Blog 78 20/03/2019 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Alexa Kang
A LITERARY WORLD
An Interview with Alexa Kang
One of the joys of writing is that I get to meet other authors whose books and background inspire me. Alexa Kang, today’s guest on A Literary World, is one such person. Alexa is one of the authors featured in The Darkest Hour Anthology: WWII Tales of Resistance. Not only does she write about WWII, but some of her books are set in one of my favourite places – the fascinating, exotic and decadent world of Shanghai up until WWII, a place that still has remnants of it’s glory days before The Cultural Revolution and recent mass building projects.
Welcome to A Literary World, Alexa, it’s good to have you with us.
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and when did you start writing?
Thank you, Kathryn, for this interview. I’m an American writer. Four years ago, I started writing fan-fiction based on the Japanese manga/anime (“Candy Candy”), which has been out of print since the early ‘80s but has a cult following. I gained a small but dedicated group of readers from around the world who are “Candy Candy” fans. My fan-fic novella was a hit and was fan-translated into French, Italian, and Spanish.
2. What is it that inspires you to write about WWII?
WWII wasn’t my choice initially. The story “Candy Candy” took place from the late 1800s to mid-1920s. After my fan-fic novella, I was inspired to write a story about fictional characters who I imagined would be children of the main characters in “Candy Candy.” These children do not exist in “Candy Candy”, but are my own creations. Because “Candy Candy” ended in the mid-1920s, the next generation of characters would come of age at the onset of WWII. I had no choice but to set my new story during WWII. My story became my first published series, “Rose of Anzio.”
I’m very glad this project led me to WWII though. I’ve learned so much about the war since I started writing.
3. Where are your novels set?
“Rose of Anzio” begins in Chicago in 1940, and continues on to Italy where the Battle of Anzio took place. Chicago history is fascinating with how many the different ethnic groups came to settle there, and it had a huge music scene during the pre-war era. I also chose to write about the Italian theatre because it is much less often written about than events that occurred in places like Normandy.
My current series, “Shanghai Story”, is set in China. There are very few fiction novels about the Chinese experience during WWII. WWII novels with an Asian male main character’s point of view with the plot focused on the political events of the war are rare to the point of non-existent. I wanted to bring that chapter of history to my readers.
4. What is your novella about in The Darkest Hour Anthology?
My novella, “The Moon Chaser”, is a spin-off of the “Shanghai Story” trilogy, although it can be read as a standalone. “The Moon Chaser” is about Yuan Wen-Ying, a young woman who is a key figure in a fictional underground resistance group in 1944. Circumstances led to her leading the group’s mission to burn down her own ancestral home, which had been seized by the Japanese and given to Chinese collaborators. In the story, she falls in love with Masao Takeda, a member of the resistance group who is half Japanese and half Chinese. He serves as a covert informant for the group. Racial tensions between the Japanese and the Chinese were very intense leading up to the war. These tensions still exist today. Unlike Europe, there has been no closure for what happened during the war between Japan and the occupied countries. In “Shanghai Story”, Wen-Ying is a character with very antagonistic and unyielding views about race. I wanted to explore that tension and see how it would play out if she falls in love with someone who would challenge her views and require her to break her own beliefs.
5. What sort of research did the story require?
WWII in the West has been very well-documented by the military forces, and soldiers in the war left behind a lot of letters and diaries. There are tons of information available in military archives and online. Writing about WWII China has been much harder. The Chinese were very backward militarily or technologically. There are no primary resources like soldiers’ diaries or military records and footages. For video footages, I had to rely on primary sources of Western newsreels, private collections, and Japanese military records. Even those are quite limited. If private records of Chinese people existed, they were subsequently destroyed by the Chinese Communist Party, which came into power after the war and did not care much for preserving the memories that gloried the opposition political party they had driven out.
Fortunately, I’m fluent in Chinese, so I was able to research WWII in Chinese. I found secondary sources kept by historians in Taiwan, which are much more extensive and elaborate than anything I could find in English. The Taiwanese had also preserved some important primary sources. For “Shanghai Story,” I even found a large collection of letters originally written by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to his armies. This really helped me when I wrote the chapters on Japanese invasion into China.
For “The Moon Chaser”, one very interesting piece of history that I discovered was the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO). http://saconavy.net. People have heard about the Flying Tigers, but very few know about SACO. The U.S. Navy made a pact with the Kuomintang government to embed American servicemen in the Chinese countryside to train Chinese resistance fighters guerrilla tactics. It’s so interesting, I wish I could’ve explored this group more in my story.
6. Are the characters based on real people?
Yes, but they are side characters. The main one is Dai Li. He was the head of the Chinese secret police. Some called him the Chinese Himmler because of his brutal tactics. I also included a mention of a Chinese mayor who collaborated with Japan and was assassinated. Accentuating the story with real characters can add a lot to the feeling of realism.
I wanted to use a real Japanese army officer in the story, but ultimately chose to write a fictional person based on the real people instead because of conflicting timeline.
7. Can you tell us about your other WWII novels?
My current series, “Shanghai Story” is a trilogy which gives readers an overall view of the world of pre-war Shanghai and how WWII unfolded for the Chinese. It also gives a glimpse of the lives of the Jewish refugees who escaped to China when few other countries would take them.
