Erick Setiawan Interview

A Conversation with Erick Setiawan, Author of Of Bees and Mist

Q: What inspired you to begin writing fiction? What sparked the idea for Of Bees and Mist?

A: I began writing fiction when I was still working as a software engineer. A year into the job, I realized that it was the wrong profession for me, and I found myself spending more time reading novels instead of keeping up with the latest computer technology. All that reading inspired me to begin writing, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I never took a writing course or joined a writers’ group, and since English is not my first language, I was often plagued by a crippling sense of inadequacy. This went on for years. I wrote two novels and countless short stories before Of Bees and Mist, and they were horrible and received hundreds of rejections. But I soldiered on. When the idea for Of Bees and Mist came to me in the summer of 2004, I thought this one might be special.

The origin for the book came from the family stories and tales I had collected over the years. I was very shy as a child growing up in Indonesia, and instead of playing with the neighbors’ kids, I would sit in my mother’s living room and listen to her talk to my aunts and our family friends. They were always full of stories, and no subject was ever taboo among them (I learned about S&M in kindergarten—from their discussion of a couple they knew who liked to beat each other up in the bedroom. Because I was so quiet, I suppose they often forgot that I was in the room). Their outlook on life, I realized later, was a curious mix of traditional Chinese values and Indonesian superstitions. Over the years, my mind became a sort of kitchen sink for these stories—all knotted and tangled up with no rhyme or reason. The book was my attempt to sort them (and by extension, my childhood) into some kind of order. I wanted the book to capture the joys and sorrows and intrigues that once pervaded the innermost worlds of these women.

Q: What compelled you to write a female-driven family saga? Was it difficult to write a novel primarily from women’s perspectives?

A: Because of all that time I spent in my mother’s living room eavesdropping on her conversations, it was a natural and obvious choice for me to write this book from the female characters’ perspectives. I wanted to honor those women who had shared their stories with me (whether they knew it or not), and I don’t think I could have done this if I had written the book from a man’s point of view. Furthermore, I always find the way women strategize and confront life’s challenges to be infinitely more fascinating. Men frequently settle their differences with fists, but women need to be more inventive and resourceful. Their tactics are subtler, more intricate, but often more deadly. To me, all these ingredients make for a riveting family saga.

Q: You were born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, and then as a teenager you moved to the United States. In what ways does Of Bees and Mist reflect the different cultures of your upbringing?

A: I think of the book as a tapestry woven from the different threads of my cultural influences—Indonesian, Chinese, and American. Indonesian culture in particular is deeply rooted in folklore, legends, and superstitions. When we were little, my brothers and I had a Javanese nanny who liked to tell us bedtime stories. She was the one who introduced me to my first ghosts and spirits, and thanks to her, I spent many a night convinced that there was a jinn hiding under my bed. She was also a Muslim, which made her stories a curious blend of ancient Javanese superstitions and Islamic beliefs. It was from her stories that I conjured the ghosts and spirits that roam the town, and it was her beliefs that informed much of the superstition in the book. One example is Eva’s habit of cutting roses to hang above the shop door for good luck—this is my spin on a common Indonesian practice of giving offerings to placate evil spirits. Another example is Eva taking precautions to eliminate every imaginable catastrophe during Malin’s pregnancy, a ritual prevalent among traditional Indonesian families. The part about Ahab being a half-swine, half-human creature stems from a Javanese legend about a demonic beast who plunders houses while people sleep.

The book also reflects my Chinese upbringing, or what little I was allowed to experience. Because of the widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia, I grew up disowning and despising much of my Chinese identity. In fact, the only bit of Chinese culture I loved and was exposed to in those years were the Hong Kong martial arts movies. Inspired by them, I dreamed up my own mythical land of witchcraft and magic, where invincible men combat villains with lightning-quick swords and formidable women soar to the sky on swirling silk. It is this atmosphere of sorcery and enchantment that I aimed to create in the book, both as an homage to those movies and a nostalgic remembrance of the only part of my Chinese heritage I was permitted to embrace. Hence, Ravenna flies on a rapid sailor’s breeze when she goes to visit Meridia after Noah’s birth. Eva bewitches the cockatoo. Gabriel disappears inside the mist much like the heroes in those movies vanish as they elude their pursuers.

The third ingredient I mixed into the book is my American influence. The fact that Meridia dares to defy Eva strikes me as very American. No wife in a traditional Chinese or Indonesian family would even think about standing up to her mother-in-law in this way. The same goes when Meridia so decisively leaves Daniel to pursue her own destiny—in Chinese or Indonesian society, a woman with a child would pause more than a dozen times before doing this. In addition, the book also owes much of its existence to my reading of Western literature. In a way, Of Bees and Mist is my tribute to all the books that have shown me different means of using language to tell a story. Great Expectations. Beloved. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Wuthering Heights. The way the yellow mist knocks on Gabriel’s window comes from a line of T. S. Eliot. The confrontations between Meridia and Daniel are inspired by the dialogs between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence. These are only instances I remember.

Q: The setting of the story is never defined. Why did you decide to leave the time and place ambiguous?

