I’m going to give the long version of the answer first, which begins with Jorge Luis Borges. I love his short stories, and one of my favorites is “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In that story, the characters discuss the existence of a novel which is also a labyrinth; a novel which follows multiple “paths” and alternate realities at once. With this concept, Borges is considered the inventor of the hypertext novel, the concept behind such later innovations as “choose your own adventure.” Reading “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and another postmodern classic, Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, as an undergrad, started me thinking about postmodern story structure and time and ultimately led to The Year of the Boar. My story is not nearly as complex or tradition-bending as Borges or Calvino, but that’s where it has its origins. The timeline of The Year of the Boar is based on the Chinese Zodiac, something I’ve been fascinated with since I was a child reading the placemats at my grandparents’ favorite Chinese restaurant. The concept of the years of the zodiac, and that restaurant, and my grandparents, actually, show up in the first chapter of the book. The rest of the book is structured by year – scenes take place first in 1957, then 1969, 1981, 2005 – all the year of the rooster. Part two of the book goes back in time to 1946 and begins a series of stories in the year of the dog. Part three begins with another backtrack in time, resolving storylines in the titular year of the boar.
The stories are (for the most part) actual stories that happened to myself, my family members, and people I met as a missionary in Japan. There are some fictionalized elements to build backstory, but the four main characters are all (real) women who are finding out about the LDS church and going through their conversion process, all in different times, countries and circumstances, but all parallel and intertwined.
I wrote this book while I was living in Taiwan. I had a busy job teaching and writing research during the day, and at night I would come home to a tiny rented apartment where I lived alone. I’m not particularly fond of living alone, but it was a catalyst in this case to get me to finally write down the stories I’d been planning since returning from my mission four years prior. I wanted historical details to be correct, so I did a lot of careful research on anything that took place in the past. I have a stack of letters from my paternal grandmother to the missionary who baptized her (which he sent to my family after tracking us down years later) and I relied on those to build her character since she died long before I was born. I also read a great deal of Wikipedia, which may seem like shoddy research but is actually your best friend when you live in Taiwan and your Chinese is painfully inadequate. After completing my first draft, I had several readers help me with revisions, including my mother (who is the subject of a great deal of the book and, surprisingly, didn’t take much offense at my re-creations of her personal history) and a couple friends I have who are currently studying at Nanjing University and whose knowledge of Chinese history and customs is much deeper than mine.
That was the long version of the answer. The short version is: Chinese food.
How would you situate it in the field of Mormon literature?
It’s rather mainstream in terms of the types of stories Mormons are used to seeing from “Mormon authors.” It’s, at first examination, a missionary story, but I like to think of it actually as a conversion story. Its essence is the process of conversion and what that means in the context of history, family, and everyday life. I do hope that The Year of the Boar brings some fresh offerings to the missionary story genre, and among those would be the perspective of sister missionaries, the experience of women in the modern world, and also a realization of the realities of the gospel in Asia. This novel spends a great deal of time in China, a land that the average church member situates behind a cold and Godless bamboo curtain. But there are Chinese Mormons (a lot of them, actually) and the Gospel is going forward in China every way it can. I wanted to share that with the American LDS population.
This is not the first time you have written and self-published a novel. How was this experience compared to the last time?
Hopefully it produced a better book! My previous book, The Lotus Eaters, (still available here at cafepress) isn’t bad for something I wrote during NaNoWriMo during the last month of my undergrad and never really revised. But that’s about where its merits run out. While that was a good experience, and an important milestone for me in reflecting and capping off my years as an LDS student at a non-LDS state university, it taught me more about the writing process than it taught anyone else about any sort of the profound subtleties I thought I was writing about. There is a reason that book will always remain a print-on-demand self-published piece, but it was a good first step towards the kind of writing I want to be producing someday.
Interestingly enough, these two books are both largely autobiographical, which I thought was what added to their believability and artistic success. But with both books, the response I’ve gotten from readers has been that their favorite parts are the ones that are the most fictional. I’m not quite sure if that means anything more than perhaps the fact that my real life isn’t as interesting as I like to think it is, but one impact it has had is that it’s made me more confident in my ability to write good fiction. My current project, which may be a lot longer in coming than these two were because it’s a graphic novel and requiring a lot more time, is a turn-of-the-century Mormon-twinged story set in San Francisco’s Chinatown called Cordelia’s Seven Female Chinese Cousins. It contains elements of an aesthetic that I’ve decided really needs to exist: Chinese steampunk. It’s a lot “further out” than anything I’ve written before, but maybe this is a good thing.
In addition to being a writer, you are an illustrator and graphic designer. How would you compare the art forms you work in and how do they impact each other?
It’s really all the same thing. I’m going to go even farther than that and say that a huge segment of our life that we always thought was mechanics and skills is actually, in fact, art, and that we need to be using artistic conventions much more than we currently do. More than a writer, illustrator or graphic designer, I consider myself a teacher. But teaching is art. I’m a Ph.D. student in education and a lot of my research there is convincing me more and more that teaching and learning are arts and not sciences that we need to be evaluating as such. It’s still a really radical thing in the education world today to talk about evaluating education not as if it were a social science but as if it were an art. I am a bit of a disciple of Elliot Eisner, an educational evaluator who suggests that we need to address education the same way we address art: by writing criticism. This resonates with me because I came out of art school: I learned to be a designer by sitting in a room with my peers and my professor with our work up on the wall and we created an environment of creative criticism that at first chafed and later exalted. The atmosphere of criticism creates vibrant, interactive artists (educators/writers) who can see the holistic, shifting niche their work needs to fill and then craft ever-improving works to fill it.
Today, particularly, as the commons of ideas has shifted from a publication infrastructure to the flexible medium of online communication, our education establishment and also our literary world have the capacity to become fields driven by connoisseurs and participatory artists and the art we produce is ever improved as it is “purified by the best critics.” Maybe the rather public nature of graphic design; one of the least sacred fields of art where your creations are constantly vulnerable to market pressures, unreasonable clients and public demand, has given me this view of the nature of art and creation. But really, it works out better this way and my works are 800 times better once I’ve posted them and run through the trial of fire that is internet commentary than when I’ve kept them tucked and polished in my safe-deposit box.
The Year of the Boar is available an ebook from the Kindle store (readers should note that they can buy and read it even if they don’t own a Kindle reader — they simply need to install Kindle software on their PC, laptop, smartphone or tablet. Click here to download the software). You can also buy a print-on-demand version through Anneke’s cafepress store.
**As you might expect, this is yet another situation where the AMV all-purpose conflict of interest disclosure applies.