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An Essay from Carole Baron, editor of Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

Feb 16, 2016 Editor’s Desk

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

Green Island arrived in an email on January 29th 2014—just over two years ago—along with the usual enthusiasm of an agent doing his job. It was one of six manuscripts waiting for me to read. It turned out to be the best birthday present ever.

It was the end of January, and out of the blue I received a note from the agent extolling Green Island’s virtues. “Put in on the pile,” I said to myself. But something in the letter piqued my interest. Maybe the subject: Taiwan, otherwise known as “Formosa.” A place that I vaguely remembered from my history classes and from current events. Chiang Kai-shek, the ruler in exile from mainland China, run off by communists. Or maybe the fact that the author had published a book called Water Ghosts that came with exquisite reviews… But those two things that intrigued me could also be negatives: Would American readers care about Taiwan? It was also the author’s second novel, often a difficult sell to the booksellers. It would all depend on the writing, the story, the book.

I printed it out and promised to read it within a week or two, but I couldn’t help taking a peek. I read a few of the opening pages and immediately put aside all my other work. I had to find out about the unnamed narrator, whose birth coincides with history being made with that famous day: February 28, 1947. I wanted to know more about her baba, who was one of many thousands who were disappeared by the KMT, and who eventually returns to his wife and children but discovers that survival comes at a cost. And I especially wanted to see how these issues followed the narrator as she journeys to America as a married woman. E.L. Doctorow once said that there is no difference between fiction and non-fiction, there’s only narrative. And Green Island is a perfect example of an excellent narrative that combines history that foreshadows current events with a family that you really care about, whose lives are entwined with the fate of their country.

The writing took me into a world that I had no idea existed. It brought me into a period that I had only learned about in high school history and geography classes. Not since reading about the disappeared of Argentina have I been so drawn to the horrors of living in a place and time where one word spoken to the wrong person could result in death. Shawna received a Fulbright and used it to travel to Taiwan, where her mother had grown up, and became fluent in Mandarin to conduct research for this book. She uncovered the naked truth of how people had to live there for all those years under martial law, mostly unreported by the western press. But most importantly, she wrote a story of family, of love, of hard decisions, and of loyalty that simply tears your heart out. So I learned, I wept, and I couldn’t wait to speak to Shawna and find out more about her. I couldn’t wait to share this extraordinary book with others. Of course, as an editor, I had some comments: “Transitions need tweaking, some of the history could be clearer” But the emotional core the book was there, and Shawna was thoughtful, careful, and in command of her work. My assistant, Ruthie Reisner, and I worked with Shawna by email and dealt with complicated time difference between New York and Hawaii.

Finally, there was a manuscript that we could share with the publishing world. The response has been extraordinary. From a rave blurb from Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer (“a tough, unsentimental and moving novel that is a memorial not only to the heroes, but also to the survivors”), to excellent pre-reviews (“epic” —Kirkus, “engrossing… absorbing and affecting” —Booklist) to bookseller support that resulted in an Indie Next Pick to an Amazon Top 10 Book of the Month pick for February. In addition, our international sales team selected the novel for their first ever “global title wave” campaign. It is a stealth publication where the book itself is driving the enthusiasm and on February 23rd, it will be available for the world to read. I can’t wait.

P.S. The finished copies just arrived at my desk. This is one of the best moments in an editor’s life, to see those manuscript pages in my inbox turn into a “real book.” Even more thrilling is to get this picture from a happy author.

Learn more about Green Island here.

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