Tigers and Flies: An interview with writer Simon Lewis

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Simon Lewis studied art, but wound up working as a guidebook researcher in China and India, before becoming a full time novelist and screenwriter. His first novel Go (1999), a travel thriller about runaways, was written in a village in the Himalayas. His second novel, Bad Traffic (2008), is a crime thriller about people smugglers, featuring jaded Chinese cop, Inspector Jian. His third travel-related thriller, Border Run, was published in April 2012 in the US and the UK. In 2014 he saw three screenplays shot as feature films. He lives in London, but spends a good proportion of each year in Asia.

Patrick Sherriff: Elmore Leonard called the premise behind your Bad Traffic novel “Inspired”. And it was, a Chinese cop who speaks only Mandarin trying to solve his daughter’s disappearance — in England. I hear you have a sequel in the works. How did you top that idea?

Simon Lewis: I couldn’t really get my claws into the sequel until I read about China’s ‘Tiger and Flies’ anti-corruption campaign. Which meant that any Chinese official rushing abroad (as he does in the first book) would be immediately investigated. So the sequel starts from the premise that such an investigation picked up corrupt practises, and now Jian is stuck in the UK, knowing that if he goes home he’ll be arrested. He’s an illegal immigrant and a fugitive, with his annoyed daughter.

In the first chapter, it’s the eve of Chinese New Year, and he’s playing Mah Jong at a triad-run gambling den in London’s Chinatown. He wants to raise enough money to treat his daughter for once. He’s won big (cause he cheats) and is about to leave when guys in masks rush in and rob the place. Determined not to lose his winnings, he goes after them when they leave…

The story takes place in London, among the Chinese community, and involves ruthless Chinese gangsters and ‘white gloves’ – that is, rich Chinese kids who are sent abroad so that their parents can get money out of the country. It’s called Tigers and Flies.

Lovely! I must admit, I stole the idea from you of making the sleuth unable to speak the local language for my Hana Walker books as a great plot device to make things that much harder for the protagonist. Though, I think you pulled it off better. When does Tigers and Flies come out?

Who knows? Bloody publishing schedules. 2019 I guess. Yes, that seems a long time away…

How did you come up with the premise for Bad Traffic?

I started a story about a British cop looking for his missing kid in China. Then realised it was much more interesting the other way around.

Do you think of yourself as primarily a novelist or screenwriter?

The basic skills are the same, it’s all just story and character. They both have different satisfactions and frustrations. Screenwriting means working with other people (which can be both good and bad), but I like that it’s quicker: a script takes a couple of months. And it’s more lucrative. The film business is tough at the moment, but telly is booming. Novel writing is more solitary and intense but you have total control, which can be more satisfying. At this point, I’m probably more of a screenwriter.

Is it a case of who you know more than what you know in getting interest in a script? Is there a big market in the UK for scripts about, say, Chinese cops or, er, half-English, half-Japanese teenage girl amateur sleuths, just off the top of my head…?

The competition is intense, but if you write something good it will get noticed. Look at BBC writersroom opportunities section, for example, lots of open submission stuff on there. If you want to be a scriptwriter I would suggest writing short plays and short films for people at college – who you can meet online – then writing pilots and scripts and submitting them to everything you can think of and then eventually you’ll get an agent. I still submit stuff to competitions and write cold emails to TV companies. You always have to hustle.

There is no market for Chinese cop dramas on British TV but it doesn’t matter – you use it as a sample to show you can write, it allows you to get a meeting at a TV company, you pitch them five ideas, they pick one they think is promising, you write the pilot for that and send it… and so on. It’s never not a slog.

It always comes as a shock to me to realize that success more often than not has a close relationship to work and hustle. Sigh. Have you ever had success in self-publishing or is it something to be avoided if you are trying to be published by others?

I’m all for taking control of the means of production. A lot of agents and publishers are lazy piss-takers so if you can circumvent them, and their fat commissions, then more power to you. My impression is, though, that you need to think of yourself as a one man publishing house – and do your own design, proofing, marketing and PR. I guess you should have a niche and hit it hard to have any success at it.

What are the difficulties you face writing characters who don’t speak English?

Well, some people would say language serves as the filter through which experience is mediated, but I don’t buy that, culture more than language seems to shape personality and behaviour. So, when writing characters who don’t speak English conversing, I just write in English. As if they were subtitled basically.

Often in Hollywood films where Chinese characters talk, they start using proverbs and quoting Lao Tsu. That’s rubbish – normal people chatting never do that. And avoid the temptation to throw in colourful phrases and metaphors. For example, a lech in Chinese is a ‘colour wolf’ – a phrase for so-so, is literally ‘half a horse and half a tiger’. Great phrases, but if I put them in, the reader would just trip up on them. So I’d just have them say lech and so-so. So that kind of exoticising is to be avoided. A great inspiration is to read Chinese writers translated into English, and see how the characters just talk normally in English, and their race and ethnicity is expressed by what they think, not how they talk.

Don’t you ever feel creepy trying to get into the heads of young female characters?

Haha! That never occurred to me till you asked. I probably have that male writer’s thing of wanting to write female characters who, yes, are well rounded and real and emotionally rich, but also happen to be hot. Just as women writers seem to me to be only interested in writing male characters who are pretty ‘alpha’.

You are a white chap who writes about Chinese, aren’t you culturally appropriating folk?

Yeah probably, so what? Just as if I’m writing female characters, I’m appropriating them. In writing plumbers I’m appropriating their experience as I don’t know how to plumb a boiler. I can’t experience what it’s like to be another race, or sex, or older than I am. Doesn’t mean I can’t write characters who are. If I took those arguments seriously I would only be able to populate my books with white men who work as writers.

Any thoughts about setting a novel/script in Japan?

I don’t know, I feel like Japan is hard. I’d probably only be able to write about the experience of being in Japan as a foreigner as I feel like Japan is very culturally distinctive and would need a lot of research.

What advice would you give to the newbie interested in writing fiction professionally?

Be prolific, enter lots of short story competitions, look for any opportunity to get paid to write – so don’t turn your nose up at journalism or blogging. Do screenplays and poetry as it’s important to be broad. Don’t write one half-arsed book then spend ten years promoting it on the internet (a lot of amateurs seem to be doing that these days). Stick it under the bed where it belongs and write another book instead. When you’ve done four or five you’ll start to get the hang of it.

What genre appeals to you the most?

Crime. And young adult. I like pulp. I’m pretty indiscriminate though.

Who do you rate as a top-class writer?

Ummmm… John Le Carre sometimes, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh most of the time, JG Ballard, early Martin Amis. I mostly read thrillers. I’ve got two books I read every other year – Money by Martin Amis and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre.

Any great reads in mystery/thriller/Japan-related books you’d recommend?

Best modern thrillers I’ve read recently are the spy stories by Mick Herron. In some ways, the thriller seems a bit of a debased genre, and the most interesting projects are on telly.

What projects are you working on now?

As ever, four or five things at once. Need to get my head down and finish a novel. But then I have a meeting at a TV company soon so will be expected to pitch things at them – and write a pilot if they want me to. This is how it goes, you have to do what you’re asked.

What would you love to work on given the choice?

I don’t know… maybe be a showrunner on a thriller TV show, that would be cool. A literary thriller novel.

What work are you proudest of? Least proud of?

Probably proudest of Bad Traffic the novel. Least proud of?… that’s like asking which of your kids you’d disown. They’re all children, even the stunted freaks, and I love them with all their flaws.

For more information about Simon Lewis and his fiction, check out his website at www.simonlewiswriter.com