Once again, we welcome author Mingmei Yip to Women’s Fiction Writers. Her novels come from history, culture, and her passion for her subject and for storytelling. That’s a lesson right there! But her advice to aspiring authors really hits home. Tell me if you agree. You’ll also find the trailer for her new novel at the end of the interview, I hope you’ll take a look!
Please welcome Mingmei Yip back to WFW!
“Sometimes, it is a single word that brightens a whole paragraph”
Amy: Many authors have stories in their heads for years before writing them. Can you share with us when the idea sparked for Secret of a Thousand Beauties? And when did you know that “marriage” to a dead man and Chinese embroidery were integral to your story?
Mingmei: In traditional China, women were and sometimes still are considered men’s possessions and didn’t have much independence or freedom. A Chinese saying goes “The worst thing that can happen to a woman is to marry the wrong man. The worst thing that can happen to a man is to enter the wrong profession.” Unfortunately, because marriages were usually arranged, many women ended up marrying the wrong man at the cost of any chance for happiness. Wary of a bad marriage, some decided to remain single for the rest of their life. These women would join small communities established for non-marrying women. They displayed this choice by tying up the hair in a long pigtail.
Intrigued by these women and their sisterhoods, I decided to write a novel about them. Most worked as maids, but some were more fortunate and could learn a traditional woman’s craft. One of these was embroidery, an art that has always appealed to me, so I decided to write about this small group of embroiderers. They are supposedly celibate, but of course many succumbed to desire.
Ghost marriage was another way women were oppressed in traditional China. Couples were often betrothed in childhood, or even before birth. Since only half of children survived to adulthood, many lost their fiancés. Because they had already pledged marriage, the cruel custom was to marry the woman to the dead man. As a practical matter, this meant she was a slave to her supposed in-laws.
Amy: You feature Chinese history, heritage, and culture in your novels. Has any of this been handed down to you in stories or is it all imagination combined with research?
Mingmei: I have been influenced by both. Growing up before Hong Kong became the modern city it is today, I heard many stories of China in the days of the emperors, especially from my father, who also loved stories. As soon as I was able to read I started to enjoy learning about the ancient times. However, for each of my novels, I spend a lot of time doing research to get the details right.
Amy: Are you a plotter and planner or do you just write and see where the story takes you?
Mingmei: All my stories have twists and turns but I never plot these in advance but let the story develop spontaneously. Therefore, instead of an outline, I let my characters tell me their stories. Once I start to write, the story grows its own feet and walks where it wants to go.
I begin with an engaging situation. For my debut novel Peach Blossom Pavilion, I decided to write about the last Chinese elegant prostitute. For my second novel Petals from the Sky, I had an idea about a would-be nun who falls in love. My third novel, Song of the Silk Road, is the journey to self-discovery of a young woman who travels the ancient Silk Road in search of adventure – and a three million dollar reward. The next two, Skeleton Women and The Nine Fold Heaven, are about femmes fatales and women spies working for gangsters.
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring novelists?
It’s never easy to be a writer, especially when you start out. I think to be a writer, it is still essential to master the basics. Not only voice, characterization, dialogue, plot, but also sentence structure, its rhythm and music. I always try to vary the length of my sentences and start each one with a different subject. It’s essential to spent whatever time it takes to find the right word. Sometimes, it is a single word that brightens a whole paragraph.
“There is a Chinese saying ‘Slap on the thigh and exclaim!’ That’s how the readers will react to a good choice of word. Readers may not be aware of the meticulous hard work behind a smooth sentence, but if you don’t pay attention, they will soon become bored.
“I also think it’s good for authors to attend other cultural activities such as movies, concerts, art exhibitions. Have as diverse a background as you can cultivate, that really helps.”
Mingmei Yip believes that one should, besides being entertained, also get something out of reading a novel. Her new novel is Secret of a Thousand Beauties, coming out December, 2014 by Kensington Books. Her other novels include: Skeleton Women Femmes Fatales); The Nine Fold Heaven, story of an ex spy and night-club singer undertaking a dangerous journey to look for her long lost lover and son; Peach Blossom Pavilion, story of the last Chinese Geisha; Petals from the Sky — a poignant Buddhist love story about wisdom, compassion, when to persist and when to let go; Song of the Silk Road , an adventure, love story between an older woman and a younger man with a three million award on China’s famous, dangerous route.
Besides writing, Mingmei is accomplished in many other fields. A professional player of the Guqin, Chinese zither, she was recently invited by Carnegie Hall to perform in “A Festival celebrating Chinese Culture” program. She had her solo Goddess exhibition at the New York Open Center Gallery to great acclaim and held calligraphy workshops at the City University of New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has lectured extensively on Chinese art and culture at Oxford University, Columbia University, Beijing University, University of Paris, Vassar College, Williams College.
Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Mingmei-Yip/e/B0037A8RBO