All of us at the The Savvy Reader cannot stop talking about The Ghost Bride, and today we are very lucky to welcome the kind and extremely talented Yangsze Choo to the blog to talk about it with us! Below you’ll find a Q&A between Shannon (SP) and Yangsze Choo (YC) as she discusses the tradition, inspiration and motivation behind her gorgeous debut.
PS: The Ghost Bride is our August Savvy Reader Book Club Pick, so keep an eye out for a some book club tips!
SP: The concept in The Ghost Bride is so, so interesting. (A young woman is asked to marry a ghost) How did you come up with this?
YC: There’s a long Chinese literary tradition of tales set in the blurred borderline between spirits and humans, where beautiful women turn out to be foxes, and the afterlife is run like a monstrous parody of Imperial Chinese bureaucracy. When I was a child, I loved reading such stories and was always intensely curious about actually happened. How would you feel if the pretty girl you picked up had no feet, or the palace you visited was actually a beehive? It’s a very rich and curious mythology where nothing is quite what it seems, and that I’d love to introduce readers to.
More specifically, however, one of the things that sparked this novel was a sentence in an old newspaper article. While researching another novel I was writing, I happened to go through the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper and found a brief mention of spirit marriages that offhandedly declared them “increasingly rare.” At first, I wondered what this referred to, and then I realized that it must be the folk superstition of marriages to the dead. This was so intriguing that I ended up putting aside my first book to write this one instead!
SP: What kind of research did you do while writing The Ghost Bride?
YC: My dad used to collect a lot of old books about Malaya – mostly British traveler’s tales such as Isabella Bird and Bruce Lockhart. I remember poring over them on long, hot afternoons when I’d run out of reading material, never guessing that years later, they would serve as the basis for a novel. The archives of our local Malaysian newspaper were also helpful, as well as Harvard’s Widener and Yenching libraries, which were a trove of out-of-print books. I also heard many odd stories about ghosts from my family and friends in Malaysia, some of which gave me lifelong phobias such as avoiding banana trees at night!
SP: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
YC: That part of the world is very dear to me, and I think that it’s something that I can write about with authenticity. As a Malaysian of Chinese descent, I feel that there are so many peculiar and interesting things about SE Asia that I’d love to share with readers.
In fact, while I was writing this book, I was also reminded of those incredibly detailed 19th century novels, like Swiss Family Robinson and Jules Vernes’ books, and how so many of them were aimed at the armchair traveler – people who had no chance to embark on such voyages. In the case of my main character, Li Lan, she gets her wish to travel, but it turns out to be to the shadowy Chinese afterworld, in the grey border between spirits and humans. It’s a terrifying place, yet full of strange beauty. If I can bring readers along on this curious journey, I’d be very happy.
SP: We’re going to be asking questions about the afterlife, love, family, the supernatural elements, and Li Lan’s journey in our Book Club. What’s one theme or question you hope that readers will discuss or think about after reading The Ghost Bride?
YC: Love and death are two of the things that we worry about in this life, and I think my book combines them. On the one hand, you have the fear of dying and whether there is an afterlife, and on the other, the fear of being forced into an unwanted relationship. There’s a lot of inherent tension in the prospect of marrying a dead man – I couldn’t help wondering about what that actually meant at the time, and if people really believed that such relationships continued into the afterlife.
In the second part of my book, the main character Li Lan actually journeys into the world of the dead, which I imagined must be filled with the paper funeral offerings that people still burn today. It’s a creepy, yet touching idea, that you would want to continue to provide for your loved ones even after death. On the other hand, it also means that obligations to relatives never end even after death. Hmm…discuss!
SP: Now a tough one: what’s your favourite book? What’s your favourite ‘book club’ book? (Ie. one that you just love to talk about)
YC: Oh dear, there are so many books that I love – it’s very hard to choose. I think for a “book club” book, it’s great to pick one that encourages discussion and even opposing points of view. So I’d like to suggest Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It’s such an unusual book, combining historical fiction with fantasy – like Jane Austen meets Neil Gaiman. I was so sad to get to the end even though I almost got a hernia toting this hefty book around. Her footnotes, in particular, break almost every rule about footnotes for fiction, yet are so strange and winsome that I was completely charmed.