Webchat with author Betsy Tobin
Betsy Tobin joined us for a webchat in July 2011 to discuss her fourth novel, Crimson China. The critically acclaimed book explores the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy through the experiences of an imaginary survivor, and shines a light on the perils Britain's illegal immigrants face.
Betsy gave us some illuminating answers to questions on plot, story resolution, research and the effect of tragedy on a community.
Kveta: I felt that there were many threads of the story which could have been expanded and would have added to the book. The snakeheads, or Wen's relationship with his fellow Chinese immigrants. Also May's story, and the working conditions of the immigrants. All were beautifully written about, but also all felt like there was more to explore. It really left me wanting to know what happened to Lili after the book ended. If you could have explored each 'story' in more detail without making the book 2000 pages long, which bit interested you most?
Betsy: Wen was at the heart of this book for me, so I suppose I am closest to his story, which I do feel was resolved. I suppose I would have to bow to readers' views that it is Lili who deserves a bit more, so if I was going to expand I would focus on her, and secondly, May, who I am also very fond of. More on Lili later...
SachaF: I loved the positivity of the author, of thinking of that terrible tragedy and grasping at the fact that not every body was recovered, so is it possible that some survived. Most people would just assume that that was the end. And I have to agree, I felt at the end that a one or two page tie up piece for Lili would have been perfect. As others have asked, does this mean you are planning a sequel based on Lili's relationships with others?
Betsy: Let me tackle the Lili problem. I do feel guilty that you've all been left wanting. Actually, the 'unfinished' ending really wasn't deliberate (which is to say, I did not have a sequel in mind at the time...) but you are not the first to feel this way. My own mother has been asking for a sequel! I think I can offer two explanations, though neither may satisfy.
Firstly, I have a tendency to underwrite (which goes against trend). I like ambiguity and think that part of the experience of reading a book is working things out for oneself. But sometimes you get the balance wrong, and I suspect that's what happened here.
Secondly, this book went through several drafts, most of which involved Lili. In an early draft she did have an affair with Adrian, but in all honesty, it wasn't working on the page. It was a little too pat, a little too convenient, and maybe a little too Mills & Boon. Lili's emotional journey is about finding herself, not the man of her dreams. And the person who guides her is May.
bahookie: I really enjoyed the book and agree with the comments re expanding the stories. Will there be a sequel?
Betsy: On the subject of sequels in general, I must confess I get itchy feet as a writer so have never been tempted to do one yet! But never say never - if this book became a bestseller and fans were clamouring, I would certainly consider revisiting this terrain, as China and the world of illegals is endlessly fascinating to me. I am currently working on a different book at the moment, which I hope to finish by the end of the year, so there'd definitely be a bit of a lag before it came out though.
EsioTrot: I loved the book, found it gripping and the characters engaging. If you don't intend to write a sequel, what was your reasoning behind leaving Lili's story without any definite conclusions? I don't mean to sound critical, I'm just intrigued as to what conclusions you imagine your readers will reach.
Betsy: The final scene between Lili and May is meant to suggest a resolution of sorts (though clearly for some it didn't succeed). It is ultimately May who shows Lili the way forward in her life, and gives her a raison d'etre.
Moonbells: In general, I liked the story and had to stop myself reading through the night to finish it. But I am also wondering why Lili's story was left hanging. To me, her character was more interesting than Wen (sorry) and to have no closure was annoying. (I think I was yelling But what about Lili?? when I got to the end and it wasn't there.)
On a style point, why is it written in changing tenses? I personally loathe 'present tense' novels - when Patricia Cornwell changed her Scarpetta stories from first person past to third person present I stopped buying them. This book didn't feel like it knew what it was.
Betsy: Again, huge apologies for leaving you unsated. Re the present tense - it's a good question, as I am vaguely aware as a writer (and reader) that it has the potential to annoy. I think, for some books, the present tense has an immediacy that is difficult to conjure in other ways. Especially when I was writing about Wen and Lili, and their impressions, I wanted to convey their feelings of estrangement from the world around them, and present tense just felt right to me at the time.
This book had a very difficult narrative time frame, in fact, which involved some sleight of hand to resolve. Lili's story starts eight months after Wen's, but they both finish at the same point. That thwarted me for a time, but I tried to join them as seamlessly as possible.
munstersmum: I was surprised to discover Betsy was American. Maybe because the other American author living in London I've read most of is Lionel Shriver and her books are clearly by an American. To what extent did living outside the USA provide the motivation for writing a book from the perspective of immigrant workers / holding up a mirror for Brits?
