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STEEPSTER BOOK CLUB: For All the Tea in China, AUTHOR DISCUSSION with SARAH ROSE!!

Here is the place where you can “talk” directly with Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China! Post your questions and comments here, and Sarah will be joining us on JUNE 1 and 2 to discuss her book!

24 Replies

Sarah,

How did you get the idea for the book?

Are you a tea aficionado yourself? If so, what are your favorite kinds of teas? Did you drink certain teas as you worked on the book? Did you gain any new favorites because of your research and writing?

I’ll be back to ask more once I get my notes from home :)

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Doulton said

I may have more specific questions later, but I’d like to say what a wonderful book! Your prose is elegant and a true pleasure to read. It was illuminating and enlightening and read like a thriller with all of the information of an academic history. What a tour de force you’ve achieved.

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It seems that you did a LOT of traveling, researching, and training to write this book

During that time frame what was the most memorable place you visited?

Out of all the documents (translated and not) you read for research, what one surprised you the most?

Did you find your taste in tea changing at all during the process of writing this book?

Do you find much evidence of anger or outrage on the side of the Chinese over this theft? The book was written from Fortune’s point of view, so of course we’re happy he did his job, but I wonder how the people he took from reacted.

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And i would like to note that this book did not feel at all like a non-fiction work, it was a page turning adventure that educated me on something new and surprising in every chapter, thank you.

Rabs said

I would like to second AmazonV’s feelings and add my own thank you. I’ve been recommending your book at my library and so far I’ve had nothing but positive feedback. The questions I’ve wanted to ask have already been asked. Ultimately thank you for the great book, and thank you for stopping by our Discussion!

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I would like to ask you one of the questions you have on your guide for book clubs on your site. :)

8. Was there any point during the book when you wanted to tell a character something? Words of advice, warning, or reassurance, for example? When?

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Lori said

This book was extremely informative yet entertaining. I learned so much; the prose was succinct and descriptive . And it seemed like the history of the East India Company/tea trade could be applied to modern day issues.

Some questions/comments:
- Fortune seemed to be singularly focused on his tea expedition with minimal personal interest in other people. Was there little research or letters available on his personal/family life or did your book want to focus more on his scientific endeavors?
- It seemed that the Chinese were easily convinced that Fortune was a “mandarin”. As first, I found this hard to fathom. But as we discussed in another thread, communication w/outsiders was limited so how would the Chinese even know? But on the other hand, with the war and fear of outsiders, it still seemed a miracle that Fortune was able to travel so freely/safely. Did any of the letters/history explain this?
-I was also intrigued about the Chinese tea experts who were willing to leave their native land to go to India. It seemed like the salary “wasn’t that great” and it could near impossible to return to their home. As you touched in the book, it was a lonely life. I wonder do they still have descendants of those original Chinese tea experts in India today and/or if they married any locals ( I still have a chapter to finish so maybe you mentioned this) ?

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Hi All!

Thank you for reading my book! And for talking about it while you did. As a writer, it has been a privilege to lurk here and listen in. One of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had professionally.

On to your questions:

The idea came initially from an ex-boyfriend, Scott Anderson, whom I thank in the book. One winter I was between jobs and very low. He said to me, “I heard one guy stole tea from China, you should look into that.” Then he sent a few links. And once I had Fortune’s memoirs in hand – pirates, cross-dressing – I knew it was a book I could sell.

As for drinking tea – you are all much more accomplished at this than I am. Though I like fine teas, in the end I like milk tea best. I spent a lot of time in Britain and Hong Kong and it is the taste of hospitality to me. When I would come to someone’s kitchen, the first thing they do is put the kettle on. So my taste for tea grew out of those experiences and is still rooted there – Barry’s Tea, from Ireland, is the best CTC bagged tea by my lights. But for about 2 years in the middle of the book, I couldn’t look at a cup of tea. Never touched it.

I did travel a lot for this book – it was a very long enterprise. The documents that were most astounding to me, and I remember the day very well, was when I found the letters between Jameson and Falconer. I wanted to dance on the tables at the British Library I was so happy. As a writer I just knew I could MAKE something out of that. Writing a book is so hard, so miserable, really. But that was a moment of total joy.

The Chinese I’ve spoken to about this book are so happy about it in a See! We told you so! kind of way. They’ve known tea was stolen from China for the past 150 years and no one else talked about it. They’ve told me they like this book because China is so frequently cast as the bad guy in international trade disputes — and provides a “you started it” argument.

