While at the L.A. Times Book Festival, I was fortunate enough (thank you, Michael) to attend the panel that Simon Lewis was speaking on. At the time I had no idea who he was, and the first thing I learned about him was that he was one of the nominees for the L.A. Times Book Prize. As soon as Simon began speaking about BAD TRAFFIC, I knew I had to read it and as you know from my review, I thought it was amazing. No question from me concerning how he came by his nomination. It was certainly well-deserved.
So, I thought I would try to hunt Simon down - he splits time between living in London and living in Asia - and ask him for a six-word memoir. I ended up with better than that! I ended up with an entire interview! I am so thrilled to share with you my interview with Simon Lewis.
Q: Simon, when you pitched your book proposal to your agent it was supposed to be about a sleuth who was a Tibetan monk. At what point did your Tibetan monk morph into a Chinese cop? Is the Tibetan monk/sleuth concept still a possibility for you or did you just toss that one overboard?
Simon: It was sixteenth century China, a Taoist detective. I tried writing it but the more I worked on it the more I realized that I wanted to write about China now, and the contemporary world, which I had lots to say about; historical fiction began to feel like an academic exercise. It felt like something to go back to in my sixties.
Q: When your agent learned about the idea for Detective Jian and BAD TRAFFIC, he dumped you because he thought the idea was unpromising. But you plugged on with the help of a grant. Was the confidence of the people who awarded you the grant what motivated you to keep going with your book? Or were you determined you were going to pursue that idea no matter what?
Simon: What kept me going was knowing that I was onto a good idea, and one that could be pitched easily – ‘Chinese detective with no English comes to the UK to find his missing daughter, kidnaps an illegal immigrant who does speak English and forces that guy to help him’. I knew that an agent or publisher would look at a book pitched like that, so I only had to do a good job of it. And I knew that I was onto a good story, and one that I really wanted to be told. The arts council grant gave me just enough time to finish it.
Q: I completely agree that it sounds like an easily pitch-able idea. What the heck was your agent’s problem with the idea?
Simon: Well I went away and wrote it and gave it to him and I think he was annoyed that I had written something we hadn’t discussed rather than the idea we had. I don’t know, agents… I have never had any luck with them, still don’t have one now. Everything I’ve sold has been by myself.
Q: Your “day job,” so to speak, is writing Rough Guides to China, Beijing, Shanghai and Tibet. How does that writing compare to fiction writing? What are some of the similarities? What are the challenges of each, etc?
Simon: The first China guide I wrote was a huge undertaking – after the research, I wrote two thousand words of clean copy a day, every day, for months, which was a great way to learn writing discipline. Writing guidebook text taught me to be careful with adjectives – you can’t just call everything ‘interesting’ or ‘pretty’ - and to be sharp, readable and to the point. But guidebook text is pretty easy as it’s structured. There aren’t any real similarities to fiction.
The great thing about writing guidebooks is that it’s all about getting out of the house, and I definitely need that, I don’t like being stuck indoors all day.
Q: One of the elements of BAD TRAFFIC that really amazed me and that I mention to anyone when I’m talking about the book is the realism of Jian’s isolation when he arrives in London. You experienced that same isolation when you were sent to China to research a guide book. Can you talk a little about that and about what eventually happened along the way to help you overcome the isolation, understand the language and the surroundings, etc?
Simon: My first research trip to China was very bizarre – I was sent up to the northeast, where few tourists go, and at the time I didn’t speak Chinese. I didn’t see another foreign face for three weeks. People assumed I was a Russian smuggler. But you adapt. I learned to live with the stares and immersion is a great way to start picking up a language. I coped with the isolation by writing and reading and talking to the people who came up to practice their English. Then you make friends and before you know it you’re enjoying yourself.
I have to say, guidebook writing is brilliant. I’ve been to some amazing places, places I wouldn’t have made the effort to get to if I didn’t have to. And you’re working, so unlike people who are out there on holiday, you don’t feel an obligation to be enjoying yourself – you can relax.
Q: So based on your own travels, where is one place you would recommend people visit that you feel is under-rated and doesn’t get the recognition it deserves? What’s special about it?
Simon: I really liked the Kumaon area of India, in the foothills of the Himalaya - especially the far north of the area, near the Tibetan border, very wild and beautiful. In China, I like the south west corner, the province of Yunnan – full of all sorts of different tribal minorities, and amazing landscapes from mountains up near Tibet to jungle down near Laos.
Q: BAD TRAFFIC has some pretty intense subject matter. I wouldn’t think that research on the illegal immigration trade and the secretive snakehead gangs would be an easy task. How did you go about gathering your information to write BAD TRAFFIC?
Simon: The characters I knew already; I’ve had plenty of dealings with Chinese peasants and policemen and I’ve met a few gangsters. It was easy to interview Chinese illegal immigrants, you can meet them anywhere, in Britain they sell fake DVDs in pubs. They generally don’t speak English and are happy to talk to a local who can understand them.
Q: They don’t fear talking to you like Ding Ming feared talking to people?
Simon: When they realised I was harmless they opened up. They liked to complain, mostly. Like Ding Ming, they were afraid of the police and had been told a lot of misleading information about the country, but were, of course, curious.
Q: Another fascinating tidbit I learned about BAD TRAFFIC was that you wrote it long hand and then typed it out. You don’t hear of authors doing that much these days. Why did you choose to do so? Do you still have the original pages you wrote? And how long did it take to write BAD TRAFFIC?
