Fan Wu's debut novel was a lesson in self-discipline, self-discovery - and English. She tells Sue Green about her struggles and inspiration
MOST STUDENTS OF English, keen to improve their language skills, take classes or practise on friends. Fan Wu wrote a novel.
After graduating in Chinese literature from a university in Guangzhou, Wu wrote poems and dabbled in journalism, but she still struggled with English when she went to study at Stanford University in the US in 1997. 'So when I decided to write a novel five years ago, I decided to write in English,' says the 33-year-old. 'I thought it was a way of becoming proficient. I was going to write a short story because I wanted to prove to myself I could write in English. It took three years. I was pushing myself very hard.'
Wu, now a search editor with Yahoo in the US, also had other motives for wanting to write. 'Going to the US gave me the opportunity to reflect on my past and my culture and identity,' she says. 'I wanted to write about my past to find out who I am. Also, China has gone through a lot of change in the past two to three decades and I wanted to record the change.
'I was writing in complete solitude for three years and at the time I didn't even think about getting published. I wanted to write this story because this story is very important for me.'
Now her efforts have paid off. Her debut novel, February Flowers, a coming-of-age story set at a university in Guangzhou, is the first publication of a new imprint, Picador Asia, launched at the Melbourne Writers' Festival on Sunday. The label will publish Asia-focused fiction, non-fiction and children's books, including translations of books written in Chinese.
'It's a way of focusing a list on the Asian voice,' says Picador Australia publishing director Nikki Christer, who is part of the publishing team that includes a Picador UK representative and Hong Kong-based Daniel Watts, managing director of Pan Macmillan Asia. 'We feel that there's a strong market for this and we feel it's important enough that it has its own identity.'
For Wu, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. After a fruitless search for a US agent and being told her novel wasn't commercial enough she contacted leading British agent Toby Eady, who was Jung Chang's agent when she published her hit Wild Swans.
Eady is consultant to the new Picador Asia venture and immediately flew Wu to London, telling her he believed her book would be right for it. He consulted the publishing team and in just five months, between Wu signing her two-book contract and the launch, February Flowers was prepared for publication.
'We felt we needed to get [the venture] going and books will flow in,' Christer says. 'Now that this list is launched, that's when things will start to happen. With an imprint like this, it's organic. Often you don't get your major titles until a year or so in.'
Picador Asia has contracted just one book for next year, by Britain-based Diane Wei Liang, also an expatriate, but hopes to build to four to six titles a year.
For Wu, the chance to be part of the new imprint has brought a literary freedom other writers don't have. 'They really didn't set any limit for me,' she says of her second novel, now under way. 'They said, 'Write about what you want to write about and be comfortable'.'
Her involvement with Eady and the imprint has also brought the chance to build her reputation - one of her short stories will be included in the next issue of British literary magazine Granta and another has just been accepted by the Missouri Review. Hong Kong readers will have the chance to find out more about Wu's experiences on Tuesday when she and Eady speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
It's all exciting for Wu, who was born on a farm in Jiangxi, where her parents were sent during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother, a biologist, and her father, a poet and teacher, returned to their home city of Nanchang in 1985 and still live there. Wu visits them once or twice a year, and is now contemplating returning to live on the mainland.
'For a long while I wasn't very good friends with them because they were suffering a lot and they were trying to protect us kids,' says Wu, who has four brothers. 'They didn't tell us much, that was a way of protecting us.'
Since living in the US, she has become closer to her family and they have confided stories from their past.
Wu lives with her Swedish-born boyfriend in San Francisco and is trying to persuade him to take a job in China.
'There are so many changes, it would be very exciting for me to see the changes,' she says. 'As a writer I'm really curious to see how much impact all these things are having on ordinary people.'
Her first book, although not autobiographical, draws heavily on her own life. Her main character and narrator, an unsophisticated 17-year-old student called Chen Ming, has moved from Nanchang to Guangzhou to study Chinese literature. There, she forms a strong bond with another student, the worldly 24-year-old Miao Yan.
February Flowers is the story of their friendship and of Ming growing up and learning about the world, but it also raises issues such as parent-child relations, sex education, abortion and homosexuality. Some of these issues - the generation gap, parents' suffering during the Cultural Revolution and a conversation between Ming and her roommates about sex - come from Wu's own life.
'I let her borrow some of my experiences because I feel it's very common for writers to put their own experience in their writing, especially a first book,' Wu says. 'I understand a lot of people would think it's autobiographical, but it's not. She's a fictional character.
'The lack of sexual knowledge, that was pretty much what I went through as a teenager and later in college. Schools completely ignored this knowledge and parents never really talked about it. It was completely taboo. So it was very difficult to grow into womanhood in that time.'
She also modelled some of her secondary characters on people she knows, although she's sure they wouldn't recognise themselves. 'In the beginning, when writing the story, I was trying to focus on the loss of friendship, but then the characters carried me in a new direction and womanhood and adulthood became more important,' Wu says.
Despite her two-book contract, Wu is reluctant to give up her job at Yahoo. 'I still see myself as a new writer. I have the drive to write and I feel so much passion about being able to write and being able to write about my culture and my insights into things.
'Living in the US provides new insights: self-discipline and identity-seeking. I'm interested in writing about these kinds of things.'
As a child, she wanted to be a politician. 'My father was into politics and I always eavesdropped when he talked to his friends and also I thought China needed good politicians and I thought I could be one. I was very silly and ambitious.'
She grew up reading tragedies, dark works such as Madame Bovary and Chinese books about the Cultural Revolution - 'the literature of the wounded'.
'I was quite depressed. I felt as a writer you could only write about big tragedies and I didn't have enough tragedies in my life. But if I didn't go to the US probably I would have started to write when I was in my early 20s. I was very close to the point of wanting to write.'
Although fluent in conversational English, Wu says she still struggles with the language, occasionally writing in Chinese first, then translating.
She has also translated February Flowers into Chinese, and Eady is negotiating with mainland publishers. 'I would be excited if the book gets out in China because I feel it could resonate,' she says.
Her parents are yet to read her work, but she says she's not ready for that yet.
'When I was writing the book I didn't tell them anything about it. After I told my mother the first thing she said was, 'As a writer you will get yourself into trouble very easily'. She still had the old ideas.'
February Flowers and Asian works in the English Literary World, Fan Wu and Toby Eady, September 5, 12.30pm, Foreign Correspondents' Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central. $150 (members), $180 (guests), tel: 2521 1511, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org