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Author Talk: August 4, 2022

Jamie Ford, the New York Times bestselling author of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, returns with his highly anticipated new novel, THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY. This powerful exploration of the love that binds one family across the generations is this month’s “Read with Jenna” Today Show Book Club pick. In this interview, Ford explains what epigenetics is and why he decided to write a love story that revolves around it. He also discusses what fascinated him about the true story of Afong Moy, how he managed the personalities of the various female characters who span several generations, the challenges he faced in writing about the future, and what’s next for him.

Question: What is epigenetics? How did you come across the idea, and how did it bloom into this story?

Jamie Ford: Epigenetics is the study of how our behaviors and environment can alter the function of our genetic code. It’s also the study of how those phenotype changes in our DNA are heritable, affecting subsequent generations.

I began exploring the world of epigenetics after I read an article about a study done at Emory University in 2013. It was there that researchers showed how genetic markers in lab animals, thought to be wiped clean before birth, were used to transmit a single traumatic experience across generations.

Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about what we, as humans, might be transmitting. What kind of trauma are we encumbered with at birth, and what might we pass down to our own children and grandchildren?

Since I’m a fairly emotive person, the more I read about epigenetics, the more I wondered if it’s possible to pass down more than trauma, pain and negative experiences. Is it possible to pass down positive things as well? What about love?

That’s when I decided to write an epigenetic love story.

Q: What inspired you about the true story of Afong Moy? When did you first learn about her?

JF: I first learned about Afong Moy more than 10 years ago. I read an article about her life in the United States while tumbling down some other research rabbit hole for a different book. What confounded me about her story is that it’s never told in her own voice. Her entire history and identity have been constructed by articles and advertisements promoting her appearances in the 1800s. She’s sensationalized and romanticized, almost described as something between a cultural ambassador and an intrepid world traveler.

All of that hype obfuscates the fact that Chinese women couldn’t leave China at the time, and if they did, upon return, the punishment was death. So it’s unlikely that Afong came here willingly.

That alone speaks to the tragic circumstances of her life. But when you couple that with the fact that no one really knows what happened to her in the end, her story was begging to be told.

Q: This is an amazing cast of women spanning several generations. How did you manage each of their personalities? What was important to you in the telling of each of their journeys?

JF: What was most important in telling the stories of all these characters is acknowledging that they are all women and that their stories rarely get told. The etymology of the word “history” is “his story.” But what about her story? What about their stories?

As far as managing the personalities of the various characters throughout the book, I really thought of them as the same person, just genetically expressed at different points in time. While their worlds and experiences --- good and bad --- are unique, in many ways they are all echoes of Afong.

Q: There is a lot of evil in this book. How did you balance that against the overall positive message of this book?

JF: It was easier to manage the evil, or negative things in the book, because for the most part that evil was all structural or institutionalized. The racism, sexism and bigotry in the book were all woven into the fabric of each society at the time. It’s almost impossible to recreate those worlds on the page and have it not be there.

As far as balance, there’s a lot of hope in the book as well, and a small amount of hope can offset a towering mountain of evil.

Q: What was the significance of Edgar Allan Poe and his works?

JF: Because Poe’s work is often regarded as dark and gothic, mysterious and macabre, it’s easy to forget that he was one of the most influential romantics of his time. In his own life, his first love, Elmira Royster Shelton, became his last love decades later. He also often wrote about strong women who meet terrible ends, leaving behind a sense of perpetual yearning. His work and his life seemed to resonate with this story of love and longing.

Q: You imagine the future in this book. What was the writing process like for that? Is it much different than writing a timeline set in the past?

JF: The writing process is definitely different. With historical fiction, my research involves newspaper databases, museum visits, looking at old maps and ephemera, and plowing through a ton of nonfiction related to each time period.

When writing about the future, you have your imagination and a blank page. It’s freeing, but also daunting. Instead of researching a world, you’re building one.

Fortunately, I’ve published short stories that have been speculative and dystopian, so I’ve always had an interest in writing about the near future. This is just the first time I’ve done it in a novel.

Q: Did you always know that you would end this book with redemption for your characters?

JF: I always know the ending of my books before I begin, so I definitely knew where I was taking my readers. (Thanks for making the journey.) I tend to think of writing fiction as banking and spending emotional currency. Sometimes there’s a withdrawal at the end, sometimes there’s a payoff.

Q: What are you working on now?

JF: I’m working on another novel that’s historical but also speculative. I’m going to refrain from saying what it’s about, but for research purposes I just visited the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies --- a research unit within the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. It’s a group of parapsychologists who study near-death experiences, altered states of consciousness, and children who report memories of previous lives.

Some of that is in the next book (and my lucid dreams as I write this thing).