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Success Story: Sally Wriggins

This is a photo of Sally Hovey Wriggins, an author of Where Books Begin.

The author
Sally Wriggins

Sally Wriggins has been fascinated by Asia since her childhood when she became entranced with the Buddhist sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum. Her first book was for children, a collaboration with Ronnie Solbert for Fabio Coen at Pantheon, a retelling of the adventures of the White Monkey King, a favorite in Chinese folklore. As she describes it, “This is where it all began.” The book was selected as a Best Book of the Year by the New York Public Library.

This is a photo of the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian.

The Wild Goose
Pagoda in Xian

It wasn’t until well after Sally finished her children’s book that she learned the tale of White Monkey King and his two sidekicks, Pigsy and the Monk, had a historical basis. The absent-minded monk was based on Xuanzang, a seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim who spent sixteen years on the Silk Road en route to India where he hoped to find the heart of Buddhism. Sally traveled to China to find out more about this contemporary of King Arthur.

Xuanzang’s History of the Western Regions, based on his trip across Central Asia, is all that remains of his own writing, but the impressive Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian stands a memorial to his contributions to both religion and government. While her husband, the international relations professor Howard Wriggins, was US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Sally traveled all over Asia to trace Xuanzang’s exploits. As she embraced the amazing scope of the monk’s life, she found herself undertaking a work of serious original scholarship to detail his travel and his accomplishments. This was very different from the emphasis on simplicity that had characterized the writing of her children’s book on the same subject. Working with maps, religious tracts, sculpture, paintings and artifacts as well as texts, she created a dazzling introduction to Xuanzang who was then virtually unknown in the western world.

This is a photo of the Bamiya Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

The Bamiya Buddhas,
before their destruction
by the Taliban

This is a photo of the Bamiya Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

The Bamiya Buddhas,
being destroyed
by the Taliban in 2001

Sally Wriggins worked for ten years on the book, enlisting the aid of Ellen E. M. Roberts of Where Books Begin to help her find a format and a publisher that would incorporate the array of information she had gathered. “My goal,” Sally Wriggins recalls, “was to bring Xuanzang’s journey to life for the reader.” Because of the complexity of her subject, Wriggins used extensive illustrative elements to enliven the text. She scoured museums in France, India, Pakistan, Russia, China, England, Afghanistan and America, as well as archaeological remains in Asia to find the works of art that represent Xuanzang’s legacy. “That’s what makes mine different from other books on Xuanzang,” Sally Wriggins says. “I focus on the art, what the pilgrim might have seen on his 10,000 mile journey.”

When Sally finished her book, the Silk Road had not yet become a popular area of study and very few books on the subject existed. She had to work hard, publicizing her book with personal appearances, workshops and book parties. Her focus on art helped to make the title more accessible to the general public. About the time of the book’s publication, travel to China expanded; YoYo Ma, who shares Sally Wriggins’s interest in the Silk Road’s musical heritage became a household word; and the US invasion of Afghanistan brought the nether world of Central Asia to every American’s attention.

Soon, The New Yorker and Time began to write on the subject, referencing Sally Wriggins’s book. Westview Press had published the book initially in 1996 without much fanfare. They were as surprised as Sally Wriggins was when sales picked up and Xuanzang’s reputation in the west grew. The book was published in five languages in six other editions.

This is a photo of the cover of the 1st edition of Sally Wriggins’s Xuanzang book.

The first edition of
Sally Wriggins’s book

This is a photo of the cover of the 2nd edition of Sally Wriggins’s Xuanzang book.

The second edition of
Sally Wriggins’s book

The original audience for Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim On the Silk Road was largely art aficionados, trekkers and armchair Asia buffs who enjoyed Sally Wriggins’s emphasis on images and didn’t choke on the book’s $32 list price. Her editor at Westview Press, believed the book could also succeed as an academic title, a supplemental text in a more compact format. Sally spent the next year revising the text. One of the sacrifices she had to make came in her beloved images. “Academic books have a certain look to them,” she said. “Westview press believed that making the images smaller would make the book appear more academic. The original was much more of a coffee table book.”

Beyond merely shrinking the images, Sally worked to integrate new research into her text. This task became so enormous that Ellen E. M. Roberts intervened to cadge a second advance out of Westview. In a way, the revision was as time-consuming as the original writing. Sally Wriggins included archaeological discoveries, newly unearthed information about Xaunzang’s life after his journey, and the fate of Buddhist art in the hands of the Taliban. In November of 2003, the new edition of Sally’s book — entitled The Silk Road Journey of Xuanzang — was released.

This is a photo of the cover of memoir of Sally Wriggins’s Asia on my Mind.

Asia on my Mind
From Ceylon to the Silk Road
A Memoir

Sally Wriggins has seen her fascination with this man a millennia-and-a-half her senior span three different books for three different markets in many countries, in many printings. Read about Sally's life and work in her memoir, Asia on my Mind.

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