Author interview: Julie Wu on “The Third Son”

Julie studied literature at Harvard and medicine at Columbia, and received a 2012 fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives near Boston.

Can you tell us about the origins of The Third Son? Do you recall which part of the story came to you first?

My first inkling of the main character was in 1989. I was sitting in my parents’ suburban Boston kitchen and suddenly had the image of a little boy on the floor of his parents’ house in Taiwan. It was the first time I’d ever visualized a scene so vividly. I rushed to my typewriter to record the musty smell, the dark floorboards, and the boy’s sadness. Thinking back on it now, I believe that boy was Saburo.

How did the story change during the research and writing process?

In 1989 I tried to make that boy the protagonist of a different book entirely—one set in contemporary suburban America in a Taiwanese-American household. That book stalled when I asked my parents questions for background information and I realized how boring my book was in comparison with their actual lives. I was resistant, though, to the idea of basing a book on my parents’ story.

It was 2002 when I finally sat down to interview my parents in earnest. I was pregnant with my first child and maybe had gained some perspective, as well as an understanding that my opportunities to find out my parents’ stories were finite. My first draft was very much based on their lives, but over the following years I learned that in order to make the story a universally appealing, cohesive, suspenseful, and satisfying work, I would have to feel absolutely free to take liberties with the story, the plot, the characters, etc. Now the book is its own self-contained story. Of course, despite that I made every effort to make sure the book is historically accurate.

The early sections of the book are set in Taiwan during a particularly tumultuous period in its history (which I’d venture to guess many of your American readers probably won’t be familiar with). Can you recommend some further reading on the history of Taiwan that interested readers might turn to?

There’s a classic work by George Kerr called Formosa Betrayed. George Kerr was an American diplomat at the time of the February 28 massacres in 1947, and his account of the events on Taiwan and his colleagues’ efforts to get the American government to intervene are both devastating and eye-opening.

Another interesting account is Peng Ming-Min’s autobiography, A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Formosan Independence Leader, in which he describes his arrest for trying to distribute a manifesto for Taiwanese independence. Peng conceals the details of his dramatic escape to Sweden to protect his friends, but more recently, in the book Fireproof Moth, American missionary Milo Thornberry describes exactly how he and others helped mastermind Peng’s escape. There are museums in Taiwan that document the events of 1947 and the subsequent White Terror. These include the Taipei 228 Museum, the National 228 Museum, Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial Park (a former military court prison) in Taipei, as well as the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park on Green Island, on the site of the offshore prison where long-term political prisoners were held. The website associated with the Green Island museum is maintained by its designer, Ronald Tsao, and is quite extensive and informative:

When and where do you do most of your writing?

I write mostly in my dining room and in the public library. I probably get the most done in the library, because there I’m not distracted by the pantry and the refrigerator, and I’m too embarrassed to sit around just doing Facebook.

Any particular writing tips you’d like to share?

Don’t worry about getting stuff out fast. Make your work the best it can be. Agents and editors are just people like everyone else. If tons of them don’t connect to your work, that means tons of other readers won’t either. If that matters to you, figure out why and fix it.

What’s your library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

My library is a jumble of all kinds of books—high-falutin’ French literature from college that I can’t understand anymore, Taiwanese history books, parenting books and travel guides, medical textbooks, and, of course stacks, and stacks of wonderful novels of all genres, famous and not-so-famous, many of them authored by friends.

For more about Julie’s next project, some of her favorite libraries, and more, read the rest of our interview.

Note: This interview was originally posted on LibraryThing at

Helicon Exhibit in Deering Entryway

Helicon Literary Magazine, which began in a 1979 poetry class taught by Mary Kinzie, is the longest-running magazine of its kind at Northwestern. With over 40 volumes released as of 2013, the staff of Helicon partnered with the University Archives to put together a retrospective exhibit featuring each issue of Helicon, beginning with the first from 1980.

Helicon is the premiere venue for Northwestern undergraduates’ finest prose, music, poetry, photography, short films, mixed media, drawings, and more. Its mission is to publish and promote the creation of excellent work from the student body. The staff of Helicon hosts a number of artistic events, including open mics, book readings, and art exhibits, in support of these goals.


The exhibit, running from May 13 through June 22, is located just inside the recently-opened Deering Doors. The complete run of Helicon features the magazine’s diverse cover designs, ranging from erudite and professional to whimsical, mournful, abstract, and vibrant. Included among the issues of Helicon are several comical flyers used to advertise events and submission periods during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

Exhibit Details:

Location: Deering Entryway/Exit, Deering Library, Northwestern University

Dates: May 13 - June 22

Spring Online Issue:

We extend special thanks to:

Helicon staff members Alina Dunbar, Josh Aronson, Alex Lordahl, and Veronica Benduski; University Archivist Kevin Leonard, Acting Art Collection Public Services Librarian, Sara Stigberg, and Conservation Technician Nora Davis from Northwestern University Library; and especially to the Office of Residential Colleges for their continued support of Helicon

Author interview: Jennifer McVeigh on “The Fever Tree”

Some excerpts from my interview with Jennifer McVeigh, which appeared in the May State of the Thing newsletter. Jennifer studied English literature at Oxford and has worked in the film, television and radio industries. Her debut novel, The Fever Tree, was published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in April.