My earlier series, “Rose of Anzio”, begins as a story of pre-war Chicago. It chronicles the experience of the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division in Italy, focusing in particular on the Battle of Anzio.
I wrote a spin-off novel from “Rose of Anzio”. “Eternal Flame” is a YA time travel love story about a sixteen-year-old girl in suburban Chicago in 1989, who meets an eighteen-year-old WWII soldier who traveled into the future. I think this is my best work. The story is very fun and emotional. It gets less love though because it’s YA, and a time-travel book involving periods that are not currently trending (that would be Scottish Highlands). But I’m really proud of it.
8. What is the most challenging aspect of writing about WWII?
For me, it takes a lot to stay motivated and keep writing when I feel like most readers today don’t care much about WWII. A majority of readers of WWII fiction are older and are from generations before me. WWII is one of the most dramatic events in our history. There are so many lessons we can learn from it. But the memories of it are becoming ever more distant as the generation that experienced it passes. Younger generations are mostly not interested. When they see something about WWII, they can’t relate to that world or the people who lived it.
9. Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
It depends. Fiction has to strike balance between being honest and being entertaining. There are fiction books which plots and characters are out of sync with the time period, and they can distort the past rather than help people understand it. There are also readers who just want to be entertained and don’t want to be bogged down with the historical details.
In my opinion, today’s political climate is problematic for historical fiction writers. Rather than learning and understanding the past, there is a pressure to revise the past to fit our contemporary worldviews. We writers have to second-guess ourselves when using certain terms and words that would be deemed unacceptable today. Worse is the pressure to portray characters as how they should behave today, as opposed to how people actually acted and conducted themselves in the past. To me, that is brainwashing, as if we can’t trust our readers to be able to think and understand what is right and wrong, and understand the context of history. We’re expected to be educators, but I don’t agree with that. I don’t feel it is my role as a genre fiction author to impose what I think is right or wrong onto other people through my writing. Nothing qualifies me or any other genre fiction writer, without more, to be the authority to educate anyone. I see my role as one to present the historical world as honestly and truthfully as possible, to give readers an experience of living history, and leaving it to them to draw their own conclusions and thoughts about the historical times I’m writing about.
10. Who are your favourite authors?
Hemmingway has been my favourite since high school. I must have read “The Sun Also Rises” more than a hundred times and I still don’t get tired of it. He’s my guide for my own writing style too: short, concise sentences; vague descriptions of characters’ appearances to leave them to readers’ own imaginations, poignant stories without excessive words that overexplain things.
11. What is favourite WWII movie?
For on-screen, I would have to say my favourite is actually not a movie but the TV series “Band of Brothers”. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in WWII.
12. Do you have a favourite piece of music from the WWII era?
Big band jazz was huge during the WWII era and I had so much fun researching and incorporating music by the likes of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Charles Parker into “Rose of Anzio”. In “Shanghai Story”, I learned a lot about jazz in Shanghai, including the influence and popularity of the African-American musician Buck Clayton in the city’s music scene at that time. Here’s a very interesting article on the subject: http://afropop.org/articles/andrew-jones-on-the-story-of-shanghai-jazz
One song that stood out for me from my research was “When All the Lights Go on Again.” It was a hit song in 1943 that expressed the hope for the war the end. I used this song in one scene in “Rose of Anzio Book Four”. Here’s a YouTube performance by Vera Lynn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzlFaY0s_QI
13. What’s next for you?
I’m working on the third and final book of “Shanghai Story”. After that, we’ll see.
For readers of this blog who are interested in my stories, here’s a link to download for free a short story of mine, “Christmas Eve in the City of Dreams.” It is a WWII story and a spin-off from “Rose of Anzio”, but can be read as a standalone. The link expires on March 30. https://dl.bookfunnel.com/iyfdrbkhbg
Excerpt from “Shanghai Story”
This is an excerpt from the beginning of “Shanghai Dreams”, Book Two of the “Shanghai Story” trilogy.
What should a man do when the survival of his country is at stake?
On the pier stretching out to the Whangpoo River, Clark ruminated on this question as he watched the sampans and boats crisscross each other in the water. A large ship pulled into dock, reminding him of his own return to this city last year. Back then, he had never thought it would be his duty to confront a question this big.
The fishermen steering downstream looked so small from where he stood. For a moment, Clark almost envied them. Their only worry was the day’s catch. As long as they returned with a bountiful supply of fish to feed the city, they would have done their part. In the evening, they would return home, ending their day’s work with a hearty meal with their wives and children, oblivious to the greater forces controlling the world—forces which could completely destroy life as they knew it.
And it was up to him to do his part so that these men and their families could continue living this way, and for the country to move ahead in the direction of peace and greater prosperity. At least that was what Sītu, his direct superior, wanted him to believe.
Just an hour ago, before he left his office at the Foreign Affairs Bureau, Deputy Secretary Sītu proposed an assignment for him that would set him on a course to become someone he had never wanted to be.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Alexa. I wish you every success and look forward to reading more of your books.
http://alexakang.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/roseofanzio/
To watch my book trailers: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyZk37tquFuxUnfT2Ukr