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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Distraction and Inspiration in Lockdown: An Interview with WWII Fiction Author Alexa Kang

I hope all the readers of this blog are staying safe and healthy at this unprecedented time.

In spite of social distancing, I’ve recently met a wonderful author and would like to introduce you to her. Alexa Kang writes fascinating WWII historical fiction. Today she’s going to share with us how she’s holding up during what we in Spain call confinement, some of the inspiration for her latest book, and why now is a great time to read.

Jessica Knauss: Are you currently in quarantine/confinement? How has it been for you so far?

Alexa Kang: I’m in the Boston suburbs and am in “lockdown” here like everybody else. To tell the truth, not much has changed for me. Writing has been my main focus for about three years now. It’s a very solitary pursuit. I was planning to slow down on that front and take on some non-writing related projects. Those are on hold now, and I’m actually glad to have this isolated time to keep writing!

JK: What activities are helping you stay sane?

AK: For us writers, it’s very important to stay active. Since we can’t go to the gym, my friends have recommended “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube. Adriene is a fantastic yoga instructor and really helps me to destress and relax! 

JK: What is your latest series about?

AK: My latest series is “Shanghai Story.” It is a drama trilogy that starts in 1936 Shanghai. It chronicles how China fell into World War II.

JK: What inspired you to write this series?

AK: My genre is WWII fiction, and I’ve been wanting to write about the Pacific front, as there are so few novels about the war in the East, especially one set in Asia that centers on politics, and the narrative is from a male perspective. My bilingual skills and my cultural understanding of East Asia gives me a unique ability to bring this story to readers in a very authentic way.

JK: What makes it different than other books in its genre? 

AK: Aside from being a WWII story set in Shanghai, the heart of this series is a love story between Clark Yuan, a Kuomintang operative and son of a prominent Chinese family educated in America, and Eden Levine, a Jewish refugee from Munich. Interracial romance between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman in fiction is still rare today. Before the first book was published, I was quite nervous if that might impact sales. But it turns out, the audience was receptive beyond my expectations. This series is still selling very well today.

JK: Tell us more about the characters.

AK: The hero, Clark, is a KMT agent. He comes from a wealthy family of industrialists, as technological advancement was a big part early 20th century history onward. As I was introducing a main male character who is unusual in fiction, I wanted to make him someone Western readers can relate to, and even fall in love with. So, when the story begins, he is just returning home after graduating from college in America. He has lived and studied abroad for six years, and is quite westernized. He has two younger sisters, and is the oldest and only son. That makes him someone very important and influential in Shanghai. From there, we follow the story through his eyes.

My main female character, Eden Levine, gave me a great opportunity to tell a story about Jewish people who escaped to China. Leading up to WWII, almost all the countries in the world refused to grant Jewish refugees entry. China was one of the rare few that allowed Jewish escapees from Europe to enter without a visa. This story gave me a chance to write about the challenges the Jewish people faced when they had to begin a new life in a country with a culture that was entirely foreign to them.

JK: Are any of your characters based on real historical people?

AK: My main characters were not based on real people, but I did incorporate some real historical figures. In the first book, I have a delicious chapter of the first meeting between Clark and Soong Mei-Ling, China’s first lady. Like Clark, Soong was educated in America. She graduated top of her class at Wellesley. She was very ambitious and cunning. I had a lot of fun writing her.

JK: What was your favorite scene to write?

AK: My favorite scene was one where Clark and his sister took Eden to the Paramount Nightclub, a popular dinner and dance club. Before WWII, Shanghai was the most international city in the world, full of glitz and glamour. At the Paramount Theater, I got to show readers the decadence of the city full of big bad jazz music, bottomless champagnes, and ballroom dancing, with people from all over the world. It was fun to step back in time and make this scene come alive.

JK: I think the readers can sense your delight as you wrote! What was the hardest?

AK: The hardest scene for me was one where I had to retell the torture and death of an important character in Book 3 after Japan took over Shanghai following Pearl Harbor. I can’t say more without giving too much away. To write that scene, I had to read up on historical facts of how the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police) treated their prisoners. It has been generally acknowledged that the Japanese military and Kempeitai were even more brutal than German Nazis. WWII was a very ugly time in history. A lot of things happened that show us how flawed we humans can be. For us WWII fiction writers, sometimes we have to delve into all that, and decide how much to share with readers in our stories.

