Interview with Ben Efsaneyim, Author of “The Legend of Fu”

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1. Ben, congratulations on your new book. Finishing a book is a major accomplishment, and I think the entire Asian American blogosphere is happy for you. Can you tell us a little about your book? What is it about?

Thank you, Byron, and thank you for your interest in my book.

The Legend of Fu is a historical thriller set in the late 19th Century. The main narrative happens in the San Francisco Chinatown, but the early part of the book takes place in Mexico. The story follows the protagonist, Fu, as he survives brutal treatment aboard a coolie ship and a brief sojourn in Mexico, and finally presents the main events that take place in San Francisco.

Fu becomes a successful merchant in the Chinese quarter, and his philanthropic endeavours land him in the middle of an intrigue. He rescues a group of women from a brothel, one of whom turns out to be a white woman trying to evade violent pursuers who fear she can expose their secrets.

The woman’s pursuers utilize anti-Chinese sentiment to help them flush out Fu and the woman by inciting a mob of thousands to attack Chinatown. As the mob descends on the quarter, Fu realizes that if he can solve the mystery, then he might be able to save Chinatown in the process.

The story takes place against the backdrop of actual historical events – namely the decades-long persecution of Chinese migrants on the West Coast. For example, the mob in the novel is based on an actual anti-Chinese mob attack that took place in San Francisco in 1877 involving eight-thousand people. Throughout the novel, all references to various mob actions against the Chinese are almost all derived from actual historical events, and some are retold as flashbacks.

This was a necessary context for the novel. I wanted the story to be told in a fast-paced and action-packed way that is driven by the narrative, but also recounts a serious history via the medium of an entertaining story.

2. As a Filipino, why did you decide to write about this episode of Chinese history?

That’s a good question! I actually agonized over this.

The mass migration of the Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century was significant for all Asians because at some point, their story becomes an Asian-American story, and ultimately an American story. I view these early Asian migrants as both pioneers, and as a kind of “founding father community” for all Asians. For this reason, it was important to me to tell a piece of their story.

What happened to them became the template for how all subsequent immigrants from East and South East Asia were treated and excluded. So, I viewed the project as adding to the American historical narrative as well since it recounts the actions of Americans as much as the actions of the Chinese.

I made the choice not to overplay the “Chinese-ness” of the characters. Audiences – particularly mainstream audiences – tend to focus on the exotic characterizations of Asians and I wanted to move past all of that and leave the focus on the historical narrative and on how human beings might act in extreme situations. I would have followed the same approach even if I was writing about Filipino characters.

3. What was your inspiration behind the book? Is there one particular incident that gave you the idea for the story?

There were several sources of inspiration for the novel.

First and foremost, the actual story of the brutal suppression and persecution of the Chinese at the time has practically zero presence in America’s cultural consciousness, or even in the cultural consciousness of Asian Americans for that matter. I had a problem with that.

When you consider that for several decades starting in the mid-nineteenth Century, perhaps hundreds of Chinese communities were attacked by mobs, Chinese were rounded up and forcibly removed from their homes, their properties were burned to the ground or simply expropriated, and their possessions looted, we ought to be concerned that we have almost no cultural memory recounting these events.

We hear more references to the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, and the pogroms against the Jews in Tsarist Russia than we do about the systematic pogroms targeting Asian migrants on the West Coast. I did not have to exaggerate the violence depicted in the novel – I simply dramatized actual historical events.

Secondly, I wanted to address the idea of the Asian male arch-villain as manifested by such stereotypes as Fu Manchu. I conceived of Fu as a kind of “anti-Fu Manchu”.

The arch-villain stereotype is typically depicted as hyper-intelligent and morally deficient, and having a kind of supernaturally dark, mystical power that he utilizes to scheme against western moral values and civilization. The arch-villain carries out his evil plots from a secret underground lair where he keeps white female slaves whom he craves sexually.

In The Legend of Fu, I incorporate some of these elements into the novel to highlight their racist source. Fu does indeed have a “secret” place, but it exists as a resource for his philanthropy and as a place where victims of mob violence and racist exclusion find sanctuary. Fu also has a connection to “mystical power”, but this mysticism is benevolent.

