As you can tell from my review of Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Thus I was super excited to interview the author, Virginia Pye.
A little about her:
Virginia Pye holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. Her highly acclaimed first novel, River of Dust, is also a historical novel set in China. Her father, Lucian W. Pye, was born and raised in China and became an eminent political scientist and sinologist. Her grandfather, Watts O. Pye, was a founder of the Oberlin College-Shansi Program which took him and his wife, Gertrude, to China as the first returning missionaries after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Her grandmother stayed in China after the death of her husband and fled with her son—Virginia’s father—on the last ship out of China to the U.S. following Pearl Harbor. Pye currently divides her time between Richmond, VA, and Boston, MA.
And a quick synopsis of the book (from Goodreads) in case you haven't read my review yet:
During the dangerous summer of 1937, a newly widowed American missionary (Shirley) finds herself and her teenage son (Caleb) caught up in the midst of a Japanese invasion of North China and the simultaneous rise of Communism. Meanwhile a charismatic Red Army officer requests her help and seems to have shared some surprising secret about her husband (Caleb). Shirley must manage her grief even as she navigates between her desire to help the idealistic Chinese Reds fight the Japanese by serving as a nurse and the need to save both herself and her son by escaping the war-ravaged country before it’s too late.
Taking her own grandmother's life as inspiration, Virginia Pye, author of the critically-acclaimed debut novel River of Dust, has written a stunning new novel of Americans in China on the cusp of World War II.
In keeping with my principle of no spoilers, this interview doesn't contain any. It's just enough to pique your interest and make you want to read Dreams of the Red Phoenix, which you can find at Unbridled Books.
You mentioned some anecdotes about your grandmother living in China to your editor, Greg Michalson, and he suggested you write a novel based on her experience. Before then had you considered writing a book about her experiences?
A question about my grandmother had bothered me for years: why would an American woman living in China--whose husband had died while there and whose only surviving child had back to America for college--be determined to stay, even after the Japanese attacked and WWII was underway? My grandmother refused to leave Shanxi Province until after Pearl Harbor when she was finally forced out. Why wouldn’t she have wanted to get the hell out sooner?
When I told Greg about the time she chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom, something about her character clicked for me: this was a woman not to be messed with. That, I realized, was the type of female protagonist I wanted to explore. Confident in the face of danger, even when it was foolish; brave and yet needing to learn a thing or two: this was a quintessentially American woman.
I noticed that there's a theme of Shirley being a bad mother. Other Americans at the mission imply that grief after her husband's death rendered her an absentee mother and the Japanese soldiers constantly remind her that they don't approve of her parenting. Yet Captain Hsu casually mentions that Charles might turn out better being left to his own devices. It was then that I realized that not only were you navigating the differences between Eastern and Western culture, but you were more granularly navigating the differences of a China torn between political ideologies, Japanese invaders, and American expatriates. What was the writing process like as you were telling the story you wanted to tell while still being true to these culturally complex factors?
That’s a great question. I was definitely trying to capture the mindset of at least three very different cultures through individual characters. It doesn’t work when you write about a ‘type of person’ in fiction—but each character can embody certain qualities that commonly exemplify a group of people. I hope the reader wants to defend Shirley against the Japanese major’s accusation that she’s a bad mother, but by the end of the novel we have to wonder if he wasn’t right in certain ways. The child-rearing practices of other cultures may strike us a strange until we see the wisdom in it.
The desire Shirley and Charles have to help the Chinese leaps off the page, but we later learn that in some ways their help was well-intentioned yet misguided. How do you think these attitudes play into Western understanding of China today? In the end, do you think Shirley, Caleb, and the others at the mission did more harm than good or vice versa?
This is a central theme to my work: how the urge to “do good” creates bridges between people but also burns bridges. I can’t offer a definitive answer to your question about harm vs. good, because that is the precise, complex territory that my stories try to reveal. If there were a final, pat answer I don’t think the novels would be very interesting. The ambiguity of striving to be good is human and therefore flawed. I hope readers finish my book with this question humming in their minds.
The symbolic titular red phoenix appears throughout the book, thus evoking the image of rising from the ashes. I found this especially intriguing because the Carson family doesn't really rise from the ashes in the traditional "onward and upward" way. They are forever changed by their experience living in China and are, in some ways, broken by it. Tell us a little more about how the red phoenix worked as a thematic guidepost as you were writing the novel.
I suppose the image is an ironic one. It promises hope just when people are feeling it least. It’s a symbol of prosperity and good luck just when people are most destitute. And yet there were people in China in 1937 who did feel hopeful in the face of great hardship: the Communists as they fought for their new society, and the Christians as they spread the word, and any Americans, like my characters, who embraced both Communism and Christianity.
When I read that the Red Phoenix of Chinese myth hides out in the mountains near where my imagined story takes place, I felt I had to use it. It seemed like the type of fantastic tale that Charles’s amah, Lian, would have told him. She, more than he, would have wanted and needed to believe it. But I hope the reader could also see that Charles, with his love of movie starlets and heroes, had his own myths that he emulated. Each culture has its hopeful tales that inspire, but can also serve as painful contrasts to the harshness of life.