It's been something like two weeks since I "finished" the manuscript of my book, tentatively titled "True Friendship of a Foreign Lady: The Chinese Odyssey of Sarah Pike Conger."
I use quotation marks because a wise writer is as superstitious as the parents of a Chinese baby: if you dress the boy as a girl, the evil spirits will leave him alone. But in all the basic ways, the beam and girder ways (just not the wallpaper and draperies ways) the manuscript of my story of the friendship of two women from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum is complete. Let the evil spirits do what they will. Anyway, now for the hard part!
What is my book about? It follows the friendship, from 1898 to 1908, of Sarah Pike Conger, wife of the American envoy to Beijing, and the Empress Dowager Cixi, before and after one of the greatest disasters to ever befall relations between China and the West, the Boxer Uprising of summer 1900. The idea came to me as I strolled through the imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing last year with the Empress Dowager's great-nephew, Na Genzheng. He told me about the human side of this woman whom history has consigned to the Grand Guignol hall of infame. I was also stunned by the rather hideous gifts, still on display at the Palace, given by foreign ministers' wives to the Empress Dowage, she who owned some of the most beautiful porcelains, bronzes, embroideries, furniture and other treasures on the face of the earth. A Qianlong vase compared to a tchochki in which two German sailor boys smilingly tote a receptacle made of lurid millifiore glass... no, these women had no idea what sort of culture they were bringing their "gifts" to, or who the dowager herself was. None of them ever did except for Sarah Pike Conger.
And back to the hard part.... finishing. Yes, there is plenty to do. Aside fromas many empty interstices to fill as the webwork of a Gothic cathedral, I still have to prepare the manuscript for submission to my publisher, Hong Kong University Press, in May. This means verifying all the several hundred foot notes, putting them in the correct format, lifting them out of the sentences where they've grown accustomed to dwelling these past few years and into ordered beds at the rear of the book. I have to select and then get permission to use a variety of photographs many of which are scattered all over the world, and hope I don't have to pay too much (or at all). Then, when I turn it all in, I sit back and wait for the review committee to do their work, and hope a work in which I've invested sweat, tears and cash will survive the process in the form in which I sent it. If all goes well, the book is to come out in 2012, just in time for the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the Qing dynasty.
I had my great day two weeks ago of typing "THE END." Now I get to rewind the platen back to "THE BEGINNING" and start the real work of getting a manuscript off neat and tidy to the school known as the outside world. All by May 2010. Good thing I don't drink!