We are delighted to feature an interview with Karen Kao, former M&A attorney turned author. Her debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle will be released on April 1 by Linen Press. The novel is a brutally honest account of the courtesan culture in 1930s Shanghai as it teeters on the brink of war with Japan. The novel explores dark themes such as violence against women and self-harm.
That’s quite a career change. What inspired you to write?
I’ve been writing since I was in high school and had some early success with publishing while still at university. So my intent was to become a poet. My father objected. He talked me into applying to law school and, to my surprise, I was admitted.
While I hated law school, I loved private practice. I work best under pressure and there’s nothing like a law firm environment to put on the screws. The cross-border M&A deal, which was my specialty, made life particularly interesting. Conference calls in the middle of the night or negotiation sessions that went on non-stop for a day and a night. I was often the only woman in the room but that didn’t matter. It’s exhilarating to be surrounded by people who are smarter than yourself.
But eventually, I tired of it all. One deal started looking pretty much like the next. I got bored and then I got mean. But I didn’t want to become that sort of person. And so I decided to leave the law though I didn’t know what I would do instead. I toyed for a while with finance and investment banking. Meanwhile, the idea for my novel had begun to crystallise in my mind. The more I spent writing it, the more time I wanted to devote to writing. At that point I decided to jump.
Who has been the most influential mentor in your role as author?
T.S. Eliot once said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Not that I’m admitting to plagiarism! But every author is influenced, for good or bad, by the books they read. So my best mentors are the books that feed my imagination.
Since my novel is set in 1930s Shanghai, there was quite a lot of research I needed to do. I’m not a historian and didn’t want to make huge gaffes. So I read quite a lot of non-fiction and fiction about that period of time. If I had to choose one source of inspiration, it would be Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) (张 爱玲) who experienced and wrote about that period of Shanghai history.
How much of a factor is your own Chinese background in your writing?
The inspiration for my novel is my father, who was born and bred in Shanghai. He’s a real storyteller. There are some pretty colourful characters in our family tree. I used some of those stories to create a world of my own and peopled that world with characters of my own design.
I’ve also made several trips to Shanghai during the writing this novel. While I can speak a bit of Shanghai dialect, Cantonese and Mandarin, it’s all fairly egregious. So I look and take pictures and try to imagine Shanghai the way that it was in my father’s day.
Do you miss the law?
Well, I miss the money and my secretary and having an IT helpdesk. It was also quite a shock to me how important I felt as the partner of a law firm as opposed to how very insignificant I am as a private individual or even as debut author. In the period before my departure from my law firm, I would get upwards of 200 emails a day. In the weeks after my departure, the email stream dried up to maybe 2 a week. It was quite a blow to my ego!
In a movie of your life story, which actor would you like to play you?
Actually, I have dreams of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle being turned into a movie. Maybe they’ll give me a cameo role as a washerwoman or a fried tofu peddler.
What would be your dream job if you didn’t write?
There is no other job than this for me.
What is your favourite holiday destination?
I have a weakness for China, of course. I’d love to travel through Sichuan province and see more of the Chinese countryside. But Japan is also magnificent and I’d be happy to go back there, too.
What piece of advice would you give your 25 year old self? Stay away from the law?
I’m actually quite grateful for having had a legal career. Obviously, there were remunerative rewards that now allow me to lead my current life of crime. But, to my surprise, I’ve also discovered that some skills you need as a lawyer transfer over quite well to the writer’s studio.
For example, we lawyers like to get our knickers in a twist about worst-case scenarios. We’re always looking ahead, expecting the worst and then planning for it. That’s not unlike plotting a story. You want the story to unfold in surprising ways, but if you line up each plot twist, they all need to make sense from a cause-and-effect point of view.
But most importantly of all, success in one career gave me the self-confidence to try a new one.