Mingmei Yip’s SKELETON WOMAN is a fast-paced, down-the-rabbit-hole adventure. A gripping novel, SKELETON WOMAN explores the life of a female spy who takes her mission in her own hands and, in doing so, changes the world around her. A beautiful expose on the many shades of power and feminine prowess, SKELETON WOMAN is more than a delicious thriller. It’s a rewarding and spellbinding escape that will stay with the reader long after the last page has turned.
Yip shares how she layers such complex characters, offers insight into SKELETON WOMAN and explores how love shifts any balance.
What is it that Camilla wants at the beginning of SKELETON WOMAN?
Camilla is the most popular nightclub singer in Shanghai and the mistress of its most powerful gangster boss. But she lives a secret life as a spy whose mission is to assassinate her patron.
On a night out with the gangster, they see a staged “accident,” during which a beautiful nude women jumps off a tall building and disappears. Trained as a spy, Camilla immediately senses that this is not an ordinary woman, nor a ghost, but likely competition for her place as the most famous entertainer in Shanghai and for the affections of her crime lord patron. So she decided she had to complete her mission as quickly as possible.
SKELETON WOMAN is a thriller wrapped in gorgeous literary prose. How do you balance tension and reality in a novel like this?
Thanks for your kind words! I think it’s Tolstoy who once said that a family with a beautiful daughter is like an egg laid by Satan. Beautiful women are dangerous, and that is what my story is about.
So far my novels have been about beautiful and resourceful women thrust into dangerous situations that require all the wits and beauty to overcome.
Will you talk about the style in which you write – do you have rules you follow, or is the story the form?
I don’t think about rules when I write. I never outline but let the characters lead me along. Writing a novel, the first thing I need is an exciting situation. For my debut novel Peach Blossom Pavilion, I decided to write about the last Chinese geisha. My second novel Petals from the Sky I had this idea of a would-be nun who helplessly falls in love. My third novel Song of the Silk Road is the self-discovery journey of an aspiring writer turned adventurer.
When it is time to write my next book, ideas somehow pop into my head and I just plunge into writing. I had the benefit of growing up in Hong Kong where Chinese have been telling each other stories for more than 3,000 years and I heard many growing up. Often these inspire my novels.
What is a skeleton woman?
These are femmes fatales, beautiful, talented and extremely scheming women who can turn any men or women into skeletons by a blink of their mascaraed eye.
There are three such skeleton women in my novel. Camilla is the beautiful singer and spy with a deadly mission. Shadow is the magician whose most famous act is to jump into disappearance in the nude. Rainbow Chang is the androgynous, cross-dressing gossip columnist who kills not with bullets, but words.
Camilla is trained to be completely without emotion — a spy living by the “four nothingness”. But she’s also a very sympathetic, human character – someone that captivates the reader. How do you write such layered fictional people?
As a writer, I’m very lucky that I can easily get into different characters’ heads. Sometimes I combine different characters into a composite one with layered personalities.
In Skeleton Women, my purpose is to create a young girl who has been robbed of her childhood as an orphan, then in her spy training indoctrinated in the four “nothingness” — no emotion, no conscience, no morality, no friends. She must rediscover her own humanity and find the love she never received as a child.
How important are the ripples of one small incident to the whole of a person’s life?
It depends on each individual’s destiny — sometimes it’s very important but sometimes we don’t even remember. As the Chinese say “One wrong move in chess will destroy the whole game.”
To have the life you want, one must, like a chess master, make each move with full attention. Being careful is not tedious, but enlightening. Painting teaches this. With total concentration, it becomes a meditation. The mind is emptied of trivial nuisances and is with the painting, moment by moment. Sometimes during painting I do feel I have arrived at the still point that is near to truth. So instead of feeling bored, this is as close as I can be to actually being enlightened.
Early on in the novel, there’s a line that struck me. “…not a spirit, but a spirited human.” This is quintessential Mingmei Yip, in that you write into existence characters that are spirited, but almost otherworldly. What is it that inspires you to explore the many facets of how a person is?
It is human nature that is most fascinating. That’s why when I travel, I enjoy meeting people more than visiting famous sites. But famous sites are human too. The Great Wall and the Forbidden City have an infinite number of stories to tell.
I am intrigued that you describe my characters as “spirited, but almost otherworldly.” Because I always live in my own world of imagination, my husband likes to joke that I always live “in a land of not even anywhere.” (This is a quote from Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of 2,500 years ago). However, that said, I am also a practical person stuck in the same reality as everyone else.
Real life is messy, complicated, and layered. SKELETON WOMAN is a rich tapestry of emotion, history, and culture. How do you build a novel so that it conveys each of these facets – creating a believable and palpable world?
First I am indebted to my parents for sending me to take painting and music lessons when I was young. That was my first glimpse at the world of arts and artists. My passion to learn almost anything together with my studies in Hong Kong, Paris, and America give me a great storehouse of materials for my novels.
Camilla has a series of rules, of spy teachings. How much research went into creating her world of knowledge, and did what you uncover ever frighten you?
A lot. When I decided to write about a spy in 1930ies Shanghai, I read as many books as I could on the subject. Shanghai had a lot of gangsters so there is plenty of material, though all in Chinese. What I discovered during my research is that spies usually end unhappily. Most spies, no matter how cautious smart, scheming, or ruthless, in the end could not beat fate. Because the world they lived in had too much uncertainties and evil.
Would Camilla say that love is the most powerful weapon against a spy?
In a way yes. I learned that many spies failed at their last step to succeed because at the last minute, they could not pull the trigger. We imagine this is especially true for women. They may fall in love with their target and find themselves unable to kill. This is what happens in Eileen Chang’s novel, Caution, Lust. When the female protagonist finally lure her victim to the place planned for his assassination, she didn’t have the heart to kill him and told him to run.
A Chinese saying, “It’s difficult for a hero to resist a beautiful woman’s love.” Thus the ever popular honey trap. But this also applies when a women meets a handsome, caring man.
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