A California Novel Written Far from Here

Distance gave C Pam Zhang the freedom she needed to bring her novel to light.

author c pam zhang
C Pam Zhang: "San Francisco was built on the bones of abandoned ships. ... We are literally walking over and under the skeleton of the past."

C Pam Zhang has lived in 13 cities in four countries. All that globe-trotting has helped give her a fresh perspective on the places she knows well. That includes the American West, the setting of her debut book, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. The novel is the first selection of the California Book Club, whose inaugural gathering is on October 15. The California Book Club reached Zhang via email.

Your novel reimagines the standard narrative of the American West. Did other novels inspire you in how you approached the subject?
The sweeping epics of the West, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, imprinted themselves firmly on my younger self. I’ve always been entranced by mythologies and reimaginings like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the Pearl poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And yet, in order to write this novel, I had to forget that other novels existed. I wrote it in a bubble of time and space, when I was living in another country, far from California. That distance was necessary to create something that didn’t feel beholden to, or constrained by, what had already been done.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the gold rush era?
This is not so much a misconception as a favorite little-known fact: San Francisco was built on the bones of abandoned ships. So many immigrants and prospectors and laborers arrived by sea for the gold rush, with no intention of a return voyage, that excess ships were either sunk or dismantled. Much of that lumber was repurposed to build the growing city. Entire ships have been discovered beneath the Embarcadero as recently as the ’90s. There is such music to this fact for me. We are literally walking over and under the skeleton of the past. It’s inescapable.

What books are you reading now that you’d recommend?
A House Is a Body, by Shruti Swamy; I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, by Laura van den Berg; Stories of the Sahara, by Sanmao; Likes, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum; Milk Blood Heat, by Dantiel W. Moniz.

Readers can sign up for the California Book Club for free here.

John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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