Author Interview: C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is an electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush that sees two siblings on the run through an unforgiving landscape—trying not just to survive but also to find a home. We spoke with author C Pam Zhang about the inspiration for How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a remembered/imagined California as backdrop, and more.

In the most inventive and fresh language I’ve seen in a long time, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, set during the American gold rush, tells the story of siblings Lucy and Sam as they wander the western expanse to give their father a proper burial. Zhang transforms the mythology of the American West and reclaims it through the eyes of first-generation Asian-Americans, tackling themes of race, immigration, and gender and creating a new narrative of a voice and people often left out of this pivotal historical period. Strange and surreal, this is a novel to read with care and gratitude.

Chris Alonso, Books & Books

Ba dies in the night; Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam are suddenly alone in a land that refutes their existence. Fleeing the threats of their western mining town, they set off to bury their father in the only way that will set them free from their past. Along the way, they encounter giant buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, and the specters of a ravaged landscape as well as family secrets, sibling rivalry, and glimpses of a different kind of future.

Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it’s about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home.

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

This book was inspired by the landscape of California, which has haunted me all my life. I’ve left and returned to the state many times, and the novel was written while I was living in another country. I built the book from memory and myth as much as from fact. I say that the landscape haunts me, and sometimes seems to speak through me.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

There’s one main narrator, but a ghost comes in as a surprise partway through.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

I love the deliberate care Catherine Ho takes with each syllable—to hear someone take my words so seriously was moving.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

We would not have the diverse, rich, weird, and wild literary culture that we do without independent bookstores. I fear to imagine the landscape without them: it would be arid, I think, dotted here and there with boxy, dispiriting brand-name stops. Our minds would live in drought.

Header photo by Gioia Zloczower

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