Writing The Chinese Girl
I’d written and published four Sam Turner novels and although they proved to be adequate vehicles for what I had to say there was still that niggling feeling that I would like to do something different. As a central character Sam Turner was suitably gnarled and worldly wise and a great mouthpiece for that healthy cynicism that allows us to co-exist with some of the worst excesses of our advanced political system. But he lacked the dynamism and innocence of youth and for the novel that was slowly forming in my head I would need a character who would have both of these qualities.
I wanted to write about masks, about their necessity and about how we construct and use them not only to hide behind but to project different facets of our character. The prison tattoos on stone Lewis’ face are of course a mask, but as they are slowly erased he comes to realize that they are only one skin of the onion.
The Chinese girl, herself, uses her pancake makeup as a mask, feeling naked when she is discovered without it. The two of them together, and all of the other characters in the novel in their different ways, wear their masks to conceal identity and to proclaim it at one and the same time.
So much for theme. What I also wanted to do was to see what happens when you come home one evening and find something exotic and beautiful and vulnerable and totally unexpected waiting for you. How do we activate and maintain our responsibilities for each other? And when the acceptance of those responsibilities mean facing up to the evils in the world how do we cope with that? Especially when those evils are manifest not only in the world that is external to us but when we come to perceive it as an integral part of our own lives.
This was important for me, to try to distance myself from the concept of dualism. To dispel in some way the idea that there are good guys and bad guys and that the world would be a better place if we got rid of the bad guys. Life isn’t that simple and books that suggest that it is don’t really do us a service.
Thirdly I wanted to experiment with the narrative by using an epistolary form for at least part of the novel. In the first draft the letters section was much longer. I cut it reluctantly because it was by far the best written section, but with hindsight it was a necessary sacrifice.
The Chinese Girl wasn’t an easy novel to write and in many ways, when it was finished, it was good to get back to grips with Sam Turner and the crew in the next novel (Shooting in the Dark, Orion, August 2001). But we hadn’t heard the last of Stone Lewis and his friends. They were scheduled to return in a second novel in the series, (White Skin Man, Orion) which was eventually published in 2004.