A: I wanted to capture my various cultural influences as explained above, but I knew I couldn’t set the story in a real city or a real country, since there is no place in the world where Chinese traditions and Indonesian occultism and American ideology coexist seamlessly side by side at any given time in history. What I needed was a completely imagined geography with its own confluence of customs and cultures, where someone of diverse origins like myself would feel at home and not be considered an outsider. The answer is the timeless, mythical town in the book, where the inexplicable and the supernatural exert as much influence and authority as logic and individual will. Erecting that town allows me the freedom to borrow from different cultures and different times and to construct my own brand of legends and mythology.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the style of magical realism? How does it enhance the story you wanted to tell?

A: The original early chapters of the book had no magical realist elements. After a few months of tinkering with them, I realized that something was lacking, but I had no idea what it was. They seemed too straightforward, too constrained, too unexceptional, particularly the part where Eva was venting for the first time. People complain every single day—why should this one woman’s grumbling be so special? And then my father, who was visiting from Indonesia at the time, told me a story about a friend of his who was often kept up at nights by bees. I was confused, and asked him if his friend was a beekeeper. My father laughed, and said that it was the friend’s wife who was depriving the poor man of sleep with her grievances, which sounded exactly like bees buzzing. The idea hit me like a bolt of lightning. The bees were the perfect physical manifestation of Eva’s grudges, and at once I knew what the book had been lacking. I went back to the chapters I had already written, and began to infuse them with elements of magical realism. I remember writing about Gabriel’s infidelity and suddenly coming upon the idea of the mist as a fitting metaphor for his situation. To me, a veil of mist is enchanting, brooding, otherworldly, and mysterious at the same time. It implies secrecy, omissions, things hidden and never spoken. In this same way, the different mists in the book conceal Gabriel, carry him to a different world, protect his secret, hide his shame, keep other people away from it. Whenever Gabriel plunges into those mists, he becomes another man. Just like Eva and her bees, the mists strike me as the perfect physical representation of Gabriel’s—and later Daniel’s—inner turmoil.

Q: Are any of the characters based on people you know? (Yes, we mostly want to know about Eva.)

A: Eva is based on my paternal grandmother. Mention her name today and my mother still shivers with horror. Filled with distrust and discontent, my grandmother had ten children whom she constantly set at odds so they would always rely on her for support and mediation. She demanded attention every second of the day, treated her daughters-in-law with a scrutiny worthy of a jailer, was so quick to anger and impossible to pacify that my mother called her by many an unpleasant name. I took my grandmother’s darkest side and implanted it in Eva, but it was also foremost in my mind that Eva should be resourceful and irresistible, since I did not want a character with nothing good or redemptive about her. Another character who has a real-life inspiration is Gabriel, who is based on my maternal grandfather. Like Gabriel, my grandfather had both a mistress and a temper, and was often so tyrannical that his friends likened him to Mao Zedong. Thankfully, as is often the case with tyrants, he was nothing but the kindest soul to his grandchildren. For one, I never experienced any of Noah’s sweat-soaked paralysis when I was around him.

Q: Meridia is fascinated by the gems that are her and Daniel’s livelihood, and she later designs her own jewelry. Did you have an interest in gemology prior to writing Of Bees and Mist, or did you learn about it while writing the novel?

A: I grew up in Kenanga Alley—Jakarta’s jewelry district in the old days—and both of my grandfathers were jewelers (they were actually business rivals, since their shops were across the street from each other). When I was a child, I was fascinated by the contents of my grandfathers’ display cases, the colorful stones littering their desks, their fireproof vaults, and the tiny sparkling brilliants they wrapped so meticulously in blue tissue paper. In the back of each shop was an area where the craftsmen worked, and I used to watch them set diamonds, melt gold, hammer silver. But my pedigree aside, I’m ashamed to say that I know very little about gemology! While writing the book, I had to do a bit of research to familiarize myself with the names of precious stones and their properties. What I remember most is spending hours at my grandfathers’ shops and observing them interact with customers. It was the memory of those bygone days that compelled me to choose the jewelry business as Meridia and Daniel’s livelihood.

Q: Who are some of the writers you admire? Is magical realism master Gabriel Gárcia Márquez among them?

A: Gárcia Márquez is certainly one of my idols—he taught me how to look for magic both in life and in prose. Other writers I admire are Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, W. Somerset Maugham, and Toni Morrison. I go through periods when I read only mysteries, only short stories, only Evelyn Waugh. I think Dennis Lehane is an incredible writer, and like everyone else, I’m waiting for Jhumpa Lahiri’s next book.

Q: What has the reaction been to the novel from your family, friends, and early readers?

A: My family—my father included—is waiting for the Indonesian translation. My mother, who understands a bit more English, I haven’t allowed anywhere near the book, since I have a feeling she will read it and say, “Why did you make Eva so nice? She’s an angel compared to your grandmother!” My friends who have read it were pleasantly surprised. Before, they called me odd. Now, they call me interesting. The reaction from early readers has been the best. They are so excited and passionate about the book, and the fact that they are neither related to nor acquainted with me is sufficient proof that their enthusiasm is genuine.

Q: Do you plan to write another novel? If so, what can you tell us about it?

A: I am working on another novel, and I’m very excited about it. I don’t want to say too much because I’m superstitious, but it will draw on my cultural background and experiences even more than Of Bees and Mist, and it will also have a similar tone and a gripping—I hope!—family mystery at its heart.