Like all stereotypes, the Asian arch-villain stereotype exists partly as a means to discourage miscegenation, and one of the reasons that I felt compelled to allude to it is because we can still hear echoes of it in today’s emasculating stereotypes of Asian men which are also a means to discourage miscegenation between white women and Asian men.

Thirdly, I was interested in how identity is formed or changed via the historical experience and the deeper identity-forming process this entails. During the battle for Iwo Jima, Japanese soldiers recounted how they discovered the commonality they shared with US soldiers. When in the throes of death, both called out to their mothers for comfort.

In a similar way, I wanted to explore how people look to a deeper place within themselves to meet the challenge of traumatic experiences and how cultural peculiarities in a person’s character disappear under these circumstances. I hoped to humanize the characters and the community by portraying them whittled down to the bare bones of their humanity.

Over the past several years I have been thinking a lot about overbearing and megalomaniacal political figures who seek power and control over every aspect of their private and public constituencies. It is hard for us coming from established democracies to comprehend how such figures can strive for and crave absolute power over both those near to them and those out in the wider society. 

Such people are both fascinating and frightening in their single-minded drive to achieve supremacy.

4. What was your writing process like? How long did it take you to write this? What was the editing process like?

The writing process was a highly enjoyable rollercoaster ride! I began writing around mid-2013 and started with a simple outline of the themes that I wanted to cover, followed by an expanded outline that detailed specific events or scenarios that I wanted to have take place in the narrative. I had already written much of the book in my head over the previous year or so.

The novel subsequently built upon itself, presenting obstacles and dilemmas that I largely resolved by adhering to the primary goal of writing a dramatized historical narrative. My environment started to become integrated into the writing process. Something as mundane as the difficulty of climbing one of Istanbul’s many hills when you are already tired found a voice in the novel somewhere.

Another time, I got caught in the middle of a large anti-Israeli protest at which people were chanting “death to Israel” and the like, and I gained some insight into what it would be like for the characters in The Legend of Fu to hear such a mob descending on their homes. Yet another gathering – this time an anti-American one – gave me insight into Wei’s experience when he came upon the agitating labor meeting. In the moment, I felt compelled to stop and listen to what was being said, whilst simultaneously feeling the strong urge in my gut to get away fast.

I got to see first-hand in real-time how such an encounter might terrify someone, and, most significantly, how visceral and primal instincts take over in high-danger situations. In this way, you can become engrossed in the process, and I found myself going about my daily business contemplating how the characters should or would act in the situations in which I had placed them in the novel and how scenarios in my own life mirrored my novel.

Because of this, when I had completed the work, I experienced a sense of loss – almost a depression – that I had lost what had become an integral aspect of my daily life. That lasted until the editing process made me want to jump into the Bosphorus and never come up again.

I finished the book within roughly two years, and the back-and-forth of editing suggestions and re-writes took another year or so to complete. Also, minor changes suggested by my editor led me to instead make major changes and so on, which then again had to be edited. The editing was far less enjoyable than the writing process.

5. Why did you decide to self-publish?

I knew that I was writing material that highlighted historical events in a very honest and accurate way that might not be agreeable to some and I did not want to compromise on any of that. Self-publishing left me in full control over what went to print.

6. What are your goals for this book? Who are your intended readers?

I wrote this work because I wanted to write a historical novel that I would enjoy reading myself – and I admit that I did enjoy reading it! In particular, I enjoyed the fact that I could read a story about Asians that doesn’t slap them in the face at some point with an unexpected bit of racist stupidity. Simply put, despite there being many works of culture covering the period of the Wild West and the opening up of the west coast, I cannot think of many that recount this hugely significant story. How can such a major part of history – a massive ethnic cleansing! – be absent from our cultural narratives?

Furthermore, depictions of Asian men from that, or any other period are not what I would like them to be. These Chinese migrants were every bit as courageous and intrepid as the white heroes celebrated and enjoyed in American culture, and I wanted my novel to describe such men in a way that I could relate to and feel as though they gave a good account of themselves.

