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Book Talk: Ghosts, grief and great love in China

TOKYO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - After Samuel Pickens loses the love of his life, he travels the world to forget her - only to find her mirror image in the court of Imperial China, where he falls in love with one of the Emperor's wives.
/ Source: Reuters

TOKYO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - After Samuel Pickens loses the love of his life, he travels the world to forget her - only to find her mirror image in the court of Imperial China, where he falls in love with one of the Emperor's wives.

The lyrical "My Last Empress" is a novel by Da Chen, who grew up in a small Chinese village and graduated from Columbia Law School before turning to writing with the acclaimed memoir "Colors of the Mountain."

Da, who has described writing the memoir as "swimming in the depth of the river that is my life," spoke with Reuters about writing and his latest book.

Q: How did this book get started?

A: "I was speaking at Yale once and... there was a portrait of a man, looking very somber. The caption read: 'Mr Pitken, the first Yale graduate beheaded by Boxer rebels.'... I was stunned by his heroism ... What drove this man to do what he did, what drove him to be so dedicated? I don't know very much about the business of the church, so I created this love story for Mr. Pickens. I wanted to explore the possibility of devotion and how (far) humans can go in a measure of love, and in a measurement of enduring pain as a measure of love."

Q: How did you go from there to the character?

A: "The most important thing that any idea of a book can give you is providing a sort of mood. I refused to do any research on this man because I already had enough just from standing in front of him. I felt that he was still in pain, and pain follows me. I was driven home and kept thinking about this man. I'm talking to you about him now and I have chills down my back just feeling that sensation, when you are in the presence of something eerie, something just so extraordinary... Because all he feels towards his lovers or the shadows of them were all heightened by a very noble spirit. That emotion came literally from the first sentence, when I said: I am old, rotten, within my cavity grows a spring bloom. I came home with that line in my head. From there, for the first time, I began to write a book that grows from inside out.

"I used to write stories that I knew very well, I just had to give them shape and give them some literary flourishes. But in this case I really, really had to go down to his steps and then grow this book from inside out. It became a very emotional journey. I could not plot this book. I literally wrote this book one word at a time, that's why it took so long. I wanted the process of reading this book to be pleasurable because the journey was so painful."

Q: Was it hard to yield to this process?

A: "I had the most fun, a very gripping experience with it that was also very eerie. I was going through my mid-40s into my late-40s in this book. You really have to age in some ways to be able to show certain maturity, depth or gloom in a work. I really sensed that. My writing used to be much more rambunctious, like a joyful, happy puppy just running into golden fields. It's not that anymore. It's more thinking, and musing over the meaning of words."

Q: In general, do you emphasize plot, character or setting?

A: "I think setting defines any book. The setting is so many things. There's a mood in 'My Last Empress' that I couldn't lift myself out of. It's almost like a fog, always permeating my entire existence when I was writing the book.

"But more important is a bigger issue that infuses the entire piece. People always call me an atmospheric writer, and I don't know what the heck that is. Now I begin to understand. I cannot really write a book like 'Lucky Jim,' for instance, an anti-hero hero... Your book is only as good as your antagonist ... but the main thing of course is the character. This person has to be someone I hugely, hugely admire. I think that has to do with the fact that I grew up in a culture where literature is centered on celebrating heroism and noble things, and all that. I can't write somebody who is a loser. But if he is a loser for a noble cause, then I can write about it."

Q: Advice for aspiring writers?

A: "The most important thing that aspiring writers fail to realize and are afraid to see is that your story, the way you cut the story, is your contribution to this world. You need to tell the story your own way, and you need to tell your own story. Imitating is wonderful, but insist on being yourself on the page. That's what's going to set you free." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)