Larry, welcome to Lavender Lass Books, and thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Your book is one reason we decided to do the Author Spotlight interviews, to showcase books from a variety of genres, and find out more about the authors behind the stories. At the time of this interview, Larry’s book is the #1 New Release in Historical Asian Fiction on Amazon!
Larry Feign is an award-winning writer and artist whose work has appeared in Time, The Economist, Fortune, the New York Times, and other publications. His books have been consistent bestsellers in his home base of Hong Kong, while his ‘Lily Wong’ comic strip was considered a bellwether of life and politics in the territory. He now concentrates on writing historical fiction. The Flower Boat Girl is the first in a planned series of novels based on true stories of pirates in the South China Sea.
Larry has been married for over three decades to the clinical psychologist and author Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign. In his spare time, he enjoys cycling and playing ukulele, though rarely at the same time. His mother wished he was a doctor.
The Flower Boat Girl: A novel based on a true story of the woman who became the most powerful pirate in history. Here’s the blurb:
Her father traded away her youth.
Sea bandits stole her freedom.
She has one way to get them back:
Become the most powerful pirate in the world.
South China coast, 1801. Sold as a child to a floating brothel, 26-year-old Yang has finally bought her freedom, only to be kidnapped by a brutal pirate gang and forced to marry their leader.
Dragged through stormy seas and lawless bandit havens, Yang must stay scrappy to survive. She embeds herself in the dark business of piracy, carving out her role against the resistance of powerful pirate leaders and Cheung Po Tsai, her husband’s flamboyant male concubine.
As she is caught between bitter rivals fighting for mastery over the pirates—and for her heart—Yang faces a choice between two things she never dreamed might be hers: power or love.
Based on a true story that has never been fully told until now, The Flower Boat Girl is the tale of a woman who, against all odds, shaped history on her own terms.
“A breathtaking saga of a real life heroine, so richly alive that the pages seem to breathe.”
– Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author
And now to the interview:
1. What do you want to share with us about this story? What really stands out about it and made you want to write it?
I first learned of the Chinese pirate queen from an old Hong Kong sailor who remembered his grandmother singing a folk song about the fearsome lady pirate who commanded ten thousand men. Intrigued, I looked for more information. I found hundreds of articles about Cheng I Sao/Zheng Yi Sao, all telling the same story of a feisty ex-prostitute turned pirate. But something didn’t sit right with me. I studied history in university, where my mentor taught me the tricks of historical research, including how to develop my “historical bulls**t meter”. That meter was now shooting off fireworks inside my skull. As I traced the sources of these reports, I quickly determined that most of what is “known” about “Cheng I Sao” is based on nonsense. In fact, that wasn’t her name. Even the venerable Wikipedia articles are a tapestry of contradictory facts and fantasy.
As I dug deeper through mountains of documents, a remarkable picture began to emerge, not only of an amazing larger-than-life story, but of a complex and brilliant woman. Shek Yang (her real name) was given the worst life could offer—raised in poverty, sold as a child, kidnapped by pirates, forced into marriage, dragged into an unwinnable war—and gradually found her own way not just to survive, but to finally take charge of the situation, and to take over her entire world. A woman raised to believe that respect and romance were out of reach, who finally faced a choice between power and love.
Somehow this epic tale had been sitting in plain sight for 200 years, but nobody had done the work to assemble all the pieces, not even in Chinese. Why was there no book about her?
Toni Morrison said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
So I did.
2. Why do you write in this genre? What makes this genre particularly appealing to you?
I’ve loved historical fiction since childhood, the kind based on real people and events. You can learn so much more than through a history textbook by virtually visiting long-lost and faraway places.
I wrote a historical novel because a straightforward biography couldn’t do justice to her character. The more I learned about her, the more I became obsessed with understanding what motivated her, what she feared, who and how she loved.
Donald Barthelme advised historical fiction writers: “Just don’t contradict what is known.” That means, don’t alter the facts or change their order, even if it makes a more dramatic story. You can make things up, as long as to the best of your knowledge, they could have—or likely—happened. I stuck to that in my writing, exploring Yang’s personality and motives as I believe she must have thought, while remaining committed to the historical facts.
