In Episode 245 of So you want to be a writer: A group of researchers trained robots to write poetry. Discover when in the writing process you should hire an editor and how some authors got their agents. Allison shares tips for recreating characters from The Ateban Cipher series for Book Week (hot glue gun not required). We have 3 copies of The Biographer’s Lover to giveaway. And meet Paul French, author of City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai.
Writer in Residence
Born and currently based in London, Paul French lived and worked in Shanghai for many years. He is a widely published analyst and commentator on China and has written a number of books, including a history of foreign correspondents in China and a biography of the legendary Shanghai adman, journalist and adventurer Carl Crow.
His book Midnight in Peking was a New York Times Bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, a Mystery Writers’ of America Edgar award winner for Best Fact Crime and a Crime Writers’ Association (UK) Dagger award for non-fiction.
His latest book is City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled The Underworld of Old Shanghai.
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Thanks so much for joining us today, Paul.
Well, thank you for having me.
Now, your latest book is City of Devils: The two men who ruled the underworld of old Shanghai. Now for those listeners who haven’t got their hands on it yet, can you tell them a little bit about what it’s about?
Well, it’s a literary non-fiction in that it is a true story. And all the people and all the places and all the events are real. It’s set in Shanghai through the late 1930s and early 1940s, in that time when the city was really the most wide-open city on earth. You didn’t need a passport to go there.
It was a Chinese city, but it had also had a large foreign population, and was indeed an international settlement by treaty. In fact, the world’s fourth biggest city – nearly 4 million people. A lot of Russian refugees who had come after the 1917 revolution. A lot of Jewish refugees who were coming from Europe to escape fascism.
And I tell the story of two foreigners there, an Austrian and an American, who set out to build Asia’s largest ever casino. And they did manage to do that. But of course, all of this is against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation in China and the Japanese attack on the country.
So that’s the story. And it’s really all about Shanghai at that incredibly fascinating and both glamorous, but also for so many, desperately poor period in time.
It is a fascinating period in time. And this isn’t your first book that is set in Asia. Your previous book is Midnight in Peking: How the murder of a young English woman haunted the last days of Old Peking. It became a New York Times bestseller. So I think it did pretty well. And you’ve also written quite a number of other books set in China.
Where did that interest – because obviously you’re from England – where did that interest in China come from and how did it start?
On one level it came from family connections. My great-grandfather was with the Royal Navy in Shanghai in the 1920s for a few years. So that sort of excited my interest in this.
In fact, when I was very young, I used to go to their house in North London – this is now going to date me – but in the 1970s. And my great-grandfather would be sitting there who had joined the Navy in the First World War, fought at the disaster at Gallipoli and so on, and signed on to stay afterwards.
And down each arm, and I’m a five or six year old kid, down each arm he had these massive dragon tattoos that went right up and over his back. And the head and neck down between his shoulder blades. So they were quite incredible.
And this was the 1970s in the days when really only soldiers, sailors and criminals had tattoos. Nowadays everybody has tattoos. But then, not many people did. And this was a very striking one. And he’d had it done in Shanghai. And he’d always say “Shanghai” and then wink, to which my great-grandmother would slap him around the head.
And I never really understood why she did that, although of course later on I realised that he must have had a high old time there, as did most of the guys in the navies that went there.
So there was that interest. And then later on at University, I did languages and I did Mandarin Chinese. And also went to Fudan University in Shanghai for language training for a couple of years in the late 1980s. And then I went back in the 1990s and lived there for well over a decade, working and writing about China.
And always with this fascination of the foreign community that lived in Beijing, in Shanghai and elsewhere in China before 1949. Before the second world war. That group of people that were in some ways forgotten about a little bit always fascinated me. Their interaction with China, with the Chinese, with each other. The fact that not all of them were diplomats and businessmen and missionaries. A lot of my work is about the ones who went, escaping the long arm of the law back in their own country and became criminals as well in Shanghai, particularly, and also in Beijing.
So that world, that’s my little niche. That’s the area that I’m really interested in.
It is a very specific niche. But obviously it did stem from some kind of childhood fascination. But then you went, as you said, to go and work and write in Asia. I understand that you co-founded a research firm. So you were doing a different kind of writing than this.
