Please introduce yourself and your books
I am a semi-retired corporate investigator for the software industry and information security consultant here in the U.K. I still regularly lecture on IP enforcement. These days, however, I spend much of my time reading, thinking, and writing about China – especially in regard to the history of the Chinese judicial system.
I am currently writing two very different mystery series set in China: the first, the Magistrate Zhu series, is set in the 11th Century (Song Dynasty) and features the adventures of Magistrate Zhu who is sent far from his home in the capital Kaifeng to a remote market-town in Sichuan Province on the border with Tibet where he is expected not only to dispense justice but also to be the eyes, ears and mouth of the Emperor; the second series, the Philip Ye novels, is set in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in contemporary China – or more properly the People’s Republic of China – and follows Philip Ye, an Anglo-Chinese detective, as he struggles to manage homicide investigations (and a complicated family history) as part of a corrupt and politically-influenced judicial system.
What sparked your fascination with China?
This is a bit of a strange tale. I had always read history. When I gave up my own investigation career I finally decided to sit down and write seriously. I struggled along with a couple of different plots set in the U.K. but I couldn’t get anything to really work. Then, late one evening, I suddenly remembered a Japanese TV series I had loved back in the 1970s based on the Song Dynasty Chinese novel ‘The Water Margin’ (aka Outlaws of the Marsh) which featured – among its cast of heroes – an honest judge. I suddenly had the crazy idea that I could write a story set in the Song Dynasty about the adventures of an honest judge. I found a notebook and quickly wrote down the names: Magistrate Zhu, Horse, Fast Deng, Slow Deng and Little Ox. It was as if those names had been waiting in back of my mind all along. It was the weirdest feeling. I arbitrarily picked a date in history in the middle of the Song Dynasty (1086) and closed my eyes and put my finger on a map of China (the hills to the west of Chengdu). Realising I might have to do a bit of research (I had no idea then how much research I would have to do!) I started collecting history books and academic papers on the period. The more I read, the more I became fascinated with every aspect of China. Strangely, it was like I had found my inner home. After I had written The Balance of Heaven and Earth, I decided to have a crack at writing about modern China. It took me a long time to come to this decision as modern China is highly complex, and setting a police procedural in an authoritarian state morally challenging. After loads more research (and many, many drafts), The Willow Woman was finally completed. So, bizarre as this sounds, I feel that China somehow chose me.
What are the challenges in writing a police procedural set in contemporary China?
China has a fully-functioning legal system that handles over 800,000 criminal cases a year. However, not only is corruption endemic within the police and the judiciary but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retains full control of the legal system at every level. Regardless of what is written in China’s constitution and in the criminal law, the CCP (when it suits) will always place itself above the law and act in such a way as to protect its own power and interests. My characters do not have the power or (even the intent at present) to challenge the system. But it is my personal belief that true justice – no matter in what country, regardless of whatever legal system is in place, and regardless of position or status – always begins with the individual, in that an individual always has a choice whether to treat another justly or not. And so I have my characters operating in a corrupt and unjust environment but doing their best to bring whatever justice they can to the people – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – just as, I am sure, that there are honest police and prosecutors in real life in China that are trying to do the same every day.
What are the real-life stories behind your books?
In the Song Dynasty, to avoid corruption, magistrates were not allowed to preside over their own home districts. They were often sent hundreds of miles without their families to areas of China unknown to them, where the local dialect might be more or less incomprehensible, and where they had to manage teams of clerks and constables whose salaries were so meagre that they themselves were often corrupt and hard to distinguish from criminals. And, there being no separation of powers in the Song Dynasty, not only did magistrates have to enforce the law but they also had to govern their districts on behalf of the Emperor. Some magistrates were corrupt, some incompetent, but there were many who were notable for their honesty, strength of character, and the compassion they showed for the people over whom they presided. Many magistrates were also very physically brave. It was not unheard of for magistrates to take on bandits with sword in hand even after their own constables had deserted them.
As for police and prosecutors in the People’s Republic of China, as I have already said, I am fascinated by how they can both serve an authoritarian regime and at the same time attempt to bring justice to the people – especially when these two desires may often be in conflict. One moment a police officer might be talking a would-be suicide off a roof and soon after the same police office might well be arresting a human rights lawyer for ‘causing arguments’.
I doubt if there are any more ideal places for a writer of crime fiction to examine what justice actually means than the Song Dynasty or the People’s Republic of China!!
What inspires your creativity?
I think I have an inner need – like most writers – to tell stories. But I suspect the inner world is more complex than that. In searching for the meaning of justice through my writing, I guess am trying to make sense of the world. Also, in writing, in the creation of a fictional world, I find a great deal of peace. There is no place I would rather be than sitting at my desk – writing.
How has the creation process improved over time?
I think writing will always remain difficult. What changes with experience is the knowledge that there will always be ups and downs in the writing of a novel, and that as long as you keep writing the novel will eventually be done. This is certainly true with the editing process. First, second, and even third drafts can be terrible…but a little bit of polishing, the cutting of a sentence, the changing of a word here and there, can make a tremendous difference. It is that experience, that knowing that a bad piece of writing can eventually be made good with a little bit of editing, which is so valuable.
Do you outline first or make the story up as you go along?
This is about self-knowledge, figuring out what works for you as a writer just by sheer practice. I would love to outline as I suspect the writing process would be a lot easier. But every time I have tried to create an outline I got bored in a matter of minutes! Instead, I tend to work with a single idea or a rough impression of the situation in which the characters find themselves at the start of the story and then get writing. This is both fun and scary: fun because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and scary for the exact same reason. In a sense I am investigating the crime at the same time as the characters. At the start of every chapter I am asking myself the question: ‘What is going on here?’ So there is a lot of staring out of the window as well as a lot of writing and re-writing before the novel is properly finished. This is a time-consuming and exhausting process but I enjoy it and it seems to work for me. I think something magical happens in the re-writing process. It is like the story becomes more real to me…and hopefully to the reader.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
I think novels reflect their authors. Some novels will be an outpouring of emotion others purely an intellectual construct. For myself, in writing crime fiction, the structure of the novel is all important; it must satisfy the expectations of enthusiastic readers of the genre. Therefore, as I am writing, structure is always uppermost in my mind. However, if am I not emotionally connected to the lives of my characters, or if the scenes I write are not emotionally driven in some way, then readers might find little to interest them in the story. Emotion lends energy to the words, sentences and paragraphs; it is this energy that the reader feeds off.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
I think the key to writing fiction is conflict. If the characters are not in conflict with themselves, or with other characters, or indeed with the environment in which they exist, then there will be no story.
What are you plans for future books?
I have four books in mind for the Philip Ye series: the Chengdu Quartet! As for the Magistrate Zhu mysteries, I am hoping these will just run and run!
The first Magistrate Zhu mystery, The Balance of Heaven and Earth, is available now. Here’s the Goodreads link:
Also available, the first Philip Ye novel, The Willow Woman: