Novelist Bo Caldwell has a rare instinct for the way place acts on people. Her richly detailed landscapes lure us into her stories, but not merely as backdrop: her stunning first novel demonstrates the force with which setting shapes characters. The Distant Land of My Father is a loving, meticulously researched portrait of Shanghai in the 1930s, and a work of acute psychological realism. The child-narrator, whose experience of Shanghai is filtered through her glamorous parents, grows up to hate and mistrust the city she once loved. The cityscapes—the sky-scrapers, the tennis club, the mix of east and west, the long-life noodles and bright silk dresses—are delightfully showy in the early sections, but as the father's obsession with Shanghai fractures his family, the novel's atmosphere turns heavy with desire and loss. Through Caldwell's talent for moody detail, the wealth of sights and sounds resolves into a portrait of the harrowing tension between the competing demands of home and the exotic. She also puts this talent to use in her many non-fiction essays, published in Image, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
"Fairly soon after finishing the first draft of The Distant Land of My Father, I began work on a novel set in London in 1953, about a couple who moves there from the East Coast after the loss of their child. I fooled with it off and on for months, writing bits and pieces, doing research, but never got very far. Finally, one Friday I decided that if I could just get the first ten pages together, I would feel better and I'd have some direction. So I tried, going over and over the thirty or so pages I had on the computer. Nothing. I sat at my desk for a while, and something else came along: I would go back to China."
"The Distant Land of My Father takes place in Shanghai and Los Angeles from 1937 to 1961, and is based on the life of an uncle of mine, my mom's oldest brother, who spent much of his life in Shanghai. My mom's parents had been missionaries in the interior of China, and on that Friday afternoon, I suddenly knew that my next project would be a sort of prequel to Distant Land, a novel about the lives of those missionary grandparents, beginning with their journey to China in 1906, and telling the story of the lives they lived in China."
"I'm still doing research, but I'm fascinated, so while I'm eager to be in the middle of the novel, I'm in no hurry. The research is rich and plentiful, and I am thoroughly enjoying being immersed in Damingfu, a city in northern China, where my grandparents raised their children and healed the sick and spread the Gospel to those they grew to love."
Bo Caldwell was born in Oklahoma City in 1955. She grew up in Los Angeles and attended Stanford University, where she later held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing and a Jones Lectureship in Creative Writing. She has received an Artist Fellowship from the Arts Council of Santa Clara County, the Georgia Shreve Prize for Fiction at Stanford University, and the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation. Her personal essays appear frequently in the Washington Post Magazine, and her short stories have appeared in Story, Ploughshares, Epoch, and other literary journals. Her novel, The Distant Land of My Father, published in hardcover by Chronicle Books in October, 2001, and in paperback by Harcourt in September of 2002, was a national bestseller, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001, and a Booksense 76 pick. She lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen, and two children.