So how many detours can a writer make before becoming that writer?
If you’re newbie novelist Julie Wu – who knew as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1980s that writing was what she wanted to do – the answer might include a Master’s program in opera performance (after serious training in the violin), medical school and the related internships and residencies required to become a doctor, a successful Boston-area practice, and motherhood.
Two decades-plus ago (but who’s counting?), Wu was “too intimidated to try writing,” as she revealed in an April interview for TaiwaneseAmerican.org. The award-winning novelist-to-be Allegra Goodman lived in Wu’s dorm, having already published, while other fellow Harvardites were also writing novels. Despite the encouragement of a teacher who admired Wu’s first freshman expository writing assignment so much that she suggested Wu move into a creative writing section, Wu decided instead to be “practical.” She thought about taking a short story class but didn’t have anything to submit for the application. She kept reading – “I simply love novels – the immersive nature of them. They’re really the original virtual reality programs, made to run on your brain” – and graduated with a degree in literature. Her own writing was yet to come.
Then at 22, Wu had a vision about “a little boy in Taiwan – it was so vivid I rushed immediately to write it all down, and that’s when I realized that that was how to write – that it wasn’t just pushing words around, it was about having a vision and really communicating that vision to other people.” She planned on a novel – “I wanted to be, you know, Tolstoy” – but another almost-quarter century would pass before Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, finally hit shelves in April earlier this year just after she turned 46.
Wu began writing in earnest in 2001, producing Tolstoy-worthy lengths before eventually distilling her original vivid vision down to just over 300 pages: “I lost track of the number of revisions. I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts. Someday I’ll have a big bonfire,” she told Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet. She estimates she kept a mere 2% of the original draft.
The one element that remained unwavering throughout was, of course that “little boy in Taiwan.” He became Wu’s eponymous “third son,” Saburo Tong, who is more comfortable with his Japanese first name than his unfamiliar Taiwanese moniker Tong Chia-lin. Born into a politically prominent family in Japanese-controlled Taiwan, Saburo comes of age in the 1940s and ’50s, a tumultuous time on his small island home as it moves from Japanese control to U.S. invasion to mainland Chinese domination. Inextricably woven with Saburo’s narrative is the violent history of Taiwan’s 228 Incident, which began with the Taiwanese uprising against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on February 27, 1947, resulted in the brutal massacre of 10-30,000 Taiwanese on February 28 (“228”), and ushered in the White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted nearly four decades during which thousands of citizens were harassed, imprisoned, and murdered. [... click her for more]