Chain Reaction | Karen Kao

my debut novel

The Shanghai Quartet is going to be my magnum opus: four interlocking novels spanning a quarter century of Chinese history. Volume one was my my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. I’ve just finished the manuscript for volume two, Peace Court. While I await feedback from my beta readers, my mind wanders to volume three. I see Laogai as a collection of interlocking short stories. But what exactly is that and, more importantly, how do I write them?



Writing short fiction is notoriously difficult. You have to accelerate from zero to sixty miles an hour in the space of a few sentences. A short story is often more about what’s not said than what is. According to author Baird Hunter, that’s what makes the short story so powerful.
the ambiguities on which short form often insists, in the white spaces of section breaks and in the big dark void at the end.
But not all writers can carry off the short form. Author Sonja Chung is embarrassed by most of the short stories that marked the launch of her publishing career. She calls the novel her true medium.
All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view. The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea.
The interlocking or linked story collection falls somewhere in between a short story and the novel. GrubStreet calls the linked story collection
a strange animal: each story should be able to stand on its own, but the collection speaks louder when read back-to-front. The structure is more flexible than a novel, and the writer can leave more room for the reader to fill in mysteries and gaps. Linked story collections allow the writer to endlessly circle around her own obsessions in new fresh ways, whether that obsession is a theme, a character, or a place.

Is interlocking for me?

Like Chung, I think of myself primarily as a novelist who dabbles in short fiction. We both like to read interlocking short stories. Where we differ is when it comes to writing a linked collection. To Chung, it’s a craft exercise. To author Michael Knight, the linked collection bursts with possibilities.
[By] featuring recurring characters and settings and themes […] the book achieves a kind of aggregate, novelistic force, a collection, in other words, that adds up to something even more potent than the power of its component parts.
I imagine that this power lies in the seemingly random way in which one story touches another. Earlier this year, I saw an installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot of ceramic bowls set adrift in a pool of water. The bowls were all different sizes, giving off a range of tones whenever they hit the side of the pool or each other. A chain reaction sparked by random acts.

Variations v.2, Princessehof

Yet I’m sure there was nothing random about it, just as a linked short story collection must have some interlocking device. My gut tells me that a novel about a laogai needs to be told in the form of separate and distinct stories. For to be imprisoned in such a place is to be alone.

An object 


The linchpin of The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra is a painting: Empty Pasture in Afternoon. Over the course of five linked stories, this painting is defaced, bombed, sold, stolen, and restored. We recognize the subject matter of the painting as the setting of two other stories. Marra’s intention was
to try to take these completely unconnected stories and find a way of making them feel so intertwined that if you lost one, the whole structure of the book would collapse.
Well, it worked.

object as interlocking device
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: my #bookstagram

To date, I’ve made only one feeble attempt at transporting an item from one story into another. In my short story “Moon Cakes,” a mother sells her daughter into slavery. As the daughter embarks on her new life, the mother gives her an agate pendant.

That girl grows up to become the cook Jin, who appears in my debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. You won’t see that pendant in my first novel but you will in the second, Peace Court, when Jin passes it on to her own daughter Li.

I’ve thought about introducing some object into Peace Court that might reappear in Laogai. It would need to be something dangerous like a book. But in a place like a Chinese labor camp, there can be no possessions.

A moment in time

time as interlocking device
Image source: Goodreads

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is about the Vietnam War. A few of the stories are told in the moment. But mostly, the survivors look back. They try to piece together what happened. They do their best to honor the fallen with their stories. And, as in the worst nightmares, they relive their experiences in the hope that the outcome will be different.

“In the Field” plays out in the immediate aftermath of a mortar attack. Alpha Company is pinned down in what turns out to be the village shit field.
Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into the slime and cover up and wait.
We relive that moment three times through the eyes of a different combatant. The soldier who’s certain he’s caused the death of his best friend. The commanding officer determined to recover the body. The soldier whose task it’s become to tell this story.

I’d love to find such a cataclysmic moment in the life of a laogai. As China scholar Frank Dikötter observes:
the most dreaded aspect of incarceration was not the frequent beatings, the hard labour or even the grinding hunger. It was the thought reform, referred to by one victim as a ‘carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind’. […] Those who resisted the process committed suicide. Those who survived it renounced being themselves.
Men fought monumental battles in the shit fields of the laogai. But these were private affairs without witness.

A sense of place

Amos Oz uses place to link his collection Between Friends. His characters live and work in Kibbutz Yikhat. They work in the laundry or the shoe repair shop. Some feed the chickens while others tend the vegetable garden. They play cards in the dining hall to pass the time and judgment on each other.

The kibbutzim rarely leave the grounds and really, why would they? The kibbutz is a world unto itself.

I think that sense of place must be my interlocking device. A laogai, after all, is also a closed environment intended to be utterly self-sufficient. Cut off from all communication with the outside world, the men of the laogai must invent their own myths. How they came to be in the place and the life they’ll lead when they get out.

Here’s how the stories will go. See Guard Tuan keeping watch from on top of the ridge as the prisoners sow millet in the trenches below. Hear the whispers at night about the veterinarian who cured the camp commandant with a trick. Watch the prisoner Kang try to write a letter home.

Note: Chain Reaction was first published by Karen Kao on her website Shanghai Noir. 


Bill Kirton said…
Wow, Karen. So much food for thought. Thank you. As it happens, most of my recent output has been short stories and I agree that their very brevity leaves unexplored caverns that imply echoes, substance, whatever - something still to be explored. The challenge of using those spaces consciously to interweave themes, effects, even characters across stories is fascinating (and very attractive). Thanks for the stimulation.
Umberto Tosi said…
You serve up a feast of juicy considerations for this writer - and the rest of us. In some ways, all of my stories are linked, at least by my own obsessions - intentionally or not. I'm looking forward to what comes next in your Shanghai series!

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