Interview – Mingmei Yip, author of Memoirs of a Courtesan
Today we welcome Mingmei Yip, author of the recently released novel Memoirs of a Courtesan to Booklover Book Reviews.
My touch can turn men into skeletons …
Camilla, a young orphan girl, is brought to live in luxury in Shanghai. But as she grows to womanhood she realizes that her adopted father, Big Brother Wang, has different plans for her…
Wang is leader of a notorious gang, and Camilla is part of his plan to bring down his rival, Master Lung. Camilla must seduce, marry, and then betray him.
Then on one fateful day, Camilla meets Master Lung’s son, Jinjing…
What inspired you to write Memoirs of a Courtesan?
I think it was Tolstoy who said that for a family a beautiful daughter is like an egg laid by Satan. This saying inspired me to write about smart women who use their beauty in pursuit of ruthless schemes.
When I was young, I often heard the phrase “skeleton women” — referring to femmes fatales who can turn any man, or woman, into a skeleton with a blink of a mascaraed eye. Ironically, these women cannot control their own lives but are exploited by powerful men: gangsters, police, politicians. Intrigued by these women and their glamorous, but ultimately sad, lives, I decided to give them voices by writing about them in my new novel Memoirs of a Courtesan.
I’m also intrigued by the dark world of gangsters, a world that is invisible to most of us, but affects us just the same. Black societies have been powerful in China for thousands of years, existing in their own shadow worlds with esoteric rituals and harsh rules.
Would you say Memoirs of a Courtesan is plot or character driven?
I believe my novels are both plot and character driven. I like to write about unusual people such as courtesans, nuns, adventurers, spies, magicians, and gossip columnists and put them in dangerous, seemingly hopeless situations.
We all face obstacles in our lives, but those my characters face are tougher and more miserable than most of us in the modern world. I have a comfortable life now, but my earlier years were fraught with difficulties. I hope that along the way, like my heroines, I acquired some wisdom and even compassion.
Tell us a little bit about your main character.
Camilla, the protagonist in my new latest novel, is an orphan rescued by a gangster head — only to be forced to ingratiate herself with another gangster, whom she has been ordered to assassinate. As a spy all she is allowed to possess is the “four nothings,” no friends, no identity, no emotion, no scruples.
Camilla loves books, which were her only refuge – especially such works as the Art of War, the Thirty-Six Stratagems, and other ancient guides to survival amidst adversity. To have any chance at happiness, she must somehow escape the gangsters and violence that surround her. Inspired by the wisdom of the ancient Chinese sages, she plots her escape.
What type of reader do you think would most enjoy Memoirs of a Courtesan?
I think my novels are for most people, especially those who are interested to learn more about human nature, and most importantly, wisdom and compassion. Though they are sometimes grouped with women’s fiction, I have many men and teenagers who tell me they like my books. In a recent review on Amazon, a woman described how her husband – a non-reader – loved my books and read every single one.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I write mostly during the day when my mind is fresh. I rarely write at night, but edit what I’ve written during the day. Even small amount of time adds up, so when I have a few spare moments I try to sit down by the computer and write. Sometimes, when I need to clear my mind, I practice my musical instrument – the ancient Chinese guqin.
I don’t outline but let the characters lead me along. The first thing I need is an engaging situation. For my debut novel Peach Blossom Pavilion, I decided to write about the last Chinese high class prostitute. For my second novel Petals from the Sky, I had an idea about a would-be nun who falls helplessly in love. My third novel Song of the Silk Road relates the journey to self-discovery of a young woman who travels the ancient Silk Road in search of adventure – and a promised reward.
When it is time to start another novel, ideas somehow pop into my head and I just sit down and write. As a child growing up in Hong Kong, I heard many of the stories Chinese have been telling each other for more than 3,000 years. Some of these inspire my novels.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Besides writing novels, I frequently perform on the guqin (an ancient Chinese instrument), do storytellings for children, and teach calligraphy workshops. I have performed on my instrument and demonstrated calligraphy at such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I have also written and illustrated two children’s books: Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories and Grandma Panda’s China Storybook – Legends, Traditions, and Fun, (both Tuttle Publishing).
Do you have any other titles in the pipeline?
Yes, it’s Secret of a Thousand Beauties, story about a young woman forced to marry a dead man so as to be a servant to his family for the rest of her life. She escapes and apprentices to a master embroiderer from the imperial palace, enduring three more marriages before finding happiness.
Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring writers?
All writing starts at the level of the sentence; each should have structure, rhythm, even music. Then come characterization, dialogue, plot. It’s essential to spent whatever time it takes to find the right word. Sometimes, it is a single word that brightens a whole paragraph – le mot juste. There is a Chinese saying “Slap on the thigh and exclaim!” If a writer does her job right, readers will enjoy the smooth prose and not even be aware of the hard work that went into creating it.
I also think it’s good for authors to attend other cultural activities such as movies, concerts, art exhibitions. As Henry James famously said, “Be someone upon whom nothing is lost.”
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Further information about Mingmei Yip can be found on her website.