Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

23 September 2008

Interview with historical fiction author Mingmei Yip

Mingmei Yip is a novelist, a children's book writer and illustrator, a qin musician, a painter, and a calligrapher. She received her doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris and taught in universities in China before immigrating to the United States. Her first novel written in English, Peach Blossom Pavilion, was published in June 2008 by Kensington. Only seven weeks after its release, Peach Blossom Pavilion went into its fourth printing.

Mingmei, many thanks for visiting my blog, and congratulations on the publication of your seventh book and first novel, Peach Blossom Pavilion.

How do you balance your life as a writer with your life as a musician, artist, and calligrapher? Do they compete for your energy, or do they complement each other and make you more productive overall?

My several interests do compete for my energy but also complement each other. Since I cannot do everything at once, setting priorities is very important for me. I’ve learned to focus on the specific interest that needs attention at a particular time and temporarily put aside the others. So when I have a writing deadline, I’ll stop painting to give my full attention to writing. I minimize distractions and often write all day and into the evening. Similarly, when preparing for a concert I play from morning until bedtime.

My interests do inspire each other. In my novel, Peach Blossom Pavilion, I introduced all the arts that I’ve been practicing since I was a teenager—music, calligraphy, painting, and poetry.

You were trained in many of the same arts as your heroine, the courtesan Precious Orchid, but in a very different China. Are there ways in which your lives have been similar?

Although I was born and grew up in Hong Kong, then a British Colony, I consider myself very lucky to have been trained in these traditional arts by masters from China who were heirs to the 3,000-year-old Chinese traditions. Those accomplished in these arts included not only men but also high-society ladies and their fallen counterparts—artistic courtesans, or Geishas. The old Chinese culture still exists but one must make the effort to seek it out.

Peach Blossom Pavilion required substantial research. Do you have any suggestions for not getting bogged down in research at the expense of writing time?

Yes, research does take up a fair amount of writing time. Fortunately, because I have been fascinated by Chinese culture since my teens, I have been accumulating knowledge and rare books on the subjects I used for my novel. I did go to China twice to research Peach Blossom Pavilion because I needed materials not available here.

Research can be endless, however, so my advice is to do just enough to put yourself in the minds of your characters, but not more than this. If you are really fascinated by your subject, as I am, then you may just have to set a limit when you stop researching and start writing.

Why did you choose to write about the last Chinese courtesans before the Communist Revolution? What about that time period or life intrigued you?

Most Americans know about the Japanese Geishas but almost none know about their Chinese counterparts. While Japanese geisha culture still has remnants today, that of their Chinese counterparts has passed into history, and I wanted to give voice to these women whose lives were both splendid and miserable. Indeed, Peach Blossom Pavilion is the only novel about this aspect of Chinese women’s lives. Their determination to make the best of their lot deeply moved me.

There are many books about modern China, which is also fascinating, but readers in the West should be able to read about the rich traditional culture that preceded the introduction of McDonalds and Coke.

Writing in a language that is not your native tongue must have presented many challenges. What problems did you face, and how did you solve them?

Most challenging for me in writing in English language is grammar, since that doesn’t really exist in Chinese. So when I started to write, I took as many grammar classes as I could afford. I also read as much in English as I can so as to develop a sense of the beauty and rhythm of the language. Whenever I notice some perfectly rendered sentences in terms of structure, rhythm, sound, etc., I’ll try to copy them or even memorize them as models.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

Since I am something of a free spirit, my schedule is pretty erratic. When I’m inspired I can write up to ten hours a day. I usually take a nap to refresh myself. I don’t need caffeinated drinks or music to keep me energized. When I’m completely focused, that’s caffeine in itself! Nor do I need alcohol to unwind; playing the qin does that for me. Since inspiration often comes to me in dreams, I keep a special pen with a light by the bed so when I wake up in the middle of the night I can jot down these evanescent images.

Why do you love the qin more than other musical instruments?

The qin is the most ancient string instrument in China with over 2,500 years of history. Because it is an icon of Chinese culture, it was chosen to be played in the recent Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Qin music, meditative and subtly layered, relaxes me.

I have also composed qin music for lyrics by ancient Chinese poets and myself, which I sing to my own accompaniment. Samples of my singing and playing can be heard on my website.

What are you planning to write about for your next book in English?

