After a successful career as a freelance journalist, the chance viewing of a painting by an unfamiliar artist drew Jennifer Cody Epstein into a new life as a novelist. In The Painter From Shanghai, Epstein vividly imagines the interior life of historical figure Pan Yuliang, who hones her painterly craft in the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century. When Chinese women were still binding their feet for beauty’s sake, Pan Yuliang envisioned another kind of beauty, an art that many called subversive.
After her mother’s death, an opium-addicted uncle sells the young artist, barely in her teens, into prostitution. There she catches the eye of a forward-thinking customs official, who falls in love with Yuliang’s intelligence and beauty. Because Pan Zanhua is married, Yuliang became his concubine, a second, unofficial wife. Freed from the brothel, and with the luxury of time, Pan Yuliang studies art with the fervor of a woman born to paint. She eventually wins a place as China’s pre-eminent female painter, but not without a price. Her work, praised abroad, is reviled in China, where her nude self-portraits come under fire.
Epstein’s deep attention to the struggles of an artist who lives to express in her unique vision despite oppressive forces feels incredibly true, perhaps because, as one artist writing about the imagined life of another, she appreciates the fullness of the journey.
Today, Jennifer Cody Epstein answers my burning questions about the process of writing such a compelling and complex novel.
Cindy: How did you find this subject? I read that you saw a painting by Yuliang and … what next? Where was the exhibit? Why were you there? Had you heard of this painter?
Jennifer: I was actually the Guggenheim with my husband and some relatives—roughly ten years ago. The exhibition—which was amazing–was on Modern Chinese Art, and there was just one image by Pan Yuliang on display. But it drew me over immediately; it was a typical Pan Yuliang in that it was very evocative of Matisse and Cezanne, and the bright, bold colors and distinctly Western setting (as compared to the huge propaganda-style images and much more subtle ink paintings around it) really stood out for me. I went over to see more and when I read about Pan’s story (prostitute-concubine-Post-Impressionist icon; really?!) it just blew me away. I’d never heard of her before—but I couldn’t, at that moment, understand why—it struck me that everyone should know about her.
C: How much of the actual story is historically true?
J: I tried to keep true to the broad, factual strokes of her life—things like dates and places. It wasn’t easy, as there really isn’t much on her life (even in Chinese) and what there is is somewhat mythologized at this point (even the birthdate on her gravestone in Paris is generally agreed to be inaccurate). But there’s some agreement on when she was at school, which cities she was in when, and who her main influences and teachers were. So I started with that.
C: Your bio says you wrote fiction and non-fiction for magazines, newspapers, and literary journals before writing this novel. What has been your career plan? Was “novelist” always in the plan, or did you add that later? How did your previous writing experience help (or hinder) your novel’s publication? Tell us the story of your path to publication with Norton. Agent first, or editor?
J: Ha! “Career plan” sounds so organized…I only wish!
It’s true that I always wanted to write novels-pretty much from when I could first read them. But I was afraid—as I think many writers and artists (although obviously not Pan Yuliang!) to take the leap; which is primarily why I ended up in journalism for so long. I did find being a journalist helped a lot in terms of learning to economize with language—and, essential for this book—to research and interview effectively. The fact that I’d gone to school for International Relations and was used to writing about people in different places and worlds made it slightly easier to take on something of this magnitude of difference from my own life.
In terms of hurting, I’d say that as a journalist it’s probably that much harder to let yourself veer from fact. For better or for worse, though, as I’ve said, there was really limited fact to work with in Pan Yuliang’s case; so it forced me to take leaps I probably would never have dared otherwise.
In terms of my path to Norton…I found my agent, Elizabeth Sheinkman, first, although it took a couple of tries to sign her on (I first approached her with less than half the book finished). She led me to Norton—as well as eight other publishers (to date) in Europe and South America. She’s amazing.
C: I loved the quotations, especially the first and the last. Would you expand on them? For example Matisse’s “Another word for creativity is courage” – What in particular did you need courage for in the writing of this book? And of course the first quote, by John Sloane: “Though a living can’t be made at art, art makes life worth living. It makes starving, living…” makes perfect sense in light of Yuliang’s literally starving for her art in Paris. What about you? Would you starve for your art? Does art “bring life to life”?
J: I’m glad you like them! I chose the quotations because they all spoke to me, either about Yuliang’s life or about the life of the artist in general, which was what I felt was so universally appealing about her story. And yes—the Matisse quote was particularly heartening, as I was—in all honesty—terrified to take on this subject (almost as much as I was drawn to it). I had a lot of hesitation about trying to take on the voice of an Asian artist who thought and spoke in a language I don’t (at least mostly) understand. And I had to keep reminding myself—as did Matisse, I suppose—that fiction is in many ways an act of temerity and bravery. You’re not supposed to feel safe and secure doing it—it’s a leap, and sometimes a wild one.
The Sloane quote—I just loved that. My husband (who also dared me to write the book) found that one, and it really just kind of summed it all up. I do think I’d starve for my art—in fact, by New York standards you could probably say both my husband and I are already “starving,” in some ways (though again, not in the literal sense, as Yuliang likely did) in that we’ve made lifestyle choices to allow our creative development in an artistically inspiring but appallingly expensive environment. We live in Brooklyn—current mecca for writers and artists and odd creative types in general–a small apartment, with two kids and a dog, no outdoor space and (like everyone in New York) not nearly enough closetroom. The kids go to public school (albeit a really amazing one right near us). We have a better life than most people on the planet, but it’s not a typical “American dream” lifestyle for most people, I don’t think, because given our career choices (my husband’s a freelance filmmaker) we don’t have a lot of frills. At least, not ones that don’t have to be paid off at some point.