So did you always want to become a writer? Or did you initially think – I’m going to go into research? How did your career trajectory unfold? And what were the intentions with your career initially?
Oh, well, I didn’t really have any career intentions. I think if you studied Chinese in the 1980s, when China was pretty much a closed country, still quite very communist… If you took Chinese rather than Japanese, you were considered somewhat stupid really. Because the future was going to be Japanese at that point. It wasn’t going to be Chinese. Although of course all that changed and all of us Chinese speakers became rather saleable commodities later on.
But like most people who want to write, I had to get a job. Basically, we thought about doing market research. China was starting to open up in the early 1990s. It was starting to become a market for Western goods. Western retailers were moving in. Everything from supermarkets to luxury fashion. And we thought there might be a market among different companies and banks and things to understand what was going on with the Chinese consumer. Which really wasn’t a term that was talked about much.
The real reason of course was that studying consumers allows you to nose around in people’s lives. Allows you to try and find out what they’re buying. You know, what are you spending your money on, Valerie? When you get your pay cheque, what do you spend it on? What does your house look like? What do you eat? Where do you want to go on holiday? What car do you want to drive? What do you like to wear?
And all of those questions were really ways of nosing around into the lives of Chinese people. Which is really what we wanted to do. We wanted to try and get under the skin. And a country and a culture like China, emerging from, you know, a long way from home, if you like. But also emerging with Deng Xiaoping out of these hard times of Maoism and Tiananmen Square and so on. This was really a fascinating thing to do, to try and find out who are all these billion people over there? What do they think? What are they going to do?
And they’ve got money for the first time. What are they going to do with it? What do they like? What are they into?
So that was why we did market research. Because it was just an incredible way to root around in people’s lives.
Yes. Was the priority to discover more about people’s lives? Or was it to write? Or was the writing just a by-product?
Oh, no, I also wanted to write. But it also gave me a chance to go and investigate all these things.
So I was living in Shanghai, and so the ability to go in and out of all the old buildings there. I mean, Shanghai is still an Art Deco treasure trove of architecture. There were so many old buildings there, although many have been knocked down unfortunately since. But what I wanted was something that allowed me to… My writing is very research driven. So I really wanted something that gave me an excuse to go out and say, oh, look at this department store. It was a department store in the 1920s. Now it’s become a department store again.
So really I was always thinking about those things and always trying to write, make notes, and research. I just obviously needed something that could pay the rent for a while.
Yes. So can you cast your mind back to when you first got there. And you finally reached this exotic place that you had heard about for so long from your grandfather. Did it meet your expectations? What was that feeling? Can you remember the first time you went to Shanghai?
Yes. Very well. And I was of course in two minds. Because my contemporary hat, if you like, told me that this was a very difficult place. This was a place that had a very troubled political 40 years, coming through Maoism. And when I was there as well, just before and just after, the great tragedy and catharsis of the Tiananmen Square incidents. So that was really in my mind.
This was a country emerging from a very deep communism in the way that a few years before Eastern Europe with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was very unclear at that point what would happen. Whether it would descend into chaos. Whether there would be some sort of revolution. Whether it would move to democracy. Or what would happen. And I don’t think anybody predicted it correctly.
But it was fascinating. In Shanghai particularly, it was as if a dust sheet had been thrown over what was one of the most modern and exciting cities in the world in about 1949. Or if you like, really in 1941 with the Japanese invasion. Because of course then the city was occupied for seven years. Then there was a civil war for a few years and then the Communist revolution.
It was as if someone had thrown a dust sheet over it. And then we were there as they slowly pulled back this dust sheet. And we discovered all the treasures underneath. And we watched all these people suddenly have an incredibly new life and lots of things that people like most of us had always taken for granted. You know, buying your own house, choosing your own job, going out for the evening to eat. All of these things were suddenly new.
A lot of the work I was involved in was things like new cook books that were coming out that showed people what to do with an aubergine, for instance. Because people had cooked with aubergines in the 20s and 30s. And then because of the priority of getting enough food for everyone, slightly minor vegetables like the aubergine had disappeared. So all of a sudden they were coming back. And there had been a generational shift. People had forgotten how to cook with aubergines. And things like that.
