Some books are so captivating that I even cherish the memories of scrolling through the pages with my e-reader in hand. The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes is that kind of book.
I’m surrounded by bookish friends and bloggers who get really excited whenever they hear about interracial love stories (especially AMWF pairings) and this was one of those books everyone seemed to be talking about the summer of 2015.
I finally got my hands on a copy from the library sometime in August, which is coincidentally one of the most dreadful months weather-wise in Hangzhou. It’s so humid you feel like you’re wrapped up in a steaming wet towel wherever you walk. Normally it’s a month that doesn’t register much in my mind, as I usually spend most of it shut up indoors with the A/C cranked on high.
But I vividly remember the August days when I read The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, as though the book itself provided a much-needed vacation from the oppressive heat. Granted, the novel takes place in the gorgeous San Juan Islands (which allowed me to imagine myself into this refreshingly cool summer destination), but it’s much more than just the setting.
Kelli has woven together the lives of Inara and Mei Lien – two women separated by over 100 years, but bound together by an embroidered silk sleeve with secrets of its own – into an enchanting story filled with love, courage and humanity. There’s interracial love in the past and present (Inara catches the eye of a handsome young Chinese American professor in her quest to understand the story behind that silk sleeve; Mei Lien falls for Joseph, a man whose kindness and generosity seem as endless as the oceans that surround their island). The story spotlights atrocities against the Chinese in America, exposing history that never should have been forgotten. And did I mention it’s all so beautifully written, a real page-turner that will keep you engaged from the beginning to the end?
The Girl Who Wrote in Silk even made the USA Today Bestseller’s List in December 2015. Wow.
I’m thrilled and honored to interview Kelli Estes about her debut novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk.
Here’s Kelli Estes’ bio from Goodreads:
Kelli Estes grew up in the apple country of Eastern Washington before attending Arizona State University where she learned she’d be happiest living near the water, so she moved to Seattle after graduation. Today she lives in a Seattle suburb with her husband and two sons. When not writing, Kelli loves volunteering at her kids’ schools, reading (of course!), traveling (or playing tourist in Seattle), dining out, exercising (because of all the dining), and learning about health and nutrition.
You can follow Kelli at her website www.kelliestes.com, on her Facebook page, and Twitter. Her debut novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk is available at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.
In this interview, I asked Kelli about everything from how she approached her research to what it felt like to learn her book was a USA Today Bestseller:
You’ve written before that you knew nothing about Chinese culture prior to beginning this book, and yet your book does a good job of portraying Chinese culture. How did you approach your research to ensure your portrayal was as authentic as possible?
You’re right, before this book I knew very little about Chinese culture. When the idea for The Girl Who Wrote in Silk came to me, I really wanted to write the story, but I was completely overwhelmed with the belief that I wasn’t qualified to write it. I’m not Chinese, I don’t have any Chinese family members, I’ve never studied Chinese culture, etc. And yet, I realized that this story needed to be written because so few people knew about the anti-Chinese riots and ethnic cleansing through all Western states in the last half of the nineteenth century. No one else was writing the story, so it was up to me. I started my research by reading everything I could get my hands on…from non-fiction books on Chinese traditions, symbolism, and customs, to all kinds of fiction books with a Chinese protagonist to help me get into the point-of-view of my Chinese character. In Seattle there is a museum called the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and they were a wealth of information for me in both their exhibits and their archives. The Wing Luke also happened to host a dinner I attended that was presented by a food and cultural anthropologist discussing and sharing food eaten by “Chinese settlers in the 1880’s.” Basically, I soaked up as much knowledge and culture as I could until I felt confident enough to write.
You were first inspired to write this story in part because of a horrifying account of a smuggler in the San Juan Islands who killed his illegal Chinese passengers rather than risk getting caught with them. And in the process of researching the novel, you went on to discover more of the darker side of American history. What surprised or shocked you most in the process of researching the story?
So much of what I learned about how Chinese people were treated shocked me, but probably what stands out the most was that other victimized cultures at the time (Native Americans, Irish immigrants, etc.) were sometimes the perpetrators of violence against Chinese. I would have liked to think that these groups would feel compassion toward one another and aid one another, but the reality is that the nation was so filled with an “Us against them” mentality, that very little compassion existed. We’ve learned some in the years since, but our nation still has a long way to go in this regard.
Your story features two cross-cultural/interracial relationships — Inara and Daniel in the present, and Mei Lien and Joseph in the past. Which couple was your favorite to write and why?
If you asked me which time period was my favorite to write I would answer the historical because I loved being able to sprinkle in the bits of information I learned in my research and I loved bringing the period to life. When you ask which was my favorite couple, however, it’s more difficult to answer. I loved Mei Lien and Joseph because Joseph’s love for Mei Lien did not see their differences that others couldn’t see past. I loved that he gave up the life he thought he wanted for a life with Mei Lien. However, when I think about Inara and Daniel, I also love them. Their cultural differences weren’t an issue at all, which I hope reflects interracial couples of today and certainly reflects my own belief that at the heart and soul level, we are all the same. When taking a look at both couples together, I loved showing that in this area, at least, our nation has grown and matured. Most of us can see that love is what matters; not skin color, eye color, speech patterns, or even gender.
Your novel uses scenes from the present and the past to tell the story. Was it challenging weaving these two storylines together?
It wasn’t as challenging as you might think. I wrote the entire historical story first. Then I wrote the whole contemporary story. When it was time I wove the two stories together in a way that made the most sense to me. My agent then suggested we weave in a slightly different way…and then my editors suggested yet another way. So, in a way, I guess it did get a little challenging trying to figure out the best way to weave (i.e. should we “see” the event happening in the historical story before the contemporary characters discover it in their research or vice versa?). I think how we landed was the best way and it took several people to get there!
In the novel, there’s a stunning silk sleeve embroidered with a story that ties the past and present together. How did you decide to have a story hidden within that embroidered silk sleeve?
I chose a silk sleeve because my plotting partner, Carol, showed me a framed and embroidered silk sleeve she had purchased as a souvenir in China. I thought it was beautiful and unique so I started researching Chinese embroidery. I fell in love with the artistry and meaning revealed through the symbols on the embroideries. They seemed to me to be communicating something that I would never truly know without intensive research into symbolism, fables, and cultural beliefs. I loved that.
Your novel landed on the USA Today Bestsellers list in December 2015. How did you respond to the news that The Girl Who Wrote in Silk has been so well-received among readers?
I still can’t believe it! This is a dream come true that I truly didn’t think could happen with my debut novel. My first response was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude because so many people had a hand in making this happen: my agent, editors, publicist, marketing team, sales team, everyone at Sourcebooks; all the independent bookstore owners who voted for my book so that it appeared on the Indie Next list, which directly led to readers learning about my book who otherwise wouldn’t have. And then there are the booksellers who read my story and hand sold it to customers; readers who wrote reviews online and told their friends about the book; other authors who told their readers about my story… Truly, so many people had a hand in this achievement and I am so grateful for each and every one.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
I hope people find the story entertaining and thought-provoking. I hope they think about racial issues and how racism is still very much a problem, which I hope leads them to thinking how they might individually make a difference in their own community. I hope readers learn that there are fascinating stories in our history that still impact us today. Most of all, I hope my novel helps readers look at the people around them and see not the color of their skin nor their cultural trappings, but a fellow human with the need for love, joy, and connection.
Thanks so much to Kelli Estes for this interview! You can follow Kelli at her website www.kelliestes.com, on her Facebook page, and Twitter. Her debut novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk is available at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.