The winners of the 28th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, a mother and daughter team, talk about writing their hit indie memoir.
Despite its grimy windows that appeared to have not been washed in decades and rusted art deco banister, echoes of the Sun family home’s former elegance still remained when Isabel Sun Chao returned to her childhood home in Shanghai she had left nearly 60 years before.
When she left her family’s opulent mansion at 18 to visit her mother in Hong Kong, Isabel didn’t know it would be the last time she would see her father or most of her family. It was 1950, Mao Zedong had become chairman of the Communist Party of China, and life as Isabel knew it would change forever. She didn’t return to Shanghai until 2008, accompanied by her daughter Claire as she attempted to find her memories.
While she was distressed by the decrepit state of her mother’s childhood home, Claire was curious to know what had happened to it after her mother left. She had known little of her mother’s family history and wanted to know more.
Claire urged her mother to write a memoir. Although Isabel was reluctant to dwell on the past, Claire succeeded in convincing Isabel to pen the story. They co-wrote the book Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars, and Scoundrels, which they self-published in 2018.
“It was rewarding to go on this journey of discovery with my mother—through not only the joyful times but the painful ones too, occurring as they did during one of the most tumultuous periods in Chinese history,” Claire says.
Remembering Shanghai won the Grand Prize in the 28th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The mother-daughter team won $8,000, a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, and more.
The book tells the story of Isabel’s great-grandfather Taiyeye, born in 1842 and bestowed a high government position and wealth by China’s empress dowager after working his way from servant to war hero and scholar; her grand-uncle and grandfather, who staged a bank heist to steal much of Taiyeye’s fortune; the unlikely match between her socialite mother and art collector father, which ended in divorce; the kidnapping of her grandfather for ransom by Shanghai gangsters; her mother’s escape on foot through wartime China; and the glamor of Old Shanghai.
Isabel’s childhood memories are set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China, the Chinese Civil War, and Chinese Communist Revolution, which eventually caused Isabel, her mother, and sister to become separated from their father and three other siblings. Remembering Shanghai includes historical anecdotes written by Claire to provide context to the cultural phenomena and family stories in the book, watercolor illustrations of historical artifacts, and the Sun’s family photos—the oldest of which is 125 years old.
“I had taken my mother’s albums for granted while I was growing up and realized later that such photographic collections are rare among families like ours, because many departed Shanghai in varying degrees of desperation, leaving behind their personal treasures,” Claire says. “We still have the albums for the fortuitous reason that my grandmother came to Hong Kong in the wake of her divorce (an unusual circumstance at the time) before many families were fleeing Communism.”
The books of Isabel’s brother Shufen also proved to be a helpful resource in creating Remembering Shanghai. “My brother Shufen became one of the most prolific writers in post-Mao China. He wrote his first book—all 320,000 handwritten Chinese characters of it—by candlelight in 1978, and went on to publish more than 50 books,” Isabel says. “Many were on Shanghai nostalgia, including a few about our family. I had read them many years before and had forgotten much of the content, so re-reading them with Claire was revelatory and useful as a basis for several of our stories.”
The personal stories, cultural commentary, and artwork of Remembering Shanghai achieve the Chaos’ goal of providing an immersive experience for the reader. Recognizing that a commercially minded publishing house would have wanted to cut down some of these elements, they decided to self-publish the book to have full control to create the book they envisioned.
“We never let go of our vision of what we wanted the book to be,” Claire says. “Be aware that self-publishing is not befitting a part-time hobby. If you’re truly passionate about it, it will consume you! And it may end up being the most gratifying thing you ever do.”
Their approach to writing the book was complementary. “I talk; Claire researches, organizes, and writes—a good thing, as I’m rather disorganized—and the fact is, I’m happier at a mahjong table than in front of a computer!” Isabel says.
Claire writes in Remembering Shanghai that she originally thought it would take about two years to write the book, but the final product came together in 10 years. With a background in art history and luxury brand marketing, Claire is a self-taught writer and publisher, learning mainly from turning the pages of great books. She hired a consultant to execute the final editing, design, and publishing process but handled everything else on her own, from creating a family tree to seeking permissions for third-party material and scanning old photos. She attributes the 10-year time frame of the book to taking the time to learn to do everything right.
“On the writing side (for me the most enjoyable part), it took many months of experimentation to establish the format that interweaves my mother’s and my voices—useful for presenting dual perspectives, but potentially confusing,” she says. “Originally, as we’d planned for each chapter to come across as a short story, the manuscript didn’t have a clear chronology. But as the stories evolved, so did the integral role of historic events and thematic threads through time. Nine years in, we decided to re-order the narrative chronologically, bringing me perilously close to a nervous breakdown!”
In addition to its Writer’s Digest honors, Remembering Shanghai has been awarded more than 20 other literary and design awards. An audiobook version launched in December, available on RememberingShanghai.com, Audible, Audiobooks.com, Spotify, and most other audiobook outlets. The book is also being adapted into a TV drama series.
“We are working quite intensely on the screenplay,” Claire says. “Given our track record, I suspect we may not be ceding all our rights on this project!”