I hope that anyone who values history as an integral part of identity formation would find some interest in the book. Early reviewers say that they could not put it down as they wanted to find out what happened next. This is a small victory and a guiltless pleasure for an author. I hope that anyone who wants to read a book that they cannot put down would like my novel.

At the same time, once readers have finished the book, I want them to ask the question “did this really happen?” and for that to be the beginning of a dialogue.

Purchase “The Legend of Fu” here.

17 thoughts on “Interview with Ben Efsaneyim, Author of “The Legend of Fu”

  1. Heeey! Congrats Ben!
    Everyone talks about writing a book but every few finally cross that finish line. We’re all really proud of you, man!

  2. Byron

    Thank you for the interview! I appreciate the support!

    Aardvark

    Thanks dude!

    King

    Thanks! I was fortunate to be put in a situation where I had a lot of time on my hands. I will say that the editing seemed like it would never end and was probably the hardest part of the process – it was a back and forth between the editor and myself for a long time until I finally said “enough!”

  3. Will you publish in Ebook format? I heard Adobe has some products that could offer you some protection.

    Does this story have any erotic content?

  4. Ebook is a good way to get sales, although if I remember correctly, it took quite a bit more work to put it in e-book format.

  5. Sengge

    “Does this story have any erotic content?”

    I’m afraid not – but I suppose I should say that it all depends on what you consider erotic. 😉

    I have not published to kindle – the amazon e-book format – for a couple of reasons. Firstly I have read that Amazon reduced the price of one author’s e-book to 1 cent, sold 5000 copies over one weekend and he got no payment for it. Secondly, the formatting for an e-book turns out to be complicated.

    There are a plethora of YouTube videos showing people how to format for a paperback, but formatting for an e-book not so much. I’ve tried to follow a couple of videos but the result looked a bit sloppy.

    Having said that, I have not ruled out releasing an e-book version later on.

    Byron

    That’s right. The CreateSpace platform pays a royalty for each unit sold – an e-book has fewer costs to produce so the royalty payment increases, but this might be offset by a lower price for an e-book. And you are correct, formatting for an e-book turns out to be, strangely, more complicated.

  6. “I’m afraid not – but I suppose I should say that it all depends on what you consider erotic. 😉”

    By this stage only gratuitous descriptions satisfy me… maybe something like Fifty Shades Plus… basically anything that depicts the characters mating like sweaty baboons…. what what *snaps out of it*

    “I have not published to kindle – the amazon e-book format – for a couple of reasons. Firstly I have read that Amazon reduced the price of one author’s e-book to 1 cent, sold 5000 copies over one weekend and he got no payment for it. Secondly, the formatting for an e-book turns out to be complicated.”

    This is true and it is a serious problem. I did some research myself some time back and Amazon is engaged in some very sleazy practices when it comes to ebook sales. There is unilateral discounting, which they engage in just to make sure the ebook won’t sell on other marketplaces, even your own web store if you’ve set that up yourself. They also have sleazy ways to decide whether they will pay you your dues or if they can get away with not paying you. I can’t remember all the details. However I did come across other ebook retailers like Kobo which seem to offer a better deal to authors. I haven’t updated myself in quite a while though.

    There’s also the matter of piracy when dealing with ebook formats and it can be very severe. Piracy, coupled with the fact that people don’t want to pay money for ebooks, and aggressive discounting by Amazon all work to suppress the perceived value of ebooks, which can be a big problem if you publish exclusively in that format.

    Maybe enhanced ebook formats that bundle the text with sound and video might sell better as prestige items…

  7. I think you can opt out of their aggressive pricing; the main thing is that you can never sell it for less than the Amazon price.

    But if you made less but not ridiculously less–say, for example, you made a dollar a sale per e-book–selling 5,000 copies for a self-published work isn’t bad, right?

  8. Almost nothing is going to have the reach of Amazon these days, but there are some alternatives:

    Barnes & Noble
    Lulu.com & similar sites to it
    drivethrufiction.com

    The last one seems to be full of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, but I did find this, so a serious novel like yours might not be out of place in there. The parent company is One Bookshelf.

