Local author Virginia Pye has deep connections to China, thanks to missionary grandparents who raised her father in Shanxi. The author of novels “River of Dust” and “Dreams of the Red Phoenix” talked to Sampan about the inspiration from her grandfather’s journals and how northwest China has changed.
Pye recently moved to the Boston area with her husband, John Ravenal, the director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln. Her work has won raves from Gish Jen, who said, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, ‘Dreams of the Red Phoenix’ is a real page-turner and thought-provoker — wonderful.”
- “Dreams of the Red Phoenix” is your second published novel set in China involving a similar dynamic of characters. You’ve said these are your family’s stories as you imagine them: the first novel is your grandfather’s story and the second centers around your grandmother. How and why did you decide to make the novels so different, in terms of character names and tone?
Both novels are purely fictional, but my grandparents’ lives did serve as inspiration. They were missionaries in Shanxi Province in the early 20th century and my two novels are about Americans in an imagined version of northwest China at that time.
I think “River of Dust” and “Dreams of the Red Phoenix” are quite similar, maybe not in tone, but in terms of being packed with adventure and life-threatening challenges to the characters. Both show dangerous settings and eras in Chinese history and the Americans who are struggling to survive in a land they don’t fully understand.
In “River of Dust,” Mongolian nomads swoop down upon an American missionary couple and kidnap their young child. In this story of retribution, the foreigners search for their lost son in a dangerous countryside that comes to haunt them and change not just what they believe but who they are.
In “Dreams of the Red Phoenix,” a widowed American missionary and now single mother Shirley Carson finds herself caught up in the Japanese invasion of North China and the rise of Communism in 1937. At first, she finds renewed purpose by helping the injured. But as the Japanese take their village, a charismatic Red Army officer requests her help for his soldiers. As other Americans make plans to flee, Shirley must choose between helping the Chinese Reds by serving as a nurse or escaping the war-ravaged country with her teenage son before it’s too late.
Each story tries to examine what it meant to be foreigners in China: the idealism and hubris, the bravery and foolhardiness, of Americans in a country so different from their own.
- Since these are both historical novels that are personal, how did you go about deciding to write these novels? Did you come across something in your family archive or in the news that prompted you?
Some years ago, I read my grandfather’s journals and the reports he wrote to the missionary board of the Congregational Church. I was not raised religiously myself and had always assumed that I would not be sympathetic to my grandparents, because I knew that they had gone to China to proselytize. But I found my grandfather’s journals to be fascinating. He wrote beautifully, quoting from great poets and weaving his story with true wisdom. I began to enjoy his old-fashioned language and the way he expressed his caring for and delight in the Chinese people. Also, he described the setting quite well, so I could picture that far-away land and time.
In my family’s home, we also had wonderful photos from the era in which my grandparents lived in China. These black-and-white shots provided a visual key to that distant place and time. I let my imagination take off and was able to explore what it must have been like to be a stranger in a land that was so very different from anything they knew.
For “Dreams of the Red Phoenix,” I also did lots of research about Americans in China in the 1930s. Some very smart and heroic Americans, many of them writers, became caught up in the Communist cause. They were idealists and dreamers, which made them fascinating to me, especially as the situation in China deteriorated and became more incomprehensible to them.
- Much of your story has the feel of being in this remote part of China. Have you ever visited and what did you use to research the history of this landscape?
I have not been to Shanxi Province. My father was born and raised and lived there until he went off to college in America. His name was Lucian W. Pye and he went on to become a renowned Sinologist, a professor at MIT for decades and the author of over 20 books on the politics of China.
Shanxi is also where my grandfather died and where my father’s younger sister died at the age of six. Both are buried in Shanxi. I’d love to go sometime, but like so much of China, it has changed dramatically since my ancestors’ time. Shanxi was once the breadbasket of China. My grandfather described the abundant fruit orchards and hemp fields. Now the landscape is torn up from coal excavation and factories generate pollution around the clock, clogging the air and spoiling the rivers where my father once fished as a boy.
- You hadn’t visited China until after your first novel was published. How did that experience inform your writing of this novel?
Although I lived in Hong Kong when I was two years old, I had not been to mainland China until I was invited to the Shanghai Literary Festival in 2014 with my first novel, “River of Dust.” I was thrilled to be there, although, of course, it bore little resemblance to the rural setting of northwestern China of the 1910 and 1937 when my books take place.
Still, I loved wandering down the back alleys and visiting the few historic sites that have been preserved. It is such a modern city, I had to search for any signs of old China, but I found them in the markets and courtyards of people’s homes who generously welcomed my guide and me.
- Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I was an aspiring writer for many years. “River of Dust” was published as my debut novel, although it was actually my sixth novel. Sadly, the literary agents who represented those earlier books weren’t able to sell them. So I had to preserve.
My main advice to writers is to keep writing. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Write one book and then write the next. Assume that you have many books in you, so you won’t be too crushed when one doesn’t get published. And enjoy it! It’s a luxury and privilege to use one’s imagination to transport strangers to a world of our own making. I know I’ve loved exploring the China of my mind and I hope my readers will love it, too.
To learn more about Pye’s work, please visit www.virginiapye.com.
This post is also available in: Chinese