Thursday, April 24, 2014

Interview with Nicole Mones, Author of Night In Shanghai

Wonderful guest today on Mina's Bookshelf! I had the pleasure to chat with Nicole Mones about her latest release, historical novel Night In Shanghai (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2014), her incredible life as a worldly business woman, and the charm of faraway lands. Enjoy the interview!

Welcome to Mina's Bookshelf, Nicole! Great to have you here. We meet for the first time in a restaurant for an interview and the meeting can be anywhere you want in the world. Where do we meet?  Can you please name a country, a city, a cuisine? I lived for two years in China (Shanghai and Shenzhen) and I do enjoy ethnic food, so don't be afraid to choose something 'exotic' :) 
Can I pick a year too? Let’s meet in Shanghai in 1936, in a restaurant with big metal-crank windows open to the Huangpu with its ocean liners, sampans, and bat-winged junks. The restaurant is De Xing Guan, and it specializes in a rich, thick seafood soup. Thomas Greene eats there in Night in Shanghai—twice.  In 1999, it was still open, and I reviewed it for Gourmet Magazine. It’s a great place to sit and talk while you look over the river.

Can you tell us something about your professional background, your walk of life?

I had a lot of jobs after I first graduated from university at age 21, mostly as a radio DJ, and what most of them taught me was that I did not want a job! I wanted to work for myself. By age 25, I settled on two lines of business: importing woolen yardage from China and selling it in the U.S., and writing large, complex grant proposals for big nonprofits like museums and libraries and public broadcast stations. Having these two separate streams of freelance work left me enough time to write fiction, which was what I enjoyed in my off hours.

From the textile business to a writing career. What made you decide to become a full time writer? Is there a particular life event, an author or a book that influenced your decision?

I’ve been writing fiction since high school, but just as something I wanted to do. I didn’t dream that anyone would ever read it, much less that it could become a profession. And though it sounds strange now, I never even thought of writing fiction about China until I had been doing business there for a full 15 years. One day it dawned on me that I knew China well enough to write about it, and everything changed. I started pouring out short stories set in China. The final turning point came in 1991, when I was engaged to translate on an archeological expedition to NW China. While out in the deserts of Inner Mongolia, I realized I was pregnant with my second child, and, with my husband’s support, resolved to stay home and use the months of pregnancy and nursing to write a full-length novel, something I had never attempted. To my surprise that novel, Lost in Translation, was sold all over the world, and started me on a different career. Now my fourth novel is out, Night in Shanghai, and the son I first sensed inside me out there in the desert is about to graduate from university himself, next month.

Your latest novel, Night In Shanghai, was recently published by  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. How did the idea of an Afro-American jazz musician in a 1936 Shanghai come about? Can you briefly introduce the main characters and their conflicts?

When I came upon the untold, true story of black American musicians in the Chinese jazz age, I knew I had to spin it into a novel. Night in Shanghai follows Thomas Greene, a classically trained pianist recruited to Shanghai in 1936 to lead a jazz orchestra. He goes from poverty and segregation to wealth, status, and freedom, only to have his world blown apart by the outbreak of war.  Shanghai offers every kind of romantic opportunity, but the woman he really wants is Song Yuhua, a translator indentured to Shanghai’s most powerful mob boss. Contact between them is forbidden, but in the chaos of war, they find a way. And then it’s a struggle just to survive.

Why did you decide to portray that particular time period and locale?

         The last hundred years of Chinese history have always fascinated me, maybe because as someone who began doing business in China in 1977, right after the Cultural Revolution, I’ve been able to observe China’s current phase of modernization more or less from the start. I feel like the struggle to modernize—personally, socially, economically, in terms of governance—has been the story not just of the current era, but of the whole last century in China. And few settings illuminate it better than Shanghai in the 1930s.

What is the most surprising and fascinating thing about the Chinese culture that you have learned while living abroad or making researches for your novels?

    I think the most surprising and fascinating thing is the sheer breadth of Chinese civilization. There’s a saying in Chinese,  ,   .  Live to old age, study to old age, and still thirty percent remains out of reach. From the moment I first set foot in China as a young woman, I saw opportunity, of course, but I also recognized a place so multi-faceted and yet coherent that it would reward a lifetime of study and observation. I knew I could never come to the end of it. Like anyone, I can be frustrated by China, but I saw from the start that it would never bore me. And it never has.

What other cultures and times in history would you like to explore in your future novels?

 Good question! As far as China goes, I think we are far away enough in time from the Shanghai Communique (Nixon and Kissinger’s 1971 maneuvers that opened the door to China) to make those events qualify as a historical novel—from the Chinese point of view. On the other hand, I also feel interested, of late, in imagining the experiences of my earliest ancestors in the New World.

You are the author of three contemporary novels as well (Lost In Translation, The Last Chinese Chef, and A Cup Of Light). Night In Shanghai is your first foray in historical fiction. Which genre was easier for you to write? Do you have a favorite?