3. What made you decide to become an author? Can you tell us a little about that journey?
My mother planned on me becoming a doctor. From a young age she loaded me down with children’s books about great medical heroes like Albert Schweitzer, Louis Pasteur, and Florence Nightingale. I fell in love with them—not the doctors and nurses, but the stories. I loved books so much that I had to start writing them myself. I spent every spare moment writing stories and cartoons, even a chess manual. I self-published a graphic novel (steampunk, decades before the word existed) at age nine on my school’s ditto machine (Google “ditto copier”). By the time I was 16 I’d made up my mind to be a writer. My mother’s response: “Over my dead body!” Writing, she said, was a hobby, not a profession.
I fooled her into thinking I’d study Pre-Med in university, moved to the other side of the country, then switched to history and wrote a 400-page historical novel as my undergrad thesis, based on her father’s real adventures. It wasn’t great writing, but it was the start of my dream to be a historical novelist.
Then life took an unexpected turn. It’s a long story with guardian angels involved, but I ended up as a cartoonist across the ocean in Hong Kong, producing a comic strip which chronicled life before and after the handover to China. So, I was covering history as it happened. It was very popular and gave me a good career for many years…until I got into huge political trouble.
Fortunately, I discovered the story of the Chinese pirate queen. I considered doing it as a graphic novel. But then my invisible guardian angel grabbed me by the shoulders and said it was time to return to my first love, historical fiction. My life came full circle.
Sadly, my mother passed away just a year before this novel was published. But by then she’d accepted (or claimed to) that I’d become a writer and artist, over her live body.
4. Why did you choose to self-publish? Are there advantages to self-publishing? What about the challenges?
I have self-published since age nine, as I mentioned above. In high school and college I published alternative school papers. I was in an indie rock band and we manufactured our own records which sold all over the world. I’m from an older generation, so I’m talking about vinyl records and cassette tapes.
In Hong Kong, my first six cartoon books were published by a major publisher, until one day the CEO of the main local book distributor, who I’d never met, phoned me and said, “Are you Larry Feign? You’re stupid.” I politely asked him why I was stupid. He responded that I was mad not to self-publish. This was back in 1989, long before e-books or print-on-demand. My books were focused on the local market, so there was no reason to let someone else publish them, do a lousy job on the covers, and then keep most of the money. I followed his advice, bought back the rights, and nervously printed thousands of books. He was right. My books sold as well as before, but now I had complete control over how they looked and earned five times as much.
Since that time I’ve had three other books published by traditional publishers in the USA and UK. Every time I regretted it. They’d sell for a short time, then the publisher went on to promote another title and my book died. By now we were entering the era of e-books and POD. Again I reclaimed the rights and ended up selling more books than any publisher had managed to sell.
In 2017 I wrote a series of children’s books under a pen name, MD Whalen. Out of curiosity I sent them to agents, who replied unanimously that they were “unsellable”. So I self-published and got the last laugh. My “unsellable” series has sold over 200,000 copies since they came out. Several trad publishers approached me for the rights and I turned them all down.
My new historical novel is quite a departure for me artistically, being serious fiction rather than humor and cartoons. I toyed with the idea of seeking an agent. Then the pandemic hit and nearly all book sales went online, with no end in sight. This really leveled the playing field between traditional and independent publishers, since online few people notice the difference. It was a no-brainer to independently publish The Flower Boat Girl, and I will do so with the coming sequel.
5. Where do you get ideas for your stories? Do they come to you over time, or do you suddenly think of an idea and realize it would make a great story?
Stories seem to grab me by the throat, whether for cartoons, children’s books, or historical fiction. I have files full of story ideas. The hard part is choosing which one has enough meaning for me to devote months or years of my life to.
With The Flower Boat Girl I truly believe I was assigned this project by some benevolent spirit. After all, the true story of this incredible woman had been sitting in plain sight for over two hundred years, yet nobody, not even in Chinese, had properly assembled the pieces into a book about her. As I put my old historical research training to work, something simply took me over and convinced me that it was my mission to bring this story to the world, and to continue writing historical novels from now on.