Give us, if you would, The Fever Tree in a nutshell, for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read it.

The Fever Tree is a novel about a woman who is forced to leave behind everything she has ever known, and emigrate to South Africa to marry a man she barely knows. It’s a novel about a country in the making, about diamonds and disease, love and redemption.

What part of the novel came to you first?

My husband and I were driving across the hot, dusty plains of Namibia in Southern Africa, when we passed a high wire fence cordoning off a diamond mine. I remember thinking—who were the men who first came here to mine for diamonds? What kind of lives did they lead, without running water or sanitation? And who were the women who came with them? When I came back to England I did some research, and became fascinated with the early days of the diamond rush in South Africa, when men travelled hundreds of miles to the diamond fields with little more than the shirts on their backs, and when fortunes could be won and lost on the luck of uncovering a stone.

What were some of the historical sources you found most interesting and useful as you wrote The Fever Tree?

I drew on a huge range of historical sources. The British Library was particularly useful, and it was there that I poured over guide books to South Africa, written in the 1880s, read Victorian newspapers published on the diamond fields, and discovered the diary which told the story of a smallpox epidemic which raged on the diamond mines—the true story which lies at the heart of the book. But there were other sources. It was in Kimberley, the famous diamond mining town, that I came across a book of old photographs taken on the diamond mines, which made real for me the lives of the men, women and children who camped in tents, in the dust and the filth, on the diamond fields, hoping to make their fortune.

How did your own experiences traveling in southern Africa come into play as you wrote the novel?

When I travelled in South Africa, I was fascinated and unsettled by its dark concoction of pioneer spirit and racism, by the brutality of its urban landscapes—with their sprawling townships which spoke of labour migration and forced evictions—and the astounding beauty and wildness of its countryside. These contradictions, I realised, had their roots in my story—in the discovery of diamonds, when men like Cecil Rhodes, driven by greed, used their political influence to create an economy based on lines of race. The more I learned, the more I was able to make sense of what I had seen in South Africa, and the people and attitudes that confronted me.

When and where do you do most of your writing?

Once the research is out of the way, most of the actual writing is done at home. At my desk, in bed, standing by the toaster. Anywhere where I can catch myself off guard and get words down on paper.

Read the rest of our interview.

Originally posted by LibraryThing at:

New Books from Northwestern

Please join us to celebrate our colleagues and the

publication of their new books!

The Creative Writing program will host a

reading and reception to celebrate the publication of


Averill Curdy’s book of poetry, Song and Error (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux), and 

Rachel Webster’s book of poetry, September (Triquartly).

Wednesday, May 29 at 4:30 in the Hagstrum Room

Author Interview with Colum McCann

Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award in fiction for his book Let the Great World Spin. His new novel,TransAtlantic, will be published on June 4 by Random House.

TransAtlantic opens with three stories of voyages to Ireland: Frederick Douglass in 1845, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown in 1919, and George Mitchell in 1998. How did you decide on these three, and were there other voyages that you considered using and decided not to?

I suppose that writers must always gravitate towards their obsessions, and one of my obsessions was the idea that Frederick Douglass went to Ireland, a black slave, in 1845, but he was also an author, an orator, an intellectual, a dandy, an abolitionist, a humanitarian, a contrarian. What a story! I was also obsessed with the idea of writing about peace and what it could possibly mean in this day and age, which made George Mitchell a fascinating subject. Alcock and Brown landed in between these narratives, in more sense than one: they almost split the time difference between 1845 and 1998. But these were the only stories I contemplated. They seemed to bridge each other perfectly.  They are—in my imagination at least—braided together. They inform one another.

Give us a sense of how this novel came together, if you would. Where did you begin, and how did you shape the narrative to create the final version of the story?

It began with Douglass. It continued with Mitchell. But it was bridged by Alcock and Brown, which was the section that came easiest to me. But the moment I knew I “had” the novel was when I realised it was much more about the supposedly anonymous corners of human experience. The story belonged to the women. That’s where the truth lay. It is, in a sense, a feminist novel.

The novel’s real main characters, of course, are the women whose stories are at its heart: four generations of women beginning with Lily Duggan. Tell us a bit about them, and are they also based on real characters in part, or are they entirely fictional creations?

They are entirely fictional. And yet they live and breathe for me as much (if not more) than the supposedly “real” characters. It is very much a novel about women and their intersection with history; it’s also a novel that hopefully forces a reader to confront what is “real” and what is not.

You must have done extensive research for this book: what were some of the sources you found particularly useful or compelling?

The further I go along in my career, the more I realise that books belong to others more than to myself. It feels to me that this book was a community effort and the grace of the book (if it has any grace) belongs to others. I am indebted to countless numbers of people. I am aware that this could sound coy, or full with false humility but the fact of the matter is that a writer gets his or her voice from the voices of others. We are indebted to those who have come before us.

