Julie Wu (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’12) is among the writers & poets in Mass Cultural Council’s Commonwealth Reading Series, reading at the Forbes Library in Northampton on April 24, 2013, 7 PM.
Days later, she’ll celebrate the publication of her novel, The Third Son (from the publisher: “a story of yearning and freedom set in occupied Taiwan and in America at the dawn of the space age”). We asked the author about the book’s (and her family’s) history, her community of writers, and the different worlds that come together when writing fiction.
ArtSake: How does your own family history relate to the plot of The Third Son?
Julie: The Third Son is a story of overcoming many layers of obstacles to freedom. The book is inspired by my parents’ immigration story, which unfolded during a very tumultuous time in Taiwanese history, but it is not really my parents’ story. The general emotional journey is very much my father’s, but everything else – plot, dialogue, everyday detail, details of the story, details of character, is fictional. As a major example, my parents met for the first time as adults, whereas in The Third Son, Saburo and Yoshiko meet as young children.
Of course, especially since this will be a lot of readers’ first exposure to Taiwanese history, I made every effort to make sure the historical facts were as accurate as possible. I had two different historians read the book to make sure of that.
ArtSake: You’re trained as a physician, and along with writing, you also have backgrounds in opera singing and as a violinist. Have your medical career and arts experiences always been separate “tracks,” or do you feel as if they’re part of the same continuum?
Julie: To me, these are separate worlds. I have enjoyed standing in several different pairs of shoes and mingling in different circles of people. But all of these worlds come together when I write.
ArtSake: Have you found it challenging to balance the unconventional challenges of a writer’s life with other aspects of your life?
Julie: I prefer having balance in my life. Before I had children, I worked half-time as a physician and wrote the rest of the time. Once I had my son, this kind of balance was not possible. My son required a good amount of my time, so I had to basically decide whether to give up medicine or writing. At that point I had already started my book, and I was lucky enough (thanks to my husband) to be able to choose to stay home to work on that. Right now I feel very fortunate that I have been able to pursue my dreams while also being there for the kids.
Julie: I love being part of the writing community! I enjoy other writers and artists socially, and I also am one of those writers who really believe in and benefit from group critique. It’s also been really helpful to me as I travel along the path to publication to regularly touch base with other debut authors. It keeps me sane.
ArtSake: Along with the Mass Cultural Council award, in the past you’ve received a residency fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. What impact have those awards had on your trajectory as a writer?
Julie: The grant I got from the VSC was really a confidence booster for me – I had not published a thing at the time. And my residency there was wonderful. I wrote a ton and really enjoyed talking with and learning about the visual artists there, as well as the writers. I do hope to go back some day!
When I applied for the Mass Cultural Council award, I was in a different place. I’d sold my book already, and I said to myself that if I won, I would fly to Taiwan to do research for my next book. So when I won, I was thrilled, and then I started planning my trip!
ArtSake: What are you writing now?
Julie: I’m working on a novel about political prisoners in Taiwan in the 1950’s and 60’s. Thanks to the Mass Cultural Council, I did go to Taiwan last October to interview several remarkable men and women who spent years in a labor camp off the coast of Taiwan, on what is now called Green Island. They had to build their own prison out of coral and volcanic rock they chiseled from the shore, grow and cook their own food, build their own musical instruments out of driftwood. Amazing people, and I hope my story can do justice to them.
The book launch celebration for The Third Son takes place on Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at Newtonville Books. Julie will also read at Forbes Library in Northampton (4/24, 7 PM), Concord Bookshop (5/2, 7 PM), Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley (5/16, 7 PM), and Harvard Cooperative Society (5/31, 7 PM). Find a full list of readings.
After graduating from Harvard with a BA in literature, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Julie Wu received an MD at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. She has received a writing grant from the Vermont Studio Center and is the recipient of a 2012 Mass Cultural Council fellowship.