════════════════════════════ ❧ ════════════════════════════Welcome the Flashlight Commentary Mingmei. To start things off, please tell us a little bit about The Nine Fold Heaven.
The Nine Fold Heaven is about three femmes fatales – referred to as “skeleton women,” in Chinese. They are the singer spy Camilla, the magician Shadow, and the gossip columnist Rainbow Chang. But the journey is mainly Camilla’s. She undertakes an emotional and dangerous trip back to Shanghai to reunite with her lost lovers, to find the baby she was told was stillborn, and to discover the secret of her parents’ murder.
“A unique and enthralling style. . .flawless.” –Books Examiner
What inspired you to write this story and what convinced you it needed to be told?
In China, “skeleton woman” is a phrase that refers to those women who are so beautiful, talented and scheming women that they can turn men into skeletons -- and even topple countries -- with a blink of their mascaraed eye. I heard this phrase when I was a child, then when heard it again at an academic meeting a few years ago, I was so intrigued by these relentless yet tragic women that I felt compelled to give them a voice.
I love history, because it is like a mirror reflecting all that’s good and bad in humanity. I think the 1930’s Shanghai is one of the sexiest eras in world history, populated with larger than life characters: glamorous women, cynical politicians, and corrupt police. But also with idealists trying to help China find its way in the modern world. It was a time of extremes – from sybaritic luxury to abject poverty. I have tried to describe both from the indulgences of the rich to the miseries of the poor.
In researching for my novel, I was fascinated to learn how women could overcome their rivalries and survive in a near-lawless world controlled by gangsters for whom murder was as routine as sipping a cup of tea.
I visited Shanghai many times, but even real life experiences didn’t help much, because what I was going to write about had since disappeared. So I read books, looked at old photographs and watch old movies to get a feeling for the settings, costumes, architecture, transportation, etc.
Why did you choose to title this piece The Nine Fold Heaven and how does your title relate to your story?
A fortune teller in my novel said to Camilla, “When a person is not ready, she should be like the dragon who does not act. Not until the right moment arrives, then she’ll soar to the nine fold heaven, looking down on the ordinary as she enjoys her long-awaited success and glory."
The phrase a dragon soaring to the nine fold heaven derives from the 3,000 year old Chinese classic Book for Changes. It means that we should be patient and wait for the right moment to act. Following the flow instead of acting against it will bring ultimate success. This is exactly what Camilla does – hide in Hong Kong and wait for the right time to go back to Shanghai to find her baby, his father, and attain revenge for her parents’ murder.
What is you favorite scene in the novel?
When Camilla reads her other lover, the bodyguard Gao’s, diary about his loveless relationship with his wife. I think this scene brings out layers of emotions that men feel for women they love, or can’t love.
Which was the most difficult for you to write?
Showing how Camilla uses her wisdom – instead of violence - to outsmart and eliminate Shanghai’s two most powerful gangsters. It was during a birthday banquet where Camilla carried out her trick together with her magician friend and rival Shadow.
Your characters are fictional, but do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like?
Yes, to a certain degree I put something of myself into all of my protagonists. I let my philosophy of life and my sensitivity speak through them. That’s why the protagonist Camilla in The Nine Fold Heaven, though a scheming spy and assassin, is in fact vulnerable and kind deep down. I can’t portray my protagonist as pure evil character, that’s just not me.
I think the character I wish I would be more like is Lily Lin in Song of the Silk Road. Not only does she travel by herself along the dangerous ancient silk route and speak to ghosts, but she twice saves her lover’s life in extremely dangerous situations. I hope I would be brave and fearless like her.
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, whom would you choose and why?
I would like to have a chat with the protagonist Camilla in The Nine Fold Heaven. Being trained to have no emotions and forced to be a spy and an assassin, she is a complex mixture of good and bad.
Camilla is an orphan rescued by a gangster head only to be trained to ingratiate herself with another gangster so as to be able to assassinate him. Camilla began life as an orphan, possessing nothing, and as a spy, all she was allowed to possess is only the “four nothings,” no friends, no identity, no emotion, no scruples.