JK: At this moment in human history, do you think your books are a good escape? Or can they inform and inspire the reader for our current challenges? 

AK: Despite the subject matter of WWII, I think my books can be a good escape. They take us to a different time era, away from what we’re hearing about every day. Also, they show us that we’ve been through worse, and that we can overcome huge challenges and obstacles. Compared to WWII, what we’re facing today is nothing. We’re not going hungry. We don’t have bombs and missiles dropping onto our homes. We’re not asked to go to battlefronts to shoot at each other and sleep for months in foxholes in rain, smoldering heat, or snow. We’re asked to stay home, eat, and watch TV. It really puts things in perspective when we learn about history.

JK: That’s what I always think! Any time in history has had at least as many challenges as we have, and fewer advantages. (Yes, I’m thinking of the bestselling anthology We All Fall Down.)

Alexa, thank you for being here virtually and bringing your unique stories to readers.

Readers, check out Alexa Kang’s books and escape even while you #StayHome. You might even feel inspired or strengthened!  

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

An Author at Home in the Time of Coronavirus

Piracas, breakfast companion extraordinaire. 
Here in Spain, we’re starting our fourth week of quarantine, or confinement, as they’re now calling it (as though the entire population were a Victorian woman about to give birth). It's especially trying to the Spanish psyche this week, which is Holy Week. Last night I heard the canticle "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," which one of the brotherhoods sings in the Plaza de Santa Lucia on Holy Monday night, every year except this year, being blasted from someone's balcony. Not even weeks of isolation can dampen the Easter spirit here! These are the fond memories I have of my first Holy Week in Zamora.

The vast majority of people are following the orders to not leave their houses except to buy groceries, visit the pharmacy, or walk the dog within a restricted area close to their homes. That's right, there's no ordering from restaurants because they're all closed. And forget buying a new light bulb when your overhead light blows out. All those stores are closed, too.

All too many of us personally feel the importance of observing quarantine because we know someone who has fallen ill or died.

Scrabble with an antique Spanish set is a genuine
pleasure for this logophile. 
This is Spain, and so there is an outpouring of emotional support on social and traditional media during this strange, history-making time, with a constant torrent of inspirational and humorous messages. I've only run across a few pieces of "fake news" among all this genuine love for our fellow humans. Then there are the people who make videos of themselves in quarantine who have swimming pools or a 40-acre ranch to run around in. Best of luck to those folks, but I don't have any of that.

I'm grateful that I don't feel cramped. Heck, I have a balcony I can go out on to applaud every day at 8. I have lots of loved ones I'm staying in touch with via technology. (Imagine if this had happened before the Internet! I really needed my friend and my mom to help pull me out of a major widow moment at the beginning of this.) I have a roommate, so I can even talk to someone without technology! My roommate's cat is deliciously oblivious to what's going on. He's weird, though. We gave him an empty box and he's hardly looked at it!

My personal gym 
Given my numerous intellectual pursuits, the first few weeks haven’t really been a challenge. I'm learning Portuguese with an app, I'm writing, I'm learning the music for the summer season of my choir, and I'm doing small amounts of editorial work that come in. (I'll think about the probable financial shambles when the time comes.) (Please buy my books! Keep me alive!) I get exercise on the stairs in my building (without touching even the banister) and set up a tab with my roommate when it was decided he would use the only pair of gloves to make forays into the empty streets for supplies.

On Friday, my roommate bought me some kitchen gloves, and on Saturday, I left the building for the first time in three weeks. Though it was a bit eerie to see my beloved busy street with only a police car on it, the lack of activity gave me a chance to slow down and notice details I'd never seen before. Peace and beauty. In order to go the grocery store, I pass some of the most elegant Modernist architecture in western Spain. I'd thought I was fully grateful to live in Zamora, but there's always room for more gratitude.

So far, so good. With some great Spanish food! The ultimate cause for gratitude.