Editor’s Note: This exchange is part of a series of brief interviews with emerging writers of recent or forthcoming books. If you enjoyed it, please visit other interviews in the I’ve Got Questions feature.
- What’s the title of your book? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Who is the publisher and what’s the publication date?
Ms. Ming’s Guide to Civilization. It’s a novel published by Regal House Publishing in September 2019. It was a Leapfrog Press Fiction contest semi-finalist.
- In a couple of sentences, what’s the book about?
Two broke young women—Ming, who is from China, and Zoe, from Manhattan—visit the bleak Sichuan outpost where Ming was born and meet a legendary immortal who has an ambitious plan to save the world from capitalism run amok. With a little magic and a little private equity, the three of them turn hyper-capitalist China into a paradise for artists, thinkers, and lovers—but it’s a short-lived paradise once human nature begins to intervene.
- What’s the book’s genre (for fiction and nonfiction) or primary style (for poetry)?
Literary fiction with a mash-up of political satire and magical realism.
- What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?
“The first line of the book, ‘Ming Cheng was born in the cruelest place on earth,’ is like a starter pistol, setting this zany, beautiful book into motion. Jan Alexander is a deft story-teller, who manages to create a world that is both wild and breathtaking. She takes us across this alternate world, and we willingly go. I warn you though. If you pick up ‘Ms. Ming,’ you won’t be able to put her down.” That was from the wonderful writer N. West Moss, author of The Subway Stops at Bryant Park.
- What book or books is yours comparable to or a cross between? [Is your book like Moby Dick or maybe it’s more like Frankenstein meets Peter Pan?]
It’s what might happen if you crossed Thomas Piketty with Margaret Atwood and sent them to China.
- Why this book? Why now?
China hand Andrew Singer wrote of it: “Do you want to make the world a better place? Well, Ms. Ming’s Guide To Civilization will show you a way.” At a moment when we have no choice but to make the world a better place, Ms. Ming presents a not-so-modest proposal for solving the problem of economic inequality. There’s also a worst-nightmare scenario about a right-wing-motivated brain-washing vaccine in search of a pandemic, although I wrote the story before I ever imagined we’d have a real pandemic. (And I am planning to get a vaccine as soon as I can.)
- Other than writing this book, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?
That would have to be the period when I was writing articles about places that hardly any Westerners wanted to go. A friend and I had a plan to write about the train from China to Kazakhstan if we could get on it, but we were told the Kazakh border was closed due to a cholera epidemic, so we re-routed to the icy mountain pass into Kyrgyzstan, where we were kind of stranded for four days and made friends with the local customs officials and some very drunk Russian truckdrivers. On another trip I rode a rickety bus to a remote Sichuan Village where the clouds writhed like ghosts and no one would talk about the strange hermit in the pagoda; those images were the starting point for this novel. More soberingly, I spent time hanging around with Uighurs in Xinjiang who were prepared to give their lives to secede from China.
- What do you want readers to take away from the book?
A message for all young women everywhere with big dreams: You don’t have to settle for the world the way it is.
- What food and/or music do you associate with the book?
Spicy Sichuan noodles, cocktail glasses clinking, and Rhapsody in Blue.
- What book(s) are you reading currently?
I’m going back and forth between The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, a speculative tale of an unwilling empress in Imperial China who manages to overthrow a dynasty, and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Caste shatters any remaining illusions I had about equal opportunity in America; every white American should read it.
Learn more about Jan at her website.
Buy the book from the publisher.