Today we’re chatting with acclaimed author Ouyang Yu about his latest historical fiction, Billy Sing.
William ‘Billy’ Sing was a real person – born in 1886 to an English mother and Chinese father, and grew up in rural Queensland. He was one of the first to enlist in 1914 and at Gallipoli became famous for his shooting prowess. In this novel, Ouyang Yu embodies Sing’s voice – writing about his triumphant yet conflicted life and the horrors of war. Especially what it might mean to be both an outsider and a hero in one’s own country.
So, Ouyang, this is a fascinating idea for a book. How did the idea come about? Was there a light bulb moment or did it evolve over time?
“I came across him in my research on my PhD thesis at La Trobe University on fictional representations of Chinese people in Australian fiction and the idea to write him took me more than 20-odd years to take shape. No light bulb moment but it’s an evolution over time.”
Twenty years is certainly no light bulb. We’ve given a synopsis of the book up above, but if you had to summarise it in under 20 words, how would YOU describe Billy Sing?
“It’s about one of Australia’s most famed snipers in Gallipoli, son of an English mother and Chinese father.”
Did you find it difficult to capture Billy’s voice?
“Not that difficult. It’s all happening in the head. The process is one of research and living through the two cultures and languages.”
You yourself were born in Huangzhou, China and arrived in Australia in 1991 – since becoming prolific in your literary career as a poet, critic, translator, editor and novelist. So this perhaps helped you to capture the feeling of being from two places. But what other research did you do for the novel?
“I read all sorts of things, written in both languages, except the biography on him and the documentary film on him because I didn’t want my imagination to be affected. I did the writing in Australia and China, wherever I found myself to be.”
So what are you working on next?
“It’s a secret but I’ve been working on my next novel about the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), more than 60,000 words now.”
Sounds like another fascinating trip into history! So finally, if you could go back to when you first started writing and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
“I might have found it easier to achieve success but I guess it would always have been difficult anyway. Advice: Do whatever you like and persist in it.”