The History of Living Forever

by Jake Wolff

Issue #164 May 18, 2012Buy Now!

Edited by Sam Katz


I can’t say precisely when the Emperor developed the cough. I can say that it happened suddenly, gathering out of sight—the way clouds do—and then appearing fully formed in his lungs. The first noise came like a dog’s bark, followed by a hissing wheeze. It was customary that when the Emperor coughed, all those in his presence must cough as well. Thus it was a single bark followed by a chorus of barks, and then we bowed our heads, as if in prayer, and wheezed together. The cough rippled from the throne to the court and out into the yards and women’s rooms, and I could not fight the sense that it was not just the Emperor dying but all of China as well.

The Emperor and I were raised together in Linzi, framed by the Yellow River to the west and the Yellow Sea to the east. I remember our first trip to the coast, the way the Emperor tore into the shallow water, his fat legs kicking at the waves. I was a commoner, then; he the young prince and I the young servant.

Jake Wolff

Jake Wolff holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His fiction and essays have appeared in journals such as CutBank, Third Coast, Sou’wester, Sonora Review, Redivider, and Tin House. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Florida State University.

Q&A by Sam Katz

SK: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JW: I’ve been interested in the search for immortality for a long time—the history of life elixir, the fountain of youth, etc. It’s something I’ve written about a lot in both fiction and nonfiction. The main character of this story, Xu Fu, is a real historical figure and a very popular one in China and Japan. I was especially attracted to his story because he’s one of the first people in history (that we know of) to search for immortality, and he’s also one of the very, very few who searched for immortality not for his own benefit but for someone else’s.
SK: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JW: Everything about this piece was challenging. Researching a story set in 200 BCE was tough. Finding the voice took forever. And the logistics of the plot were at times overwhelming—much like Xu Fu, I found it to difficult to corral 1,000 virgins. It’s definitely the longest and hardest I’ve ever worked on a piece.
SK: Why did you choose to set the story in ancient China?
JW: Again, that choice just came from the character. I wanted to tell Xu Fu’s story, and China was his home. Part of the fun of researching the history of immortality is that it offers a unique kind of cultural education. The way people in Xu Fu’s time and place thought about immortality is very different from how people in, say, medieval Germany thought about immortality. Those differences are often revealing and always fascinating.
SK: Many aspects of the story are drawn from Chinese mythology. How did you go about incorporating these myths into a story of your own?
JW: My initial goal was to leave no stone unturned in terms of research. I read everything I could find, I wrote to experts in the field, I harassed a few confused but helpful people on Internet message boards related to Chinese history. This generated a lot more material than I could use. In some ways, though, the fact that much of Xu Fu’s story has been told through myths—many of them contradictory—was very freeing for me. I could pick and choose which elements to incorporate based on my own interests, and of course some of the myths in the story I just made up myself.
SK: Throughout the story, Xu Fu is pulled between his loyalty to the Emperor and his feelings for Jing-Wei. When you began the story, did you already know how this dynamic would ultimately play out?
JW: Yes and no. I knew how the story would end in terms of who lives, who dies, and so on. I knew where the pieces would be on the chessboard. But the nature of the relationship between Xu Fu and Jing-Wei changed several times during revision. Xu Fu loves Jing-Wei, but this is not a love story, so finding the right tone for both of them took time.
SK: The story concludes with Xu Fu presenting the virgins and his crew with an uncertain future. What do you imagine their fate to be or does your conception of the characters end with the final sentence?
JW: Most people believe that Xu Fu landed in Japan and used his knowledge of science and agriculture to build a thriving settlement there. I do believe that myself, and an early version of the story even showed a bit of this. Ultimately, though, we can’t know for sure what happened to him or his crew, and in the context of the story it seems more fitting to leave him sailing toward an unknown world. It must have been a deeply terrifying moment.
SK: If you were granted immortality, would you want to live forever?
JW: Probably not. I’m tempted to know how good I’d be at Angry Birds with a thousand more years of practice, but otherwise I’m happy with what I have.
SK: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JW: I wrote the first draft in under a week, but that was a year and a half ago. The story went through more drafts than I can count before I began submitting it for publication and then more revisions with you fine folks at One Story.
SK: What are you working on now?
JW: I am working on a novel that explores the same ideas as in this story—the search for immortality—only in a contemporary setting. In fact, the working title is the same: “The History of Living Forever.”
SK: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JW: I don’t know about best, but here’s one that has helped me a lot lately: Don’t be afraid to write a story that people will want to read. A lot of my earlier work had plenty of emotional brooding and chronic tension—it was sufficiently “literary”—but the actual plots were so thin you’d need tweezers to handle them. At some point, for me, the need to write literary fiction had erased the need to write an entertaining story. But of course those two things should not be mutually exclusive. So I often have to remind myself that it’s OK to write a story that tries to be exciting. It’s OK for stuff to happen.