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Da Chen on his new novel, 'My Last Empress.' He's in L.A. Thursday

By Carolyn Kellogg

3:15 PM PST, December 5, 2012

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Da Chen hit bestseller lists in 1999 with his first book, the memoir "Colors of the Mountain." That, and its sequel, "Sounds of the River," told of the hardships he experienced while growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution.

Chen had moved to the U.S. when he was 23 to study; he earned a law degree from Columbia University and went to work on Wall Street. After living in New York for many years, he and his family have recently moved to Southern California. Chen will be doing a reading and book-signing Thursday, Dec. 6, at Book Soup at 7 p.m.

The book he'll be reading from is his new novel, "My Last Empress," published earlier this year. While not all writers are able to shift between genres, Chen has moved from nonfiction to fiction. His first novel, "Brothers," received high praise, including being named a best book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. "My Last Empress" shows more of Chen's graceful language and introduces us to a richly imagined world.

The book begins at the cusp of the 20th century. It tells the story of a young man from a New England blueblood family who is compelled by love to travel to China's Forbidden City, where things, which were already complicated, get even more so.

The narrator of “My Last Empress” is Samuel Pickens, a wealthy New Englander who travels to China. What opportunities were there in writing from his point of view?

The idea of this novel originated from my visit to Yale University several years ago. After speaking to some very bright students there, a professor took me to see the bronze statue of a man named Horace Tracy Pitken, who was said to be the first Yale graduate beheaded by Chinese Boxer rebels. While staring at this statue, I felt a rush of mournful emotions, instantly connecting us two. I suddenly felt indebted to him for the wrong done to this brave missionary who journeyed to China in the late 19th century to save Manchurian souls. This fleeting emotional exchange was the first spark of the novel, deeply felt in my heart. I began to wonder about this man, his bravery, and his dedication. A distinct mood overwhelmed me, which was all I needed to conjure up this novel. I instantaneously knew that my next novel would have to be a love story, a tale about obsession and madness, the kind that knew no limits.

The setting of New England with its haunting beauty became the natural stage. There is such deeply rooted soulfulness permeating those leafy towns and whimsical villages. Every little brook is an old tale, every little hill a sweet stanza. In that sense, it is very much like my birth place, China. Hence comes that thematic link between the two places, enabling my characters to yearn for that faraway land to seek inspiration and reincarnation, as well.

“My Last Empress” is frank about sexual situations, but also poetic. How did you balance the two?

I wrote quite a few detailed sex scenes in "My Last Empress" because, to me, love-making is the most beautiful human behavior, so it has to be painted with the most poetic prose. Sex scenes, done well, can reveal the most about a character, befitting the motto “show what he does” then we shall know what he wants.

To write sex well is to trace the contour of a sensual thought: the seeds of lust, the hunt, the fruit. Desiring is sexier than the act itself. The act is the climax, which at best is a fleeting moment, yet the lusting can last an eternity. So write more about lust and less about the act and you will gain that balance.

Did you have to do any research to learn about the period in which the book is set, at the turn of the last century?

Research is a necessity in writing either fiction or nonfiction. One must digest what one encounters in his or her research, making the facts yours.  I aim to give my readers not just a China, but my China, the one that lives deep in my heart...the one that’s shrouded in nostalgia.

Usually I don’t spend too much time doing research because a novel, to me, is merely the emotional journey of its protagonist. Facts are important, but the contour of your protagonist’s emotions is the main backbone of my novels.

Sam is haunted by Annabelle, a lost love (or maybe it’s all in his head). Did writing his thoughts about her change how you thought about ghosts?

Sam only seems haunted by Annabelle, his lost love. He is actually the one haunting the ghost of Annabelle because of the seer’s eye he possesses. His abject longing for the departed Annabelle pierces the thin partition between the living and the dead, allowing him to wander endlessly in the land of ghosts. His encounters with Annabelle are not the result of his maddened imaginings, but certain surreality visible only to the gifted. In Chinese culture, we believe in reincarnations as a form of metamorphosis of our souls, so the notion of ghosts is not as far-fetched as it is in American culture. We place wooden plaques bearing the names of our departed ancestors on the central table of our house. We put plates of rice and meats in front of them, and we pray to them as if they were living. We believe that we share our universe with the dead, with them being the ying (the darkness) and the living being the yang (the light) of earthly harmony.

Since moving to Los Angeles, what’s something that has surprised you?

We live in the South Bay area. Breezes come into my window like kisses and hugs from the Pacific. They are by far the sweetest surprises.

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