“It was a miracle that peach trees grew”: An Interview with Melissa Fu

By Sarah Lorraine

Melissa Fu’s debut novel, Peach Blossom Spring, crosses multiple generations and travels across continents as a single family search for a sense of belonging during a tumultuous time of war, heartbreak and uncertainty. Fu delicately balances the personal with the political as she offers a fresh take on the Chinese immigrant narrative. She fills her pages with ancient fables, vibrant settings and powerful characters.

This interview covers Fu’s influences and inspirations as she details the meaning behind those all-important peach trees and shares how her father’s own trajectory guided her writing. Exquisitely written, Peach Blossom Spring bursts into bookshops, offering a story of hope during a time of struggle.

The Word Factory: I know from your Word Factory biography that you’ve worked in schools before, how do you think being a teacher has shaped your own writing and your identity as a writer?

Melissa Fu: I love that question! I think that it was, for me, deciding to pursue teaching really brought me to writing. I did my teacher training programme in English and the programme had a philosophy that if you were going to be teaching kids in writing then teachers should be writers themselves. Practice it. Not necessarily be writers but you need to think about how to do this and so those are the best classes I took in my teacher training. We had to do creative non-fiction classes and I think I did a poetry class, so it really kind of woke from me ‘oh I like writing more than writing papers,’ which is what I’d done for my degree in English. I think that it makes me more patient with my own writing, thinking about how when you’re trying to encourage a student you just have to be more iterative and just keep trying, little improvements draft by draft. It’s kind of that way when you work with kids.

TWF: I think often a great writer will make a great teacher and vice versa. And within your novel Peach Blossom Spring, there’s such an emphasis on storytelling and sharing. I loved the Chinese Fables you weaved within the novel, stories shared between mother and son. What was it that inspired you to include the art of storytelling in your novel?

MF: Before I was even thinking of writing a novel, I knew several of those stories that I included and they were fun to just share with friends at different times and I really liked reading to my kids, when they were little, a lot of folk tales. And so, I guess maybe it just made sense that there was a mother character and a son, that there would be storytelling because that’s what I do with my kids. That’s one of the joys of parenting, telling stories. You don’t have to stick to the exact same story that’s on the page. There’s this room to just imagine and ask the kids ‘well what did you do differently?’ And so again, I think that also came from the teacher training, a way to get kids engaged with texts is to suggest to them that they can imagine or change them a bit. That might be how it came along. I’ve tried to remember when I decided to put the stories in because people have asked similar question, but I don’t know anymore, I just knew she was telling them.

TWF: What inspired you to write this story of a family constantly looking for a home and a place of belonging during a time of such great disruption? What was your first idea of it, where did it come from?

MF: The question of where did it come from, I hope there’s not too many spoilers but this is the answer to the question (laughs). When I grew up my dad, who is from China and Taiwan, was trying to grow fruit trees and they were always a disaster. They never worked out. And then later in his life, when he retired, he just threw some peach pits in the back garden and they took root and grew. For the last fifteen years of his life or so he had these amazing trees, and I wanted to write a story about that. I wrote a short story, which was on The Word Factory Apprentice scheme, but there was more to the story than I managed to put in that version and so I thought well maybe I need to think about who my dad was and why I care so much about these trees. So, then I started to think about his life, and I had a few notes about his life, I just thought maybe if I knew more about him and what he went through then I could do justice to his trees. It just sort of evolved from those two pieces, a short story that didn’t work and these pages of notes that I’d had for years about him. That ‘Peach Blossom Spring’, that title story, was actually one that I didn’t know, and I was well into drafting this thing, I didn’t know what it was I just knew that it was a lot of words. I found that story and I thought ‘wow there are some similar themes,’ and so I incorporated it in at that point.

TWF: That leads nicely to my next question! You’re a successful short story writer and so why did you decide to write a novel? Did it come from the short story that you considered unsuccessful?

MF: I didn’t know what the problem was with that story I just knew that it wasn’t working. It was 5000 words and at that point it was the longest thing that I had written, and I brought it to a writer’s group and the feedback was really different to any feedback that I had ever had on my writing, and I had gone through a lot of different writer’s groups! What I noticed is that they were arguing about the characters. They were arguing about the characters like they were real people. One person said to me something along the lines of ‘you set up this great promise that somehow you didn’t fulfil.’

TWF: I really admired how you intertwined the personal and the political where neither one feels more important than the other. You create a balance between them. Whilst you explore the Dau families’ relationships with each other you also explore their relationship with China, Taiwan and the US. What was it that drew you to explore three generations of a family within the setting of war?