And all of a sudden, people were experiencing Western food. Italian restaurants coming in, you know. Not necessarily good things. But in came Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s. And how do people take to this? Things that I had grown up with in the West.
Yep. So you were there certainly at a time of really dynamic change. So you wrote for a number of different publications and magazines and newspapers. And then Midnight in Peking, which became huge. So tell me, before we get to the current book, what was the genesis of that? What made you interested in that story? And what made you think, oh, I’ll write a book about it?
Well, I’d been researching the history of Shanghai particularly, but also Beijing and foreigners there. And I had written several books for university presses, Hong Kong University Press, on things that would interest you if you were very, very keen on China and that kind of history.
And then I just thought, well, I could go on doing this for a long time. Because there’s so much material and it’s such a great area. But what I really would like to do is take this period of the 1930s and 40s in China, this incredible political period, this incredible point in the history of China, which also had this foreign involvement that we’ve forgotten about, this community, and find a story that somehow took it to a much larger audience.
Because at the moment I’m writing for lots of people who are all very interested in this. And they write books that I read, and I write books that they read. But it’s a small little group. And that’s fine. But maybe I can take this to somewhere bigger.
And through my research, I’d come across lots of interesting things. And one of them was the unsolved murder of a 19 year old English girl in Beijing in 1937. Around the time that the Japanese invaded the city and occupied it. So it was never solved.
It also fascinated me because it was the only time, as far as I know, that because there was a British detective, a Scotland Yard detective who happened to be in China at the time, that he investigated it in conjunction with the head of the Beijing Detective Bureau, obviously a Chinese detective. And they worked together to try and solve this.
So the historical period was right, the fascination was right, and I guess I was also intrigued about the possibility that you might be able to, with modern technology and archives and things, discover things that weren’t known at this rather chaotic time. That I might be able to find something else.
And even if I couldn’t, there’s… I think actually it’s Stalin, and honestly I don’t normally quote Stalin, but he said, “one death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” And I felt that Pamela, the girl’s murder, was at the time seen as a terrible awful thing. But it presaged the Japanese attack on China. Which of course went on for a decade and involved millions of deaths across the country that we don’t always fully appreciate outside China.
That’s the statistic. Pamela was the tragedy. And it was seen very much that way at the time. So I thought, this is good. Let’s pull at this thread and see what we get. And I was very, very lucky and came across all sorts of papers and archives and things that hadn’t been known before, and so was able to put the book together.
And I think that also took me into this world of crime writing. It’s written, again, in a literary non-fiction style, so it’s all from archives. But it’s in the style of a novel or a crime fiction. It’s also true crime. And I didn’t realise it at the time, but I’m now told that we’ve been going through this slight golden age in true crime writing at the moment.
What was a fairly trashy genre has become a more interesting genre with lots of writers like Erik Larson and David Grann and people like that. And so I found myself here.
And I think that if you want to get all the smells and bells and whistles of old China, plus good stories, characters that people can relate to and so on, and also my specialist area of knowledge – by combining that with the style of a crime novel and people being attracted to true crime again, that I could reach a multiplier of audiences.
And that’s what takes you from reaching a certain number of people… Once you start crossing genres and crossing audiences, that’s when you kind of… And it wasn’t really calculated. Honestly, it wasn’t. But that I realise now is how you start reaching much bigger audiences.
Yes. It wasn’t calculated but it was the perfect storm in your circumstance?
Well I think, I had always sat on planes, before going to sleep and read crime novels. I wasn’t addicted to them. But I enjoyed them. I thought the world of crime fiction was a fun genre.
I was slightly aware of the rise of good true crime books. There used to be, what people said, true crime equals waste of time. And I was aware of how bad the true crime shelf was in book shops as anyone else.
But I had read things like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Erik Larson’s The White City. And there was this good true crime around. And I also remembered people that I had admired before, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a great example of a previous great true crime book.
So I wasn’t so wary of true crime. I thought it was quite interesting. I thought crime fiction was interesting.
