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Reflections of a working writer and reader



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.

2 Responses to “Writing The Chinese Girl”

  1. nicole says:

    I enjoyed ‘The chinese Girl’, and especially marvelled your writing letters from a female to a female. I have uncovered a personal prejudice here, in that I have avoided any male writing in a female character, but you did this so well, I was impressed and now will open my mind to other male authors who have written the female character. Your comment about ‘good guys and bad guys …Life isn’t that simple and books that suggest that it is don’t really do us a service.” is very adult, very rational. But sometimes I deliberately read books/essays to top up my “feel good” bank of energy – just sometimes I like to read that the good wins over bad, and that the bad is locked away or vanquished. Just sometimes I like to escape the adult rational ‘knowing’ that sadly the good dont always win over bad, and that the bad may go on to get worse, because police forces all over the world are underfunded etc. And reading a journey or unmasking story of good turned bad turned good, the ‘phoenix rising from the fire’ type story, makes the next day after the last page is read, just that wee bit manageable. The danger of course is that a wee sojourn into fiction might become someones view of reality – that sad place of mind called ‘denial’. Countries are invaded by armed soldiers, supposedly to bring democracy to the people; gangs are supposedly a group of misunderstood people rejected by society, etc. The bottom line for me is that I want to feel that somewhere, even if only in fiction, the light battles with the dark, and prevails – eventually. I only need to open a newspaper to know that there is not that often news on a happy ending type story – imagine reading only good news – then I would know someone somewhere had done a damn good PR job or spin on reality.

    jb says: Hi Nicole. It’s good to hear you enjoyed the book. My remarks about ‘good guys, bad guys,’ above are really about the dangers of dualism, and I think I broadly agree with your own remarks, and that the books I have written and published try to contain this inequality between either good or bad being on the winning side. I really don’t see why it should be one or the other in any given situation, but that doesn’t mean that I never see the good as coming out on top.
    But overall I see The Chinese Girl as a novel about masks, which we all wear and which simultaneously hide and proclaim our identity.

  2. Jd Webb says:

    The concept of masks as a symbol of different parts of ourselves is so interesting – like the lyrics of “The Stranger” by Billy Joel.

    jb says: Hi Jd. This links to the lyrics of The Stranger.

  3. Paul says:

    I didn’t understand it.

    jb says: What can I say, Paul? Try harder. Some of these people seemed to understand it.