C: I was interested in your choice of structure. Can you explain your decision to start the book at the end of Yuliang’s story and then go back in time from there?
J: The preface came actually well after I’d started the novel; it was there to kind of give a sense (both to me and readers) of where the book and Yuliang were headed. The way I present Yuliang there is pretty much the way I envisioned her when I first saw that portrait—in her atelier, in Paris, sober and sad and reflective. I wanted to “hook” readers with that same scene. Hopefully, when you read it you want to know (as I did): Who is this woman? How did she get where she is?
I also—although I don’t think many people get this—saw the preface as a way to sort of subtly grapple with the idea of subject and painter. The fact that Yuliang’s model questions Yuliang’s decisions; that Yuliang herself questions whether or not she has done the job right; that she doesn’t, fundamentally, have complete confidence in her abilities to truly render a fascinating woman for an audience—that was all true of me as well. For some reason it felt a little better imagining that Yuliang herself had probably had similar issues and insecurities in her portraits.
C: I know you studied art a bit, which is why you explain painterly technique so well. What about China? Did you travel there? Paris?
J: I’d backpacked through China as a college student and lived in Hong Kong for two years for work, with frequent trips to Guanghzhou, Shenzen and Shanghai (I had a boyfriend there for a while, which was good motivation!). And I’ve been to Paris several times as well—though (unfortunately) never have had the opportunity, yet, to live there! I do have a close friend who does who did a lot of terrific research for me, though.
C: In a moment of despair, Yuliang says “I am a farce…even after all these years.” Even after all the praise and awards, she is still very hard on herself. Where did that come from? How much of her “impressionistic portrait” comes from your own struggles with the art of writing? How does one, whether a painter or a writer or any artist, go on in the face of these doubts? Do you have little tricks that take you to the next page, the next day at your desk?
J: You got me—yes, that’s me. I’m guessing there are probably artists that don’t struggle with intense self-doubt over their career choices or their art (maybe Picasso? And I get the sense Xu Beihong, one of my characters and a phenomenally-talented and crazy-confident painter—didn’t wallow much in his own self-worth). But I don’t really know any personally. For most of us—perhaps in large part because the work is so isolating, and the evaluation so completely subjective—it’s hard to have faith that you’re doing anything right. The only trick I really know to keep going is, well, to keep going—just keep at it. The more you work the better you tend to feel about your work. The trouble really starts when you give yourself too much time to mull everything over.
C: Yuliang’s husband seems quite progressive (although sometimes not quite progressive enough). His character strikes me as very real, very true. How deeply did you research the social and cultural aspects of your story?
J: I basically read everything I could find on China during this period (at least, in English!). I found somewhat surprising sources to be helpful at times (I fell in love, much to my chagrin, with Pearl Buck—and wrote about it for Nextbook; you can see that on my website). I also found an amazing author, Ye Zhaoyan, who wrote a fascinating and really entertaining novel about Nanjing just prior to the 1937 Japanese invasion. It was filled with wonderful nuances and details about life on the brink of war in an urban city that really helped me as I went along.
C: Your publisher compares the book to Memoirs of a Geisha. Had you read that book? Did it inspire you to write The Painter From Shanghai ? If not, why Chinese history? Who are your favorite writers?
J: I enjoyed Memoirs but I’ve had some conflict, to be honest, about the constant comparison (I wrote about that on a blog as well). I do have a bit of a problem with being identified with Geisha simply because I’m writing about a woman who was-for a short period of her life—a prostitute in an Asian country!
Having said that, though, it was reassuring (particularly at those moments of intense self-doubt I discuss above) to know that others have taken on this job of writing in a voice that is different—culturally, linguistically, nationally, ethnically—from their own. A few that come to mind: Henry James (Portrait of the Lady); Shusako Endo (Silence—told from the perspective of a Portuguese priest in Japan); Dazai Osamu (The Sun Also Rises—written from a woman’s perspective); Dave Eggers (What is the What, about a Sudanese refugee), Charles Perry (Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, about a white teen; Perry was black).
Among the newcomers who’ve inspired me: Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound (she takes on several black Southern voices from the 1940’s and does it just beautifully—it’s even better if you hear her read it in person!). And Joanna Hershon; she writes about a German-Jewish immigrant to Santa Fe in the 1800’s in The German Bride, and it feels absolutely authentic. And of course, there are the Russians, who always end up topping my “best of” lists—Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), and—my fave—Nabokov. I still think Lolita may be the best novel ever written. And talk about taking on a different perspective—Russian aristocrat writing as pedophile…
RE: China– I ended up writing about it purely by chance, in the end. I’d always assumed my first book would be set in Japan if anywhere outside the US; I lived there for five years and speak and read the language fairly well. And actually, my next novel will be set there—in Tokyo, in the 1940’s. But for this book Yuliang just kind of took me prisoner, pretty much from the moment I saw that portrait.
C: What is the last book you read for pleasure? What other authors and books do you admire?
J: I loved Amy Bloom’s Away, which I think was the last book I finished (I tend to have several going at once). Still in-progress for me at the moment (and being highly enjoyed) are: The Book of Dahlia (Elisa Albert), History (Elsa Morante), and (rare nonfiction for me) Max Hasting’s Retribution. Other authors (in no particular order): Toni Morrison, Anne Pachett, Nicole Krauss, Dave Eggers, Laura Kasischke, Jennifer Egan, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Edith Wharton, Dazai Osamu, Haruki Murakami, Lu Xun…I could, quite honestly, go on for days. And days.
C: Spoken like a woman in love with words. Thanks, Jennifer.