The trick, I think, was to try and pack the incredibly complicated Chinese politics of the 1930s and the idea that there were these foreigners there which a lot of readers might not be aware of and somehow get that across to people.
But as you say, yes, a perfect storm in terms of audience reception, really.
Did you ever anticipate it would be as successful as it was?
No, I didn’t. Although I mean of course it would be churlish to say that I wasn’t aware, as I say, of true crime and the popularity of crime fiction.
And of course I’m always aware that in Australia, in Europe, in America, China is and remains this fascination. Above and beyond just doing a bit of business there, people are fascinated by it. More and more people have visited, more and more people have studied there or spent time there or have kids that are going there to study or whatever.
China is part of our consciousness. And so an awareness of Chinese history is part of our consciousness.
But Chinese history can be quite hard work. And the books on Chinese history can be very, very thick. They’re doorstoppers, usually. Because there’s a lot of history. There’s 5,000 years of history in China! And it’s quite complicated.
Well, you’re fascinated by…
So even just doing modern history.
Yes. Well, you’re fascinated by a very, very specific era of its modern history. When you were researching these books, then, what kind of material… Like, when you first thought of your story, where were your go-to places? What sort of institutions or archives did you go to?
Oh, well I initially went to the newspapers. There was a very vital English language newspaper industry in Beijing and Shanghai in the 1930s. And they covered everything. And unfortunately it was quite tabloidy. It liked to cover murders and crimes and celebrity with all the salaciousness that those of us like me, who live in countries that are suffused with tabloid newspapers, are used to.
So that was very helpful.
I was very lucky as well, that of course we had, the British and the Americans and everybody else, had consulates and embassies that recorded all sorts of information about everyone. Particularly their rather errant criminal nationals who were in those countries. There were watchlists of suspicious people. As there still are with British embassies and consulates all around the world, still keep their list of suspicious Brits in their territory. So that was there as well.
I was very lucky when I started Midnight in Peking. It was the story of a girl who was 19 in 1937. And I did manage to find about a dozen people around the world who were still alive then, and only a couple of them would still be now, who were at school with Pamela. For various reasons, she was a couple of years older than her cohort at school.
So people who were 16 in 1937 and they were still around and they were very chatty. They all had superb memories. And although they’d spread around the world from Australia to Canada to the United States to little cottages in Oxfordshire, pretty much all of them had Skype, which sort of revolutionises the oral history process.
Because there was no way I was going to get to everybody. It’s the same as City of Devils. The two biggest communities of the Russians and Jews who were in Shanghai in the 1930s, the ones who got American passports before the communist revolution after the war, most of them went around the west coast of America and the San Francisco area. So there’s a large community there.
The others got British passports, but they were told you have a British passport, but you can’t come to the United Kingdom. Because it’s after the second world war, and because of the bombing, we have a big enough problem housing people that live here at the moment. But you know what? You can go to Australia.
So if you want to find the old Shanghai Russians and the old Shanghai Jewish community, just look around Bondi in Sydney. That’s where most of them settled.
So you were fortunate enough to be able to speak to people who actually went to school with Pamela. But in this book we’ve got Jack and Joe who are the two main guys in City of Devils. Were you also able to speak to people who knew them?
I did find a few people. There’s one woman I managed to find who lives in the mid-West of America. And she married a Shanghai gangster who was in his 40s in 1940, when she was 17. And she married him. And she got to America after the war and now is an elderly lady in the mid-West of America. And I was able to talk to her.
One wonderful lady after reading… One of the things about books like Midnight in Peking and then having a niche where you work on the same lot of things, different stories, is people get in touch with you.
And after Midnight in Peking I had a lovely lady in San Francisco who said, “I don’t know if you’re interested in Shanghai.” She didn’t know that I was more fascinated in Shanghai than I was with Beijing. She said, “I don’t know if you’re interested, but I used to be a chorus line dancer there.” She was a white Russian, a Russian emigre, as they called them. As opposed to red Russians. The white Russians.
And she said, “my children aren’t really interested. My grandchildren aren’t interested. Would you like all these photographs of me dancing and backstage with everyone and all the rest of it?” Well, it turned out that she danced in chorus lines at nightclubs that I was going to feature in City of Devils. And she sent it all to me.
