Add Earthquake & Stir: The Phoenix Crown

WRITTEN BY SARAH HENDESS

In Kate Quinn and Janie Chang’s new book, The Phoenix Crown (William Morrow, 2024), a pair of unlikely friends team up to solve a mystery just as San Francisco is devastated by the massive 1906 earthquake. Less dramatically, but still unexpectedly, the authors were brought together by a calamitous experience of their own.

“We met in 2017 after the Historical Novel Society conference, where our publisher sent us from Portland to Canada on a three-author, three-city tour with our mutual friend Jennifer Robson,” the authors said via email. “Everything that could possibly go wrong on a book tour went wrong, and the whole fiasco quickly morphed from the Historical Fiction Tour to the Hysterical Fiction Tour. We could have ended that week scratching each other’s eyes out, but instead we ended up the best of friends! So, when the idea of a novel about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake reared its head, we thought, ‘If we could survive the Hysterical Fiction Tour and still be friends at the end of it, the odds that we can write a book together without bloodshed are pretty good.’ Which was very important, because our goal in writing together was to turn out a book we could be proud of, but not torpedo a long and lovely friendship in the process.”

Quinn said she’d long wanted to write a book set during the earthquake, and the more she learned about it, the more convinced she was that she needed a heroine from San Francisco’s Chinatown. “So I called Janie up and crossed my fingers that she’d find the history as interesting as I did,” Quinn said.

Chang didn’t take long to hop on board. “Five minutes [searching online] was enough to tell me that yes, this was a historical event with lots of usable grist. In particular, that I’d be able to create a heroine from Chinatown whose efforts to take control of her life would require conflict. No conflict, no story.”

Creating characters was their first task. “This book really began with a plotline as simple as ‘Let’s each create a heroine we like and then throw them together, add an earthquake, and stir,’” the authors said. “Kate knew she wanted to write an opera singer, since she has a background in opera training and because there was a famous performance of Carmen the night before the earthquake, which made a perfect backdrop for a musical heroine. Janie knew she wanted to create a Chinatown heroine who is part of the first generation of Chinese-American women in California, and thus has a foot in each world. We formed our two women first—Gemma the opera singer, Suling the Chinatown seamstress—then let the plot evolve from their characters.”

The authors were ready and eager… and then COVID hit, throwing up an obstacle to on-the-ground research. They relied on books and internet searches for the first round of research, but as soon as they were able to travel, they set off for San Francisco.

“We needed details to infuse the book with a sense of place, so as soon as we were able to travel, we went to San Francisco with a very full itinerary of museums, libraries, archives, and stately homes to visit,” the authors said. “The highlights of that research trip would have to be Carolands and Filoli House and Gardens, two stately homes where the curators very kindly gave us ‘behind the scenes’ tours to rooms the public don’t usually get to see, and wonderful information about how the lives of people who lived in those homes both upstairs and downstairs.”

Quinn’s heroine, Gemma Garland, gets to see the “upstairs” life of San Francisco’s wealthy elite, while Chang’s heroine, Feng Suling, is hired as a seamstress, so the details of both experiences were vital to creating realistic characters and setting.

A favorite research stop of both authors was the California Academy of Sciences where one of their secondary characters, the real-life curator of botany Alice Eastwood, worked at the time of the earthquake. “The librarians there were thrilled that we were there to learn about Alice and could not have been more helpful,” the authors said. “We were thrilled to be reading—and touching—the ephemera of her life. We are such Alice fans!”

Eastwood appeared early in the authors’ research and became an important inspiration to the book’s younger female protagonists “who are striving for agency in a man’s world.”

This theme of sexism developed naturally, as did racism. “Given that the story takes place during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we always knew that racism would be one of the challenges facing our heroine Suling,” the authors said.

Since they’d be working remotely and independently—Quinn from San Diego and Chang from British Columbia—they first ensured that they had their plot firmly in place. “Before drafting a single word we wrote an overview of each chapter, which went into a spreadsheet,” the authors said. “Since we both knew how each chapter began and ended, that made it possible for us to dovetail the action. We decided that Kate would write from Gemma’s POV and Janie would write from Suling’s POV, and that we would write alternating chapters.”

What they didn’t plan or expect was the way their writing styles would blend so seamlessly into something new altogether. “Readers have commented that we obviously changed our writing styles in order to provide a seamless reading experience. That’s surprising because we did not strive to do that, not consciously anyway. We always figured that since we were writing from the POV of two very different women, that we could retain our individual styles and get away with it. But probably what happened is that in working closely together and reading each other’s prose every day, there was some osmosis and we ended up with a more unified style.”

The key to this style seems to have been the authors’ close collaboration throughout the entire process. No major decisions were made unilaterally, and they were careful not to “red-pen” each other’s chapters. “The beauty of the process is that two heads are better than one,” the authors said.

Readers will likely agree.

About the contributor: Sarah Hendess is a reviewer and former editor for Historical Novels Review. Her second novel, A Capital Christmas, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in Fall 2024.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 108 (May 2024)


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