BackStory: Four Questions with Q.Y. Tie
Author of The Peony Hairpin
What inspired you to write ‘The Peony Hairpin’?
For a while, harem dramas—period dramas centred on palace intrigue among the emperor’s concubines—were all the rage in mainland China. You couldn’t turn on the television and not see one running. As a teenager, I would watch whatever was on, which meant I was often thrown in the middle of an episode or storyline. I would be attracted by the gorgeous costumes and sets and then suddenly characters were screaming at each other or murdering each other’s children and I’d have no idea what was going on. These harem dramas became puzzles to me. I had to solve backwards to figure out the plot (both in the sense of the story itself and the characters’ schemes). I wanted to play with that experience in my piece. The confusion, yes, but the certainty of a coherent storyline underneath.
What is your favourite piece of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about it?
I adore Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. An imaginary Marco Polo presents the imaginary cities he had seen in his travels to an imaginary Kublai Khan. It’s not strictly flash (it’s a novel), but each chapter is only about a page long and can stand alone. I like its playfulness: you can read one page to the next, follow the through-lines of identically titled chapters, or read in random order.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
When I’m working on the first draft of a story, I write it in different places: my laptop, my notebook, my phone. My favourite part is when I decide I’m ready to put it in one place and gather all these fragments up and put them in order. Often, I’m surprised at the end result!
My least favourite part is my habit of thinking about publishing when I’m still very early in the writing. I think this habit is helpful in later revisions; it’s not helpful when I haven’t even finished my first draft. It’s very annoying because I unconsciously try to force the story towards what I think that particular publication would like instead of letting the story go where it wants to go.
What do you like most about writing flash?
For me, writing the first draft of flash is so thrilling in a way that’s different from more longform work. I don’t have time or space for worry or doubt—I just write. Of course, there’s lots and lots of rewriting and revision, which I enjoy as well. But the first draft is a really special experience. I’ve found this is true when I read flash, too. You have no time to back out—once you start a piece, you fall right in.
Q. Y. Tie was born and educated in the Chinese Southwest and lives in the United States. Her work can be found in Contrary and sinθ.
Photograph of flower hairpin from the Beijing Palace Museum (北京・故宮博物館所蔵・www.dpm.org.cn), via their official Weibo account, @故宫博物院.