My next novel is already completed. It is a Buddhist love story in which I mix romance with Buddhist ideas such as illusion, non-attachment, enlightenment, and nirvana. I have just started my third novel, the story of a young woman who unexpectedly inherits five million dollars from a stranger, then travels to remote China, seeking her unknown benefactress. This is a spiritual, mystical adventure story that came to me in one of my dreams.

Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about Peach Blossom Pavilion.

Mingmei Yip's Website is Peach Blossom Pavilion is available at bookstores and at and Barnes & Noble.

Her children's book Chinese Children's Favorite Stories, which she also illustrated, is available in bookstores, at and Barnes & Noble, and in some museum bookstores.

21 September 2008

Contest winners

My husband drew names from a baseball cap, and the winners of my birthday blast contest are MICHELE CWIERTNY and RAE ANN PARKER.


Choose any book (not just the featured book) available at by any of the authors I've posted interviews with or will post one with soon (see list on previous post), and I'll get it out to you this week.

Thank you, everyone, for entering.

17 September 2008

Birthday blast contest

48th birthday: spent on evacuation from Hurricane Ivan

49th birthday: spent on evacuation from Hurricane Katrina

50th birthday: spent putting our house and lives back together after Hurricane Katrina

51st birthday: spent in an empty house in California, where we moved to get away from hurricanes

52nd birthday: furnished house! no hurricane! hurrah!

To celebrate the unusual event of having a normal birthday, I’m taking the day off to refill my well (for you non-writers, that means relaxing and reading) and to rejoice in the benefits of being 52: no need to look for Prince Charming (already found him), no angst over what to do with my life (write), and toughened up enough by life to withstand whatever the future brings.

Now for the contest: Just comment on today’s post by 11 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday, 20 September, and you’ll be entered. Two posters will be chosen at random to win a book of their choice (must be available at by any author I’ve interviewed:

historical fiction author Mingmei Yip:
coming soon

historical romance writer Jade Lee:
coming soon

fiction writer Amy MacKinnon:

historical romance writer Lynna Banning:

mystery writer Ed Lynskey:

mystery writer June Shaw:

fiction writer Carleen Brice:

fiction writer Therese Fowler:

historical romance writer Jennifer Blake:

romance writer Hailey North:

historical mystery writer Laura Joh Rowland:

humorist Christee Gabour Atwood:

historical mystery writer Candice Proctor:

speculative fiction writer Charles Gramlich:

romance writer Farrah Rochon:

Want to win a book? Ask a question. Answer a question. Tell me what you think about getting older. Tell me why you like (or dislike) your current age. Even type your name. Any comment will enter you in the contest.

And now, please excuse me while I retire to my reading nook with a cup of tea and a book.

10 September 2008

Interview with debut author Amy MacKinnon

The heroine of Amy MacKinnon’s recently released Tethered: A Novel (Shaye Areheart Books/Random House) came to her three years ago, soon after Amy visited the body-preparation room of her uncle’s funeral parlor. Tethered’s undertaker heroine, Clara Marsh, is a loner who reluctantly comes out of her shell to befriend lonely little Trecie and to help the police solve the murder of the unidentified “Precious Doe.”

Amy, thank you for visiting my blog today, and congratulations on the release of Tethered and its being chosen a September pick for Borders’ Original Voices Program.

In my “books read” list, I labeled your book a mystery with magical realism. How would you classify it?

A great question, one I’ve been discussing with my friends lately. It was never intended as a mystery, thriller, horror, or anything other than a novel. I do like magical realism, however, so let’s go with that.

What was your favorite part of writing Tethered?

Please don't think me trite, but the very best part of all was the actual writing, the high I would get when I wrote a good section. And I loved when I was surprised by the direction the story would take, surprising even me. The flower theme and Clara’s garden were a luminous shock.

Ah, the flower theme! I really loved that. Was it hard to write about characters with such wounded souls?

Not at all. Though people are quick to read about the tortured in news accounts, in excruciating detail even, no one actually wants to hear from the victim. Too painful, I suppose. I wanted them to be heard, especially Precious Doe. She’s based on the real Precious Doe, Erica Michelle Marie Green, to whom the book is dedicated. Also, I needed to rewrite her ending, to know she was safe and loved.

Did your experience writing nonfiction for newspapers and radio help or hurt when you began writing a novel?

