“British-Born Chinese” is a well used phrase among UK-based British-Chinese and the Chinese diaspora communities. It is often abbreviated in everyday speech, and as such it echoes the internationally known acronym “BBC”. It intrigued me when I first heard this acronym being uttered, decades ago, by British-Chinese friends and colleagues. Upon reflection, my ears were just as pivotal to my debut novel, Monkey Steals Plum as were my experiences and engagements…
To paraphrase a well known English proverb, research is the mother of invention. That is not to say that research has to spark a novel – it is more likely to spur, sustain and ensure the accuracy of your draft. Early readers of Monkey… have asked about the research for the book. So, foreseeing an FAQ, here is my top three methods for driving, drafting and delivering a book:
Experience for yourself
In respect of first hand research, the opportunity to go into Space – one of the three key settings of my debut – was, and remains, off my radar. However the other two settings were fine: I had lived and worked, since the mid-1990s, between the twin cities of Salford and Manchester, UK; and I have widely travelled in China.
The salient point about my travels in China is breadth: I travelled off the beaten track in rural China – ditto I savoured several cities; also I travelled alone – whereas other times I shadowed a Chinese national on a tour through the heartlands of China while working as a journalist. Many of the places have ended up being borrowed or morphed and used as settings in the book.
Engage contacts, networks, resources etc
People often forget to stop and look around. In my case, helpfully, I have long realised that we live in a globalised world and therefore ‘China is local’ in many senses – not least of which is the fact that I know or have known many British-Chinese and Chinese nationals as friends and/or colleagues. Therefore I was able to clock up some quality hours in the company of local sources who span the diaspora, from immigrant Chinese nationals to ‘BBCs’. Some of the insights, views and attitudes – if not direct quotes – made it into my debut novel.
A big influence on the concept for my debut novel and its trilogy are the lopsided views of China. These are rampant in Western media but, for me, they are mirrored in the bias of Chinese State media. A simple solution – which is transferable to subjects beyond China – is to listen. As the saying goes: one mouth, two ears.
I made sure to interview as wide a range of BBCs and Chinese nationals as I could muster in terms of my contacts and their networks. The audio clip – linked below – expresses something of those insights…
A summing up of the key factors that drove my debut novel in fact doubles as a short list for future projects. I know from a career in journalism, and life in general, that all of these tips are widely and perennially worth using: First-hand experiences, socially diverse engagements and – perhaps most significant of all – your ears.