    Lulu and onebookshelf both do print on demand and pdf’s. I think they do other ebook formats too like epub, but I”m not sure as I think the bulk of their sales are POD and PDF.

  9. Sengge

    Those are good points. I was warned by an author here in Turkey about the problem of piracy – something I had not even considered before.

    Also, are you in the process of writing a book?

    Byron

    I suppose that if you think of it as a kind of exposure then selling 5000 units for a dollar could be a springboard for any subsequent novels since you’d have that many people already familiar with your work.

    Nottyboy

    Yeah, Amazon is probably the most convenient option for self-publishing and the company that most people are familiar with.

    I think that even if you publish thru createspace, you can still sell your book through other channels like barnes and Noble. I’m going by memory here so I could be getting my facts mixed up, but I think that you can pay extra for an different ISBN that allows you to publish and/or sell through other avenues.

    It can get pricey though. I chose the free ISBN that basically gives Amazon exclusive rights to sell your book since it is the biggest name in town. Having said that, I can make my book available to be sold via a third party, but the bulk of the royalty payment on that goes to amazon.

  10. Hi Ben,

    Yes, I’m in the process of producing something. I intend to self-publish and market, so that’s a lot on my plate. Then other projects came along and I had to put all of it on hold, lol.

    I think the problem of piracy is surmountable. I think what’s not surmountable is the commodification of the ebook.

    I think, like it or not, when people think of a book in electronic format, stripped away even from the paper it was printed on, taken out of the bookstores and hypermarts, people think it’s a commodity that’s been stripped down to its bare basics, so it should be cheaper.

    Being able to sit somewhere quiet, putting the world aside and with “Harry Potter” or other book in hand has become an actual culture in the literate world. No such culture or set of behaviors and expectations exist for an ebook that is to be read on the screen at the work station, personal PC, tablet or smartphone. It may be that when mobile projection/holographic display screens and motion detection interfaces become common Ebook formats will come into their own again, but for the near future, words on a screen are commodified. I think this hurts publishers and authors more than piracy does.

    With regards to piracy, a casual search at this moment leads me to find that unless a book has a certain amount of piracy or annual sales, it is actually difficult to find a pirated copy online. This may be because of stronger enforcement action or merely because books that do not hit a certain amount of popularity are as good as invisible. If you sell below a certain number of sales, I think it will not affect you. The main problem would be downward price pressure and how to increase your publicity and subsequently your sales. That’s ebooks.

    I hear print is a different ball game altogether.

    I would also like to add that 5000 sales is not a good number. I would think that 25000 and upwards is a much better number for any target. When I had to take on other projects I had not yet solved these riddles and problems I encountered when exploring publishing.

  11. Another thing, I still don’t understand reader behavior when it comes to ebooks. Who actually reads books using their tablets, personal computers or mobile phones? When do they do it? Why do they choose electronic format to read words, dealing with small screens or static ones that conform your body position instead of vice versa and blue light?

    My suspicion is that people read ebooks only as part of “throw away” moments.

    Sitting down with a book requires a commitment of time. It requires you to take a risk, to explore. You have to make the time and the spaces to read with a physical book.

    With ebooks, people slot it in to whatever time or attention span they have. In other words, ebooks are used as throw away moments to fill gaps in time or attention that the reader can spare.

    Some time ago I heard about how Amazon was planning to compensate ebook authors only for the PERCENTAGE of the ebook the user completed. Meaning if a user only read the introduction and a few pages or chapters, that would be what the author would be compensated for.

    Outrage aside, why would Amazon consider something like this? Their Kindle platform allowed them to discover something: many buyers of ebooks never complete the books they bought.

    This could be for many different reasons.

    Amazon wants to discount your books as much as it can it order to “drive” sales but this could also have the effect of reducing the perceived value of your work to zero. As an author, there is a question of whether your work reaches the audience it is supposed to. You can “opt out” of Amazon’s discounting program (so I heard recently from Byron, I am not up to date with the news) but this brings into question whether your work will disappear from coveted front page promotions and search indexes. Amazon can penalize poor sellers using simple mathematical programs.

