Jonathan Tel’s third book, a collection of linked short stories set in contemporary China called The Beijing of Possibilities, was published in June by Other Press. His previous works of fiction include Arafat’s Elephant and Freud’s Alphabet, set in Jerusalem and London, respectively. In this interview, conducted via email, Tel answered questions about his globe-trotting research method, his past work as a physicist and opera librettist, and Helan Xiao—the enigmatic, central character of his latest book. —Matthew Jakubowski
MJ: I’m curious to learn more about what appears to be your research method, which thus far has involved living in Jerusalem, London, and Beijing in order to create separate books drawn from life in each of those cities. Although this method clearly offers the benefit of first-hand knowledge, what specifically attracts you to striking out in this way and immersing yourself in various cultures? Is authenticity the primary goal? Or has this pattern of one city per book been less deliberate, more of a love for travel, and the writing has grown from your experiences?
JT: In general, I become fascinated by some place or period or topic, and then I discover I have something to say about it. In the case of my most recent book, I did return to China, for the fourth time, in the hope of finding something to write, and I did suspect in advance that Beijing, as opposed to anywhere else in the country, would be the setting. That was as much as I knew. I hadn’t even decided that I’d be writing linked short stories, as opposed to a novel, or that my subject matter would be Chinese in China, as opposed to foreigners in China.
What do 1939 London, contemporary Jerusalem and contemporary Beijing have in common? It’s that all three, in the opinion of the inhabitants, are the centre of the universe.
MJ: It must have taken a long time to gather the material, given the four trips to and from China. Are you constantly on the go, or do you plot the trips and then do further research before beginning to write in a home base of sorts? (And what city are you writing from now, if I may ask?)
JT: Well, I had been in China three times before it struck me I might be capable of writing about it. (By contrast, I’ve lived in Japan and visited India, and much as I admire much fiction written and set in those countries, so far I’ve not felt I personally have any insight to add.) My fourth visit to China was aimed at gathering material. I left the country with many notes and with ideas buzzing in my head. In New York (a city not unlike Beijing) I wrote a detailed outline. I put it aside for a few months, and later that year, in San Francisco, I wrote the first draft of the book. I returned to China to take photographs to illustrate the book, and made more notes, and revised it.
I’m now in an airport terminal en route to New York.
MJ: Given your writing’s focus on specific cities and their citizens, what can you say about your literary intent, insofar as your goals to entertain, educate, chronicle, enlighten, agitate, and so forth?
JT: I’m not sure that I have a “goal.” I write what I really want to write. But I do hope my writing will enrich the imaginative lives of readers, taking them to places they wouldn’t otherwise go. As for educating the readers, I hope at least to communicate the complexity and variety of human experience. Fiction does what journalism can’t.
MJ: You wrote in a recent book review of Amos Oz’s work that “the world is coextensive with the imagination,” a striking phrase that seems to also apply to your own writing. Does it? And if so, how?
JT: When I’m writing at my best, or when I’m reading the work of a fiction writer I admire, it seems, for the duration of the dream, that absolutely everything that happens in the world can be represented and understood in terms of fiction. To some degree I do consciously try to “get it all in” (in John Updike’s phrase).
MJ: Your writing’s expansive, anything-can-happen quality gives it an epic and universal tone, similar at times to stories by Calvino, who you’ve been compared to. Is it wrong to think that some of these aspects of your writing are a result of your previous work as a quantum physicist and opera librettist? Your background in these areas makes you rather unique among authors of fiction.
JT: I’m always happy to be compared to Calvino. I was a theoretical physicist. I do enjoy complex structures. In particular, I was bowled over by differential geometry: micro changes imply the global shape, and vice-versa. True of the universe as of a novel.
As an opera librettist, my role was to find verbal structures that would inspire the composer. Also I like the way the words only sketch out the plot; the music does the rest.
MJ: What were some of the unique challenges you faced while writing your most recent book, The Beijing of Possibilities?
JT: I’m not Chinese. Is it possible for a person from one culture to understand and communicate another culture? One needs a combination of humility, ambition, enthusiasm, and hard work.
There were also many technical problems. How do I express Chinese dialogue in English, without making it deracinated or exotic? How do I give the reader background information, without being didactic?
Let’s suppose a Chinese writer was obsessed with New York. He visited it as often as he could, and he read everything he could find about it, and he button-holed every American he came across and quizzed them about the city. Let’s suppose he then wrote, in Chinese, a novel about Americans living in New York. Would he be as knowledgeable about New York as eight million New Yorkers? Of course not. Would his novel be uniquely insightful and well worth reading? Hopefully.
MJ: In the new book, are there certain stories that stand out for you as a writer?
JT: I’m fond of the opening story, in which a man in a gorilla suit bicycles around Beijing—my version of the Monkey King legend. And of “Though the Candle Flickers Red” about sex and the Cultural Revolution. But my favorite is the concluding novella, “The Most Beautiful Woman In China.” It has a fiendishly complex structure—a story within a story within a story—and links together two thousand years of Chinese history, while being set in Beijing today. I really like the heroine, Helan Xiao; I wish she existed so we could hang out together in Beijing. Whereas the other stories were written quickly and needed little revision, this one I had to revise many times before I got it right. Not only does it have to function as an independent story, it also contains a blueprint of the architecture of the whole book.
MJ: I’m glad you mentioned Helan Xiao. Without giving too much away: For a fictional character, she has a rather unique presence in the book. It has a perplexing effect at first, one that’s more intriguing upon further investigation. (For instance, Googling your name and her name together yields search results that make her look as real as you.) What inspired you to do this with this character?
JT: Spoiler alert. Skip this response if you’d rather not find out her role in advance.
The reader discovers, in the last pages of the book, that Helan, the heroine of the final story, is the author of all the previous stories. So the book becomes a novel, after all—a world arrayed around the life of one character. (As for the results of Google searches, I’m not responsible for that. You’ll have to ask Google.)
MJ: Were you at all worried about people not “getting it” regarding Helan if, for instance, they treated the book as independent stories and took their sweet time (as I did) to read through to the last one?
JT: Not at all. The stories work fine if read on their own. Then the reader gets a bonus on discovering they link together. That was my intention.
MJ: As a short story collection—if in fact that’s what you would call a work such as this—the book operates on a very different level, with more unity. Can you talk about your choice of giving the book this form, rather than writing, say, unlinked short stories?
JT: The form is appropriate to the subject: Beijing, in which people have individual stories within the one city.
MJ: Each of your books so far seems ambitious. As a writer, now that you’ve published three books, does the writing come any easier in terms of your method and craft?
JT: Not easier. Each book is a foray into the unknown. To write a book requires courage, passion, the conviction that what I’m writing is important for myself and for readers.
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia.
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