After a 40-year writing odyssey, Berkeley’s Orville Schell publishes his first novel

The journalist and China expert will appear on Sunday, May 2, 6 p.m. at the Bay Area Book Festival in a conversation with fellow author Yiyun Li, moderated by Adam Hochschild.

Orville Schell
Orville Schell,  Berkeley resident, journalist and China expert,  has published a novel, My Old Home: A Novel of Exile that was 40 years in the making. Credit: Orville Schell

Bay Area Book Festival logo 2021This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

By Cherilyn Parsons  

After 17 nonfiction books and countless articles, longtime Berkeley resident, journalist and China expert Orville Schell has published a novel, My Old Home: A Novel of Exile. Forty years in the making, the novel follows a Western-trained Chinese classical musician and his son, Little Li, through China’s tumult from 1949 — when Mao summoned overseas Chinese back to the Motherland to help build a new society — to the crushing of intellectual, artistic and individual life during the Cultural Revolution, and ultimately to the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. 

Formerly dean at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Schell knows how to stick to the facts. As the Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, he’s skilled at being diplomatic and withholding personal opinions. But he also knows the limitations of facts and frustrations of silence. Fellow China scholar Perry Link noted that with My Old Home, Schell “joins Albert Camus in the faith that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.'”

Schell will appear on Sunday, May 2, at 6 p.m. at the Bay Area Book Festival in a conversation with fellow author Yiyun Li, moderated by Adam Hochschild. In preparation for the festival, I interviewed Schell on his transition to fiction, the 40-year writing odyssey, the risks he took and the novel’s gorgeous use of classical music. I was bowled over by this novel, one of the most riveting, thought-provoking and beautifully written I’ve read in years. Interview has been edited.

Can you tell us why you ventured into fiction after a long career writing nonfiction?

I made the transmigration of the soul from nonfiction to fiction precisely because I kept feeling there were so many things I couldn’t plumb in nonfiction, and they centered around more human elements—psychology, religion, friendship, love, music, literature, art, all of these things which speak of that part of the human being that can’t be policy-wonked. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out what the right policy between the US and China might be, but in actuality I think it isn’t a question of not being able to find the right policy. There’s something else that divides, and it has a lot to do with systems, values, and culture. It’s very hard to get at that if you can’t stray off the straight-and-narrow into real characters—into what psychologically animates them, offends them, propels them forward.

What was it like on the literary front? Writing fiction and nonfiction require very different mindsets.

To use a perhaps inept metaphor, it’s a little bit like gender reassignment. I mean, you really have to bridge a divide that’s much wider than it seems. I think those of us who spend our lives in nonfiction are used to explaining things sort of didactically, but fiction doesn’t work that way. You have to actually create characters that will absorb your reader, and you need a narrative. You need a good story. The whole issue of “show, don’t tell” just keeps running a non-fiction writer off the road as you’re trying to remake yourself into this fictional mode. So, that took a lot of, well, thought reform, to use the Chinese terminology.

You have a vast community of friends who are writers, and every author I know relies on such people to review their manuscript, particularly in the later stages. How did you draw on your community?

Oh, I was shameless. I have a wonderful group of friends who range from China people to classical musicians to novelists to people who don’t even write. I felt I really did need to get reactions from what I’d written. Unlike a musician where you have instant feedback from your audience, we writers are just shouting into the void, and reaction to the work doesn’t come until after publication, way too late to do anything about it. So I tapped my group of friends at different stages to let me know what they thought and what needed to be done, and really if there was any point in going on. That was always a big issue for me. I had no idea, really, whether I was just flying into a mountainside or whether there was actually something worth saying that I had begun to say. I knew I needed to work on it a lot, so my friends were extremely important in helping me find the way forward.

In publishing there are many “hot young writers” lists, like “5 Under 35.” But you’re in a more exclusive list, which is “Debut Novelist Over Age 80.”

I started this thing when I was 40! It took so long because I kept writing other books and had to keep my life going. When I was at Berkeley [as dean] for 11 years, I really didn’t have a lot of time. The last four or five years, though, I’ve been just doing just this novel, morning, noon, and night. But also, it’s not like anyone was waiting for this book. This is the first book that I didn’t have a contract for, so I wasn’t writing to any deadline. I wasn’t writing for an editor because nobody was particularly interested in what I had to say as a novelist. Indeed, from some people in publishing I heard, “Stay in your lane.” So I just wrote. No one knew what would happen, certainly not me, not until the last couple of years when I felt I was finally sharpening the pencil to a respectable point.

