Don’t Write Alone | Interviews

Vanessa Hua on Imaginative Inquiry and Historical Fiction

In this interview, Aditi Malhotra talks with Vanessa Hua about the fourteen-year process of writing and research that went into her new book, ‘Forbidden City.’

confidential clerks

Forbidden City

her childhood desk

Aditi Malhotra: How do you feel about this early onset of spring? How is it situated in your life as a writer?

AM: Thanks for sharing that. Let’s talk about your novel, . How do you define historical fiction as a genre in the context of a standing discussion and the little consensus on what history is and how it can be narrated?

AM: I kind of imagined that too: The present in which you were writing was shifting moment by moment. Tell us more about recapturing the past in these different present moments, and your perception, as you said, guiding this process of recapturing.

Catapult magazine · Listen to an excerpt of Vanessa Hua’s interview with Aditi Malhotra (part 1)

This is the best that I was able to do at this point in this time.

AM: In your novel, you’ve reconstructed a lot from the past. Themes and settings reconstructed are of a different nature—they are political, social, they are artistic. I want to know more about how you approached reconstruction. How did you treat historical materials—things you may have pulled out that documented the past from that time?

AM: Thank you for writing and introducing us to Mei’s character. There are many attributes of her character that have stuck with me, and there is one that struck me particularly strongly: the depiction of this young girl’s aspiration for honor, dignity, and respect in an oppressive, limiting patriarchal culture. But what this does, interestingly, is it triggers a certain kind of jealousy. Mei feels and shows envy toward some of the other recruits. At some point, I thought this envy became a guidepost for her calibration of her own self-worth. Can you talk a little bit about this character attribute in the context of the larger human condition and how jealousy is felt and perceived? It might be an unpopular emotion, not largely accepted, but is something that we can all experience.

AM: What would you say about poverty and inequality hurting a young person’s self-worth in this environment, where settling scores becomes the norm? What are some of the sociocultural forces that guide this human condition?

AM: Let’s move on from Mei’s character to Mao’s character. We know Mao’s character even before To me, this is a character that takes up a lot of space. How did you craft vulnerability in the sketch of an otherwise really powerful alpha character?

AM: Yeah, a handful of a character. Vanessa, the attention to detail in your writing is compelling, especially toward the end of the novel, where there is a sense of cinematic recreation of the sequence of events. Tell us about writing with details based on your decades-long journalistic training and your experience honing your eyes to catch something small, but no less important.

Catapult magazine · Listen to an excerpt of Vanessa Hua’s interview with Aditi Malhotra (part 2)

AM: I’m curious about how you managed the notes, materials, and memory during the process of writing this novel, which ran over a decade. There are chapters, parts, sections, dialogues, scenes—you mentioned timelines. These are perhaps only some among the many details you’d have kept track of. Give us a peek into your method for maintenance and tell us how these knots and tangles in the plot found a place in the narrative.

The New York Times

AM: I’ve wondered about words and language used to describe Mei and her relationship with Mao and other male members in his party sleeping with young female teenage recruits throughout the novel. The word is used in a few instances to describe some acts and actions. Were these acts not rape?


AM: I want readers to be able to take away some of your recommendations on historical fiction novels from China at the same time that your novel is set. Could you share suggestions for readers interested in a deeper dive into this piece of history?

BrothersThe Private Life of Chairman Mao