While River of Stars takes place in the same setting as Under Heaven, and explores similar themes, it is not a direct sequel. Tell us about returning to Kitai hundreds of years later with a different cast of characters.
When I finished Under Heaven, I actually thought I’d move on from Chinese history. Some academic friends who specialize in the field nodded (or emailed!) knowingly at me and said, “Wait until you start reading about the Song Dynasty.” They were, obviously, right. There were so many themes and figures in that period that engaged me. So the book is not a sequel in any real way (many hundreds of years after), but I ended up loving the chance to read and learn about a different period, and—as readers will know—I was able to cast a few glances backwards, too, since how we look on the past is one of the themes of River of Stars.
The characters of River of Stars take inspiration from real-life counterparts in the era of China’s Northern Song Dynasty. Tell your readers a little bit more about General Yue Fei and Li Qingzhao, and their influence on the respective characters of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan.
These extraordinary figures were very much part of my “gateway” into writing the novel. In the case of Li Qingzhao, it was more than that. Her astonishing life (and ongoing fame—the love felt for her as a person and artist to this day) freed me from worrying I might create an implausible female protagonist in such a culture. The fact that she did exist and made such an enduring contribution liber- ated my own creativity. In the case of the magnificent Yue Fei, I’ll note that to this day there are shrines to his honour, with statues of the kneeling and bound prime minister outside, the one deemed to have betrayed him. He’s one of the great figures in the history of the period, and myths and legends surround him—which is another motif of my novel.
Did you have an opportunity to visit and explore China in the process of researching and writing the book?
I was invited to China to speak and read after Under Heaven was completed. A symposium on my translated work took place at a university in Beijing. Listening to the papers delivered, with a trans- lator at my elbow—including a paper on Under Heaven, which the academic had read in English—was rewarding and inspiring. The way in which that paper on Under Heaven revealed a sharp and sympathetic understanding of how and why I blend history and the fantastic was something that energized me when I came to write River of Stars.
The characters in Under Heaven were largely outsiders to the court. With this novel, however, the focus shifts to the court itself and the razor-sharp decisions and plays of protocol required to keep one’s position and one’s head. Describe the experience of writing such complex scenes of political intrigue.
As a reader, I have always been engaged by clever characters. I can get bored if supposedly smart people in a book don’t seem all that intelligent. I try hard to make my own sophisticated figures actually think and maneuvre in subtle ways that fit their roles and culture. I’ve always done that, and I’ve always enjoyed working with intrigue and diplomacy. The rise and fall of figures around the emperor in the Song Dynasty was one of the most fascinating examples I’ve ever researched. I knew from the outset it had to be central in the novel.
There is special attention paid to the father and son relation- ships in the novel, and of course, in the case of Lin Shan, father and daughter. Why did you choose to make the emotional and societal interplay of this filial relationship such an important part of the narrative?
You are right, of course; this is very much a novel built around parent- child relationships (and also siblings in two major instances). The ideas in the culture that inspired the book of honouring one’s family and ancestors, the duty and devotion embedded in that, seemed to me to be central to any strong evoking of the period. Ren Daiyan’s decision to accept his orders near the end is meant, very much, to emerge from thinking about his father and ideas of duty. For Shan, there is simply no way she could have had the education she did if her otherwise modest, conventional father had not made a decision to do something very unconventional. Even the father-son relation- ship between two generations of prime ministers was central to me in trying to help the reader be immersed in this setting.
Both Under Heaven and River of Stars are painted across a very broad canvas, spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles. How do you maintain an intimate focus on the very human concerns of your characters amidst the sweeping strokes of history?
In a way the question answers itself. A writer needs to concentrate on working at individual, intimate levels of existence while telling a large-scale narrative and remembering that the aristocrats are not the only people living in a given time. I have always seen Shakespeare as the shining example here: he can switch from the deeds of princes and nobles to those of rustics or conscripted soldiers and back, effortlessly.
Is there any particular element of the novel or any specific scene that you found most rewarding to write?
I had fun with the scene where Zhao Ziji is deceived by the young Ren Daiyan posing as a water seller—their first meeting. The ruse there is a homage to the great Chinese epic Outlaws of the Marsh. At the other end of the spectrum, it was a particular challenge to write the “emissary” scene when Lu Chao and his nephew journey north. The brief switch to present tense (as if the ambassador needs to be as sharply attentive, and as superficially passive, as a woman observing events) was an idea that opened up the technique of the scene for me because I’d been using present tense throughout when the narrative was from a woman’s point of view. Also, in terms of craft, getting the tone, language, and balance right at the very end of the novel was one of the most intensely demanding things I’ve ever done.