Today we have with us, Janie Chang, debut author of THREE SOULS. Janie shares with us not only how how she came up with the idea for her novel, but how she actually decided to write it, and the steps she took to become a better writer and then a published author. Janie also touches on the notion that we need to find the time to write, no matter what else we have to make time for. A good reminder, indeed.
Please welcome Janie Chang to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Janie Chang Says To Find A Way To Write Before It’s Too Late
Amy: Hi Janie, welcome to Women’s Fiction Writers. Your debut novel, THREE SOULS, was inspired by stories you’d heard growing up. What was it that specifically sparked the story of Leiyin, the main character?
Janie: My dad was a great storyteller, and I learned a lot of family history listening to him talk about his childhood, the town in China where he grew up, and our ancestors. When he spoke of his mother, it was always with great love and respect – and a lot of sadness.
My grandmother was born into a very wealthy, very educated family. She wanted to attend university and become a teacher, but her father didn’t allow it. In those days, you never disobeyed your parents. But she did disobey – she tried to run away from home and get to university. But she was caught at the train station and dragged home in disgrace. Her father was furious, and punished her in a way that changed her life and prevented her from ever fulfilling her dreams. She was a woman of intelligence and ambition, but she lived in an era that allowed women very few options.
Her story has haunted me for a long time. I always knew my first novel would draw from that turning point in her life. To me, my grandmother’s fate speaks of the lives of all women forced to submit to the will of fathers, husbands, brothers, and in-laws; not just in pre-revolutionary China but also today, in many countries around the world.
Amy: What was your family’s reaction to your publishing a novel with their history and stories at its core?
Janie: Mostly they’re proud to have a published author in the family. My father passed away in 2000, but he would’ve been pleased. The family has a long literary tradition, lots of scholars, poets, and writers. My brothers and cousins know there are bits of family history in there, but it’s all about previous generations so there aren’t any skeletons in the contemporary closet to worry about.
Amy: From book idea to book shelf, how long was your journey to publication?
Janie: Ten years if you count many, many years of thinking and false starts. I got serious in 2009 after taking a fiction class. People – other students! – were using words like “post-Modernist” and saying things like “How can you tell when it’s better to use third-person limited or third-person omniscient?” and there I sat, completely dumbfounded. There’s more than one kind of third person? I am so, so up the creek! It was pretty obvious I had to learn about the craft of writing a novel or I’d never manage a decent manuscript.
The Writers’ Studio, which is a one-year creative writing program at Simon Fraser University, accelerated my learning curve by about ten years. No exaggeration to say it changed my life. My husband cooked dinner every night so that I could write. By 2012 I had a manuscript that was good enough to attract an agent. By the end of 2012, HarperCollins Canada made a pre-emptive offer for Three Souls. My editors and I went for broke, edited like crazy, and the book was on shelves in August 2013 in Canada. And it’s out this month in the US, from William Morrow Books (HarperCollins US).
Amy: Please tell us about one of your favorite scenes in THE THREE SOULS. (No spoilers, of course!) Did writing this scene come easily to you, or not? And why is it is one of your favorites?
Janie: I’ve always loved the opening, where the main character is a ghost watching her own funeral. She knows it’s her funeral but she can’t remember her life. Her three souls are beside her, and they can’t remember her life either. They hang there, floating in the rafters of a small family temple. It’s my favorite because that scene flashed into my mind suddenly one day, and I knew that was how the novel had to begin. It set the structure of the whole story. So I’m very grateful to that scene.
Amy: What’s your definition of women’s fiction—and how do you feel about that label for books about women?
Janie: ‘Women’s Fiction’ feels like a moving target that slides from light-hearted chick-lit to serious literary, depending on the marketing. As a result it seems to have become a catch-all category for anything with a female protagonist. On days when I feel bitchy, I think ‘And why isn’t there a ‘Men’s Fiction’ label?
I believe the first obligation of a novelist is to tell a good story. What I look and hope for when a book is labeled ‘Women’s Fiction’ is a story where the female protagonist strives toward both personal and larger goals, her actions impacting her own world view as well as the relationships around her. Because I feel that all stories are ultimately about relationships.
Amy: Please share with us your best advice for writers of women’s fiction.
Janie: It isn’t lack of craft or talent that prevents women from writing; it’s the willingness to push their writing to the foreground of their lives. Women seem to put others’ needs ahead of their own. Your spouse, your children, eldercare, the demands of the day job – all these responsibilities get in the way, and one day you wake up to realize you’ve been denying a really important part of who you are. Write. Find a way to write before it’s too late. Give up something less important that uses up time, negotiate with your family for ‘quiet time’ and a space to write. Otherwise you’ll end up resentful, regretful, or both.
Janie Chang is a Canadian novelist who draws upon family history for her writing. She grew up listening to stories about ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts, and immortals and about family life in a small Chinese town in the years before the Second World War. She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. Three Souls is her first novel.
Born in Taiwan, Janie has lived in the Philippines, Iran, Thailand, and New Zealand. She now lives in beautiful Vancouver, Canada with her husband and Mischa, a rescue cat who thinks the staff could be doing a better job.