Susan Blumberg-Kason is fascinating. There, I said it. She’s the kind of woman who has worldly dreams, a zest for adventure, and a degree in Mandarin. In her early twenties, she headed to Hong Kong for grad school. Just one month into the program, she met a tall, dashing student from central China, and six months later they married. Her memoir, Good Chinese Wife, covers the five years in which she struggled to assimilate to Chinese family life.
Shall we do this? Yes, let’s.
1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I write mostly non-fiction about my past life as an expat in Hong Kong and my current incarnation as a mother of three in the Chicago suburbs and how I’m trying to expose my kids to Chinese culture. My oldest son is half-Chinese and if I didn’t make an effort, he wouldn’t have any connection to that side of his heritage. Right now I’m reading Shannon Young’s new page-turning novel, Ferry Tale, which is a love story set in Hong Kong. I was just reading it before I started answering these questions!
2. Your stories are deeply, profoundly personal: divorce, STDs, abuse, the strain of culture assimilation, etc.. How do you share freely about real life difficulties without upsetting those around you (is such a thing possible?!)?
I’ve found that the best way to be honest and open is to try to take the blame away from others as much as possible and focus on my role in the problems. In my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I could’ve made my character a very angry one who blamed all my marital problems on my ex-husband. Instead, I tried to show how I put up with that nonsense and let a lot of it happen. Everyone says there are two sides to every story, but I think there are an infinite number of sides. It all depends on how they are presented. When I’ve read reviews, which I know I shouldn’t do, readers have been more upset with me for putting up with Cai’s antics than with Cai for doing those things. I can live with that!
3. Name three books that changed the game for you
Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves inspired me, as did Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. If it weren’t for these three books, I might not have seen a book in my story.
4. Best ‘pinch me’ moment about becoming an author
My book launch at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore in Chicago. It was the night of my publication date and I needed to guarantee 30 attendees for the store to agree to hold the event. They don’t do a ton of author events and wanted to make sure it would be worth their while to stay open late. I told them I could get 30 people, and mentally went through a list of people who would probably turn up. It was just 30. But the night of the event, I counted 80 people and I knew probably all but one or two, either from a chapter in my life or through social media. It was lovely seeing all those friends that evening.
5. What’s the wildest, craziest, most impractical writing goal you have for yourself?
Publishing more books! I’ve been trying to get a second book published and it’s no easier than getting a deal for the first one. If anything, it’s more difficult. If I can look back in ten or fifteen years and see two or three of my books on the shelves, it will be a dream come true.
6. Tell me about writing sex scenes
I’ve always thought a single, catchy line is more effective than the actual deed. Like in Crazy Rich Asians—one of my favorite novels—there’s a scene where Michael Teo is feeling left out of his marriage and his wife finds a text on his phone with one line: “I want to feel you inside me” or something like that. I thought that was way more sexy and memorable than actually reading about whatever Michael may or may not have done.
The first sex scene in my memoir took place in my in-laws’ apartment in freezing central China. I couldn’t think about taking off any clothes because there was no heat in the apartment. That’s not very sexy. So I started that scene with the issue of birth control when my then-fiance clandestinely jumps into bed with me. His parents are sleeping in the next room and he’s supposed to be in another bedroom because we’re not married. I create dialogue around preventing a pregnancy and have him say he’ll pull out early. He really did say that, and I chose to use that line because I thought it would make the scene more vivid and realistic rather than describing what happened play by play, although I do use metaphors like rain and clouds (the Chinese euphemism for sex) and sprinkles in a dry desert.
7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
My husband and children. So I added them into the epilogue of Good Chinese Wife, although my oldest son, Jake, was in more of the book. I also included my mother as one of the main characters, because she was in that part of my life and still is. I’m working on a follow-up memoir about raising my kids with Judaism and Chinese Culture and my husband and children figure very prominently in this manuscript.
8. The cover art for Good Chinese Wife is stunning (see it here). Tell me about it.
This was one of the most exciting parts of publishing the book. A year before my publication date, my editor at Sourcebooks e-mailed me a cover concept. It was more or less what ended up being printed, apart from the subtitle. It was love at first site and I thought it was so me. My family had that china pattern when I was growing up and I love tea, but my editor said the key to that concept was that it showed that everything was in order in my marriage but at any moment could fall over and shatter. I still love this cover as much as I did the first time I saw it.
9. What happens when you stumble upon a negative review?
At first it upset me, which is natural. All authors receive negative reviews. The thing about getting a negative review for a memoir is that it’s often personal. Some reviewers haven’t liked my writing, but most of the negative reviews have been about my character. My book has been out for 18 months now and I’m at a point where I laugh at negative reviews. A recent one on Amazon stated that the reviewer hated my book and hated me. I felt like reaching out and patting her on the back (if I could), concerned that she was so upset. In the end, an Amazon review is an Amazon review and I’m happy with the number of reviews I’ve received. If some are one or two stars, so be it.
10. Best writing habits to live by
I take advantage of quiet days when my kids are at school and try not to schedule other things during a day when I want to get a lot of writing done. In reality, I do a lot of it at night after the kids go to bed. The house isn’t perfectly quiet then because my husband and older son are around, but they are either reading, doing homework, or watching TV at a decent volume.
11. Tell me a story about a story
(My book) is about my marriage to my former husband. We’ve been on good terms for the last 16 years, ever since I left him in early 2000. But I only recently saw him for the first time since the book came out and it was on his turf in Shanghai, where he lives now with his new wife of 10 years.
So Cai and his wife took my mom, our friend Mary, and me out for lunch when we were in Shanghai this past fall. I was relieved I wasn’t alone with them because they knew about the book, but hadn’t said anything to me about it since a Wall Street Journal writer interviewed them. I figured if I were around other people, Cai and his wife wouldn’t bring it up. But after lunch, (everyone) had walked up ahead and Cai told me with a serious face that he had something to discuss with me. My heart skipped several beats. This was it. He was going to chastise me for writing all those personal details about our marriage.
Only he didn’t. He told me about his daughter and how she wouldn’t talk to him. The gist of his story was that he was glad I hadn’t turned Jake against him like he thinks his first ex-wife did with their daughter. In the back of my mind, I knew I had probably done worse by writing the book, but didn’t mention that. To this day, I don’t know what he thinks about the book, but he and his wife were perfectly nice to me in Shanghai last fall and if they’re upset about it, they haven’t shown it!
Bonus Points: Susan’s nightstand is an avalanche of books that she reads to her kids, including the Harry Potter series and a photo book of Hong Kong neon signs that she read months ago and never put away. Her best bet for incredible Chinese food in Chicago is at Shanghai Terrace at the Peninsula Hotel. “The food is very fresh and great care is taken in the presentation. For one of Jake’s birthdays, we went there for Peking duck. It was served in slices on little pancakes, in a duck wonton soup, and in duck fried rice. The whole thing was a masterpiece.”
OH! And I saved the best for last. If you belong to a book club and would like to read Good Chinese Wife and have Susan join your discussion (in person or via Skype!) contact her here (seriously, how freaking cool is that?).
***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life. The photos above include the author with her mother in Hong Kong 20 years ago, with author Sonali Dev, and with her kids in Chicago. I thank Susan for sharing so candidly and shining a truly luminous light on some tough-to-talk-about topics.