I’m honestly super excited about this book because it’s set in Taiwan, where my family is from. Which part of Taiwan does it take place in, and why did you pick that particular location?
Emily: It’s all in the north. Leigh’s grandparents live in an unnamed part of Taipei that mostly feels like Shilin but in its fictionalization has elements of Beitou, and at one point Leigh also makes a trip up to Jiufen. My grandmother lives in Beitou and she was such a huge inspiration for the story that I knew I wanted to draw from her neighborhood. But also, I made a research trip to Taiwan, and when I was picking an Airbnb to be my home base I wanted somewhere that would feel just like where Leigh was staying with her grandparents. I asked friends and family to help me figure out a neighborhood that felt right, and ultimately landed with Shilin. So it was partly the places I went and saw during my research trip that dictated where the various pieces of the story happened, because I wanted to have a really solid feel for the setting.
SW: I actually visited Jiufen in 2015 and while it was pretty, I was also kind of scared because the elevation is high and everything is steep and built into the mountainside. I’ll admit I’m not super familiar with either Shilin or Beitou since the part of my family that’s in Taipei lives in Xinyi district.
What other research did you do for the book?
Emily: In previous drafts, some of the novel was set in Shanghai (where I’d lived for a year in college) and for the sake of the book I made two research trips back to Shanghai. Later when I changed it so that all of the time in Asia was spent in Taiwan, that was when I made the aforementioned trip to Taipei to help me rework the book. (I’d been to Taiwan to visit family before, but not in a long time.) All the (non-historical) steps that my characters take, I actually walked myself in effort to really capture the atmosphere.
I’ve also done a lot of character research over the last several years; I interviewed several Asian American friends and biracial friends about their experiences both inside and outside the states. Many of those conversations happened for the sake of other projects I was working on, but what I learned from them made its way into this book all the same. And since so much of the novel is inspired by my family, I spent quite a lot of time interviewing relatives, collecting their stories. Even within just my family there’s so much variation from person to person in their customs and religious activity and level of superstition, for example—I gathered up every bit of detail I could.
Probably the most difficult and time consuming aspect was that I did a lot of sociological / cultural research through books and documentary films and various articles on the internet, for example about people’s beliefs surrounding ghosts and Ghost Month in Taiwan, and about various Buddhist and Taoist ideas and practices, both in history and currently. I wanted to get a lens on this stuff outside of any potential bias from my family, and even the material that didn’t actually make its way into the book still informed how I told the story.
SW: It sounds like you learned a lot from your research. What was your favorite part about writing the book?
Emily: My favorite part is that I got to know my family on a completely new dimension. Even with my parents—I’ve always been incredibly close to them (like we talk on the phone every single day and really struggle to keep our calls short). But in the course of writing and revising this book, I kept asking them about things we’d never talked about before, and from that I was constantly learning something new about their beliefs and values, and even their own histories.
SW: I’m glad you got to deepen your bond with your parents. On the flip side, what was the most challenging part about writing the book?
Emily: The hardest part was figuring out what the story actually wanted to be. I started writing this in 2010 as a very different novel. It was originally an adult literary / historical fiction project spanning the first forty years of this woman’s life beginning in 1927 in Taiwan—that woman being a fictionalization of my waipo (maternal grandmother), who’s lived a fascinating life. But all the historical stuff grew unwieldy and overwhelming, so I reframed it as a contemporary story with a teen narrator discovering the stories of her family. After that it still morphed several times—I’ve lost track of all the ways I tried rewriting it but the various iterations spanned the realistic and the fantastical across middle grade, young adult, and adult literary—until finally in January of 2015 I wrote a new opening, and the rest of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER poured out from there.
SW: I can only imagine the amount of effort that went into rewriting the story. In my experience, finding the heart of a story can take a while, but once you find it, it’s usually much easier to write.
Now, the last question: What are some writers or books that have influenced your writing?
Emily: As one might guess based on the kind of book I’ve written, I love writers who explore human instincts and experiences through the lens of something weird or perhaps slightly magical. Some of the amazing authors who immediately come to mind: Nova Ren Suma, Anna-Marie McLemore, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Laura Ruby. I also love the writers who just tell a story so sharply I can’t get it out of my head. I’m thinking of Celeste Ng, Emily St. John Mandel, Alexander Chee, Jandy Nelson, Hanya Yanagihara. But really my writing is influenced by everything I consume, whether it’s an advertisement or a graphic novel or the libretto of an opera.
SW: Time to bookmark a few titles for my TBR. Thank you very much for participating in this interview. I can’t wait to read The Astonishing Color of After next spring!
Emily X.R. Pan is the author of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, coming in spring 2018 from Little, Brown in the US and Orion in the UK. She is also a 2017 Artist-in-Residence at Djerassi. During her MFA in fiction at NYU she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow and the editor-in-chief of Washington Square Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine and lives in New York, where she also practices and teaches yoga. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @exrpan.