    If your work is sold at a throwaway price for throwaway moments, what are the odds that your work will not be finished or read through, and that it did not reach the people it was supposed to reach?

    These were some of the questions I grappled with, and I have only come up with partial answers.

  12. “With regards to piracy, a casual search at this moment leads me to find that unless a book has a certain amount of piracy or annual sales, it is actually difficult to find a pirated copy online. This may be because of stronger enforcement action or merely because books that do not hit a certain amount of popularity are as good as invisible. If you sell below a certain number of sales, I think it will not affect you. The main problem would be downward price pressure and how to increase your publicity and subsequently your sales. That’s ebooks.”

    This was not worded well so I will try again +_+

    With regards to piracy, casual searching on the internet leads me to find that it’s actually more difficult to find on the internet obscure books that actually populate shelf space in physical bookstores. It may be because I have not delved into the “darknet” and have searched for illicit product only as a casual searcher. This was a far cry from just a handful of years ago when almost anything I wanted could be found.

    I postulate that this may have arisen as a result of more stringent enforcement action. Now, it appears that ebooks that do not meet a certain level of mass popularity cannot be found illicitly via casual searching. Therefore, if you are an ebook publisher who has not reached a certain level of publicity or sales, piracy is unlikely to affect you in any way.

    Therefore, I think that the real problem with ebooks lies elsewhere. The ebook is essentially a product that has been decoupled from the costs of physical distribution and its networks. People assume that it should be cheaper now because they should pay for less of the supply chain. They’re right, but what is the true value? We haven’t formed clear ideas of this yet and this may be the bigger hurdle that electronic format publishers are facing.

    ——————-

    I also delved a little bit into physical format publishing. There’s a slick little con job making the rounds now where a “publisher” essentially tries to “persuade” vanity writers into assuming all the risks of publishing, while they pocket the same profits.

    It used to be that publishers had to take a chance on an author and determine what amount of money and resources he would be worth. This might not be “fair” but we have enough stories of people hawking their product to publishers until FINALLY one company had the faith to make it big. Things have turned around. Now some slick willy fat cats are trying to ask you to put your own money in to a mass market game where they take no responsibilities and no risks, but take the usual cut from you.

    I looked at the chain a hypothetical product would have to go through. The author pays for printing, marketing, promotion, even fucking distribution. Crowd turnout and buzz for marketing is not guaranteed and what is promised is only rote procedural action. You print the product, but how many bookstores and hypermarts give you shelf space is uncertain, so your books could be sitting in a warehouse for ages for all we know. Lastly, it’s “standard practice” in the industry (or so they will tell you if you raise a fuss when you find out later) for all players in the game to clear stock via clearance sales for a product they did not care to market or fight for shelf space for, and the royalties you get are a percentage (or less) of what these stocks sold for.

    ———–

    Physical product is a game indulged in by strong players. Electronic product makes no money and is shunned and despised.

    Authors and self-publishers have not found a reliable way through these treacherous waters. We haven’t yet evolved, but I think, it’s only a matter of time, and we don’t even have to take all the risks like the slick fuckers are trying to game us on for.

    I guess I better get all my material done so I can delve deeper. There’s a lot to think about, more than this. It’s one thing to write fiction, another if you’re producing something based on actual facts. Then we’re sitting on real copyright and intellectual property. It’s a quite a puzzle trying to get everything right.

  13. First, I really enjoyed the book, finished in a few hours, intend to re-read. The characters jump out of the book and I’m imagining them on the big screen. Would there be any desire to adapt the book for film? I have a lot of time to kill outside of work and I’m interested in screenwriting (and making lots of money, to be honest). Any thoughts? I’ll leave an e-mail address here and revisit bigWOWO once in a while.

  14. Sorry, I filled in the e-mail field but never actually wrote it down here. I sent you an e-mail with some thoughts and will take it from there.

    In the meantime spread this stuff by word of mouth! It’s good reading for anyone who is even slightly woke or shows signs of awakening.

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