A Conversation with C Pam Zhang
by Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada
Rarely is a debut novel received with as much anticipation and praise as C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Set in the aftermath of the California gold rush, the land ravaged and depleted of gold, the novel follows siblings Lucy, twelve, and Sam, eleven, who are left orphaned upon their father’s death. To bury their father—to whom they refer as Ba—properly, they will need to do as their mother had instructed when they were children: cover his eyes with two silver dollars. Two silver dollars they don’t have. With a stolen horse, their father’s pistol, and a trunk bearing his decomposing body, Lucy and Sam travel into the hills in search of a burial site, as well as a future. A home. Featuring dazzling prose and incredible imagination, this novel re-imagines the American West to examine questions of race and immigration, home and belonging. At the core of the novel, though, are the memories that tear Sam and Lucy apart, and the love that binds them forever. I was thrilled for my phone call with Zhang, in which we discussed the writing process, the novel’s structure and her literary influences.
Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada: Can you describe the origins of the novel? Did the characters come to you first? Did the premise?
C Pam Zhang: I wrote this novel during this strange gap year in my life, in which I was living Bangkok, Thailand. I had just left my job at this tech company in San Francisco where I had been working for four years, and I was in a juncture of my life where I was like, I haven’t been writing for a while. I majored creative non-fiction in college, so I was writing seriously for a while. It didn’t feel good anymore. I was at this make or break point where I had to give writing a last shot, or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. So I was living in Thailand and applying to grad schools, and I needed to see if, unencumbered by work, I could actually write. It was kind of a test to myself.
That was an amazingly productive year for me. I probably wrote over ten short stories, and that novel actually began as a short story. The way a lot of short stories really come to me is when I’m either falling asleep or waking up, and in this case, I woke up with the first line, the voice, and a couple of images of two kids on the run, and silver dollars, and dry heat. I wrote it as a short story over a couple of days or weeks and thought, okay, I’m done with that. And unlike some of the short stories I wrote, this one kept calling to me after I finished. I frankly tried to ignore that for a very long time, because I didn’t want to write a novel—it’s kind of a horrible torment—and at that point, I thought I just needed to keep writing short stories.
But the idea kept pestering me, and it kept expanding. Some idea for what would come next, or some idea for the ending, would keep coming to my head. And the pressure kept building up until finally I was like: fine. I sat down in this cafe in Bangkok for many days in a row, and every day I wrote for four or five hours. It sounds so cheesy, but it felt kind of like I was channeling something—because I think that, for short stories, many people do this thing where you work more slowly, you make every sentence perfect and jewel-like, and that moves the writing process along. But for this novel, I wrote with this gleeful abandon and with this idea that I was trying to write a pile of garbage, honestly, because all I needed to do was get to the end and get this out of me. I didn’t care if the sentences were ugly, I didn’t care if the plot made no sense, I didn’t care if the characters were completely inconsistent from one chapter to the other. And then I put it away for six months, and the next couple of drafts I labored for over a year before I submitted the novel.
What was the research process like? Did you write without much research done before hand or did that come afterwards?
For that first draft, I wrote without doing any research, because I do feel that when you’re really early in that phase of a project, research can actually be suffocating. It can make you give up too early. I didn’t want that. But the more I worked on this, too, I realized part of this project was to try to reimagine the mythology of the American West. When we look at all the media—whether that’s movies or whether that’s books like Lonesome Dove—those are also made up of other fictions, but for whatever reason, we have absorbed them as historically accurate as facets of history that we now hold in our minds. Part of my refusal to do research was also to challenge the idea of what is historically accurate, because history has an agenda: history is very white in this country, and running beneath that history is a shadow-history of unrecorded or repressed lives of all those people who are deemed unimportant, such as women, or people of color, or indigenous people, or queer people, or poor people, and so on. I think it’s obviously very important for modern scholars and modern historians to actually do the work of unearthing stories that have been repressed, but I also think it’s the work of the artists who imagine those stories into being, because there are so many that will never be discovered. I think there is a way that, when you do it with empathy, you can twist history to tell an emotional truth that can be even more powerful than the actual facts.
While writing, did any of the characters surprise you? For example, some of the supporting characters, most of whom are white: Teacher Leigh, Anna, Charles.
I grew up on a diet of westerns (I actually really love Little House on the Prairie), and tropes repeat through conventional white westerns. Some tropes like: the schoolteacher who is always good, and the pretty little white girl who’s dainty and well-preserved in this savage land. Those are always good tropes. I wanted to twist them and re-examine how much harm those tropes can have, especially if you’re a person of color.
Family secrets haunt the novel: they are unraveled and revealed throughout but Lucy only learns some of them towards the end. Did Ba and Ma’s story come to you as you were writing the latter sections? Or did you write with some foresight to what their story would entail?
