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Books Janie Chang: ‘Remember that publishing is a business and not to take things personally’

Janie Chang's first novel, Three Souls, published in 2013, was a finalist for British Columbia's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, among other honours. Chang, who was born in Taiwan, and raised in the Philippines, Iran and Thailand, and lives in Vancouver, recently published her second novel, Dragon Springs Road.

Why did you write your new book?

Before the Second World War, there was a segment of Chinese society who lived as outsiders in their own country: Eurasians. This particular flavour of "otherness" intrigued me. From the middle of the 19th century until the 1940s – when foreigners had to leave China in the wake of the Communist takeover – people of every nationality came to China. Some made their fortunes and settled there, others just passed through. Inevitably, there were mixed-race children and, inevitably, they faced racism from both Chinese and Westerners. I found some documentation about Chinese Eurasians, mostly about those from middle- or upper-class families. But there was almost nothing about the far larger Eurasian underclass: the poor, orphaned and abandoned. They were usually the children of prostitutes, the girls destined for the same fate as their mothers. The few sources I found described them in the context of social problems. They were unacknowledged and unwanted. The closest contemporary parallel would probably be the Korean-American children left behind by U.S. troops. The protagonist in Dragon Springs Road is an orphaned Eurasian girl. This means she must endure a trifecta of social condemnation: no family, a girl and of mixed blood. This opens up opportunities in the novel for a wealth of themes: race, women's rights, identity and belonging. And if fiction requires conflict, there's no lack of conflict for such a protagonist. I just had to write the story.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

Regarding the writing world: to remember that publishing is a business and not to take things personally. This may seem obvious, but books are such a personal endeavour for authors; sometimes you forget that the agents and publishers who love your work must also treat it as a product and make some hard decisions for the overall good of their business. Regarding life in general, hands down it was advice from my older brother when I was about 17: to get into a career that allowed me to support myself comfortably so that if I ended up in a bad marriage, I could leave. This was followed by its corollary: a husband is not a financial plan. I followed his advice through 20-plus years in the high-tech industry and then, alas, became an author.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Despite the magnificent nonsense of Jabberwocky, I never got through Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll just couldn't make me care enough about the characters. Neither could Johnny Depp.

What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

Lord of the Flies. To appreciate that civilization is but a thin varnish of good behaviour that we must protect and maintain lest we fall into savagery. That's a better life lesson than anything from Alice in Wonderland.

What's the best sentence you've ever written?

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"I felt my hard-won contentment washing away, swirling downstream in trails of indigo, dye that had never set properly in the fabric of my life." Because of the way it happened. The image and then the words set themselves down effortlessly. There it was: a line that needed no further editing, a line that expressed perfectly the context and consequence of the character's dilemma, all courtesy of the subconscious mind. There are so few such moments in creative writing. Plus, my editor scribbled "Beautiful!" in the margin, which was very validating.

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