Any kind of writing will only help. It taught me to use an economy of words; to place the who, what, where, when, why up front; to work well with editors (very important!); and most especially to know that once words are committed to paper and printed, the impact—and all that goes with that—last a lifetime.

Your style is so beautiful that I kept stopping to reread paragraphs and savor them. How did you develop your style? What hints can you give my blog readers for writing beautiful sentences?

Shauna, that means a lot, thank you. My first novel, the one I submitted to 73 agents, with partials/fulls requested by 50, and rejected by all, was written in a style I thought I, an inexperienced novelist, should try: very straightforward. It fell flat. But I didn’t have an MFA, didn't major in literature, couldn’t get a short story published to save my life, I had no right to attempt beautiful language—or so I thought. One day I gave myself permission to write something I promised not to show anyone. I wrote the most gorgeous prose I was capable of; it freed me to aim higher. I put it away for a few months, then re-read it. It was startling to realize it was pretty good.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

I would absolutely not recommend my writing structure to anyone! Stephen King writes everyday and has a ten-page requirement. Julia Glass wrote Three Junes in fifteen-minute snatches, here and there while working and raising children. It is up to the writer to decide how badly s/he wants this life and what s/he’s prepared to do to make that happen.

Do you have any other advice for my readers who are working on their first novels?

Be bold. Never give up. Believe.

What are you working on next, and how are those books related to Tethered?

I'm working on another very dark story about both the best and worst of the human spirit. It too will have aspects of magical realism with the prominent theme being the search for faith.

Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about Tethered.

Thanks so much for having me, Shauna. Can’t wait to return the favor.

Amy MacKinnon’s Website is at She shares a blog, The Writers’ Group, with three writing friends at

Her book, Tethered, is available at,, and Barnes & Noble.

03 September 2008

More tips from RWA National 2008

One last post about the 2008 meeting of the Romance Writers of America in July, this time featuring at least one tip from each session I attended.

1. Assign your character three or five character traits and then show at least one in every scene the character appears in. (Cherry Adair, “How to Layer and Texture Your Novel for High Impact”)

2. Put as much action into every page of your manuscript as possible without being frenetic. (Cherry Adair, “How to Layer and Texture Your Novel for High Impact”)

3. “Go to sleep with a wonder, not a worry.” (Eric Maisel, “Creativity for Life”) That is, consciously think about points in your book when you go to bed. Your brain will work on problems in non-REM sleep and answers will be near-conscious when you wake up.

4. Generate mental energy quickly by falling back in love with words. (Eric Maisel, “Creativity for Life”)

5. Create in the "middle of things." We are always in the "middle of things "and should keep our “writing muscles” toned by continuing to write anyway. It hurts one's writing to believe there are events during which one can’t write. (Eric Maisel, “Creativity for Life”)

6. Become an anxiety expert. “Choosing provokes anxiety.” Because writing a book involves a long series of choices, it provokes anxiety. The writer needs to try out and find methods that reduce anxiety for them, whether it’s deep breathing, guided visualization, energetic activities, silent screaming, or something else. (Eric Maisel, “Creativity for Life”)

7. Create family agreements so that everyone in the family accept your goals and your writing time and process. (Eric Maisel, “Creativity for Life”)

8. Check the demographics of who has viewed your book trailer. Change the key words if it appears you are attracting the wrong audience. (Diana Holquist and Lindsey Faber, “The Down and Dirty Guide to Making Your Own Book Trailer Videos”)

9. You can build name recognition and get speaking experience by volunteering to talk at literacy days at local libraries and school libraries. They don’t care if you’re not yet published. (Ruth Kaufman, Theresa Meyers, Berri Russell, Gina Black, and Michelle Ann Young, “Making a Splash, Even if You’re Waiting to Sell”)

10. Cross-genre books often run longer because you’re trying to fulfill the needs of two different groups of readers. Not every publisher makes allowances, so it’s important with a cross-genre novel to go through every sentence and ask whether it can be condensed or dropped. (Robin Owens, Ann Aguirre, Catherine Asaro, and Cindy Hwang, “Writing—and Selling—Crossover Fiction”)

11. Give each character a motto and a set of core values and have the character’s behavior and choices (and sometimes conflicts) reflect these. (Susan Gable, “Story Superglue: Make It Stick with Readers”)


A three-CD-ROM set containing MP3 files of most of the conference sessions can be purchased at