And she was… What was she then? This was a couple of years ago. She was 102 at that point.
Which I can tell you by the way, if anyone tells you that working in showbusiness, chain smoking, eating fatty foods and all the rest of it is bad for you, there’s a lot of people… You’d be surprised how long these people live. They never spent a day in a gym. They never exercised a day in their life. They passive smoked massively working in nightclubs everywhere. They had the trauma of being refugees and emigres from their country.
And yet I think, unless they got shot or stabbed, pretty much all of them, male and female, made it at least to their late 80s, early 90s, if not to their 100s. It’s quite phenomenal. So everything we’re told now about all this is completely wrong, obviously. And you should just go ahead and eat as much fats and carbs as you want. Smoke a pack of cigarettes. They drank like fishes.
Anyway, unfortunately she died before I was really able to get all of her stories. But she did send me all of her photos. So people were still around.
And Joe Farren, who is one of the main characters, was Jewish and from Vienna, Austria. He went to Shanghai in the 1920s as a dancer, not as a refugee from fascism. But trying to track down his family, I went everywhere trying to track them down. And of course, mostly in Vienna, in Austria. And I thought, I know how this story ends. I know what’s going to happen. This story is going to end at a concentration camp. They’re Jewish. They’re in Vienna. Where else does this story end?
And then out of the blue… Because I always blog about what I’m working about, which I think is a good tip for people doing this sort of work, which is don’t keep it all secret and hidden away; share what you’re doing. Because everybody now is doing the Who Do You Think You Are thing on their families. And people will come out of the woodwork.
And this is exactly what happened to me. I got contacted by a lovely lady called Jackie Mills who lived not 100 miles down the road from me in a small village in Gloucestershire. And she said, “Joe Farren was my great uncle. He was the black sheep of the family. We knew he went to the Far East to Asia, but we never knew what really happened to him.”
But his brother managed to get on one of the last trains out of Vienna before the Nazis arrived. He got to England, he got refugee status in England, and he was sent to the west country of England where there were less people, and given the west country of England sales route for Underwood typewriters. And he stayed there, sold typewriters. Proudly claimed to be the first guy to sell a word processor in Cornwall. And built his family and they lived down there in Gloucestershire.
So I was searching everywhere across Central Europe thinking this story will end up, unfortunately, tragically, it will end at Auschwitz. It will end at Dachau or somewhere like that. And it ended in the sweetest village you could imagine in Gloucestershire.
Wow. What an adventure. Now how did you come across the story of Jack and Joe? Were you in Shanghai at the time? Because they weren’t… Jack was from America. As you say, Joe is from Vienna. How did you come across their story and then decide, oh, this is going to be my next book?
It’s whether or not you can get enough sources. There is certainly no end of salacious and criminal stories from Shanghai at that time. It was what they called Chicago on the Huangpu. The river that runs through Shanghai is the Huangpu, and it was known as Chicago on the Huangpu at the time.
The thing was that Jack and Joe ended up falling foul of the law. So there were police records. There were also court records, because they were taken to court. They also ran a business, which was this giant casino. So there was advertising and there were business records.
So once I knew that I could get court transcripts, once I knew I could get police records and the intelligence service records… Because they were tied up in all sorts of business. The US Justice Department was interested in them. British intelligence, which really ran the intelligence services in Shanghai, was interested in them.
I knew that there was a chance that I could get enough documentation and enough archival work. And that because they ran this nightclub, there might be enough photographs and enough images out there as well.
Because images and photographs are a very important part of what I do. Because I’m trying to tell you a story in a novel. But I want you to always, I want you to immerse yourself in that world. But I want you to know that it’s real.
So as with the Pamela Werner murder, you have to see a picture of her. And with Joe and Jack, amazing stories. But you have to see what they look like. And to me, truth really is stranger than fiction. And it becomes more immediate. And I think that really can lift the book into becoming quite an experience, hopefully.
More so than perhaps a novel. Which is not to denigrate fiction writers. It’s just to say that when you read amazing stuff and then you see pictures of it, it’s kind of incredible to think these people walk the same streets as us.
