Interview: Linda Jaivin

Best-selling author Linda Jaivin is back with a new novel, The Empress Lover

In 1995, the American-Australian author Linda Jaivin found unexpected success with the erotic fiction bestseller Eat Me, which delved into the often outrageous sex lives of four professional women. Since then, Jaivin, 59, a highly regarded Sinologist and translator who divides her time between Australia and China, has published ten further books including fiction, histories and a memoir. Her latest novel, The Empress Lover, follows the for tunes of Linnie, an Australian expat in Beijing, who embarks on a journey to discover the key to her uncertain family background after receiving a baffling letter in the post.

The Empress Lover’s title is taken from a book that your main character Linnie has written about the polygot scholar Sir Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse, a real historical character, infamously wrote Décadence Mandchoueon his deathbed in 1940s Peking. In it he claimed to have had an affair with the Empress Dowager Cixi. How explicit is Décadence Mandchoue?
Very. In his supposed encounters with the Empress Dowager she invites him to admire her pubic hair, and she admires his. It’s this whole insanely detailed erotic fantasy. He was a wild character, even at Oxford [where he studied]. He left [university] in mysterious circumstances. There are missing years in his life, which he accounts for later by claiming he was taken to the United States by a British prime minister as his lover.

How did you go from that to The Empress Lover?
I thought: I cannot possibly make up anything that is wilder than this! And then I thought: Why does this interest me? What is it about somebody that makes them create fantasies about their life, and almost plausible fantasies? From there it was a novel that I played with until it came into being – to realise why Linnie herself is drawn to Backhouse and the role that fantasy and make believe and so on play in Linnie’s world.

There is debate about whether Décadence Mandchoue is true or the product of a wild fantasist. What do you think?
Look, there are people who believe it. I think, however, that there is no hard evidence for it.

How did you develop the character of Linnie?
It's hard to speak of developing a character in a clear or linear way. I dreamed her into being over the five years it took to write the novel. I thought about my own experiences and observations, stories I'd heard, and imagined her relationships with my other characters – who also came into being by my imagining their relationship with her.

How is Linnie linked to Edmund Backhouse in the book?
This is part of the mystery of the plot. If I tell you, I am going to be spoiling it for the reader!

While you were writing The Empress Lover, you were also simultaneously writing a short history of China’s capital, called Beijing. How did these two different works end up informing each other, if at all?
Beijing is 35,000 words of history and is quite lively: it weaves in cultural references and great anecdotes from history. The novel became richer because the history was so much in my consciousness. It really benefited from my writing that book at the same time.

You’re fluent in Chinese and have translated the subtitles for films including Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Wong Karwai’s The Grandmaster. Can you tell us more about your work Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World?
It brings in the basic debates in the translation world, like do you ‘foreignise’ a text, let the ‘Chineseness’ of a text stand out, or do you domesticate it, let the smoothness come out like in an English novel? But really, the main thesis is that most of us are completely unaware of how much translation binds our world together. For example, you buy furniture at Ikea? So you read the instruction in what language?

Linnie is also a film translator in the book. Why?
I actually very consciously made my main character a translator. Her identity becomes increasingly fluid because you are thinking in two different languages.

Do you dream in Chinese?
I do. I dream in Chinese, I think in Chinese. Sometimes, even when I’m speaking in English to people who don’t know Chinese, every so often Chinese rushes into view and something I want to say is stuck in my head.

As well as translating you’re well known for your erotic fiction. Can you tell us how you got started?
It was funny because I was writing pretty much for myself, just some dirty stories. I had been doing freelance writing about China and I would submit these pieces to magazines – the fruit of years and years of study and knowing the Chinese language – and get paid 200 dollars. One day, I just sat down and I wrote this filthy story. I sent it to the Australian Women’s Forum, just for a lark. Back came an acceptance letter and a surprisingly huge cheque for 2,000 [Australian] dollars.

What about Eat Me?
Later I wrote a story that was really filthy, much more filthy, that became the first chapter of Eat Me. Originally they were going to publish 2,000 copies. It eventually sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into 12 languages.

How do Eat Me, your first book, and The Empress Lover, your latest, connect?
All novels are an alternative exploration of the universe that you have around you. You’re always creating a fantastical universe so you’re always referring to your own obsessions, concerns; the questions you have about your own life.

The Empress Lover is available to buy as an e-book from, priced 80RMB. Jaivin will talk at Capital M on Sunday 29 on the topic ‘Writing Beijing, Translating China’. See Around Town listings for details.
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