C Pam Zhang struck Gold with her debut novel

C Pam Zhang explores immigration in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a coming-of-age story of two newly orphaned siblings set during the Gold Rush. It takes bits and pieces of topics you might be familiar with, but stretches those ideas in new ways. The book explores family secrets and young ambition in the face of desperation.

The book uses Lucy and Sam to explore those themes in the aftermath of their father’s death in the hills of California. They came for the promise of gold and arrived too late. Now that their father, Ba, is gone, they must navigate the rugged terrain on a stolen horse to give him a proper burial.

I corresponded with the author via email to dig into how she crafted one of this year’s most anticipated debuts.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold covers a lot of different pieces. I would love to hear what the book is about in your eyes and means to you.

At its core, this is a book about grief and loss, and how those losses reshape you. There are kinds: the loss of a parent, the loss of a sense of belonging, the loss of identity, the loss of hope, the loss of a personal or family history, the loss of an environment quickly ravaged by human endeavor. No matter how the characters try to escape, these losses pull them back. They demand a reckoning.

Your book reimagines what we think of the American West. What drew you to writing about this time period?

Since the book started with a first sentence that came into my head, part of the answer must be the swaggering strangeness of the way people spoke in the West—or the way we imagine them speaking, which is almost better.

Lucy and Sam are both young. What was your approach to tapping into the minds and voices of a twelve and eleven year old?

There is a rawness of sensation when you are young. You haven’t thickened your skin; the world scrapes you so roughly. That rawness and that absolute emotional vulnerability—every feeling is inescapable—were what I needed to step into these characters. This is not innocence, because these children have seen too much to be innocent.

Which character came first: Lucy or Sam? How did the two evolve as you worked on the book?

They always came as a pair. The first scene builds out of a moment of tension between them, and that tension provides the momentum for a lot of the book. 

The siblings meet plenty of characters who could have been stereotypes of tropes during the Gold Rush, but you twist and turn characters to be wholly original. When crafting peripheral characters, do you think think of the person first or their role in the story?

The person always comes first—or, more accurately, a fragment of the person. Sometimes it’s a line of prickly dialogue that challenges an existing character, sometimes it’s a characteristic, they way they walk. Out of this fragment emerges a whole person. I figure out the new character’s role as I go along, and often go backwards to clarify the character’s actions and attributes to suit the role I’ve discovered. It goes back and forth. One peripheral character in the novel actually started out as two characters, and I collapsed them the moment I realized they were playing the same role. 

Was the overall structure of the book a desire of yours or a necessity for the story to be told correctly?

Everything about the final draft of the book must be a necessity, I think. Any time the author is intruding upon the book, trying to force something—that’s when the book flops dead in your hands.

Are there any books you came across while writing this that readers would also enjoy?

I’ve read and loved books that are quite opposite of mine. One type is heady, meandering, plot-light books like Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Anne Carson. I’ve also read weird, snaky, speculative or genre-toeing fiction by Alice Sola Kim, Lesley Arimah Nneka, and Samantha Scweblin. Basically, I’m very ready to be done with this book and write something new. I don’t want my next project to be remotely like this one.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit C Pam Zhang at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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