I think I knew from the beginning that there would be some unspoken tragedy or shame in the stories of Ma and Ba. This really comes from my understanding that in a lot of immigrant families there are lacunae—when you move from when country to another, you are often escaping something bad. In the quest to look towards the future, you are also looking away from the past. So I knew there would be some tragedy, but what it was didn’t become clear to me until I was writing it. And actually, the precise nature of this tragedy changed a few times. It was the emotional core that stayed consistent. Often, when I write, I can see the emotional shape of a piece before I can see the plot line or the sentences. So I knew this book it should start in the middle of the action; it should be sharp and quick and desperate. And then, with Parts II and III, the book needed some room to breathe a bit, and it needed for us to see a little bit of joy to balance out the desperation. It just needed some grounding. And then, in part IV, I could return to the children, where the plot moves rapidly again. I didn’t want to write a thriller, and if the book moved at the paces of Part I and IV, it would be a straight thriller.
Some of the chapters are named for an element or fruit or some bodily material. Did you apply these as a sort of rule or form for each chapter? Or did you write the chapters more organically, the patterns becoming clear to you in hindsight?
I didn’t add the chapter titles until mid-way through the editing process, when I was looking to make each chapter sharper or tighter or more urgent, or to have its own arc. Having a thematic arc helped to achieve this. I’m usually a big fan of creativity within restraints, and it became a really fun device. You may have noticed that the chapter titles repeats within each section, so each part has a “Plum” chapter or a “Meat” chapter that captures the essence of what’s happening. I enjoyed how the repetition enforces the fact that themes and traumas echo through generations of Lucy’s family. It really just became fun to apply rules to the book and leave these little Easter eggs, because only some will feel these effects consciously. And we should be able to have fun with craft.
The novel features many compelling landscapes, which you write in vivid detail—for instance, when Ba takes Lucy to the dry lake to find gold. Can you describe the process of seeing or envisioning place? Did you need to use images or anything to write in sharp and precise detail?
In my mind, this is a mythology. It’s not quite real world, but the landscape is definitely inspired by Northern California, where I spent a lot of my childhood. And the setting isn’t those exact landscapes, but that those landscapes have such an effect on me. Often when we remember the landscapes that are important to us, we remember them with a gloss or a sparkle, and we remember the more sharp and vivid elements, cutting out the in-between. So I feel that—one—the book is definitely indebted to the land of Northern California and—two—the landscape sort of haunts the book. It sort of seeps up through everything in it. That’s true for Lucy as well.
I know a lot of my writer friends—people I really respect—put up mood boards with images on them. And it’s not that I can’t imagine doing that with another project, but in the case of this book, I had enough of an image and a mythology in my own mind that pinning up precise images would have felt kind of constraining.
The language of the novel is strange and beautiful, featuring diction and syntax particular to that time. How did you draw from the language of that time period and make also make it distinctly your own, distinctly the characters’?
I had fun leaning into the tropes of what the American West sounds like. I’m sure most of us in America could summon up some hokey, half-assed attempt at it, just because of the amount of media we’ve consumed about it. So I took liberties. I wanted to ransack the existing tropes—that syntax, that diction—and repurpose them, and use what felt fun for me. Also, I knew from the start that I was eschewing a more contemporary voice, which let me take some liberties with syntax. I knew I could twist up a sentence or chop it up in strange ways, and that would be less startling or call less attention itself in a book that was set in this place.
The book is very much singular, and very much your own voice. Still, I can hear echoes of Morrison in there. Echoes of Faulkner. What writers would you include in your own genealogy?
Morrison, for sure, and thanks for picking that up. I think of Beloved as the great American novel, if we’re still using that term. In my life, I think I’ve read Beloved about a dozen times, and Morrison is just the ultimate teacher in prose style, and also how to self-create a mythology that is very much rooted in this country’s land and history when there wasn’t previously one. I also really love The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. She does amazing and wonderful things with syntax. Choppiness, indirectness. And she also does a lot with juxtaposing flawed characters against huge bleak landscapes. I’ve actually never read Faulkner, which is not to say that he hasn’t had an influence, because he’s influenced so many writers I’ve loved that it probably bubbles up in different ways. I also really love Angela Carter. She does a lot of wonderful and weird and magical things, playing with mythology and making it vibrant and weird on the page.
Once again, I grew up loving a lot of the great American epics like East of Eden, lots of Steinbeck really. Like Lonesome of Dove. Like Little House on the Prairie. I loved those books, and I still love many of them. But I grew to realize that, as much as I loved them, I didn’t see anyone like myself or my family reflected in them. In some ways, I wanted to capture that spirit and that essence and that sense of grandeur those books achieve. But I wanted to write a great American epic for the rest of us. Immigrants. Asian Americans. Those of us who are dispossessed. Etcetera.
One of the central themes of the novel is home and the loss of it, up-rootedness, wandering. Did you have any realizations about your own notion or relationship to home in writing the book?
That question arises from the fact that I never lived for more than four years in one place, but the average was probably one or two years. When I think of an idealized home, it’s probably a place of complete comfort and belonging where no one questions you or your right to exist there. Honestly, in this day and age, I don’t know where that place is, and I think—as cheesy as it sounds—the answer is that home is people and maybe not a specific place. I found a lot of comfort in that wonderful term “third culture kid” for kids who grow up in two cultures. It can mean that they were born in one place and then immigrated to another culture, or that their parents are of a different culture, so they have one culture in their home life, and one culture in their outside one. I realized that a lot of my closest friends exist in that borderland, and that’s where I feel this sense of belonging, with those people who don’t feel that they completely belong.