Since it started up in April, the San Francisco digital publishing site www.byliner.com has specialized in long-form narrative nonfiction. It has compiled quite an archive more than 60,000 pieces by more than 4,000 writers. One of its contributors is Sacramento's own William T. Vollmann, who wrote about his tour of post-earthquake Japan.
Now Byliner has broadened its scope to include fiction, and it drafted novelist Amy "Joy Luck Club" Tan to write its inaugural offering, her 14,000-word "Rules for Virgins." This is the first piece of fiction Tan has published in six years, after "Saving Fish From Drowning."
"Rules" is described as "the sensual tale of an aging master courtesan instructing her beautiful young protégé in the ways of love and business in 1912 Shanghai."
"Almost from the day we launched, we had readers asking about fiction," said Byliner founder John Tayman. "Given reader demand for stories that can be read in a single sitting, we expect (the addition) to be very popular."
Tan is an award-winning writer who divides her time between the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. Last week, she was inducted into the California Museum's California Hall of Fame.
She appeared for the Bee Book Club in 2001 for "The Bonesetter's Daughter," in front of an audience of 1,200 fans at the Sacramento Convention Center.
"Rules for Virgins" is available online for $2.99 at Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble and Apple, downloadable to most digital devices.
I talked with Tan by phone from her home in Sausalito.
Congratulations on becoming a member of the California Hall of Fame.
I was most excited to see the other (inductees). I feel many of them have done much more than I have, in terms of serving people.
You've been busy the past six years.
I helped raise money for (the San Francisco Opera) and wrote a libretto (of "The Bonesetter's Daughter") for it. The publicity and touring were a big undertaking. Also, I went on research trips to China for a novel, and wrote an article on China for National Geographic magazine. It's very hard to write (fiction) when you're involved in other major projects.
You say the idea for "Rules" came to you when you saw some old pictures of your grandmother's cousin.
Yes, the photos were cumulatively persuasive that she was a courtesan. I started (researching the story) by looking at the novel "Singsong Girls of Shanghai," written in the 1890s. Mostly I talked with academic people and read academic books. The historical research on the period was fascinating and fun.
How did you like writing in digital format?
This is the first story I've directly written for e-publication, and I found the form liberating because there was no word-length limitation. I likely will do more.
You've said you had some angst over whether to publish the story after you finished it.
I have angst over everything. I am my worst critic. First, I had to be encouraged to write it, then I wrote it and was really happy. But then the angst came (partly) due to the subject matter. I could imagine a lot of my readers saying, "This is trash, where are the tender mother-daughter stories?"
This is about human nature in the same way, but the context is different. In that era, courtesans were enviable and had the most freedom of any class. They were business-oriented women who were very strong and who made their own ways in the world by using their smarts.
You're finishing your next novel.
It's called "Valley of Amazement" and was inspired by a painting I saw in Berlin. In the book, (I explore) what the image means to three different people in different generations. It won't publish for another year, but election time isn't a great time to have a book coming out.
Looking at digital world
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, the Internet, tablets, smartphones, laptops, blogs, text messaging, electronic mail, and electronic books and the e-readers that go with them. It's a digital world and we're super-connected. Or are we discombobulated with too much meaningless information? Try a trio of related titles:
"Blur" by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (Bloomsbury, $16, 240 pages): What poses as "news" on the Internet isn't necessarily so, say the veteran journalists. They detail a step-by-step process that helps readers separate the facts from the fabrications.
"The Digital Divide," edited by Mark Bauerlein (Tarcher, $17.95, 368 pages): These 27 essays examine the effects of social media on our biology, personal lives and culture. Some of the writers laud the digital landscape and its potential, while others raise warnings of the harm it is doing on multiple levels.
"How To Win Friends & Influence People in the Digital Age," by writers and editors at Dale Carnegie & Associates (Simon & Schuster, $26, 245 pages): Carnegie's 1936 "How To Win Friends & Influence People" sold 30 million copies, so the man knew something about social interaction. Because communication portals have multiplied, his advice has been updated and rewritten, "while holding on to its root message for success."
California state of mind
California-centric titles are all over the literary map, as this sampling shows:
"The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: California," edited by Rees Hughes and Corey Lee Lewis (Mountaineers, $19.95, 320 pages): The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada, with a long stretch through California. This anthology takes readers into the woods and over mountains for high adventures and trailside tales.
"The Compass" by Elyce L. Frydman (Two Harbors, $22.95, 268 pages): The Sacramento registered nurse launches a series with this tale of vampires, werewolves and a daring young woman named Skye.
"Tales of Placerville" by Perry Bradford-Wilson (Storyteller, $15.95, 279 pages): Two Boston writers arrive in Hangtown in 1849, where their 50-year odyssey of adventures begins. The novel mixes history and fiction in locales that include Sacramento and Nevada.
"Forgotten Aviator" by Barry S. Martin (Dog Ear, $15.95, 256 pages): Royal Leonard (1905 to 1962) had an incredible career as a pilot, including his involvement with the Flying Tigers Bombing Group. Martin, of Sacramento, documents a unique life in the air.
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