Interview with M. H. Boroson
Bio: When M. H. Boroson was a kid, a Chinese American friend invited him to dinner with his family. Over a big, raucous meal, his friend's uncle told a story about a beautiful fox woman. She had a magic pearl and she stole men's energy.
Boroson wanted to learn more about this fox woman, so he went to the library. They had Greek, Norse, and Arthurian mythology. They had vampires, witches, werewolves, and fairies, but they didn't have anything like the story his friend's uncle told - not even an encyclopedia entry.
This baffled him. A number of his friends were Asian American; why weren't their families' stories in the books? He asked his friend's uncle to tell him more stories. He started asking other kids if he could interview their families. If they said yes, he'd go to their houses, bringing a notebook.
In college, he studied Mandarin and Religion (with a focus on Chinese Buddhism), as well as Women's Studies and Ethnic Studies. He lived near a video store that had a large selection of Hong Kong cinema; he rented Shaw Brothers movies, as well as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and John Woo films.
One day he realized he could combine everything he loved: Chinese ghost lore, kung fu movies, fantasy novels, history. He could write stories about Chinese magic and monsters, using these incredible cultural details as metaphors to dramatize the experiences of immigrants in America.
He started taking notes. He bought hand-written Daoist manuscripts. He interviewed Chinese and Chinese American people again. He took detailed notes from Chinese stories, like Pu Songling's Tales from the Liaozhai, and ancient texts like the Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas) and Journey to the West. He watched movies like MR. VAMPIRE and A CHINESE GHOST STORY. He took sixty thousand pages of notes.
THE GIRL WITH GHOST EYES is his first novel. It won first prize in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Colorado Gold writing contest as well as the Crested Butte Writers' Sandy contest. Publishers Weekly gave it a Starred Review, Goodreads selected it as one of the six Best Books of the Month, LibraryReads chose it as one of the ten best books of the month, Barnes & Noble called it "a joy to read," and Library Journal named it Debut of the Month.
(Disclaimer from Betsy: I blurbed this book and found it amazing and fun. I was given it by the publisher.)
The Girl with Ghost Eyes has been received well. Tell us about the book and how you came up with the concept.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is a historical fantasy novel set at the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco's Chinatown. Against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, the widow Li-lin, the exorcist's daughter, gets caught up in sinister plans that extend from China to the world of spirits, with nothing but her kung fu, her ability to see ghosts, and a sarcastic talking eyeball in her pocket to protect her immigrant community from destruction.
The initial idea came to me in a flash. In a beautiful moment, I saw three kinds of storytelling intersect and overlap. It happened while I was watching a wonderful kung fu comedy called Mr. Vampire. Mr. Vampire is an example of a subgenre called Spirit Magic Kung Fu movies. In Hong Kong, in the 1980s, a number of filmmakers responded to the popularity of the Universal Studios monsters. They wanted to embrace their own cultural heritage instead of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. So they sought out new cinematic traditions to represent the kind of magic and monsters which had filled their own folklore for centuries.
This reminded me of Maxine Hong Kingston's classic literary novel, The Woman Warrior: My Girlhood among Ghosts. Kingston used Chinese folklore and legend as metaphors to illuminate her experience of growing up female and Chinese American; it's a moving portrayal of intergenerational conflict and immigrant experience.
Mr. Vampire and The Woman Warrior met in my brain with a third inspiration: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon had used the tools of Shakespearean comedy and tragedy to tell startling, subversive tales about growing up, facing one's personal demons, and finding feminist empowerment.
I had this flash of inspiration and I felt the world needed it. We needed something that would make use of Chinese folklore both in the deliriously energetic approach taken by Spirit Magic Kung Fu movies and the literary, memoiristic, metaphorical manner of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. The world needed strong, subversive, feminist, entertaining stories in the manner of Buffy.
So I started imagining stories, a world. I wanted these to be, not Chinese stories, but Chinese American stories. They would draw upon Chinese folklore as both genre tropes and metaphors, but the stories would be stories that could only take place in America, at the crossroads of cultures, where worlds collide and history churns and everyone, everyone, needs to find a place or make one.
Part of the reason the book has been so well-received, I think, is that the fantasy market is so starved for other cultures beyond medieval Europe. You are well-versed in Chinese lore, but what were your challenges writing not only another gender, but another time and culture?
It's never simple to write people whose experience of the world is so vastly different from your own. To represent people beyond what your own culture typically projects onto them. I did have some advantages, since I studied Mandarin in college, and had access to a lot of source material in Chinese languages. I also interviewed a lot of Chinese and Chinese American people. My aim in writing was to immerse readers in Chinese American cultures, so it needed to feel organic, seen-from-the-inside.
Li-lin is a fun, engaging character with agency despite some interesting obstacles. Who is she and what motivates her?
Li-lin has lived her life in the shadow of great men, in cultures (both Chinese and American) which made it difficult for a woman to find any kind of autonomy. She has devoted herself to assisting her powerful, distant father and commemorating her wonderful, dead husband; but both of these pursuits will force her out of the shadows of the men she loves and onto her own path, which is, perhaps, what she really needed: to find out who she really is and become her own best expression of that.
Do you plan on reaching out into other cultures in your work, or have you found your interest and sweet spot with Chinese Immigrant culture?
There will be other cultures, especially Chinese minority groups, but I don't have the knowledge of other languages that would allow me to delve as deeply as I'd like. With the Chinese diaspora, I've been steeped in the material since I was a child. This little corner of the storytelling universe is uniquely fitted to my knowledge, experience, and passion. I'm very lucky this way.
Give us a rundown of your process. Are you a plotter or do you prefer to let the story and characters guide you?
I'm very much a plotter. When I sit down to write, there's already so many choices that I can get paralyzed by indecision. Knowing where the plot is going to go, I can focus on making *this* passage as good as it can be, to heighten the tension and sharpen the language.
I start with the folklore and the history. I rub them together until I find some aspect of the folklore that can illuminate an aspect of the history, and then I look for ways to make it personal for Li-lin or one of the major characters. Then I start looking for ways to complicate the situation, twists and turns, and I hope they represent a variety of emotions, from laughter and excitement to heartbreak.
What are you working on now?
The second book. No title yet, but Li-lin's adventures continue. There will be gangsters, spirits, demons, and an otherworldly journey or two.
Where can we find you on the web and maybe some upcoming appearances?
On the web I'm most active on Facebook, both my personal page and at The Girl with Ghost Eyes pages. I haven't really started scheduling appearances for 2016 yet.
Thanks for visiting Electric Spec!
Thanks for inviting me! I appreciate the support.