Your late wife, Baifang, lived through much of the traumatic history you depict in the book, and you dedicate the book to her. I imagine she shaped the novel profoundly.

Yes. It’s not about her, but there’s so much of her in it. I had already written a few clumsy draft bits when we got married — that was 35 years ago — and then I learned so much from her, just listening to her talk about her life and sharing little pieces, little aphorisms, people’s names, and turns of phrases. 

The novel is so surprisingly funny! So the hilarious names came from her?

Yes, and the jokes. She read the manuscript many times, particularly towards the end, and was very concerned lest it not ring true to a Chinese person, which was of course a legitimate concern. She had a very custodial attitude towards it. After she died, I learned that she had actually called up my editor to express certain concerns she hoped I would work out editorially.

Did she see the actual physical book?

She never did. All she saw was the manuscript. She died a month before it came out.

I’m sure everyone reading this interview will feel their heart break in hearing those words. 

For our whole life together, the novel was sitting there, right in the middle.

Will it be translated into Chinese? Published in Taiwan, maybe?

There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell it will come out in China, and I think now there’s equally little chance of Hong Kong. But it’s possible in Taiwan. 

In your role at the Asia Society, you’ve generally declined to express a strong personal opinion about the political situation in China, though you have strong friendships with all the major Chinese dissidents. In this novel, I was blown away by the extraordinary and blunt statements about the Chinese government. Did you feel freer in the context of the novel?

Yes. I think I both allowed my characters to say some things, and then I stepped in from time to time, which I needed to do and wanted to do. I actually took a lot of it out because I could get on a rant, but did want to use this opportunity to be quite explicit and say clearly some of the things I had trouble putting into nonfiction. I could say quite bluntly that Leninism is a pretty pernicious system of government that takes an immense human toll.

Do you think you’ll be able to go back to China?

I’ve always had trouble, and now China is more punitive and retaliatory towards scholars, writers, NGOs, businesses, governments, even companies. I decided I would just write this bloody thing the way I wanted to write it, and then the devil take the hindmost. At my stage of life I just didn’t want to trim my jib in any way. I wanted to be temperate. I wanted to be not insane and extreme, but I wanted to say what I wanted to say, and I think I did, for better or worse. I don’t think the [Chinese Communist] Party’s going to like it.

Music is such a powerful force in the book—and you even have that wonderful cameo with Yo-Yo Ma, in the novel’s fascinating San Francisco section. Music permeates the book, almost like it’s the score behind the story, the thing that’s keeping the characters alive.

I adore music. And I would suggest that music, particularly religious music and the music of Bach, is as far as you can get from what the Chinese Communist Party, Marxism, Leninism and that whole world represents. To me, classical music represents an interior life, a life of self-reflection about meaning and mortality, about how to be a human being, whereas these revolutions are about how you rearrange the exterior world. I thought that by counterposing someone who loves music and who’s also religious against the whole history of China’s revolution, I would have the clash of clashes, which is what really interested me. Can you be a human being and be in a Marxist-Leninist revolution, when they’re absolutely opposite universes? I wanted to set those two things against each other and see what came out.

There are many other opposites working in the novel. Little Li’s mother is American, so he literally embodies the U.S.-China divide. As do your own sons with their Chinese mother.

Yes, and this is one reason I’m excited to talk with Yiyun Li at the festival. Of all people, she’ll understand this divide; it’s where she lives. She’s Chinese, and she lives here and writes in English now precisely because she feels she cannot say what she needs to say in Chinese, or in China. One thing I’m trying to divine in the novel is what happens to people who need to live on both sides of the east-west divide. How can we not be exiled from major parts of ourselves, or even both sides? It’s very odd that the book comes out a time when the U.S. and China are pulling apart. The oil and water are separating and we’re heading into a period of antagonism. I look at what’s going on now as an immense tragedy in the real world. The whole theme of the novel is, how do you bridge that gap?

Bay Area Book Festival logo 2021Hear more and ask your own questions of Schell and Yiyun Li (novelist, essayist, MacArthur “genius”) at their Bay Area Book Festival program,  “When Everything Falls Apart, How Does the Heart Survive?” on Sunday, May 2, 6 p.m. PT. Tickets are $15, or you can purchase a Pass that covers this program and many others at the nine-day Festival, May 1-9. You can buy “My Old Home” at checkout, receiving a discount from our independent bookstore to cover the cost of shipping.

This story was brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival which takes place virtually May 1-9. Visit the BABF website for full details. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.