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Interview With an Author: Yangsze Choo

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Yangsze Choo and her latest novel, The Night Tiger

Yangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. She is a graduate of Harvard University and the author of The Ghost Bride, which is currently being adapted by Netflix into a television series. Choo’s latest novel is The Night Tiger and she recently agreed to be interviewed about it by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Night Tiger?

I've always been interested in old colonial houses, man-eating tigers, and Chinese dance hall girls, and when I began writing this book, I had the chance to put all of them in (this is the fun part of writing fiction!). The story grew quite organically. Once the characters appeared, they began to make their own decisions and move in various ways. I was quite surprised myself by some of the twists and turns!

Since this book is set in the 1930s, did you have to do a lot of research about the time period and/or Malaya during that time period?

Growing up I read a lot of histories and travelers’ tales of Malaya because those were the books that my father collected. Malaysia also has a lot of old colonial houses, left behind by the British. Many have fallen into disrepair but the ones that remain are still beautiful and somehow melancholy and romantic. They speak of a life that has vanished, one of servants and masters—rather like a Downton Abbey of the tropics. There were also many stories that I heard from my parents and grandparents. When my mum was a little girl, she had a friend a few years older than her, who worked as a servant in one of these great houses. It was really interesting to hear the local perspective.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about the Malaya in the 1930s during your research?

I did research in the archives of the National Library in Singapore, reading through the local newspapers from the 1920s and 30s on microfiche. One of the most interesting things to me was the advertisements of the time because they give you a colourful idea of what people wanted or aspired to, such as face powder, pneumatic bicycle tires, and rubber-soled shoes. They really helped to give a lot of colour and detail for that time period.

Are Ren, Ji Lin, Shin, Lydia or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

No, but sometimes they seem quite real to me, perhaps because writing a novel is rather like being immersed in a dream. When the characters come alive, they start to do and say things and move the story along by themselves. Certain actions become consistent with the personalities as you know them, which is quite delightful when the book flows. Of course, when I run out of ideas then I’m simply stumped...

Your previous novel, The Ghost Bride, dealt with a young woman’s marriage to a dead groom and The Night Tiger involves conversations with the recently dead and the folklore surrounding were-tigers. Why do you think you, as a writer, and readers are drawn to these stories?

I think it is human nature to be curious about odd happenings. We can’t help it—it is the backbone of all those wishing tales and stories repeated by the fire. Our modern equivalent is the driveway story—when you’re listening to NPR or a podcast, and you don’t want to get out of the car because you want to find out the ending.

Netflix announced in January it is making The Ghost Bride into a series. Has there been any interest in adapting The Night Tiger?

Yes, I’m so excited about the Netflix series! I just went to visit the production and it looks amazing. I would love to see The Night Tiger on the screen one day too—that would be a dream come true.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished reading My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, as well as this lovely Persian cookbook by Naz Deravian called Bottom of the Pot. Her recipes are so luscious and interspersed with family history. It’s a gorgeous book.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I’d have to say Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, as well as his other books about collecting rare animals for zoo conservation. You can see that I’m still fascinated by his adventures, as there are lots of animals in The Night Tiger as well!

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I have a distinct memory of reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker, and having my mother catch me at it. It had a particularly gory cover and she wasn’t happy because it was “too morbid”.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen, Yukio Mishima, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Austen… so many wonderful writers.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Moby Dick. I could never get past the first chapter. The description of the different kinds of fish chowder was interesting, but after that I’m afraid my attention just wandered.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Many years ago I was in The Strand bookstore in NYC and I picked up a book by an unknown (to me) writer—Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. And it turned out to be such a wonderful book!

Is there a book that changed your life?

Discovering Isak Dinesen’s short stories after I graduated from university made me really want to write. Her stories are so lucid and clear—I really felt inspired by her.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I’d have to say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I bought the hardcover as soon as it came out in the Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica—I just happened to be there that day and it caught my eye. After that, I walked around for months telling people about it. Finding books that you love, either in the library or at a bookstore, when you’re browsing is one of the best feelings.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Such a wonderful book. I just reread it again for the third or fourth time! I really hope Susanna Clarke writes another book as I’m a big fan of hers.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A day out with my family, exploring Tokyo or another part of Japan. I lived in Tokyo for part of my childhood and from time to time I feel extremely nostalgic about it. I’d like my kids to experience a little of that.

What are you working on now?

I’m never quite sure where a story is going until I’m in the middle of it, but I’m excited about working on my third novel. I’m still on the digesting and thinking phase, trying to feel my way into the novel. Hopefully, it will be interesting!

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege.

The Night Tiger
Choo, Yangsze

Ji Lin is a young woman who is working as an apprentice dressmaker by day and secretly working as a “dance instructor” at a dance-hall in the evenings to repay a family debt.

Ren is a young boy who has lost his entire family, including his twin brother, and is working as a houseboy for an aging English doctor. As the doctor nears death, he makes a final request of Ren that he cannot refuse, even though he has no idea how he will fulfill his promise.

And then there is the severed finger, mummified and preserved in a glass vial. Ren needs to locate it and bury it in the doctor’s grave within 49 days of his death to allow him to pass into the afterlife in peace. Ji Lin receives the finger in error while dancing with a client at the dance-hall. She can’t tell anyone she has it without betraying her well-guarded secret, and she has no idea what to do with it or how she will dispose of it.

In The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo weaves a wonderful tale of life set in Malaysia nearly a century ago. Choo deftly references and draws connections between Chinese cultural beliefs and folklore and the mores and morals of 1930s Malaya (as it was called then). This is a fascinating and compelling story, deftly told. A story that is interesting both culturally and historically, while also being an intensely personal exploration of two very different people struggling to find their way in a difficult world that has very stringent expectations of them with little/no room for failure. The characters are both recognizable and memorable, and the resolution will keep readers guessing and turning the pages until the very last one.

Book Review: The Night Tiger