It’s also worth noting that in contemporary China, there’s not a lot of information to this day about the late Qing Empire that isn’t read through the lense of the revolutions that followed. So I found there’s a kind of hunger for that information, a yearning for their own past.

When did I want to speak to my characters? Golly. I have such a contentious relationship with Fortune! I admire him to the ends of the earth for his knowledge and bravery and pluck. But he was such a blowhard, his cultural sensitivity was so deficient. And yet, he was a man of his time. I don’t think he was any worse than his Victorian contemporaries. I feel like I struggled with Fortune for the full 4 years I was on the project — we finally made peace with each other when it was released. When the critics liked it, when people started buying it, Fortune and I were ok with each other. I think I served him well, in the end. And I’m proud of bringing his work to readers. But I didn’t always like him.

Fortune as a traveler was much more a scientist than he was a chronicler of place and people — I drew out the parts that exemplified his interactions and distilled the many hundreds of pages on soil depths and planting heights for various Chinese crops. I think of it, if you know the work of William Goldman, as the “Good Parts” version of a much longer book.

None of Fortune’s papers survived his death. His wife burned everything. This is peculiar to me, and in the UK version I offered some reasons for why it might have occurred. (It was edited out for the US edition) In the end, I concluded that it was a kind of jealousy – she raised a family alone while he spent years with his Great Love: China.

I would assume there are descendants of the original Chinese in India today, but don’t know that for sure.

But there was a mass exodus out of China at the time – the North American railroads and gold rushes, as well as the gold rush in Australia. China was in a cycle of extreme growth and extreme poverty, with season after season of bad news, famine, natural disaster. Every place else might have seemed like a better option to a Chinese peasant – though it frequently wasn’t.

I’ll be here for the next two days and am so grateful for your thoughtful attention to my book!

Sarah

Cofftea said

Rachel Ray made a cup of tea on her show once just like her friend makes it, and he insists it be Barry’s. … you couldn’t even look at tea?! SAD DAY! :,(

that is funny to imagine you holding yourself back form dancing on the tables in a nice library :)

wow, 4 years, how many years in before you had your first draft?

Lori said

Curious that you found Fortune irksome as well as I did. Also, it seems as you have written a historical book and not a fictionalized history you were limited to the sources available to you. Perhaps, if his wife hadn’t destroyed those letters , we would have gotten more details about Fortune’s “inner” personality…

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Janefan said

Were there any other significant changes from the UK to US versions, other than the one you mentioned? I did notice the different titles — I suppose the US title may not have sold as well if it had been used in the UK, since it is a tad blunt (though true)!
UK title: For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula of the World’s Favourite Drink
US title: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History

I was also amazed to see that this is your first book! What a great read, and what great press it has gotten from NPR, etc. You seem to have a gift for research, and for making history breathe and feel relevant. What is your current/next project? Will you tackle another book anytime soon? It sounds like it was an exhausting process, but hopefully worthwhile in the long run!

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teaddict said

Thanks for this fun & informative book, Sarah. I’m now reading Country Driving, by Peter Hessler, which is a lot of deja vu—except now the intellectual property theft is most often in the other direction.

Time for a few questions I brought up earlier, getting more at the Chinese side of the story re: what he was up to & why—

He went to the Wang’s home and went out from there to harvest tea seeds. Was it ok for anyone to just go out and gather seeds? Was this an illustration of the lack of concern for property rights over the seeds? Was it not a concern for them because they couldn’t see the value of the seeds, or imagine someone wanting to start a new tea plantation when there was so much tea already producing? Was it considered a bizarre affectation by this odd ‘mandarin’ and tolerated because of his status? What did the Wangs think? What did Wang tell them about the tea quest? Wondering here if there are any sources from the Chinese side, of memoirs that mention this strange visitor and what locals thought of him. And then, he’s sprouting and working with tea seedlings, carrying them in the glass cases across the country—didn’t that attract attention?

Once he’s got the seeds to the Dent & Co grounds, he’s able to plant them and work with them for weeks or months without any Chinese official noticing? Were they that secure from inspection in their private holdings? Or did they simply lie to ignorant local inspectors & officials who perhaps never had seen a young tea plant?

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Harfatum said

I don’t have a lot to add at the moment, but I wanted to thank Sarah for being here, and say that I’ve enjoyed the discussion so far :D

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