I would say it is a little easier, in the case of my work on China, to write about a historical time. When writing about contemporary China, I’m always so acutely aware that it is a large, complex, fast-changing world. To portray it authoritatively is extremely demanding. Historical eras were equally complex, but they are in the past now, distilled, and we have all come to some agreement about what they were like. Right now I’d have to say historical fiction is my favorite, though not because it’s easier… because I love imagining the past. That’s why I read Hilary Mantel, and watch Vikings and Game of Thrones (to name my current obsessions). 

The most unforgettable character you have ever created? I have heard that authors have book-hangover too, from time to time…

Like a lot of authors, I tend to love the one I’m with, and my favorite and most unforgettable character is the one currently with me. That’s Song Yuhua, from Night in Shanghai. She was a writer’s dream. For Thomas Greene to fall in love meant we had to have a woman who was complex, full of secrets, intelligent, true, and also able to speak his language. Before I could even begin to fashion her, Song Yuhua just showed up, stained by longing, bristling with opinions and resentments, and took a place in the novel. When Thomas meets her, she’s spying for the Communist Party. That’s the only way she can be free.

The traditional labeling of an author's work has recently become a topic of controversy in the publishing world: literary fiction/book club vs. commercial fiction, women's fiction vs. chick lit. For some writers, these labels limit their marketing possibilities and they may even affect sales. Do you agree? How would you like your work to be described and recognized?

Lately I have come to think that the less we focuse on labeling work in any way, the better off we will be. A lot of the things that seem exciting in our culture right now are things that cross boundaries, or mix genres, or introduce new ways of telling stories. If I were a new writer starting out, I would definitely be thinking more about how to be outside categories than in them. As for how my work is seen, that to me is one of the great things about the internet, and the way the world is connected—with books out in 25 countries, the crowd can just speak for itself. I don’t have to do anything, or care about it. It just happens.  

What do you have in store for your fans? More historical novels?

Maybe something completely different first, and then a historical.

Back to restaurant, what did we order?

The fish soup, a milky, flavorful broth touched with white pepper and loaded with fish filet, prawns, scallops, sliced sea cucumber, tofu, and mustard greens. As they say before tucking in,

!  Eat slow.

Thank you so much for gracing my blog with your presence, Nicole!

Thanks for having me, Mina! It was fun.

   About the book


Author: Nicole Mones

Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Formats: Hardcover, eBook

Genre: Historical Fiction

In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war.

Song Yuhua is refined, educated, and bonded since age eighteen to Shanghai’s most powerful crime boss in payment for her father’s gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party.

Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghai’s final, impossible choice.

In this impressively researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese Jazz age, but also weaves in a stunning true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West.

Praise for Night in Shanghai

“Based on true episodes and peppered with the lives and experiences of actual characters from the worlds of politics, music, the military, and the government, Mones’ engrossing historical novel illuminates the danger, depravity, and drama of this dark period with brave authenticity.” — Carol Haggas, Booklist

“Mones’ breathless and enlightening account of an African-American jazzman and his circle in prewar Shanghai… keep(s) the suspense mounting until the end.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Amid the plethora of World War II fiction, Mones’s fourth novel (after The Last Chinese Chef) offers a rarely seen African American and Asian perspective. Fans of works such as Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility will appreciate the use of jazz as the backdrop to a world at war. Historical fiction fans will not be disappointed.” — Library Journal

“With a magician’s sleight of hand, Nicole Mones conjures up the jazz-filled, complex, turbulent world of Shanghai just before World War II. A feast for the senses…the lives and loves of expatriate musicians intertwine with the growing tensions between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, while the ominous threats from the Japanese stir the winds of war. A rich and thoroughly captivating read.” – Gail Tsukiyama, author of The Samurai’s Garden

“What an incredible thing Mones does in this novel of the compelling, sexy, rich and complicated world of historical Shanghai. Every page reveals some custom, some costume, some food, some trick of language that exposes a fascinating moment in history — the Japanese invasion on the eve of World War II. Mones weaves the multiple strands of her story much the way themes and melodies are woven into the jazz her protagonist plays, with subtle and suggestive undertones of human greed, power, and passion.” – Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin

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About the Author

A newly launched textile business took Nicole Mones to China for the first time in 1977, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As an individual she traded textiles with China for eighteen years before she turned to writing about that country. Her novels Night in Shanghai, The Last Chinese Chef, Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light are in print in more than twenty-two languages and have received multiple juried prizes, including the Kafka Prize (year’s best work of fiction by any American woman) and Kiriyama Prize (finalist; for the work of fiction which best enhances understanding of any Pacific Rim Culture).

Mones’ nonfiction writing on China has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. She is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. For more information visit


  1. What a fabulous and fun review! How interesting to start the interview by asking where in the world you could possibly meet~~and then for this fabulous author to throw in the when part too! Utterly brilliant! Thanks Mina and thanks Ms. Mones. Fabulous!

    1. Thank you, Maryellen! When I learned about Mrs. Mine's background, all I could think of was the excitement and the inspiration that come from a life spent exploring foreign countries and cultures, so I imagined myself having this conversation in an exotic setting. I love the fact she played along with me. You can only expect that from a writer's imagination :)