So I knew there was enough there. If I could spend enough time and be diligent enough to dig it all out, I’d have enough to recreate their story. But to be able to back up everything that I was saying.
So can you give us any indication of timelines? Like, did you do a whole heap of research and then start writing? Were you writing as you were researching? Can you just give us some timeframes on how long basically it took to put together?
Yeah. Well… Long enough that it will dissuade a lot of people from attempting a similar project.
I was looking at the notebook that I started the other day, and it’s got the sticker, the guest visitor sticker from Hong Kong University Library, where I know I discovered the story, and it was 2010.
Yeah. I mean, these things take a long time. Which again is why I’ve never really been able to understand writers who do one big history or true crime project and then start on something completely random in another country, in another period.
I mean, for me, all of the stuff I do, which includes short stories and academic articles occasionally, and things like that, is all about this period. So everything is grist to the mill. Everything comes in useful. You’ve just got to organise it.
But that, I first came across their story in the newspapers in 2010 right around the time that I was writing Midnight in Peking. And I thought, oh, this is the next book.
Oh, you thought that immediately?
I thought there’s enough stuff here and there’s enough stuff for me to research. And I want to do Shanghai. Because Shanghai is the biggest, craziest place at that time. And if people are willing to read about Peking at that time, they’ll definitely be willing to read about Shanghai.
Yes. So with it being set in Shanghai, you really do paint a picture of Shanghai. And obviously I and you weren’t there at the time, because this was the 1930s and 40s. What did you do… And it feels really real. You are completely transported into this whole other world that’s exotic yet strangely familiar because these people are kind of like people you’d know.
Did you have any particular techniques or strategies or approaches in order to make that world come alive on the page?
Well, there’s a number of things. First of all, I try and research everything about that world.
Alan Furst, who I think is a fantastic espionage novelist, who always writes about France, mostly, just before the Nazi occupation. So he’s also in that same problem that I have, if you like. Which is, you know the history. You know the second world war is coming. It’s just a question of who gets out alive. So it’s not so much a whodunnit as a how they did it, kind of thing really.
And he said, you research everything about the time and the period and the place you want. You throw it all against the wall and you see what sticks. And I think that’s very, very true.
I also do blogs and other things. But I research everything. So if you look at my blog, for instance, which is ChinaRhyming.com – not to plug it, but just because you might find it useful – to see I do things about what radio shows were on in Shanghai at that time. What department stores were doing. What type of shops there were. Who was visiting as a tourist. What hotels people stayed in. Just everything you can imagine.
I’ve even done blog posts on street furniture, if you know what I mean. What the road signs looked like. What everything looked like. What the weather was like. What other events were happening. I try very hard to do all of that. What people were eating. What perfumes people were wearing. All of that fascinates me.
And I know more about that than I really need to know. Certainly more than you need to read. But some of it stays with you. So those little things that hopefully give you atmosphere.
Someone in The Guardian newspaper talking about this once called them the sheep droppings of literature. I’m not sure I like that expression particularly. But that little, you know there’s sheep in the field when you see the sheep droppings.
Just those little things that tell you something. So the smells, the bells, the whistles, the sights and sounds, what the weather was like, things like that. And Shanghai has some very intense weather. Those things I think are really important. And I try to put a lot of that into the book.
The other thing I think is to try and capture the language at the time, which is very difficult. Now I think to write something, say, in the language of 1930s is quite difficult to do. Shanghai, without blowing my own trumpet, is probably more difficult to do because it was a Tower of Babel. It’s a Chinese city that speaks probably, that has its own dialect, but with people speaking probably a dozen other Chinese dialects.
On top of that, you’ve got people speaking English and this strange hybrid pidgin English that was used between Chinese and foreigners sometimes. You’ve got people speaking, in this book, particularly, Yiddish, Portuguese, Spanish. What else have we got? German. There are all these… Oh, Russian, of course. There are all these languages being spoken. And yet everyone is finding a common language.
So you’ve got Yiddish-speaking Austrians that use words of German. Sorry, not German. Of Chinese. You’ve got Russians who in order to communicate speak some Japanese. So you’ve got this going on.
