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Interview: The Next Big Thing

Happy new year! In December, Lori Nelson Spielman, author of the upcoming THE LIFE LIST, tagged me as part of The Next Big Thing, where you answer ten interview questions. Lori’s debut novel, to be published by Random House in July 2013, has generated incredible excitement and the movie rights were optioned by Fox 2000. Thanks for the tag, Lori (and if your casting wish comes true and Bradley Cooper/Gerard Butler show up on the set of your movie, can I lurk around?!).

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?
My upcoming novel, THE GHOST BRIDE, was initially titled TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE. The rationale was because it has a lot of stories in it, rather like THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, but people said it was too clunky and restrained me from doing so, which was probably a good thing.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’ve always been drawn to peculiar stories. The seeds of this book can perhaps be traced to my senior thesis in university, which I wanted to write about female oppression — the historical role of female ghosts in Asian culture. I had a couple of observations: 1. Why was it that by and large, Asian ghosts seem so much more terrifying than Western ones and 2. Why were the worst ones all female? Clearly, the answer must be some sort of cultural compensation for the fact that women were historically so disempowered in Asian society, and this is reflected in the hunger and bitterness conjured up by their ghosts.

Unfortunately, I never did write that thesis because I chickened out, thinking that no one would ever employ me if they saw that on my resume (more fool me, because I later realized that nobody really cares what you write about for your thesis) and instead, ended up writing a mind-numbingly dull dissertation about China’s industrial townships. I used to have these early morning meetings with my thesis adviser, a Korean economist, and I would look at him and he would look at me, and I’d think we are both so, so sleepy and bored by this topic but we have to pretend to be gung-ho about it. That was a terrible waste of a year.

However, I kept the idea of ghosts rattling around in the back of my head and they showed up in a number of short stories that I wrote. Years later, I started a novel about an elephant who was a detective. There were many reasons why this was also not a good subject, but in the meantime, while I was researching my elephant book in the archives of The Straits Times, our local Malaysian newspaper, I came across a sentence which alluded to the decline of spirit marriages amongst the Chinese. This matter-of-fact reference was so intriguing that what began as a subplot for my elephant book took on a life of its own.

What genre does your book fall under?
General fiction/historical fiction/magical realism. It’s a bit hard to pinpoint, since it crosses genres which is apparently either good or bad.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m a bit out of date in terms of the latest Asian heart throbs (time for an intensive course of Korean dramas) but for the female lead, perhaps a young Gong Li or Maggie Cheung. There are two male leads and one would be Tony Leung (at about the age when he filmed Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love”) and the other would definitely, absolutely, no-question-about-it be Takeshi Kaneshiro…

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Li Lan, a young woman in 1890s Malaya is asked to marry a dead man; caught between the world of the living and the Chinese afterlife, she must uncover her dead suitor’s secrets before she withers away.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book is coming out August 2013 with William Morrow/HarperCollins, and I’m represented by the wonderful Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Three years. However, I took a long break in the middle so actual writing time was probably one and a half years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The closest comparison would probably be Lisa See’s PEONY IN LOVE, or Sarah Waters’ THE LITTLE STRANGER, but I can also see similarities with Susanna Clarke’s JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, which also features a historical world in which ghosts and demons interfere with life.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’ve mentioned some of the reasons above, but in terms of people, I have to say my fantastic husband who has always been my first and best reader and critic, and the person who kept my dream of being a writer alive by periodically flinging the door open to ask “Are you writing? Or are you eating chocolate again?”

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The fact that it’s about the Chinese afterlife, a world made of burned offerings and broken dreams, where the living must continue to manage their relationships with the dead. Also, the very strange practice of ghost marriages in which dead people would be married to each other in order to fulfil an obligation or satisfy their spirits. Far more rarely, there were cases (like the one in my book) where the living were married to the dead.

And now, I’d like to tag Abigail Wen, a talented writer whose intricately plotted YA thriller NEVER LET GO, is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, and Dorothy Greco, an incredible photographer, writer, and counselor. You can see more of Dorothy’s beautiful images at her website and blog.

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