6. Do you write (or plan to write) in any other genres?
I’ve already mentioned satirical cartoons and children’s books. I have notes for a serious memoir about growing up Jewish in a racist, anti-semitic, awful little town in California, which I might do as a graphic novel.
I realize that authors who write series and stick to one genre have more stable and successful career paths, but I’ve had too much fun exploring different media and means of expression, and I’ve somehow managed to get by.
7. What do you look for in a story? Especially in your genre? (Original ideas, plot lines, character development, world building, research, etc.?)
First and foremost, it has to have something to say. In historical fiction, it can be about an event or a culture or specific character. In other genres it can be a reflection of human nature or society or speculation about where the world is going or might have been.
If it has nothing to say, then it should at least be good writing. If it’s well-written prose, I can enjoy any genre, from classic literature to thrillers to YA and romance (yes, I read romance novels from time to time; most I’ve read are very tightly written, and YA is where some of the best writing is coming from these days).
If it has nothing to say and is badly written, then it should have some novelty value, like decent gags.
8. What is one thing you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
First, that it helps to have a teacher or mentor or a writing community. I’m a totally self-taught artist and with hindsight I deeply regret never studying art or apprenticing to an artist. I would have progressed a lot faster. So when I finally returned to writing fiction, I did an MFA in writing, learned from masters, and forged close friendships with other writers with whom I share work even today. I know a lot of independent authors who sniff at the idea of studying writing, and advise, “Just write and you’ll get better along the way.” I agree, but with people you trust critiquing you along the way you’ll get better at a faster clip.
Second, that as tough as it is—and it’s brutal out there—you can make a career as an artist or writer. Perhaps because of my parents’ badgering, I wasted too many years searching for a “respectable” career. I shouldn’t say wasted because all experience is golden fodder for your art. But I might have been braver from the start if I’d had some encouragement.
9. Are you working on a new book? Can you share any details?
The sequel to The Flower Boat Girl tells the second half of my heroine’s career as the world’s most powerful pirate. We follow her struggles, missteps, and tragedies as a leader, like an Asian female seafaring Michael Corleone. There’s a surprise (but true) ending where she challenges the emperor himself. Don’t even try to guess.
10. Do you have any advice you would offer to writers who plan to self-publish?
Truman Capote said: “I never write—indeed, am physically incapable of writing—anything I don’t think I will be paid for.”
Marilyn Monroe is credited as saying: “I don’t want to make money; I just want to be wonderful.”
So, which is it? I think both are worth keeping in mind.
Write because you love it. Try not to let the business side become your purpose. Writing is art, but self-publishing is indeed a business. Of course we want to succeed and, ideally, earn enough from our writing to set aside other jobs. We read stories of countless indie authors who bring in six figure incomes. Of course we all want that for ourselves, so we spend a lot of time and effort at the beginning learning the strategies and resources for success in indie publishing.
I think it’s easy and tempting to let the business side take over, letting it eat into writing time, letting it affect what you write, getting more pleasure out of sales graphs than from the act of writing. That’s a sure formula for squeezing the joy out of life.
Don’t be in such a hurry to succeed. Work hard to achieve it but be patient. Try to love the process, the business part, but if you can’t love that, then at least never stop loving the writing.
You can find Larry Feign’s book at many retailers! https://books2read.com/flowerboatgirl
And Larry has some photos he’d like to share with us today. This is the only known painting of the Chinese pirate queen, circa 1835. (Credit: courtesy Hong Kong Maritime Museum)
Chinese junks of the type the pirates would have sailed. (Credit: Lai Afong, 1880)
An actual flower boat floating brothel. (Credit: John Thompson, 1880)
You can find out more about Larry Feign and his books below:
Website – https://piratequeenbook.com
Podcast interview – https://teacup.media/the-china-history-podcast-episodes/chp-special-episode-interview-w/-larry-feign-on-the-pirate-queen-zheng-yi-sao
Facebook Page – https://facebook.com/feignbooks
Thank you so much for sharing all this with us today, Larry! We look forward to your next book in the series.