Author C Pam Zhang on her Booker Prize-longlisted novel How Much of These Hills is Gold. 

C Pam Zhang on being told her Booker Prize-longlisted novel was ‘too much’, and the thing she fears above everything else.

How does it feel to have your debut novel longlisted for The Booker Prize? 

The first time I spoke of my novel to someone in the publishing industry, I was told it was ‘too much’. This was the first agent I ever met. During the 10 minutes allotted to us at a writing conference, he glanced through a description of my project, sat back, and declared his concerns – gender, immigration, history, race, family, intergenerational trauma, environmental devastation, poverty – too much to be marketable. I shouldn’t pack in so many issues, he said, without reading a word of the prose. 

I didn’t have the presence of mind back then to say that these are not issues but the central questions of my life. I have always lived with the simultaneous considerations of money and a heating planet and my loved ones’ immigration status. I don’t know what it is to move through the world in a body unmarked by my Chinese ethnicity in a majority-white country, by my existence as a woman under the patriarchy. For many days, the Booker Prize news felt surreal. And then – as I considered my novel and other longlisted novels with their great, teeming, complex, irrepressible stories –I began to feel defiant. Triumphant. To me, great fiction unearths the beauty in complexity, it bypasses the usual to walk the knife’s edge of perception; many of us are now, as Toni Morrison said, standing at the edge and claiming it as the centre.

C Pam Zhang

I fear stagnation above all else

— C Pam Zhang

The Wild West is a uniquely American phenomenon. What drew you to reimagine this period? 

The landscape. It haunts me. I grew up on books that set ordinary lives against that bleak and beautiful backdrop, teaching me to find holiness in the ordinary. Only later in life did I realize I never encountered people like myself or my family in those books. But what is more epic, more heroic, than immigrants who cross oceans and shed one life for another? My novel is concerned with the invisibility of the Asian diaspora in a place that tries to excise us from its national image; it’s amazing to be given the visibility of this nomination, and to know there is a chance of seeing the first Booker Prize winner with main characters who look like my younger self. 

The experience of Chinese-American settlers is omitted from most historical accounts of the Gold Rush. In writing them back in, did you discover any other forgotten stories? 

In the hills of California, nestled against one curve of the Sacramento River, is a place called Locke. It was the only town in America built by Chinese people for Chinese people. It was built by choice. There are so many stories of sorrow and hardship, but I think of Locke and think of oasis in parched land. 

How Much of These Hills is Gold looks at the tension between history and mythology. What interests you about this relationship? 

I spent a chunk of my childhood in Lexington, Kentucky – a state which, in 1861, chose not to fight against slavery and which, in 1997, still taught its students that there were economic justifications for the Confederacy’s secession. The first white settlers of the West were told it was their destiny to claim the land. Tech entrepreneurs in the hills of today’s San Francisco are told that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that everywhere is the gleam of opportunity, equally available to all. Written history is the mythology of the victors. As a writer of fiction, I’m less interested in what has been set down in official histories; my job is to wonder what went unwritten, what stories have been erased, omitted, left between the cracks. 

What can we expect from you next? 

The complete opposite. I fear stagnation above all else.