Telling the Truth of Family History in Fiction

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Bo Caldwell has written fiction for years, publishing about a dozen short stories in Ploughshares and other literary magazines.

But she's also written an equal amount of nonfiction, in the form of personal essays for the Washington Post's Post Magazine and other publications.

When Caldwell came into possession of a fascinating cache of autobiographical material from a recently deceased uncle with a colorful Shanghai past, her first impulse was to use the material for a nonfiction work. It was a fiction-writer who suggested that what she really had in her uncle's story was the framework for a novel.

The fiction-writer was her husband, novelist Ron Hansen. And the book Caldwell wrote, after that helpful suggestion, was The Distant Land of My Father -- her first published novel, and a Book Sense 76 pick in both hardcover (Chronicle Books) and, now, in trade paperback (Harvest). In nominating the book for the September/October 2002 list, Kathy Ashton of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City wrote, "Anna is a child of privilege and her father a millionaire, but those riches become ephemera as the Japanese threaten to invade Shanghai, and Anna and her mother are forced to flee to California. This is a novel writ large, a saga of love and war, but also a story about the ties that bind generations together."

Writing the novel, Caldwell found, was both similar to, and different from, writing nonfiction.

"It was like nonfiction," she said, "in that I kind of had the plot: I used (my uncle's) life as the skeleton for the book; and plot is the hardest part for me about fiction; so that was a big help. I had this timeline I could follow." The difference, she said, was in getting the details about life in Shanghai in the 1930s: "My nonfiction has always been personal essays about people close to me, and that kind of thing. I really hadn't done research like this before, and I loved it. I really enjoyed it."

Also helpful, Caldwell said, was having another writer in the house.

"That's great," she said. "We always read each other's work first, chapter by chapter usually."

Of Ron Hansen's many and varied novels (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hitler's Niece, Atticus), Caldwell said: "His stuff is very good, right off the computer! He certainly polishes it and revises, but it's always fascinating, and he writes so differently from book to book, that I'm always kind of in awe."

When her husband reads her pages, Caldwell said, she thinks he is "probably very gentle with me." Though Distant Land "wasn't really my first time out," as she put it. (Caldwell had written one and a half unpublished novels, years earlier) She noted that, on the other hand, "it kind of was. So, he's very encouraging, and just kind of marks places where it doesn't make sense, or places where I could cut."

Caldwell began her first draft of Distant Land in March of 1997 and finished it in December of 1999: "I think I figured out once that it was 989 days!" she noted. During that period, she said, she also did freelance nonfiction writing, including helping Charles Schwab compose the books Charles Schwab's Guide to Financial Independence and You're Fifty: Now What?

Alternating between her novel and these other projects was not a distraction, but, rather, a help, Caldwell said: "If I have unlimited time (to work on a novel), I get nervous about money. So, if I have another lengthy project I'm doing that's paid work, I can kind of rest easy, and switch back and forth."

Born in Oklahoma City and raised in San Marino, California, Bo Caldwell said she first got hooked on prose through a creative-writing class in high school: "I just loved it, and got a lot of encouragement, and just enjoyed it so much and felt like I was kind of good at it. So that was the start."

Later, at Stanford, she took creative-writing classes from Tobias Wolff, Al Young, and Nancy Packer.

After graduating from Stanford in 1977, Caldwell worked for IBM as a technical writer, and wrote short stories by night.

"My first story was published right after my daughter was born, in '83," she said. Caldwell also has a son; both children are from a previous marriage. "Once I had kids, I was able to cut back work to part-time, and I was able to get a lot more writing done.... Then in 1989, I got a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford. So, I had two years where I could really concentrate on writing."

She also taught at Stanford for three years, and there she began writing nonfiction pieces.

Around 1981, Caldwell became closely acquainted with her uncle, "the black sheep of the family," after his second wife died. "He lived in San Francisco, and I was in the Bay Area.... He would come down for dinner, or I'd go up for lunch.... We stayed close for the rest of his life, and he was very close to my kids."

When the uncle died in 1995, Caldwell and her mother had the task of cleaning out the uncle's San Francisco apartment. "There was a ton of stuff," Caldwell said. "All kinds of stuff. And in one box, on the last day we were there, I found a bunch of transcripts of tapes he'd made, I think in the late '70s, about his experiences. I knew enough to keep them, and then, sometime, later I started looking at them."

What she found was absorbing material regarding her uncle's years in Shanghai, a period in which he was imprisoned first by the Japanese and then by the Chinese. "It was really fascinating stuff, to a writer. And I fooled with it in terms of nonfiction for a while, but it just didn't add up to enough for nonfiction. And I knew one thing: telling your uncle's story didn't have much oomph."

Then, she took Ron Hansen's suggestion (she and Hansen were married in 1998), and the true story of her real-life uncle became a novel about a fictional father.

The Distant Land of My Father was published by Chronicle Books in hardcover in October 2001. It made the bestseller lists of the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times named it one of the best books of the year.

But for Bo Caldwell, maybe the most memorable thing that happened in connection with Distant Land was reading novelist Carolyn See's review of it in the Washington Post.

"It was the first big newspaper review (of the book)," she said. "I knew it was coming, and I think I figured out I could maybe see it online before it came out [in print]. So, I was sitting in my study late at night, when it was posted. She gave it a wonderful review; it was beautiful.... That was the high point."

Now Bo Caldwell is working on "kind of a prequel" to Distant Land, she said: "A novel based on the lives of my missionary grandparents, who went over to China in 1906. I may have my characters go a little bit earlier, right after the Boxer Rebellion, when a lot of Protestant missionaries were going over."

It sounds like just the sort of balance of fact and fiction at which Bo Caldwell excels. -- Tom Nolan