The Walking Boy
How did you get the idea to write this novel? What started it?
My inspiration can be traced back to a dream I had, maybe in 1997 or 98. In the dream, I walked through an ancient city with very high terracotta walls and the light was very beautiful, slanting down and casting shadows on the ground and the walls and sentinel towers. There was something familiar to that city; it reminded me a little of Xi'an in Mainland China, which I had visited in 1987. I wrote about this dream in a poem. Later in the fall of 2000, I started to look up books in the library on the ancient city Chang'an, near where present day Xi'an is. I let my mind wander as I flipped through various books and then I became interested in the reign of Wu Zhao, China's only Female Emperor. At around the same time, I was reading a book about a young monk in the 20th Century who sets off on a pilgrimage. That's the book that mentioned the term "walking boy." That got me thinking about weaving several narratives together into a novel that essentially described the inner and outer quests people are engaged with, in their search for fulfillment and meaning.
Your book is considered historical fiction and yet you have written it in the present tense, as well as included some rather modern notions, especially psychological ideas. What were you interested in doing the novel this way?
In one sense, it is historical fiction since it fulfills both elements of the term! Set some 1300 years ago, and cooked up in my mind! Then again, I wanted to veer off from the conventions of that genre. Hence, the present tense. Which leads the reader to feel as if they are living it as they move through the novel; or maybe, it's really all being re-created in their minds in the present. That's what I believe in general about fiction, or rather, the way I want to write fiction, whatever tense it's in. That the reader must be engaged, and her or his imagination must also participate in the construction of a world.
I'm very fascinated by the complexities behind human beings, what motivates us, why we may sometimes act contrary to what we state as our beliefs and so on. And by the kinds of "marks" — visible or psychological — that shape our choices. Then there's the complexity of sexual expression, love, fear. These are notions that we in the 21st century are often preoccupied with, in our own ways, but it would be naïve to presume that people in other countries in ancient times never thought about them. Of course, I am bringing to the novel my contemporary interests and interpretation of a different era and world.
The main characters in the novel are marked in some way, visibly or invisibly, often both. Misfits or outcasts or geniuses? Some of these qualities are transgressive, in any period of history or culture. That's why I coined the term "transhistorical" to describe my approach to writing this novel.
Although Nü Huang is a minor character in the novel, she plays a critical role, since all of the separate narratives in one way or another include her presence either physically or metaphorically. What were you hoping to express, by providing readers with such a charismatic yet unlikeable character?
I wanted to portray her in some ways that go beyond the historians' take on her; many ancient historical records are rather harsh on her, although it is apparent too that she was incredibly skilled in her administrative and political strategies. The modern historians are mostly rather unkind too. I didn't want to be completely sympathetic of her, because the way I understood it, she was a complex woman who did some horrible things, yet she was not appreciated enough for her incredible astuteness.
I also wanted to show how evil acts begin in the mind first, how a person rationalizes to herself or himself the justification for punishing others, how one can convince oneself through a self-righteous, almost hypnotic and sometimes solipsistic "reasoning" that acts of punishment or retaliation are perfectly okay. The problem too, is that in creating such cold narratives justifying violence, that person becomes haunted ultimately with the results of her actions. Well, that's my belief.
The other function of Nü Huang as a character, is for me to challenge the reader with the problem of being both drawn to and revulsed by her. What is it about her that's so appealing? And what revulses us? Can we have compassion for such a misguided soul, while being clear about the wrongful deeds she has done? For that, we would have to examine what our moral compass consists of.
Then there's the contrast of her with other characters, particularly Baoshi. How are they different? What made them that way? I don't really have the answers, but I wanted to raise those questions.
Why did you write about demon souls and exorcism? Do you believe in ghosts and haunting? Your previous novel This Place Called Absence also includes an account of family members being haunted by the ghost of a dead man. Is this a particularly Asian or Chinese preoccupation?
No, I don't think this is merely limited to a Chinese or Asian imagination. There are lots of examples in the European or North American literary traditions which use such tropes or metaphors, although they look a little different. Ideas which shared the common tone of feeling out of control, and at the mercy of some maleavolent influences, some which human beings initially created. For example, Frankenstein, Dracula, and all the modern versions of monsters, beasts, suprahuman beings.
Readers can intepret such hauntings literally and/or see them as metaphors of psychological preoccupation or manifestation of fears. Parts of us, our histories, our past actions, which are too overwhelming in emotional impact or implication, to be integrated within the conscious self, then are relegated to the "supernatural", the other-worldly. That would be seeing hauntings in a metaphorical way. As well, there are certainly beliefs in many spiritual traditions that there are several realms, several planes of reality, and therefore, there are possible ways of existing beyond the purely physical, limited to our lived experience within our bodies. Would we be so complacent about our actions if we believe that whatever we do, has tremendous impact on the directions of our lives, even beyond this life? That's the notion of karma, of course.
Some people have suggested that the novel reminds them of films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee or Hero by Zhang Yimou. Were you thinking of those films when you wrote the novel?
I think Hero came out when I was already quite far into the structuring of the novel. However, I was quite taken by it, and had it in my mind as I working on the drafts. I was also watching a few of Akira Kurosawa's movies at the time, and I could see Kurosawa's influence on Zhang Yimou in his making of Hero. I also liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; I liked how Ang Lee embedded the martial arts within a larger moral context, and that there was a certain lyricism to the way the stories got told in that movie. Generally though, aside from those two films, it's more accurate to say that I've been influenced from childhood, watching lots of Chinese films which were either martial arts movies or quest or ghost stories. And that accumulation of influences was what got me into the idea of writing a literary fiction that married so-called "high" culture with "low" culture. I wanted to write a novel that borrowed some qualities from the structure of classical Chinese novels such as Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) or a work such as Tale of Genji, a Japanese novel by a woman writer Murasaki Shikibu, and as well, I wanted to have some elements of kung fu, the quest/pilgrimage film, and of course, the horror elements of ghost stories! Then there's the poet in me who had to find a way to include poetry in the novel, and that was certainly a common thing within the classical Chinese novel. I wanted to draw on all these interests and conventions, and concoct something a little reminiscent of these, while creating a rather odd or queer story, in several senses of the word.