Books·How I Wrote It

How Janie Chang melds history with folklore in Dragon Springs Road

The author talks about how she wrote her sophomore novel, fox spirits and all.
Janie Chang is the author of Dragon Springs Road. (janiechang.com/William Morrow Paperbacks)

Janie Chang was longlisted for the 2015 International DUBLIN Literary Award for her debut novel, Three Souls. In her sophomore novel, Dragon Springs Road, Chang tells the story of a young girl of mixed Chinese and European heritage, abandoned by her mother but protected by a fox spirit.

Below, in her own words, Janie Chang explores how she wrote Dragon Springs Road.

The "trifecta of sorrows" that inspired her

"In the early 20th century when Dragon Springs Road is set, Chinese history was turbulent and complicated. You had the fall of the imperial Qing dynasty, Western incursion, the birth of the Chinese republic, the Japanese invasion, the Second World War. It was like a litany of traumatic events for a country that was already stumbling.

"Against this backdrop, I came across mention of Eurasian orphans in Shanghai. There was a hundred-year period when a lot of foreigners came to China, whether to make their fortunes and settle or just pass through. They left behind mixed-race children, and it was a society and an era where family lineage and connections were everything, and where boys were highly valued and girls considered a waste of family resources. To be Eurasian and an orphan and a girl was a trifecta of sorrows, and I found myself wondering how such children would survive. I did the research and found that a lot of them had led really terrible lives. I wanted to follow through with the life of one of these children, in a way that would shine a light on many of the social injustices and brutal conditions that existed back then."

Otherworldy influence

"I get a lot of inspiration and ideas from family stories, and a lot of my family stories feature the supernatural. I can't help it — they just creep into the novels! For that era of China that I'm writing about, people absolutely believed in the supernatural. So to ignore that part of the culture and peoples' belief systems would, I believe, be taking away from the atmosphere of the story.

"In contemporary Asian pop culture, foxes are very popular. They're mischief makers. They tend to be female, they seduce men, they are sometimes good and sometimes evil. But when you do the research, you find out that 3,000 years ago when foxes first came up in Chinese folklore, they were attendants to a goddess known as the Queen Mother of the West. They were deities, counsellors. They gave wise advice to the emperors of China. And then, they just kind of got downgraded into something that was semi-demonic. I wanted to bring some of that dignity and purpose back to the fox spirit in my story."

Writing the "dreaded sophomore novel"

"Everything they say about the dreaded sophomore novel is true. Of course, I did not even dare share with other authors what an excruciating time I was going through. It was only after I'd submitted my manuscript and my editor loved it that I finally asked a few questions. And everyone said, oh yeah, this is the classic sophomore novel syndrome. You think your book is crap, you think maybe you don't have another novel in you, the first time around was a fluke, and on and on.

"You have to just grit your teeth and write your way through it. For anyone who's an aspiring writer, yes you have to get the craft, and yes you have to have the inspiration, but you also have to apply discipline to that inspiration. I got to the point where I just threw up my hands and said okay, this is as good as I can make it on my own, and it's time to call in the big guns and send it in to my editors. And to my surprise, they said it was in great shape!"

Janie Chang's comments have been edited and condensed.

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