Do you want a beautifully atmospheric novel about murder and magic in 1930’s Malay? If the answer is yes, then you need to read Yangsze Choo’s fabulous The Night Tiger, which was released earlier this week. Today I’m bringing Yangsze Choo over to talk about The Night Tiger, historical fiction, and ghost fingers.
For those who may be unfamiliar with it, can you tell us a bit about your new novel, The Night Tiger?
The Night Tiger is set in 1931 colonial Malaya, under British rule. It’s a historical novel with elements of magic realism, and is about an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy and a dancehall girl whose lives intertwine over the mystery of a severed finger. It’s part murder mystery, part ghost story.
Normally, I would save this sort of question for the end, but I have to know… are you planning on writing a sequel to The Night Tiger? I want to see more of Ji Lin!
Haha! I did think of a sequel, perhaps because in my mind, the characters went on to do other things. I actually wrote two different endings, one of which would more clearly lend itself to a sequel because it was open-ended, but in the end my agent and I decided to go for the one that could be more of a stand-alone. I’m certainly open to writing a sequel in future though – I want to find out what they do too!
The Night Tiger contains so many different elements, from historical fiction, mystery, and a touch of mythology. What brought all these ideas together?
I’ve always enjoyed reading strange tales – the sort of story that makes you wonder what happened next. As I was writing, I felt like the story was unfurling, sometimes in strange ways with unexpected connections. When the pieces (weretigers, Chinese dance halls, servants and masters) began to fall into place it was both surprising and a joy to write.
In The Night Tiger, you bring the world of 1931 Malaysia vividly to life. Why did you decide to set this novel in the 1930’s?
Historical fiction is rather like time-travel (which is part of the fun!). My first book, The Ghost Bride, was set in 1898, so for this one I wanted to move forward a little. I’ve always liked the romantic idea of the 1920s and 30s – the clothes, the fact that they had electricity and a number of modern conveniences, yet were also in a very different time from us.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned while writing The Night Tiger?
That there are names for the different fingers. I sort of had an idea of this, because in Malay, the middle finger is known as the jari hantu, or ghost finger. But I hadn’t realized there were names for all the other ones too. That worked out well for this book, because a lot of it is tied up with the number five, and missing fingers. Each finger actually stands for a character in the novel, and I’d originally planned to write more subplots about each one.
How did you go about plotting the murder mystery in The Night Tiger?
I tend to write organically, without planning. It’s a terrible way to write when one hits a block, but when things are going well, it’s a joyous process. As I write, the story begins to unfold. On good days, I’ll be typing away and squeaking things like “Oh! So that’s why she said that!”. On bad days I’m simply stumped. I had to put the book away for short stretches when I ran out of ideas.
In fact, for my first novel The Ghost Bride, I actually put the whole thing away for months when I couldn’t puzzle my way out. But The Ghost Bride was very engrossing. There were so many possible subplots, many of which I had to cut because the book got too long and I was afraid that nobody would ever read such a giant doorstop!
I really admired Ji Lin’s independent spirit and her dreams of studying medicine, despite the limitations placed upon women. In your opinion, what would Ji Lin think of the 21st century?
I think she’d probably be very excited, especially since she could do whatever she liked with numbers and math. She might be a statistician, or in medical school. I can imagine her running healthcare statistics on disease vectors – and maybe even sewing her own clothes as a hobby and not because she was forced to.
What’s one last thing you’d like readers to know about The Night Tiger?
I’m a rather slow writer, and it took me quite a few years to write this book and then edit it down to a manageable size, but I felt deeply immersed in the world, and I hope that readers will too. 🙂
About the Author
Yangsze Choo is a fourth generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. Due to a childhood spent in various countries, she can eavesdrop (badly) in several languages. After graduating from Harvard University, she worked in various corporate jobs and had a briefcase before writing her first novel. THE GHOST BRIDE, set in colonial Malaya and the elaborate Chinese world of the afterlife, is about a peculiar historic custom called a spirit marriage and was published August 2013 by William Morrow in North America and Hot Key in the UK. Her second novel, THE NIGHT TIGER, will be published February 2019 by Flatiron Books and Quercus (UK).
Yangsze loves to eat and read, and often does both at the same time. She lives in California with her husband and children, and several chickens. Yangsze is represented by literary agent Jenny Bent.