In the acknowledgements you mention that George and Heather Mitchell “had the great grace to allow me to try to imagine my way into their world.” I’d love to know more about what you learned from Senator Mitchell and how you worked those details into the story.

George and Heather Mitchell are an amazing couple, an astounding story of love and resilience and decency. They allowed me, at first, to imagine their lives. Then they read the manuscript and were charming enough, and humble enough, to allow me any mistakes. So I wrote the section before I met Senator Mitchell, and then I shaped it to get as close to the truth as I thought I might possibly get. They helped me realise what it was that I wanted to eventually say.

What’s your favorite scene or line from TransAtlantic?

Oh, this is very much a “slice the baby” question. How can one choose? I suppose the last line is very important to me, though I very much like line 247 and line 822 (just kidding!). I am very proud of the Douglass section—that one broke my heart until I felt like I had properly captured him. But this is an impossible question and I’m delighted by its impossibility.

For more from Colum McCann, including some advice on writing, a few of his favorite authors, and what he’s been reading recently, read the rest of our interview.

(This interview was originally posted on LibraryThing). 

Upcoming Album from Sasha Bayan

Singer, composer, Helicon contributor, and multi-instrumentalist Sasha Bayan is working to release his debut album entitled “Do I Know You?” Described as a blend of “pop-rock with influences from classical, jazz, samba, flamenco, and Hindustani music,” the album, like Bayan’s live performances, promises to be eclectic and enjoyable.


If you’re interested in helping out with his Kickstarter campaign to raise money to release the album, visit:


Also a member of Aurelia (whose songs “Quickstep” and “Oracion para Servicio” were published in our 2011 Winter issue), Bayan is a well-known feature of Helicon’s Open Mic and art/music events. Currently a supersenior in Weinberg and the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern, Bayan hopes to embark on a career in music. 

Doing Research at the Library: A Panel & Discussion

Date: Monday, May 20th, 2013

Time: 3:30-5:00 PM

Location: Norris, Big Ten Room


The Northwestern Undergraduate Research & Arts Exposition provides students with a unique opportunity to present their final, polished research projects to an audience of peers and faculty. But what does the research process involve? Doing Research at the Library: A Panel and Discussion will enrich the Exposition by demonstrating how students can get involved in research by utilizing the vast array of resources located in the University Library.

A panel of undergraduate researchers will speak at the event, and will include students who have carried out independent research projects as well as students whose work has been published in the Northwestern Undergraduate Research Journal. Following the presentations, Subject Specialists from the library staff will have the opportunity to comment on students’ projects, and provide real examples of assisting in the research process.

The panel discussion is designed to be an event of interest to the entire Northwestern community.  In addition to highlighting student research, learn about their processes, and how the Northwestern University Library can support undergraduate research.

Never a City so Reel: Chicago Portraits on Film

WHEN:Thursday, May 9, 2013
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM  WHERE:Block Museum of Art, Mary and Leigh, Block Cinema 40 Arts Circle Drive   
Evanston, IL 60208 map itAUDIENCE:- Faculty/Staff - Student - PublicCOSTS:- Free
CONTACT:One Book NU   

One Book One Northwestern 2012-2013

Northwestern’s Block Cinema presents a free program of classic short documentaries about Chicago people and places was inspired by this year’s One Book One Northwestern, Alex Kotlowitz’s Never a City So Real, which features portraits of some of the author’s favorite Chicago neighborhoods and citizens. This corresponding film program includes a film shot on the NU campus in the mid-1960s and early films from Tom Palazzolo, Kartemquin Films, and the Chicago Film Archives, with topics covering racism, gentrification, an early gay pride parade, and more. (Description courtesy ofBlock Cinema)

Program lineup:

Cause Without a Rebel (1965) Directed by Peter Kuttner, 16mm, 9 minutes.
Funded by the Northwestern University Film Society, this experimental documentary is an exploration of political apathy amongst college students during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Now We Live on Clifton (1974) 16mm, 24 minutes.
This film tracks the gentrification of the once-diverse West Lincoln Park Neighborhood following the construction of DePaul University through the eyes of 10-year-old Pam Taylor and her 12-year-old brother Scott.  Print courtesy of Chicago Film Archives and Kartemquin Films.

Jerry’s Deli (1974) Directed by Tom Palazzolo, New 16mm print! 10 minutes.
Tom Palazzo’s iconic short is a snapshot of one of Chicago’s most beloved eateries, as well as an uproariously funny portrait of the deli’s eccentric owner.

Gay For a Day (1976) Directed by Tom Palazzolo, 16mm, 11 min.
Gay For a Day is a lively depiction of an early gay pride parade in Chicago. Weaving through bustling crowds and capturing numerous interviews, director Palazzolo pieces together a story of resilience and celebration.

Paraíso (2012) Directed by Nadav Kurtz, video, 10 min.
Paraíso focuses on three Mexican immigrants who risk their lives daily washing the windows of Chicago skyscrapers. Director Nadav Kurtz juxtaposes breathtaking views of the city’s skyline and intimate interviews with the film’s subjects.