I read about Linda Jaivin for the first time on a local magazine: she is an Australian translator form Chinese to English as well as a novelist, and her comic-erotic Eat Me (which I haven’t read yet) is a cult, I heard. She was supposed to be in Beijing this summer to present her latest work The Empress Lover. I was planning to attend the event, but then she had to cancel. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to interview her, so I sent her an email. Linda was really nice, and agreed on answering a couple of questions about her career, experience, dreams.
How did your adventure in literature begin?
As a reader! I’ve been a passionate reader since I was a young girl. I was a real bookworm as a child. I grew up in a small town, but because of books, my world was infinitely large. It encompassed the England of Dickens’ and Austen’s day, the American south of Harper Lee and William Faulkner and the speculative worlds of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. It’s not unusual – good writers are always big readers. When people say they want to be a writer but don’t like reading, they are saying, in effect, that they want to talk but don’t like to listen.
What brought you to China?
In university, I began studying Chinese history, initially as a bit of a lark. It became a passion, and then my major. By the time I finished university, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with my life, but I was sure of two things: it would involve books and writing, and it would involve China.
Where does your inspiration come from?
It comes from life, from history, from politics, from reading, from overheard conversations, from uncomfortable secrets, from random meetings and unusual coincidences, from long walks and swimming. Inspiration is everywhere.
What’s your daily routine when you are in the middle of writing a new novel?
Like all published writers I know, I treat writing like a profession and a job. I keep fairly regular hours – starting fairly early, usually between 6 and 8 am, taking breaks for meals and exercise, and knocking off around 6 or 7 at night. On weekends, the routine is a bit more relaxed, but I usually still put in at least six hours a day. Sometimes I work late, till 10 at night, say, but I don’t like to do that more than one or two nights a week. I read books and articles and essays relevant to the writing during the day, and ideally devote at least an hour to reading fiction in the evening. The process of writing includes, of course, editing and research. It’s impossible – for me, anyway – to just write for hours and hours and hours at a stretch. I also have to incorporate tasks like filing and doing taxes and correspondence into the working day. So it stays fairly varied. But I don’t socialise – no coffees or lunches out except when absolutely unavoidable. And no social media. Distraction is the enemy of thought. The most important thing is focus – when writing, I use the app called Freedom that takes me off the internet for whatever period of time I choose and won’t let me back on before the time is up without re-booting the computer. It’s fantastic. Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith are among the many other writers who use it.
Who is The Empress Lover?
The Empress Lover could be any one of several of the characters of my novel The Empress Lover. It is Edmund Backhouse, the secretive and talented polyglot scholar and fantasist who left behind a ‘memoir’ claiming to have been the lover of Empress Dowager Cixi. But the phrase is also something greater than that, and part of the mystery of the book, which is a Chinese box of mysteries, one inside the other. So I let the reader work that out for him or herself.
Eroticism and the Orient are often featured in your work. Do you think the sex approach is different in the East and the West?
Edward Said wrote perceptively about Orientalism – the notion, popularised in colonial times, of the feminised, sensual Orient and the virile West. You see some male writers today still unconsciously echoing these embarrassing cliches in fiction: handsome manly western man meets sensual Asian woman, blah blah blah. Human nature is far more complex and interesting than that. What the hell is the East and the West anyway? East of what? Is Australia part of the West? Sexuality within China is vastly heterogenous – and I dare say there are people in the middle classes of Shanghai, for example, who have more in common in their attitudes towards sexuality with the middle classes of London than they do with some of the poorer people in the mountainous regions of China. There is eroticism in all my work, whether it’s set in Australia, China or elsewhere because sex interests me. China and Japan feature in my work because they interest me.
How is it to be back home (in Australia) after having spent so much time abroad? What do you miss about China?
I love being in Australia – especially the pace of life, the beautiful blue skies, the coffee, the food, my friends and the literary and art scene. I miss the buzz of China, the sense that there is always so much going on, and my friends there. I miss the opportunity to see great Peking Operas (above are two photos from fusion Peking Opera, Passion, that I wrote with the composer Zhu Shaoyu, but has only ever been performed in part.) I miss the wonderful northern winters, courtyard living in Beijing, the snow, the sledding on Houhai. Mostly, I miss my friends.
I’ve just finished reading the book, and I found it very interesting. But I don’t want to tell you more – I’d rather hear what you think of it. I would just add it’s pretty naughty, isn’t it?
Linda Jaivin e’ probabilmente una delle scrittrici più interessanti del panorama australiano. Dopo aver trascorso vari anni a Pechino studiando Cinese, ora e’ rientrata nel suo paese, e da li continua a raccontare storie ambientate in Cina e che hanno come protagonisti personaggi che vivono nell’era attuale e in un passato lontano, per noi difficile da immaginare. Io ho appena finito di leggere “The Empress Lover’ e l’ho trovato interessante e in un certo senso diverso da tutti i libri che avevo già letto sulla Cina. Lo trovate qui e vi consiglio di leggerlo tutto di un fiato e di farmi sapere che cosa ne pensate!
When we took the pictures in this post I was delighted to wear:
Silk night gown 晚装: Intimissimi
Pearl necklaces and ring珍珠项链、戒指: vintage 复古
Watch 腕表: Casio
Glasses 太阳眼镜: Jil Sander
Pictures were taken with my white Sony NEX-5T.
For all the other pictures, special thanks to Linda Jaivin.
Chinese translation by Jasmine Wang.