What We’re Reading: Electric Shadows of Shanghai

We’re loving your book, Clare, and thrilled that you’re a member of our Shanghai Dolls Book Club. Before our discussion of your novel at the next book club event on Thursday, March 24th, we figured we’d take this opportunity to get to know you a little better! What influenced you to write Electric Shadows of Shanghai?

Glad you’re enjoying it! I did a course on twentieth century Chinese history as part of my Chinese degree and got a bit obsessed with 1930s’ Shanghai. There are just so many stories to tell about that time and I focused on two things that really interested me: the cinema of the time, which was both glamorous and gritty, and the White Russian emigre community fleeing the revolution. And I wanted to tell the stories that are often left out of the history books. These are usually women’s stories.

What is it about Shanghai that makes it so poignant for you and your characters? How did you bring your characters to life?

I spent a summer in Shanghai when I was nineteen and I just fell in love with it. I always wanted to write a book about the city, to capture that Shanghai feeling: opportunity and glamour with a bit of seedy underbelly. I think all the characters in the novel feel the same way, that the city could either be their making or destroy them. I tried to bring them to life through their big Shanghai plans: actress Wu Feifei wants to make it to Hollywood, Russian dancer Tamara wants to rescue girls from sleazy nightclubs and turn them into ballet dancers, journalist Julia wants to forge her way in a man’s world.

This must have taken some serious research – what was it like going back in time?

I loved it! I’d already studied the facts at university: the Sino-Japanese wars, the international concessions. So I immersed myself in fiction and film to really get a sense of the time, reading books by the likes of Eileen Chang and watching old silent movies. I also read lots by Emily Hahn, an American journalist who lived here in the 1930s and wrote dozens of books.

Are you planning to write another book? If so, we’re curious – where do you think you’ll take us next?

Yes, I’m working on the next one! Next stop is Beijing in 1900. I’m writing about the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign uprising that resulted in all the foreigners in Beijing living under siege for 55 days.Once again I’m trying to look at the everyday side of the conflict – not warfare, but what happened in homes and hospitals, often involving women who find themselves written out of the official history. It’s a very rich period and there are a lot of parallels with the modern world too, especially in terms of ideological warfare and conflict motivated by religion. It’s really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

On a more personal note, what’s your favorite part about modern-day Shanghai and living in the city?

Maybe this sounds like a terrible cliche but I love the contrasts of living in Shanghai. I enjoy both the modern and historical sides of the city and I absolutely love that I never know what I’m going to find when I turn a corner. You’re constantly stumbling over history in this city. I really like the nightlife here too, especially the variety in what you can do. One evening I might be eating ten kuai noodles and drinking Qingdao and the next day I’m on the 80th floor of a Pudong tower or listening to jazz in the Peace Hotel. Also, I’ve met some great people here. Shanghai can feel huge and overwhelming, but people are surprisingly friendly.

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