To read Karin Tanabe’s A Hundred Suns is to take a step into history. Karin’s writing style and descriptions of French Indochina and the world of the Michelin’s are so vivid that you will be able to picture every scene unfold before your eyes.
The story is told from the point of view of two very different women, Jessie Lesage whose fierce loyalty to her husband and his family gets in the way of the realities of the goings-on at their rubber plantations, and Marcelle who is on a mission for revenge.
In this interview, Karin shares about researching Jessie’s 1930’s world and French Indochina, insights into the two female lead characters, and a sneak peek at her next book.
Your fifth novel, A Hundred Suns was released on April 7th. When did you first come up with the idea for the novel?
I came up with the idea somewhat slowly. I knew I wanted to write a book where most of my research was in French. I also knew that I wanted to focus on colonialism. I originally looked at the Congo, since I’m half Belgian and the country has a terrible colonial past in Africa, but settled on Vietnam since I had spent a lot of time there. I also just love the country and was excited to immerse myself in its history.
I love how you describe everything about Jessie’s 1930’s world, from the city around her to the people, etc. As I read the book I could picture everything as if I was watching a movie. How much research into the 1930s, French Indochina (current day Vietnam) and the Michelin family did you do before you first starting writing?
A lot! And let me tell you, I did it so you all don’t have to! No, I’m kidding. The Michelin family is actually very interesting. But I was really disappointed to see no mention of their former plantations in Vietnam on their website, not even in the history section. The two most helpful resources for me were French historical documents online and a first-person account was written by a former plantation worker called The Red Earth. There are also wonderful videos on YouTube of life in Vietnam during the era that I loved watching. I have wanderlust just thinking about it.
The novel switches between Jessie and Marcelle’s points of view. Was it difficult to switch between the characters during the writing process?
I really enjoyed doing this. It’s something I did in my last book, The Diplomat’s Daughter, as well, but with three characters. So two seemed a lot easier! I think it’s fun for both the reader and the writer to really go inside two people’s heads. Also, it’s a good device for revealing secrets on both sides little by little.
Out of the two storylines (Jessie’s and Marcelle’s) which character storylines were the most challenging to write?
Jessie’s was definitely harder because she was newer to the colony. Marcelle, when Jessie arrives, has been there for years and her life is pretty established. She’s got a Vietnamese lover who she adores, and she’s happy in Hanoi. Jessie, on the other hand, has just arrived and is trying to sort out her new life, including what her family, the Michelins, are really up to.
How do you feel Jessie grows as a person once she realizes everything that has been going on at the Michelin’s families plantations?
I think it’s extremely eye-opening for her. Readers might want her to abandon ship as soon as she sees the truth about Michelin plantations, but she has a fierce sense of loyalty to her husband and his family and that’s a hard thing for her to juggle. But it certainly makes her come into her own more.
At what point do you think Jessie starts to release that her friendship with Marcelle and various people around her aren’t quite who they seemed to be when she first arrived?
I think she realizes it pretty fast. Early in the book, Marcelle visits Jessie at home for the first time and Jessie certainly starts to get paranoid about what kind of a person Marcelle is. But she doesn’t want to see it. She likes her new pal and is desperate for community, so she throws on some blinders and keeps enjoying life–for a while anyway!
What was the most difficult chapter to write?
For me, chapters where things are finally “found out” are always tough, but I think the last chapter is the hardest to write because of that pesky last sentence. You want to get it perfect–but it’s not easy.
Your novel, The Gilded Years will soon become a motion picture produced by Zendaya and Reese Witherspoon. How did you feel the moment you found out that your novel would be turned into a feature film?
Now that was a good day! The book had almost been optioned twice before then but didn’t happen so I’d kind of given up hope. Then two years after the book came out, Reese called! Well, she called my agent, but I did get to meet her after she optioned it. She was super lovely and I think what she’s doing for books–women authors and women-helmed stories–is amazing. She’s a powerhouse and I bow down.
You continue to work as a journalist and frequently write book reviews and lifestyle pieces for well-known publications. What are some of the books you’re currently reading?
I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s “City of Girls” and absolutely loved it. The pandemic has made me want to read funny books, so I’ve been reading anything with the words “laugh out loud” slapped on the cover. I’m now reading “Less” by Anthony Sean Greer and think it’s super witty and wise.
Are you currently writing your next novel, and if so, can we get a sneak peek at what the book is about?
Yes, I am! I’m in edits, so hopefully, it will be out sooner rather than later. It’s set in 1950s Manhattan and is about a very bored mother/housewife who becomes an FBI spy. It looks at the Cold War, but also heavier themes of motherhood, along with the joy of post-war New York. As I said, I’m in the mood for humor!