Genesis of a Quartet

Since the publication of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, people keep asking me: what’s next? They’re astonished to hear that I’ve got 3 more novels in the works. It’s all part of my master plan to complete The Shanghai Quartet. Was that the idea all along? Far from it.

plotters and pantsers

In 2011, I quit my law practice. I didn’t know what I would do instead. And somehow I was convinced this lack of a plan was a good thing. I thought that winging it would let me discover paths I’d otherwise never see.

By then, I had also rediscovered my love of writing. But poetry felt like too small a canvas for all the ideas I wanted to convey.

So I turned to fiction. I started writing without any concept of plot or narrative arc. I had no idea of who my characters might be. They simply presented themselves to me, page by page.

The title of that first novel draft was The Smell of Opium. It started like this:

The body in the cradle is limp. Her arms and legs are flung out like sails to catch the slightest breeze. Even the air cannot abide the heat of her body. She whimpers in her sleep. The sheet is the only source of light in the room. It twinkles in the dark shiny wicker of the cradle. Behind the cradle stand walls unseen, a sense of carved wood panels and a room beyond.

Plotters are novelists who work out their story line in advance. They write character sketches and research their locations. I heard Michael Chabon once say that, before he starts on a new novel, he has characters write him a letter of introduction. Hi, my name is Liselotte. I’m 12 years old and have long red hair that I wear in braids. Did you notice my cracked front tooth?

And then there are the pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants. Guess which one I am.

in a grove

Writing took over my life. I finished a first draft of a novel in 6 months. I immediately sent it out to agents and editors, convinced it was a work of great genius. One editor in London wrote back to say that the manuscript read like a screenplay: I would need actors to add the humanity.

Devastating, of course. Unfathomable, too. It took me a long time to see his feedback as valid and even longer to figure out how to proceed.

In a Grove by Akutagawa Kyunosuke. Image source:

In a Grove is a short story by the Japanese master Akutagawa Kyunosuke (1892-1927). The story was inspiration for another Japanese classic, the film Rashomon by Kurosawa Akira. If it were published today, you might be tempted to call In a Grove a courtroom drama. We get 7 testimonies of a rape-murder that take place on a lonely mountain pass somewhere in Japan. Problem is: none of the witness statements align.

Theodore Goossen, editor of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, says the essence of In a Grove is:

the essential unknowability of ‘truth’.

Akutagwa wrote about trauma and memory. I wanted to write about trauma and silence. I’m talking about the inability to speak when speech is critical. Silence can be culturally dictated or self-imposed. It can be a way to save face or to spare another. I wanted to write a novel about the harm silence can do.


An omniscient narrator is a device you’ll find in a lot of 19th century fiction. The narrator has access to the thoughts and intentions of all the characters. He is the reader’s guide into the novel.

But the omniscient narrator has fallen out of favor among contemporary writers. I suppose no one likes a know-it-all. It can also be a clunky form, at least in the way that I had tried to deploy it.  I had my characters saying X and meaning Y. It would have been tedious beyond words to explain this discrepancy in every scene and for each character.

Then came the brainwave. Rather than write one clumsy novel, I would shatter it into 4 parts. Each of the main characters – Anyi, Jin, Kang and Max – would get their own volume. We would hear their version of the events. And, just as Akutugawa did, I would let the reader judge for herself what really happened.

Alexandria Quartet
Image source:

I chose Lawrence Durrell for my model. Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea together form The Alexandria Quartet. In his note to Balthazar, the 2nd volume to appear, Durrell called his novels  “siblings” who

interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation.

Durrell’s spatial relation was Alexandria, Egypt. Mine is Shanghai.

a string quartet

These days, few read the Alexandria Quartet in the order in which the volumes were first published. Someone once told me that the volume you read first will color your perception of all the other characters. If, for example, you start with Balthazar, you’ll never learn to love Justine.

When you listen to chamber music, it’s easy to think that the first violinist is the most important member of a string quartet. She gets all the splashy solos and often gets to carry the melody line. But even a virtuoso first violinist is not enough. A string quartet is only as good as its weakest member.

Smashing that first novel manuscript into 4 new novels was the right artistic choice for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. It gave me the freedom to focus on Anyi and Cho and their terrible dance of death.

But now the stakes are huge for the remaining 3 volumes of the Shanghai Quartet. Like Durrell’s, my quartet volumes will interweave and overlap over the course of 25 years of tumultuous Chinese history.

You’ll read more about The Shanghai Quartet over the next few months, so stay turned. Someday soon, you’ll be able to read all 4 volumes in their published forms. Then you can decide what really happened with Anyi and Jin, Max and Kang, during their time together in Shanghai.

Wish me luck.