When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims – though I do forgive her, if you can believe it.
THE MAJESTIES came out on August 6th, from Pushkin Press. I reviewed it on my blog (that review is available here!) and gave it a well deserved 5 stars – I absolutely adored it. So when I got the opportunity to interview Tiffany Tsao, I jumped at it. Scroll below to read a summary of this incredible read, and the questions (non-spoilery, I promise) that I was eager to ask!
The Majesties blurb:
Gwendolyn and Estella have always been as close as sisters can be. Growing up in a wealthy, eminent, and sometimes deceitful family, they’ve relied on each other for support and confidence. But now Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the sole survivor of Estella’s poisoning of their whole clan.
As Gwendolyn struggles to regain consciousness, she desperately retraces her memories, trying to uncover the moment that led to this shocking and brutal act. Was it their aunt’s mysterious death at sea? Estella’s unhappy marriage to a dangerously brutish man? Or were the shifting loyalties and unspoken resentments at the heart of their opulent world too much to bear? Can Gwendolyn, at last, confront the carefully buried mysteries in their family’s past and the truth about who she and her sister really are?
Interview with Tiffany Tsao:
Starting with an obvious and probably cliched question, what sparked the initial idea for The Majesties?
I wanted to write a novel about family secrecy. And I felt that the only way I could really get into the meat and bones of dysfunctional family dynamics was to write about a family of a similar cultural and socioeconomic background to mine. So much of how we interact, how we show love, what is expected of us and what we expect from others, is so embedded in particular circumstance. But then, I found myself wanting also to examine and dissect the issues at play in that particular world—Chinese-Indonesian high society. People are part of larger systems. I found it impossible to divorce my characters and plot from their larger context.
Gwendolyn runs a company called Bagatelle that specialises in unconventional, but beautiful, jewellery. How did you come up with the idea for Bagatelle and their butterfly jewellery?
While I was doing my PhD in English literature, I worked part-time in a natural history store in Berkeley, California. They sold fossils, human bones, and insects in various forms. The reason I started working there was my love for insects, which I’d had since high school. But they sold decorative items: pinned insects, framed insects, but also jewellery made from insects: specifically, butterfly wings and the iridescent exoskeletons of jewel beetles. And while there, I learned much more about how eye-catching insects have long been used for ornament and fashion: in Thailand for example, or Victorian England. But I’d always thought living insects were more beautiful in every way. So, in a sense, creating the living insect jewellery of Bagatelle was me writing my own dreams into reality.
I absolutely loved the way as a reader I got to see the memories all through Gwendolyn’s eyes – it made every character seem so vivid. What were your inspirations for the characters in Gwendolyn’s life?
I feel like all the characters grew out of very particular facets of people I already knew, or passing impressions of people I’d heard about. It was a bit like taking a cutting from a plant and then growing another plant from that tiny piece. For example, Leonard grew out of a story I’d heard from a friend about her friend’s boyfriend who was extremely possessive and unreasonable. I took this away and put it in soil and watered it, and the piece took on a life of his own.
Did you always have the (amazing, by the way) ending for The Majesties in mind when you started writing about Gwendolyn and Estella, or is it something that developed later in the process?
Definitely. I can’t write anything without knowing how I want to end it. Every word, every detail is part of a whole, and if I don’t have at least a general sense of that bigger picture, I find that my writing gets rather unfocused and loses its edge. It’s quite interesting though: when I drafted the narrative arc and devised that particular ending, I was so proud of myself for being original. But I’ve seen in reviews that it’s apparently not an uncommon twist for thrillers, and because I don’t read many thrillers, I had no idea! In any case, since the narrative involves a progressive unearthing of terrible truth after terrible truth, it is my hope that the effect of the last surprise is, in some sense, cumulative – simply the final nail of a series of nails fixing the coffin lid into place, so to speak.
From your author bio, I know you’ve lived in lots of places; the United States, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia; and some were featured in this book. How much of The Majesties was based on your own experiences of these cultures, and how much was down to research?
To write the relevant scenes in The Majesties, I very much relied on the time I spent in Indonesia during the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as my experiences in Berkeley and Los Angeles in California. But for scenes set further in Indonesia’s past, and the scenes set in late 1970s Australia, I relied on information from my parents and other relatives. And everything, I corroborated with fact-checking and supplementary research.
What would you say is the hardest part of writing for you?
It has to do with one of my responses above! I sometimes wish I didn’t need to plot everything out in at least some vague form before I start writing. And I’m definitely an overthinker: the minute I add x detail, or decide that y event is going to happen, or that z character should be like this, I just stop in my tracks and think everything to its furthest conclusion: what does x signify; what is the logical outcome of y; if z is this way, then how does it affect y, and does x even make sense anymore? My drafts always have comments to future me in brackets and capital letters: “[DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. FIX LATER.]”
I read a previous interview where you said that your translation work is very collaborative between translator-and-author. Do you think you’d ever like to co-write a book, and if so who would be your dream co-writer?
I’m such a control freak and secret introvert I would only co-write with someone I absolutely, absolutely, absolutely know I’m capable of working well with. This narrows things down: my dream co-writer is the only one I can imagine co-writing anything at all with. He’s the Indonesian writer whose poetry collection I’ve translated: Norman Erikson Pasaribu, author of Sergius Seeks Bacchus.
What have you been reading and loving lately?
I’ve been on an absolute roll with my last three reads! They are: Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef, Wanjiru Koinange’s The Havoc of Choice, and Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Pooposakul. I’ve absolutely fallen in love with The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen Epstein. I’m also reading the novel Olenka by the writer Budi Darma in the original Indonesian. I’m translating his short-story collection, Orang-Orang Bloomington (The People of Bloomington), and I’m sheepish I haven’t read Olenka before this, but I am now, and, well. Mind. Blown.
Have you got anything else upcoming that you’d love readers to know about? Or can you tell me anything about what you’re writing right now?
I have two writing projects in the pipeline and two translation projects underway! My writing projects: I’m writing the third and final book in my lesser-known-but-equally-loved-by-me-at-least fantasy trilogy (first two books: The Oddfits and The More Known World. In between publishers. Long story). And I can’t wait to start writing the book after that—a standalone novel in the same dark, speculative vein as The Majesties. My translation projects: I’m finishing the last two stories of Budi Darma’s The People of Bloomington (mentioned above) and am partway through translating Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s short story collection, Happy Stories, Mostly (working title). I would love people to keep these on their book radars!
Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of the Oddfits fantasy series; The Majesties is her debut adult novel. Her translations from Indonesian to English include Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus, Dee Lestari’s novel Paper Boats, and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Birdwoman’s Palate. Her translations of Norman’s poetry have won the English PEN Presents and English PEN Translates awards. Born in the US and of Chinese-Indonesian descent, Tiffany spent her formative years in Singapore and Indonesia before moving to the US for university. She now lives in Sydney with her spouse and two children.
Tiffany Tsao’s website is here!