An Interview with Darin Strauss

An Interview with Darin Strauss


Why did you decide to base your novel on Chang and Eng's life?

I was home sick from work, and watching Oprah Winfrey on TV. She had conjoined twin girls on as her guests. In the middle of their interview, unprompted and as a non-sequitor, the twins jumped up and said at the very same time: "We're a big girl now." That sentence seemed a wonderful mystery to me. I was reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando at the time—a book that has a protagonist who changes gender in the middle of the narrative—and I enjoyed the way Woolf played with language in a way that stretched grammar to make gender a liquid thing. She had sentences in which the character Orlando was a woman at the beginning and a man by the end. Now, I thought a book about Siamese twins could use language similarly, in the function of drawing a self that is neither singular nor plural. "We're a big girl now."

I began to write a novel on conjoined twins that would be invented completely from scratch, but in my research I came across the story of Chang and Eng and changed my mind. I saw a plot line that had these brothers escaping death by the hand of the King of their Siamese homeland, coming to America and celebrity, meeting and marrying American sisters, fathering 21 kids, and getting caught up in The Civil War. I knew I'd never come up with a better yarn than that. I thought it could be the perfect mix of intellectual exploration and good old-fashioned adventure.

Have you always been interested in conjoined twins?

I think everyone is fascinated by such amazing oddities—because of the questions about intimacy and selfhood that their very existence poses – but I was no more interested in such cases than anybody else would have been. But then I saw that Oprah episode (see above), and decided I'd spend a few years with them.

Why write from the perspective you did, (from Eng's point of view), rather than in third person?

Writing from the point of view of one of the twins served a few purposes, at least I hope it did. I wanted to humanize the brothers. A third person account would have, I felt, been more clinical, and also more of what you'd expect. It also would have been much easier, I think. But I wanted to get into the head of one of them, because I think that's a better place to explore each one's individuality. Plus, I think it just makes the thing more sympathetic.

You are writing about real historical people. How much of what is in Chang and Eng was taken from actual events and how much of it is fiction?

As I say in the afterward, the outline of their life is basically lifted from fact. The twins did in fact live between 1811 and 1874. And the brothers did meet the King of Siam, come to America and celebrity, meet Barnum, marry sisters, have 21 children, and sustain a coupled life as farmers in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, during the Civil War period. But the book hopes to be ruled a novel. It is not a history. Most of the people and situations I describe result strictly from the imagination. Where I have changed or discarded or enhanced or invented the ins and outs of Chang and Eng's life, it is only to make the narrative fit the constraints of fiction. Basically, I made it a "better" story, I hope, using the tools available to a novelist.

What resource did you find the most helpful in your research?

A number of books were helpful in my research. The Kingdom of the People of Siam, by John Bowring (Oxford University Press, 1969), An Historical Account of the Siamese Twin Brothers, from Actual Observations, by James W. Hale (Elliot and Palmer, 1831), The Two, by Amy and Irving Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 1978), America in 1857, by Kenneth Stampp (Oxford University Press, 1990), and Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior, by Nancy Segal (Dutton, 1999). I also got a lot of inspiration from going to Wilkesboro, and talking with the town's historian, Joan Baity.

Were you able to contact any of Chang and Eng Bunker's relatives in your research? If so, how did they feel about the book?

While researching the book, I met a great-grandniece of Chang's. She was a lovely Southern woman, and though she's nine-tenths Caucasian, her features have kept a hint of their Asian ancestry. She is very protective of the twins and their reputations, and I did my best not to write anything that would upset her.