So Camilla cannot allow herself to open to her feelings for other people, let alone feel compassion. But because of her love of books, she has gained wisdom -- from her years of studying the Art of War, the Thirty-Six Stratagems, and other ancient guides to survival amidst adversity. However, As she plots to kill the gangster head, she falls in love with his son and then also with his most trusted bodyguard. After she gives birth to a baby boy by her first lover, she experiences unconditional love for the first time. So after she has safely escaped from the gangs and is living quietly in Hong Kong, she decides, at the risk of her life, to return to Shanghai to find her baby and her two lovers.
I would ask Camilla what it was like to have been indoctrinated in the four nothingnesses, then began to feel love, how she was able to transform from a cold spy-assassin to a loving mother who’ll risk everything to find her lover and baby.
What do you hope readers take away after reading your work?
I’ve always been fascinated by women who use their beauty, talent, and especially intelligence to achieve near-impossible deeds. My novels are about such strong, diligent, unflinching women who worked against all odds and succeeded. Nevertheless, getting to the happy outcome requires that we use our judgment in deciding when to strive and when to just go with the flow.
In doing so, we can learn compassion and wisdom.
Camilla, the protagonist in The Nine Fold Heaven, knows that to have a chance at a happy life, she must somehow escape her bondage to gangsters and the violence that surrounds her. So she uses the wisdom of the ancient Chinese sages to plan her escape – and in the process learns to love.
Writing about strong women who never give up, I feel that they become my teachers. We are all on journeys, but theirs are tougher and more miserable. Now I have a comfortable life, but getting there was a long journey. I hope that along the way, like my heroines, my readers would acquire some wisdom and even compassion.
Finally, what is next for you? Do you have any projects waiting in the wings?
Yes, my next and sixth novel is Secrets of a Thousand Beauties, to be published by Kensington Books in 2014.
It is about a young woman who escapes a ghost marriage to join a community of celebrate embroiderers. Soon, stifled by the rigid routines of the group, she helps herself to one of their treasures – an imperial robe. Chased by agents of a secret society, she makes her way to Beijing. There she finds work in an embroidery shop, only to be tricked into marrying the boss’ son. Escaping again, she falls in love with a revolutionary and lives an even more dangerous life. Despite all these distractions, she continues with her needlework and earns fame and respect.
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About the Author: When she was a child, Mingmei Yip made up stories like “how the moon reached to slap the sun” and “how the dim sum on my plate suddenly got up to tango.” At fifteen, she was thrilled that not only her article got published but she was paid ten dollars for it. Now Mingmei is a best selling novelist and children’s book writer and illustrator. Mingmei believes that one should, besides being entertained, also get something out of reading a novel. She has now twelve books to her credit, including five novels by Kensington Books: The Nine Fold Heaven, Skeleton Women, Song of the Silk Road, Petals from the Sky, and Peach Blossom Pavilion. Book Examiner praises her novels as “A unique and enthralling style…flawless.” Her two children’s books are Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories and Grandma Panda’s China Storybook, both by Tuttle Publishing. Mingmei is accomplished in many other fields. A professional player of the Guqin, Chinese zither, for over thirty years, she was recently invited by Carnegie Hall to perform in “A Festival celebrating Chinese Culture” in the same program with cellist Yo Yo Ma and pianist Lang Lang. She had her solo Goddess exhibition at the New York Open Center Gallery to great acclaim, gave calligraphy workshop at New York’s Metropolitain Museum of Art, and Taichi at the International Women’s Writing Guild. For more information please visit Mingmei’s website. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Amazon.
About the book: In this mesmerizing new novel, Mingmei Yip draws readers deeper into the exotic world of 1930s Shanghai first explored in Skeleton Women, and into the lives of the unforgettable Camilla, Shadow, and Rainbow Chang. When Shadow, a gifted, ambitious magician, competed with the beautiful Camilla for the affections of organized crime leader Master Lung, she almost lost everything. Hiding out in Hong Kong, performing in a run-down circus, Shadow has no idea that Camilla, too, is on the run with her lover, Jinying--Lung's son. Yet while Camilla and Shadow were once enemies, now their only hope of freedom lies in joining forces to eliminate the ruthless Big Brother Wang. Despite the danger, Shadow, Camilla, and Jinying return to Shanghai. Camilla also has her own secret agenda--she has heard a rumor that her son is alive. And in a city teeming with spies and rivals--including the vengeful Rainbow Chang--each battles for a future in a country on the verge of monumental change.
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