How did the idea for this novel arise?
The idea for Lost in Translation came to me when I myself was working as a translator on an archeological expedition to Ningxia and Inner Mongolia in 1991. The Chinese and American teams I was assisting were not searching for Peking Man. They were studying life and settlement patterns of the region’s neolithic peoples, and comparing those findings with what they had discovered in geographically similar areas of the United States. Two things happened on this expedition. First, I realized that an interpreter, as a character, had great dramatic potential. Second, I discovered I was pregnant with my second child. Since it was clear I would not be able to return to China for a while, I began to think in terms of writing a novel about an interpreter. While in the desert I had plenty of time to talk with the Chinese and American scientists about possibilities for an archeology-based story. Once I settled on Peking Man, they generously shared their expertise with me and one scientist, Dr. David Madsen, even read the manuscript twice to correct my errors.
The other inspiration for Lost in Translation was definitely the life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. As a Jesuit priest who found many fossils in the course of his work as an archeologist and thus argued for evolution, he was banished to China by the Vatican in the 1920s. Much has been written about Teilhard’s life, but I took special interest in his longstanding relationship with the divorced American sculptress Lucile Swan, a relationship complicated by the fact that he was a Catholic priest sworn to celibacy. I found their relationship to be beautifully documented in the more than twenty years of letters and diary entries published by Georgetown University Press in 1992, The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan. In their real-life struggles with the nature of love and commitment I found the ideal mirror for the developing love affair between Alice Mannegan and Lin Shiyang. These two intertwining love stories form the heart of Lost in Translation.
Alice Mannegan is such an unusual literary character. Is she based on your own life?
Many people ask me that. No, she is not based on me at all. She is based on a real person, though – on a man I knew when I was younger. His father, he believed, had committed a racially motivated murder. The father was never brought to justice. The son left the U.S., moved to China, and acted out with Chinese women the way Alice acts out with Chinese men. Throughout his adult life he tried to get his father to talk with him about the murder, always without success. Then the son was killed in an accident at the age of thirty-one, taking his anguish over this matter with him. By putting his troubled soul in the character of Alice, perhaps I hoped to bring some resolution to him, after his death.