MF: I think that the root was I wanted to understand my father better because if I understood him better, I could tell a story about the tree’s where when people read it, they would know that it was a miracle that peach trees grew. I really needed to understand him and to understand him I had to think about where he came from and his mother, my grandmother. I met her a few times in my life, I went to Taiwan and met her when I was little, and she came to the US a few times, and I absolutely adored her. So, the three generations mirror the generations of my grandmother, my father and myself. Whilst fictional, they’re these kinds of analogues, you could say. Maybe to understand him I needed to understand her. But I didn’t need to go back further than that! The three-generation thing is really interesting because Jung Chang, who wrote Wild Swans, which is a non-fiction book about China, writes about generations of three women. Again, you see those three generations; you see it in other books as well. I think that these stories are just too big for one person to hold. The first generation lives it, the second generation survives it, and then the third generation has enough distance and curiosity to say, well why? When you’re in the middle of something terrible, like right now for example, it’s too hard to understand really what’s happening and all you want to do is survive, there’s no perspective. Then if you do survive maybe you don’t want to remember. That’s why these stories take so many years to emerge.

TWF: Within your novel there are quite a few traumatic moments as well as moments of sacrifice, these moments which inevitably come with war. Did you ever find these parts difficult to write?

MF: Yeah, definitely. There was a point when I was drafting it, I thought if it’s not making me sick to my stomach to write it then I’m probably shying away, being coy. I couldn’t leave them out, but they weren’t easy to write. I decided somewhere along writing that I didn’t want to finish and feel like I hadn’t given it my all. I took this idea from Paul McVeigh, one of the The Word Factory founders, I just thought I want to leave it all on the page. If this turns out to be the only book I write then I want to put everything into it.

TWF: Another thing that really struck me, which may come under those things that you found difficult to write, was the casual racism that your characters experience. Lily Dau in particular experiences it living in the US. She finds herself in this in-between space because she is biracial. It’s another way you explore the theme of belonging, not just having a physical home and a place to belong. She exists in a space of never quite belonging or knowing where she belongs. Was it an intentional decision to use Lily as a character to show that belonging is more than just having a physical home?

MF: My gosh I wish it had been because that sounds really sophisticated! I think on some level it was. Her role in the editing became much larger. In the original manuscript her role was a lot smaller and then we evened it out. And so, a lot of the work we did with her was about what would make her story have some depth and weight. It’s never going to compare with living through the war and the first parts of the novel, but what really are her challenges? So, she became a place for me to ask a lot of questions that maybe I never really thought about or asked of myself when I was her age. And so maybe some of those themes of belonging and ‘inbetweenness’ appear in her in that way. Although they are things which interestingly were things I thought about at a much older age. A few of my childhood friends which have read bits of it have said ‘you never said anything about this, you never said anything about your dad.’ And so, Lily is really different from me in that way and it’s kind of fun to make her a character who says and does things I never did, things I didn’t quite have the nerve to.

TWF: Whilst reading Peach Blossom Spring I began to wonder whether your writing stemmed from experience or research. It sounds as though it was a balance of your father’s experience and your own research?

MF: Yeah, a lot of the first parts, since I wasn’t alive during this period, that’s the research. The later parts, so the second part of the book when the Renshu character is a young man in the States going by the name of Henry Dau, there are some stories of my dad. But then I did a lot of research about students during that time and international students and other anecdotes are kind of woven in. The last third I tried to draw a lot from my experiences in the classroom, what I knew from international students in the classroom.

TWF: You create such vivid, authentic characters. How do you plan your characters, or do they evolve more organically as you write the story?

MF: I learnt loads about developing characters through the editing. I would say that the most fictional character, Meilin, developed the most organically because I didn’t have a good knowledge of a full life experience of a real person. I only knew my grandmother just a little bit, she became really fun because of that. All of those earlier characters, Longwei as well, were so fictional. I would have to imagine conversations they would have and there was a lot of developing their storyline when I was out on walks. The other two of the main three, Henry and Lily, their storylines initially had things happening, but they didn’t have the depth at the beginning. I really had to think about craft with Lily. I do those rising action graphs for each character but not in terms of plot, in terms of emotional development. That helped clarify Meilin who organically evolved and helped clarify and develop the others. I could say, ‘well this event happened, and I need to give it an emotional impact for whatever reason.’ The characters who had connections with real people turned out to be harder to write than the more fictional ones.

TWF: Did you find that the pandemic affected your creative productivity, or did you find it helped your writing?

MF: My writing was an escape from the pandemic. The book sold February 28th, exactly two years ago we got the initial offer. Then there was a little negotiating then the formal offer was early in March. We were going to have a publishing lunch and of course it was cancelled, and everything was cancelled. Everything stopped in the world, but I had this novel, and I was thinking ‘oh I’m going to have a book!’ I had massive editor’s notes and two really wonderful editors, one from the US publisher and one from the UK publisher. They worked together on Zoom before meeting me and then the three of us would meet. I had so much work to do that it was like an escape. You know, I’m thinking about railroads in 1930’s China instead of wondering about how the pandemic was going to pan out for everyone.