Author Squared: Samuel Park & Duncan Jepson
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everytihng in between!
Samuel Park: Congratulations on the release of your book! It's a pleasure to e-meet you and be interviewing you about your work. There was so much in All the Flowers in Shanghai that I could relate to, and I'm delighted that I get to ask you about it.
Duncan Jepson: Thank you very much and thanks for taking the time to read my book and ask me these questions.
SP: You’ve had a successful career in film and documentaries. What inspired you to turn to novels, and what specifically inspired you to tell this particular story? Did your background affect the process at all?
DJ: Storytelling by writing feels to me like planting seeds and then leaving the tending and cultivation to another, the reader and their imagination. I think a good book propels the reader on a journey that is as much theirs as the authors. Film is different, it’s direct and fast, over in a couple of hours. Whether comedy or tragedy, it must be executed precisely enough to suspend disbelief for the duration, taking the viewer away on the filmmakers’ journey. For this story, writing seemed to give me more freedom to explore and immerse myself in the character and ideas than the demands of film.
SP: I really enjoyed your use of a female point of view in the novel. Not only that, but you tell the story in the first person. Could you talk a little about the challenges of doing so, and maybe discuss how one can successfully pull it off?
DJ: Well, I hope I pulled it off successfully. I just tried to s tick to the basic rule of creating a character and remaining true to it. The challenge seemed to be telling the story of a character who is not Western and does not think in a Western manner f or Western readers. For example one of the difficulties is that what Westerners see as “forsaking individuality,” something abhorrent, in Asian cultures at that time and even now it was not questioned because the concept of the “individual” was very much absent, so it wasn’t a sacrifice—it was (and is) simply what happens.
SP: I hope I'm not ruining it for anybody by noting that your author’s note at the end of the book talks a lot about your mother. How did she inspire the book, and how did she affect your experience of writing it?
DJ: My mother had told me that she had not wanted to return to Singapore after she had qualified as a doctor in England in the mid 60s. My grandparents had not required anything specific of her but my mother explained there were expectations and at the very least she wanted to marry someone she loved. I think many Westerners don’t realize that these expectations still exist and are widely felt. I wanted to explore the idea that these expectations are actively passed from mother to daughter, not necessarily imposed by the father, and to understand what it would take for a woman to reject these traditions.
SP: The book contains a lot of very precise descriptions of life in Shanghai. What was the process of researching life in 1930s Shanghai? Were there any discoveries that you made that you weren't expecting?
DJ: In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time in Shanghai, particularly at the Peace Hotel where jazz and Western dancing had been available since the 30s and 40s. I spent much time walking around by myself and listening to people’s experiences. I think the main discovery was just how modern Shanghai had been and how people had embraced the world openly. People (including young Chinese) don’t realize that the Communist dogma and perspective is only recent.
SP: Readers are often fascinated by China. What is it about this country—its customs, history and culture—that you think intrigues people so much? Are there any insights about it that you hope people will get out of the book?
DJ: In the early 90s I met a long-lost relative who was a farmer. He lived in quite a remote part of Fujian Province in China. I was full of passion for events in China such as the Cultural Revolution and when I asked him about living through it he said he’d hardly noticed it. I liked the idea that someone like Feng could live isolated from events simply by virtue of the very culture and traditions that led China to revolution—insularity by the elite. How people thought and behaved is one of the most interesting aspects of history and culture. We live in a small world and we have to start understanding each other better, we’re not all the same and we are not all going to immediately believe in the correctness of one way of living, whatever that may be. I hope by reading the story people will think a little about how different human beings can be at a very fundamental level. China now looms large in the world and we’re all desperate to know what that means.
Thanks Samuel and Duncan!
Samuel Park is an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. He is a graduate of Stanford and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate in English. He is the author of the novella “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Alyson Books, 2006) and the writer-director of the short film of the same name, which was an official selection of numerous domestic and international film festivals. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Duncan Jepson is the award-
winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.