Betsy: I've lived in the UK since the late 80s and raised four kids here. Dead chuffed you couldn't tell my writing from a native Brit. The answer to your question is - A LOT. Although I am fully acclimatised to the culture there's no question that being a stranger in a strange land has shaped both my identity and my writing. It's a theme that crops up again and again in my work, and it was kind of a relief to bring it to the front of the stage for this book.
Tilly: Do you think the States has a very different attitude to immigrants? Is the American Dream still alive? And do you think there is a British Dream equivalent? Is that sort of what Wen (and Jin and others) are hoping to achieve?
Betsy: From what I have seen, it is not so much the States' attitude as that of the immigrants themselves. My sense is that immigrants who come to America are more eager to assimilate (or at least they were in my day, 20 years ago) than some of the immigrant communities here, who are looking to prosper in the first instance. Illegal immigrants are of course another subset: in the case of the Chinese, most are not looking to settle permanently or assimilate, but to work hard, pay off their debts (incurred from being smuggled), and earn a nest egg which they can return to China with, build a house and educate their children. Wen and Lili were not at all typical in this sense. As they are both, in effect, searching for themselves.
MovingtoSolihull: How did you conduct your research into the tragedy?
Betsy: Let me say up front I did not spend months on location with illegals. For three reasons: first, from their point of view, writer is too close to journalist which is just a step from investigator and from there a hop to authority and deportation. So they would have run a mile. Second, I'm a mum 24/7 so not at liberty to go on location like some male writers. Third, I had a strong vision in my head of the story/characters and did not want to derail it. If I'd heard a lot of true stories, I might have been tempted to steal them! .
What I did do was read everything I could lay my hands on about the plight of illegal Chinese in the UK and abroad. That came from press reports, academic journals and government immigration documents.
southlondonlady: Did you talk to locals about their interactions with and feelings about the immigrant workers in Morecambe? I ask because the local characters seemed very believable, I especially liked the old lady who Wen did the gardening for.
Betsy: I didn't speak to locals about this until after the book came out. I was very struck by the book's reception in the region. I think the locals really owned this tragedy and were greatly affected by it - they really seemed to appreciate the opportunity to revisit the event, and to commemorate it. So I hope the book has helped the community come to terms with its own grief in some ways. But no, the subject of resentment over outside workers didn't come up in my conversations. Of course it was an issue back then, and continues to be. There are still foreign workers out on the sands, including Chinese workers.
vnmum: What made you choose the Morecambe Bay tragedy as a focal point for a book and its characters? Did you have a connection to the area or the tragedy in some way?
Betsy: While I have no connection to Morecambe, China is a thread that has run through much of my adult life. When I was at university, I had an opportunity to go to Beijing for a year and leapt at it. China was a harsh and difficult place in 1981, and foreigners were something of a rarity (especially redheads) but I never regretted it. I still speak Mandarin (not very well) and have taken my kids back to China in recent years to experience the country for themselves.
Like a lot of people, I was horrified by the tragedy at Morecambe Bay and I suppose it sort of haunted me afterwards. I knew instinctively that it was something I wanted to write about, though it took a long time to percolate. I knew from the outset that I wanted to write a novel full of hope and optimism rather than sadness. That's why it's not a retelling, but a re-imagining of what might have been.
gailforce1: Which writers do you enjoy reading when you get the chance?
Betsy: As a reader, I respond to anything with a strong voice. The one that comes to mind off the top of my head is Curtis Sittenfield's American Wife (fictitious memoir of Barbara Bush, completely fab book, IMHO). I also love good imagery, as it is my weakest point as a writer. I just read Hisham Matar's In The Country of Men. His metaphors were breathtaking. For me to write a metaphor is like birthing an 11lb baby!
Tilly: Which childhood book inspired you? Any advice for first-time writers?
Betsy: I'm afraid I wasn't exposed to some of the English classics, so mine are a bit different from the norm. But when I was 10 I loved Nancy Drew (excruciating...) When I was 11, I remember being entranced by Judy Blume (Are You There God? It's Me Margaret - not a book about God actually - it was about boys and periods, as I recall.) And when I was 12, I was struck down by CS Lewis.
First time writers: don't fall at the first hurdle, as there will be many. At one point I wallpapered my office with rejection letters! Writing is about graft as much as talent, so be prepared to labour, and to learn.