Simon: I always write first drafts in long hand cause I like to scribble asides and notes all over the pages. The problem with a computer is it’s too easy to hit backspace and rewrite on the spot. You lose the discipline of trying to get it right first time. I write all the dialogue first, as I tend to write in scenes, and fill in the detail later.
I don’t know if I’ve still got the original text; it will be around here somewhere I guess (waves hand at chaotic room full of books, paper). You’d be hard put to find a sentence that made it unchanged into the final draft.
Q: You found out about the immigrants suffocating in the container truck and the cockle pickers who drown and you wanted to write about those events. From there did your plot dictate the book and the characters kind of grew from the events? Or did you have some ideas for your characters and they started driving the plot? Did any of your characters surprise you along the way – do things you hadn’t planned ahead of time?
Simon: Yes, the book started with those two events, trying to fit both into a story. I thought it was unbelievable that no one else was writing about these outrages, and others like them. I was really fired up to write those stories.
And I had another story about an English cop who goes to China to find his missing daughter – but it wasn’t working, and I realized it would be better the other way around. So I put them all together and came up with this.
Q: Your plot definitely had actual events that influenced it. How about your characters? Were there any actual people who were the catalysts for your characters?
Simon: I spent a day with a grumpy Chinese cop after I got some stuff stolen. He drove me all around town in a squad car and we talked about his job, soccer teams, and so on. He was the model for Inspector Jian but I embellished considerably. His daughter – well, I’ve met a few girls like that. And the peasant is based on guys I used to kill time with on bus journeys, in pool halls.
They’re a good trilogy to represent modern China – cynical middle aged official scarred by the Cultural Revolution, naïve peasant, sophisticated urbanite.
Q: But BAD TRAFFIC is not your first fiction novel. You also published a book called GO several years ago. Can you tell us a little about GO?
Simon: I wrote that when I was 25. It’s interlinked stories about travelers – a review called them ‘the jet trash’ - a photographer, a drug smuggler, and a party girl – all of them on the run. A small press asked me to write them a novel and paid me a thousand pounds, so I went to this little village up in the Indian Himalayas and rented a room off some farmers and did the whole thing there - I couldn’t think of anywhere else I could live for six months on a grand. Again, that was an amazing experience – like, every morning I’d get milk straight from the family buffalo, built a fire and make porridge, then go off into the forest with a notebook to write.
After some good reviews, the book got republished by a much bigger press (Corgi) and it did pretty well in the end. Shame it was never published in the States.
Q: So is there a future for Detective Jian? Or was BAD TRAFFIC his lone moment in the spotlight? How about Ding Ming? And what’s next for Simon Lewis?
Simon: I’m writing a new book now, which will come out next year, a thriller set in the jungle on the Burmese/China border. Then another Jian.
Q: Does the new book have a title yet? And will it be released in the States? Are you still planning to take Jian to Africa in his next adventure? Will Ding Ming be with him again?
Simon: The new book is called The Border Run. I don’t know if it’ll be released in the States. Re the new Jian - I’m afraid I’ll have to keep you in suspense about that one.
Q: In school you studied Art at the Goldsmiths College in London. How did your education lead you to writing? Did you always have aspirations to be a writer?
Simon: When I was young I was always either writing or painting and I was determined that I was going to make a living doing one or the other. Back then you couldn’t study creative writing in the UK so I went to art school. I was taught very conceptual, post modern ways of making art. I realized that the only living you can make as an artist is to teach art, and the contemporary art scene seemed pointless as it has no real audience.
After college I was too poor to make art – you need materials and a studio - and always moving around, so I slipped back into writing.
But I think studying art was good, it makes you look harder at things.
Q: Do you do any painting now, as a hobby or anything?
Simon: I should but… no.
Q: When you’re not sitting in the Ritzy Café in Brixton writing fiction, what sorts of things do you like to do for fun?
Simon: I used to do all kinds of stuff but I’m lazy and boring these days. I study tai ji, play football, hang out.
Q: I had to look up tai ji because I hadn’t heard of it before. Can you tell us a little about it in your words?
Simon: It’s a martial art involving the learning of slow, almost balletic movements. It’s very good for your health.
Q: What do YOU like to read for entertainment? Are there authors you would recommend to folks who enjoyed BAD TRAFFIC?
Simon: I read a lot of American crime fiction, especially if it’s a bit noir - James M Cain, Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard, people like that. I also read a lot of 20th century English fiction – Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maughan – those guys really knew their stuff.
Q: This is the point where I ask the author for a six-word memoir, but since you’ve already given me one (we'll learn what it is later), how about if I ask you what Ding Ming’s six-word memoir would be?
Simon: How about ‘good good study, day day up’. That’s the literal translation from Chinese; it just means, work to improve yourself every day and things will get better. You hear it all the time from teachers and parents. It’s the sort of thing he would have taken to heart in the long struggle to learn English.
My many genuine thanks to Simon who was so generous with his time on this interview. I just would not leave the poor man alone! But isn't he fascinating? I know you can't blame me. Hopefully we'll see Simon back in the States before too long AND we'll all hope that his new book makes it this way as well! I'm already looking at how I can get my grubby little paws on a copy of GO!
You can learn more about Simon at his website and he has a great blog at his site, too. As for Simon's own personal six-word memoir, hold tight, he'll be back for one of that series' posts.