Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Paul Yee

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Paul Yee (and Baxter)

Governor General's Literary Award winner Paul Yee is shaking things up, switching to writing fiction for adults after publishing nearly thirty books for young readers and adult non-fiction. A Superior Man (Aresenal Pulp Press) is a family story, a quest story, a slice of Canadian history and much more. It follows Yang Hok, who worked on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a notorious time in Canadian history that saw Chinese workers horrifically mistreated. After the railway's construction, Yang takes his half-Chinese and half-Native son on a search for the boy's mother. Caught between two persecuted groups, Yang dreams of finding a new life while battling to survive in a lawless, violent environment.

Today we're speaking with Paul as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to authors about their new books, their writing process and more.

Paul tells us about the Nepalese workers who inspired him to look into the history of the CPR, starting on paper and the importance of sleeping on it.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, A Superior Man.

Paul Yee:

I was trekking in Nepal in 2010, and one day we looked across the river and saw a local crew building a road, part of a national effort to improve access to and from isolated mountain villages. The workers clung to steep cliffs; no safety equipment was in sight. It reminded me of the Chinese workers who had helped build Canada’s transcontinental railroad in British Columbia in the 1880s under dangerous conditions. Seeing how the Nepalese workers today still endured primitive situations as those of 130 years ago, I thought to write again on Chinese railway hands.

A Superior Man (ASM) looks at the lives of Chinese workers and the rowdy camaraderie of all-male crews, away from the civilizing touch of women and families. Daily life is seen from their point of view, concerned with both homeland and local issues.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

PY:

Yes, the question is: “How do I write about the past in a way that is true to the people who lived then, and also make the story relevant to the present day?” This question has long grounded my writing, but the “answer” that emerged from my research for writing ASM was a surprise to me.

In general, Chinese-Canadians proudly view the work of Chinese coolies on the railroad as an important contribution made to Canada’s nation-building. To some degree, I reflected that view in my books for young readers on the same topic, e.g. Ghost Train (1996), and Blood and Iron (2010). After all, the railway plays a huge part in the Canadian imagination, where the iron road is seen as a thin belt of steel that ties the nation together from sea to sea.

But the cultural and political landscape had changed since I first did research on this topic. Now I saw a darker side. The transcontinental railway was the mechanism by which white settlers traveled across and settled Canada. As we all know, this settlement had a devastating effect on Canada’s aboriginal people.

Today, when Chinese Canadians celebrate their railway heroes, they should also understand that all immigrants affected the Aboriginal peoples here. The final version of ASM features a far greater First Nations presence than did my original thinking.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

PY:

I started out with a wild idea about an entire crew of Chinese railway workers that suddenly vanished into thin air. That notion soon died along with many other mis-steps. I knew from past experience that a better plot would emerge from further research, and sure enough it did. This project took four years, but I had started researching Chinese-Canadian history during my university days.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

PY:

I don’t need much in order to write. I’m lucky to have, at home, a study filled with books, a desk and computer, and lots of natural light. I’m happy to start scribbling with pen and paper, and then switch to the computer. I’m also comfortable jotting down words and editing while I’m on public transit, or in a doctor’s waiting room. I don’t, however, use coffee shops for work spaces. But I do need paper, because I find that I assess my words differently when I see them in print and not on a computer screen.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

PY:

Two approaches help me here. I do a brainstorm around the problem, jotting down as many ideas as possible on how the crisis might get resolved. Some ideas are obvious, others are far-fetched. But this forced and linear method often leads to a solution.

I also rely on my subconscious. During difficulties, I tell myself to relax and go to bed. Next morning, when I return to the writing, I’m usually able to move ahead. I don’t mean to say that there’s a solution for every problem. I’ve killed many writing projects that came to unhappy dead ends.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

PY:

For me, books are powerful because they show people, events, or places that readers might known in their own lives, thereby assuring them that no matter how strange they might have felt their personal lives had been, they are not alone in this world. A great book is grounded in the realities of this world but is lifted by the author into the magical and fantastical. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany has long been my favorite book. Owen Meany is about the outsider, the one who is ashamed of his own family, the one who struggles against personal shortcomings, and the one who dreams of someday achieving a great deed. I laughed aloud and also wept. What more could a reader want?

OB:

What are you working on now?

PY:

I’m writing about Chinese prospectors in the gold rushes of the Fraser River and Cariboo regions of British Columbia in the 1850s. I grew up in Vancouver, so the west coast has a tight grip on my imagination, even though I’ve lived in Toronto since 1988.


Paul Yee was born in Saskatchewan but grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown. He is the author of nearly thirty books, including the Governor General's Award-winning Ghost Train as well as Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver, winner of the Vancouver Book Award. His most recent children's book is Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts (Tradewind Books); his new novel, A Superior Man (Arsenal Pulp Press), is his first written for an adult audience. He lives in Toronto.

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