Q: What’s the backstory for The Boston Trader?
Jefferson Flanders: The novel is a sequel to The Republic of Virtue, and it was initially written a decade or so ago. It follows the adventures of Calvin Tarkington, a Boston merchant-trader, in Ch’ing (Qing) Dynasty China.
After Calvin’s adventures in revolutionary France, I thought it’d be interesting to have him again be drawn into a society in flux. He arrives in China in 1794, just after the British and the East India Company have been rebuffed by the Emperor, Ch’ien-lung (Qianlong), in their attempts to expand trade with the Celestial Empire.
There was emerging tension between the Europeans and the Chinese—both cultures consider themselves superior to the other and that proved a recipe for long-term conflict. In the nineteenth century, that led to the Opium Wars.
Q: What brings Calvin to Ch’ing China?
Flanders: He’s a merchant-trader and China represents a significant business opportunity. The war between revolutionary French and the Coalition has made trading with Europe difficult. Calvin sees an opportunity in the China Trade, which became quite lucrative for American merchants in the late eighteenth century. It began with an exchange of silver and ginseng for tea. Tragically, it later shifted into a trade of opium for tea, a development which damaged the fabric of Chinese society.
At the same time, Calvin has other reasons for undertaking the voyage—it’s a way for him to distance himself from some personal sadness.
Q: Would you consider the novel a historical thriller? Or is it more straight historical fiction?
Flanders: The Boston Trader is definitely a thriller in the sense that the book is plot-driven and has an element of suspense. I’d like to think that readers will learn something about a fascinating period of history while they’re following Calvin Tarkington’s adventures.
There’s a balancing act between telling the story and offering the reader the necessary (and, I hope, intriguing) historical context. Finding that balance is what draws me as a writer to historical fiction as a genre. When all is said and done, however, I’m telling stories and so most of my revisions in the writing process involve cutting back historical detail.The novelist Neal Stephenson has talked about “Beowulf” and “Dante” authors. Beowulf authors seek to connect with their readers through storytelling—just as did the bards who sang the sagas around the communal fire. Dante authors embrace an academic literary tradition and often come out of creative writing programs. I’m clearly in the Beowulf camp.
Q: What was the research process for the novel?
Flanders: I’ve always had an interest in Chinese history, in part because of close family connections. My father, Stephen Flanders, was one of the journalists who accompanied Mayor Ed Koch on a trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1980, and returned with some fabulous stories. Then I spent some time in Peking twenty years later, which helped in imagining the landscape and texture of China for The Boston Trader.
Of the historical novels that I’ve written, The Boston Trader required the most research. I was fortunate in that I could draw on several detailed historical accounts of the British and Dutch “embassies” (which were trade missions) to the Imperial court in 1793 and 1794.
The wealth of this material influenced me in using Wade-Giles romanization for the book. Readers who want to dip into the pre-1989 literature about Ch’ing China won’t have to struggle to recognize place names. Thus, it’s “Peking” for Beijing and “Canton” for Guangzhou and “Tientsin” for Tianjin and so on.
There’s also some brilliant scholarship on the Ch’ien-lung period and its Manchu rulers from historians like Pamela Kyle Crossley, Susan Naquin, Cohen, David S. Nivison, and Mark C. Elliott. I can only hope that I’ve captured the essence of their work.
Q: What were some of the challenges in imagining late eighteenth-century Ch’ing China?
Flanders: The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that mankind was the much the same in all times and all places and that history was useful only in surfacing the universal principles of human nature. Hume clearly underestimated the importance of culture and how it makes influences behavior. Ch’ing China in the eighteenth century was vastly different than the West. It had a fascinating mix of cultures and influences: Confucian, Buddhist, traditional Han, and Manchu warrior.
One challenge in writing historical fiction about non-Western cultures is to avoid emphasizing the exotic while at the same time not underplaying the dramatic differences between societies.
Q: What’s next?
Flanders: The Tarkingtons series will continue, with The Northwest Country scheduled for publication in 2015. In the novel, Calvin Tarkington finds adventure on the American frontier in Kentucky and Ohio.
Another Cold War book, set in Berlin in 1959, is next in line but it’s a “work in progress,” and its pub date is yet to be finalized.
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