Heather B. Moore is a USA Today bestselling author of more than seventy publications. Her historical novels and thrillers are written under pen name H.B. Moore. She writes women’s fiction, romance and inspirational non-fiction under Heather B. Moore. This can all be confusing, so her kids just call her Mom. Heather attended Cairo American College in Egypt, the Anglican School of Jerusalem in Israel, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Brigham Young University in Utah. Heather is represented by Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret. A bookclub kit is available for her new book, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown, on her website at hbmoore.com.
Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration for your new book, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown, which just came out this month?
Heather B. Moore: For several years, I’ve been writing historical novels centered on women who have risen above, or fought through, suppressed circumstances, so I’m continually looking up topics like “influential women.” When I read about Donaldina Cameron (Dolly) online after a discussion with Heidi Taylor and Lisa Mangum at my publishing house, I became immediately intrigued. There were several nonfiction books about Dolly’s work, but I knew that writing a historical novel on her life would bring in another, more intimate perspective to her work.
What research did you do for the book?
I was determined to visit the Occidental Mission home, now called the Cameron House, which is still in operation today and serves Chinese Americans in the community of San Francisco. I also began to order any books I could find online. As they arrived, I’d read them and take notes in a separate file. I spent two weeks, nearly full time, reading and taking notes. The amount of research felt like a mountain before me, one in which I couldn’t see the top of no matter how high I craned my neck. When I realized that I could probably write at least the first 100 pages of the book with what I had researched, I began the writing process. (I had over 80 pages of typed notes at that point.) But I was anxious to get to San Francisco and be in the city to feel, taste, see, listen, and breathe in the very place that Dolly had spent so much of her life. I contacted the Cameron House and booked a day for a tour. The visit was both humbling and awe-inspiring. Seeing the original doors where the imprints from the deadbolts were still engrooved, visiting the escape tunnel in the basement, climbing to the top of the house and looking over all of San Francisco—it was all fascinating.
Did anything in your research really surprise you?
Many things definitely surprised me. I was astounded how the mission home staff and the Chinatown Squad (San Francisco’s police force) would literally break down doors and rescue the Chinese girls and women. When more laws were put into place, both sides had to get lawyers, and the mission home had to get search warrants. In addition, Dolly would file for guardianship for the rescued slaves. In the mission home (funded by the Presbyterian Church), they also had Bible study classes. While the mission staff was inclusive and sensitive to the Chinese culture, they did have the girls attend these classes, memorize scripture, and learn Christian hymns. It was part of the history and what really happened, and whether we agree with this method, it had to be included in the story. Also surprising was that some of the girls who requested rescue couldn’t handle the sterilized mission home life and they returned to their addictions and abusive lives in the brothels. But if we understand the psychology of shame-based conditioning and the grip of trauma, then it becomes more understandable. Finally, the depth and breadth of corruption was surprising. At all levels, this human trafficking was supported by corrupt officials and city leaders. Dolly and the mission home staff had to figure out who to trust and who to rely on. This group of women banded together and stood up to depravity in their own city when everyone else was turning a blind eye.
With all of this research, how did you decide on the particular timeline you covered in the novel?
Going into the project, I knew Dolly had arrived at the mission home when she was twenty-five years old in 1895, and worked there until retirement. I wanted to include scenes of her arrival so that I could create a character arc of growth and education as she became involved in the world of human trafficking. But writing a novel isn’t like a memoir or non-fiction piece. The story needs to keep the reader’s attention and flow in a somewhat continuous manner with the events/scenes. I learned that because of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Dolly and the mission home girls and women had to relocate for a couple of years, then they returned to a rebuilt mission home. So I thought that having some of the final scenes surrounded by the “rebuilt” theme would be a natural conclusion to this single novel. That gave me a 13-year span to cover. Not too jumpy for a 350-page book, I decided. But then, as I dug more into research, I realized I needed to write a second point-of-view character—that of one of the paper daughters. This created more development to the story, and I struggled a bit with how to alternate the chapters/scenes between the two. Finally, I decided that I’d write them as alternate timelines in which Dolly’s chapters are on an earlier timeline than Mei Lien’s. Eventually Dolly’s timeline would catch up to Mei Lien’s and the two would then converge.
