July 19, 2024

A Discussion with Author Xixuan Collins

When she loses her job and her lover in one fell swoop, art history professor Rose Ming agrees to accompany her mother on an annual visit to relatives in her Chinese hometown of Three Rivers. Once there, Rose learns that she, her mother, aunt, and her cousin, Hong-Mei, have all shared a strange dream prompting them to search for an ancestor nobody seems to remember. With her future uncertain, Rose decides to solve the family mystery and instead unearths an unutterable tragedy hidden for over a hundred years.

Living in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, Peony, Lady Han, has every material comfort, a doting husband, and two beautiful children. With so much to share, she decides to adopt Jasmine, the daughter of her devoted maidservant, A-mei, giving her the advantages of a comfortable upbringing. But while Peony’s daughter, Iris, embraces Jasmine as a sister, the new addition to the family has deeper repercussions throughout both families, altering more than one future. And when Rose discovers the true history of the Han and Wang families, including their unbearable losses, she learns the meaning of love, friendship, family, faith, and the sacrifices people are willing to pay to achieve them, a lesson that allows her to face her own future with new courage.

That’s the teaser for Xixuan Collins‘s debut novel FLOWING WATER, FALLING FLOWERS, released by MWC Press in October 2020. Femmeliterate sat down with the author to learn more about moving story of how tragedy, love, and family ties reach beyond generations.

FL: Tell us the story behind the story. What led you to write this novel?

XC: I’ve always wanted to write a story set in Hechuan, my birthplace and my mom’s hometown. I grew up hearing stories about it. Some of them seemed so far-fetched, like the one in which someone in the family had a dream, woke up speaking in a different voice, and led the rest of the family to an unknown ancestor’s tomb.

I knew what I wanted the story to be, and I knew the “what ifs.” Then, in 2017, I took the novel writing workshop at the David R. Collins Writer’s conference and wrote a scene during one of the exercises. One week after the conference, I sat down and wrote 4000 words. And that was how it started.

FL: What made you choose to tell intertwined story lines, one in the present, and one in the past?

At the beginning I knew my story happened in the past, but when? I wanted to include the 1911 revolution, particularly the Sichuan Railway Protection movement, as the backdrop of the story. I figured out how old my characters were, made a chart to keep track of each character’s age, and from there the rest of the story timing fell in place.

I also wanted a present-day storyline for two reasons. One, I wanted to show what China is like now. The part of China depicted in the book is not like other major Chinese attractions such as Beijing or Shanghai. It’s the part of China that rarely gets into books for American readers, at least that was what I felt personally. I wanted to take readers on a tour, so to speak. The second reason was that I wanted readers to feel some kind of connection to the story. Rose is Chinese American, and I thought, that’s a good connection. She’s an American trying to connect with her ancestral roots, and maybe some Americans can relate to that.

FL: What research did you need to do for the book?

I asked my parents and my relatives questions, sort like interviews. I looked at old family pictures. That’s where I got a lot of details of daily life in Three Rivers. I visited Hechuan in 2018, and I took lots of pictures and notes about the city.

I read books. Two very important ones are: 天下合川 (Hechuan Under the Sky). My cousin Qiang’s wife, Li, who works for the Hechuan city government, acquired this book for me. It proved to be a valuable resource for my research of the city’s rich history, culture, and customs. The other is 炸响辛亥革命的惊雷: 四川保路运动历史真相, 郑光路著 (The Thunder that Struck the Xin‘hai Revolution: True History of the Sichuan Railway Protection Movement by Zheng Guanglu). I relied on this book for my research of the history of early railways in China and the Railway Protection Movement.

And, I Googled like everyone else!

Like most authors of historical novels, I did a lot more research than what I could put in the book. This is where a great editor can guide you: instead of dumping all that info in your book, you can put it in author’s note, if you are interested and want your reader to know it.

The scenic landscape of Sichuan Province, China

FL: Did the story change or evolve as you wrote it? Is there anything you thought you would originally include that you ended up leaving out?

The story did evolve as I wrote it. Some characters revealed to me their motivations, secrets, and backgrounds that I was not aware of when I started. I know this sounds crazy. Like my husband said, wow, you are talking about these people like they are real! But they are to me. As you get to know them more, you are going to be surprised. I try to understand them and their choices. Even with bad choices, I try to understand their point of view and have sympathy.

The part I ended up leaving out were some of Rose’s self-contemplations and reflection. Her inner thoughts that didn’t have much to do to move the story forward. Her inner thoughts that should have stayed in the background, making her who she is but should not actually be part of the story.

And of course, I also left out some historical background. These stories are interesting to me, but they slowed down the movement of the novel. A better place for them is the author’s note.

FL: Tell about your process of getting the book to publication—revising, editing, submitting to agents and publishers.

Oh I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to get the book to publication! It took three years, but even that is not too long. I recorded nine drafts, so many, many rounds of revision. The first draft took the longest time. I often didn’t write anything for weeks and even months when my regular job got too busy, so I had to look at what I’d written and tried to remember where to go next.

Revision is so important. Even now I think I could have gone back and revised the book again, but I know I have to stop at some point.

If you can have someone help you revise – your writing group, beta readers, and editor – your book will turn out to be so much better. My editor brought the book to a whole new level. I knew the weaknesses of the book, but after going over it so many times I developed a tunnel vision. I didn’t know what to do to make it better. But my editor knocked down that tunnel wall for me and said, hey, look here! I looked, and whoa, it was a new world!

I was lucky that when I pitched the book to the Midwest Writing Center Press, they liked it and said yes! MWC Press and many other small presses accept pitches from writers themselves without agents. I did try to query agents, and I had best luck with Twitter’s #PidMad. I got several requests for partial and full manuscripts through this event. I eventually decided to publish with MWC Press because they are local, and I know who I’d be working with. I knew even with an agent I could be still waiting for  a long time for the book to be sold, and I thought at my age, I’d just want to get a book out, just in case!.  I think you have to be very persistent if you want to acquire an agent, and don’t take rejections personally.

FL: What’s something you learned about writing a book?

I learned that I can actually write a book! And people who read the book actually didn’t think it was that bad. So this is very encouraging, especially for someone who speaks English as a second language and has no formal training of writing. My imposter syndrome has definitely quieted a bit.

The most difficult parts were to find time to write and to get the voice right when writing. To keep an open mind, and be okay when your story wants to lead you somewhere you are scared of. But most of all, find time to put down 1000 words or so on paper, I mean in your computer file, each day. I’m still looking for the time.

The most fun part is building the world, and getting lost in it. Becoming friends with your characters and letting them whisper in your ears. To escape from this world. I can’t believe I’m saying this because it sounds so cliché, but it’s so true. Sometimes when I sit down, I don’t know what I’m going to write, but then after a couple of hours I come out of it and my story has moved forward. My characters did what they wanted to do and it’s totally logical for them to do those things. That was the best feeling. Like you just hide in a corner and record your character’s motivations and actions and emotions without intruding on them. It’s heavenly.

X.H. Collins was born in Hechuan, Sichuan Province, China, and grew up in Kangding, on the East Tibet Plateau. She has a Ph.D. in nutrition and is a biology professor at a community college. She lives in Iowa with her husband and son. Flowing Water, Falling Flowers is her first novel. To learn more about the author and her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @xixuan_c, Facebook @xhcollins, and Instagram xixuan_c.

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