Friday, March 27, 2015
Jan-Philipp Sendker talks about Whispering Shadows, China, crime novels, and so much more
I first met Jan-Philipp Sendker through his book, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, which was one of those life-changing reads. To my delight, I was able to meet him at Booktopia, which cemented my reverence for his art. Born in Hamburg in 1960, he was the American correspondent for Stern from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. In 2000 he published Cracks in the Great Wall, a nonfiction book about China. He lives in Berlin with his family, and his latest book, Whispering Shadows, set against the seamy backdrop of modern day China, he melds a love story and a crime story to create something original, thrilling and moving, giving us a ravishing murder story. I'm thrilled to have him here! Thank you so much, Jan-Philipp!
Every novel has a moment of origin, which I always find fascinating. What sparked the writing of this particular book? And why a trilogy?
I don’t think there was THE moment which sparked this particular book. I used to live in Hong Kong as a foreign correspondent covering China and was endlessly fascinated by it. This time in history, the huge changes, the transformation, it is a gold mine for a novelist. After countless trips to China over the years I had so many stories, so much material that I wanted to turn it into a novel. There is so much anger, pain and grief in China. I wanted to give some if the people I had interviewed a voice I could not as a journalist. At the same time it always surprises me how little we one in the West about China, its culture, its history, the difficult situation the country is in at the present. So if my books help the reader to understand China a little better I would be more than happy. The reason for the trilogy is simple. I fell in love with my main characters and could not let go…and still had so many China stories to tell.
What’s fascinating to me is that although this is a suspense novel, it still is deeply thoughtful, and the writing, as always with you, is just gorgeous. It’s truly much more than a detective story. Did you feel any constraints while writing it? Were there any surprises?
I am glad you say it is much more than a detective story because that is they way I see it as well. I am not a great reader of crime or detective stories myself. I kind of use the suspense angel to move the story but I think it is much more about the characters and their stories and the pain and grief and drama in the Chinese society in transformation. But I am very happy when people say they like the crime aspect as well. It should also be an entertaining read.
The surprise was how difficult it is to follow the crime aspect without contradictions, that it all makes sense in the end. It increased my respect for the genre.
You write so richly about the old China verses the new--and how new is not necessarily better. Can you talk about this please?
Uhh-- that is a very good question, I have been writing three books about it. In many ways the new China is much better. The living standard of hundreds of millions of people have improved. It is a much freer society at the same time the country, the people are paying a very high price. The destruction of the environment and the emotional burden and issues, nobody knows the outcome of this process of transformation. I have been visiting China for twenty years now and recently I have become much less optimistic.
I’m always fascinated by the way writers write, but writing a trilogy is something different. Do you know what each of the books will do and cover? Or are you about to discover that in the writing?
I did not plan the trilogy from the very first moment. While I wrote Whispering Shadows. I really fell in love with the characters to an extend that I cried after I had finished the last sentence. I did not want to leave them. I did not want to leave Hong Kong and China. And I still had so many stories to tell. Therefore I decided to write a trilogy. I sat down and thought what are the most important issues in Chinese society today and for China's future. First: The long shadow of the past. That is one of the key issues in Whispering Shadows. Second: The legal system and the environmental pollution. Those are the main issues in the second book Dragon Games. which will be published in the US next year. (It is kind of a legal thriller) Third: The total lack of ethics, of values, of trust in China today. A society without any of it is doomed. That is the main topic in the third book which I am currently writing. But that is just the topic. How the story how the characters evolve is different. That is always a surprise to me. Writing is like a journey I take myself onto. I don’t know the outcome. Luckily, otherwise I might be bored.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Finally a question which is easy to answer. I am writing the third book in the trilogy and I am obsessed with Paul and Christine and their journey. As always it is a fascinating process and I enjoy it tremendously, even though it s a bit exhausting at times...
What questions didn’t I ask that I should have?
How do you feel about the release of Whispering Shadows in the USA?
As with all my books: I am incredibly thrilled and anxious at the same time. Will my readers be moved by Paul's journey? Will they find it interesting, entertaining? Will they love him they way I do?