So other than grappling with the alternating viewpoints, what was the most difficult part of writing The Paper Daughters of Chinatown?
Going in, I knew the research would be emotionally taxing. In fact, I decided I’d write and research Dolly’s story in the mornings, and in the evenings, I’d work on another, lighter project. But it soon became clear that I literally had no emotional stamina left for another project. Reading some of the horrific accounts will never leave my mind, and even though in my novel I keep graphic and harsh details out, they are still there in the hidden layers. I wanted to make sure the story was full of light and would be uplifting to the readers as well, because I needed that hope myself. Today, human trafficking still exists, in all forms. What good did Dolly’s work do? It hasn’t been eradicated. So then I focused on the one, the few, women Dolly did help. I focused on their stories of healing and triumphs. Yes, there were still lost women and girls, those who suffered tremendously, only to have their lives cut short, but I clung to the women who made it through. They were my inspiration and they became my hope. I learned that even one step up that mountain was one step up that hadn’t been taken before. Maybe I wouldn’t conquer all, but the journey and the progress of Dolly’s work was valuable, and in some cases, literally life-saving.
While we’ve been talking about working on historical fiction, you also write many different genres including thrillers, women’s fiction, romance, young adult, and inspirational non-fiction. Does your writing and research process differ depending on what you are working on?
When I’m writing historical, I’ll focus a lot more on the five senses in order to bring the setting to life. What does the character see, feel, taste, smell, touch? What cultural restrictions are in place? How do the laws of the land or the religious traditions mold the characters? The setting and era are the key to historical writing. When writing thrillers, I have to come up with the one big compelling plot point that will be the engine of the entire story—this plot arc will dominate, and everything else like setting and character become secondary. Writing a romance is almost a vacation in comparison. Not to diminish the work it takes, but writing about a growing relationship between two people is much more hyperfocused, and I love to delve deep into the point-of-view aspect, since all else takes a backseat. With young adult, I find I have research at my fingertips with teenaged children in my home. Inspirational non-fiction takes a lot of diligent work for me. Not only am I trying to convey something that I think might give a new perspective, but I need to make sure every sentence and paragraph is supported by research, or at least a well-drawn conclusion. Fiction writing gives me a lot more leeway and feeds the creative soul.
Very true. So what are you working on now?
I’m writing a historical novel set in the Cold War era. This book is based on a true story about a US soldier who was sent on an undercover mission to East Germany in the early 1960s to plot nuclear targets for the US Army. Eventually, he was caught, arrested, and imprisoned for six months. Bob Inama is 85 now, and the remarkable thing is that he kept silent about his experiences most of his life. His own parents never knew about his imprisonment.
That sounds great; good luck with the writing! As well as being an expansive writer, I know that you’re also an avid reader. Was there a particular book or author that inspired you to write?
As a teen, I devoured mysteries written by Mary Higgins Clark. When her memoir Kitchen Privileges came out, I had just embarked on writing my first book. I discovered that Higgins was a young widow when she started writing. The only time she could write while being a single working mother was from 4:00–7:00 am every morning. This literally set a path for me to follow, and I realized that following a dream takes determined sacrifice, and I began to set my alarm for 4:00 am.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
I do have a “highly recommended” list on Goodreads, but my mind keeps returning to Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. I read this for book club a couple of years ago, and I still think about the work of William Wilberforce and the decades he spent as a human rights activist to abolish the British slave trade. He literally worked himself to death fighting for human rights and cultural reform, and he died three days after achieving his goal in Parliament. This was in 1833, more than 30 years before slavery was abolished in America.
And what are you currently reading?
I just finished reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, which was fascinating (and horrifying). My favorite read this summer was hands-down The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. I now secretly want to be a librarian who delivers books on horseback.