And so therefore, I suppose it’s reading a thousand memoirs. And the self-publishing industry now is very useful to me. Because everybody, as I say, is writing their memoirs. They’re not always great literature. But they all have little nuggets of information for the researcher, for the writer, in them. Just an address, a house, what you called your servants. How you spoke with the Chinese butcher on the corner when you were a Jewish refugee. That kind of thing is just fascinating.
So basically, that’s what I do for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And you try and immerse yourself in it. And I think on top of that, if you can throw pictures, images, maps, just anything else that can give people a sense of the period, of the time. And just to allow them to hopefully immerse themselves. And a good story to keep them moving. And then hopefully they can find themselves immersed in the period.
And I don’t think people should worry about whether or not people will find it difficult to read. Because I thought quite long and hard about that and decided to just go for it. And so far, touch wood, people have been very kind about that. And have done the work themselves rather than expecting me to do the work for them.
Yes. Yes. So you obviously enjoy researching. And it’s something that is fascinating to you. Is your blog then, does your blog serve a purpose of basically collating the points of interest that you research and it effectively becomes your library or filing system? And you don’t have another one? Or is your blog for some other purpose?
My blog and my Instagram account and various other things are like aide memoires. That photo that I can’t remember where I put it, or that person I came across, I write them up very swiftly and stick them on blogs or post those pictures. And then I know where they are. And it comes in useful all the time.
Someone contacted me the other day about, where was the Shanghai Municipal Sanitorium in the 1930s? And I thought, oh, I can’t remember where that was. And I Googled it and top of the list came my blog post where I had actually, back in 2009, gone and taken a photo of the old building.
I mean, you do forget things. But it creates this map.
I mean, I should say, quite a few years ago, 2009 or something, I did a book called The Old Shanghai A-Z, which is all the roads of Shanghai are still there, they’ve just changed all their names since the revolution.
And I set out on this sort of stupid, I don’t know, psycho-geography historical research project to walk every street of Shanghai. Which, you know, in a Shanghai summer in the middle of a building frenzy for the World Expo the next year in Shanghai. It was a completely stupid thing to do. But I think I did track down all of the streets, the old names, the new names. What used to be on the streets and what was still left on the streets.
So there’s also that sense of, you know, you’ve walked as much as you can, you’ve walked those streets. You’ve stood in the lobby of those buildings. You’ve found all of those places.
And of course, Shanghai has gone through an incredible building frenzy in the last 20 years. But lots does remain, particularly the stand out Art Deco stuff along the Bund, the riverfront, and the old French Concession that you can still wander around and get lost in.
So I mean, again, these projects take a long time. And you can’t really expect other people to become immersed in something that you haven’t immersed yourself in. In the way that you can’t imagine anyone to get wrapped up in a plot that you yourself haven’t got wrapped up in.
And so what are you working on next? Or now? Probably your next book?
I’m going to stay in Shanghai. I’m kind of fascinated. City of Devils really ends on January the 8th in Shanghai, which was the day of Pearl Harbour. Which as well as being, obviously, the attack on Pearl Harbour, and Britain and America going to war with Japan, was also the day that Shanghai was completely invaded and overtaken by the Japanese.
So that’s really where this story ends. Because that world ends.
And then Shanghai is occupied until the summer of 1945 and then has these three or four years where it is once again a city, but a faded glory of a city. All that neon and jazz and fast cars is gone. It’s a city that’s had a terrible occupation. It’s being kept afloat by American supplies and the United Nations.
All around it, as before with the Japanese, is now the civil war between the nationalists and the communists. Chiang Kai-shek is getting ready to debunk to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China is about to be formed.
And those 130,000 Russians, those 40,000 Jewish refugees, all have to go somewhere. They all need to get passports. And it was a time of black marketeering. It was a time of another crime wave. And it was a time of desperation for people trying to get out.
As well, wealthy Chinese, capitalist Chinese, those Chinese linked to the nationalist regime, they all had to get out as well. Because they knew that there wasn’t going to be much life for them once the revolution happened.
So it was a chaotic time. And very much I feel like the elevator pitch, as they call it, would be Graham Greene’s The Third Man comes to Shanghai.
But I want to talk about that incarnation of Shanghai. There’s this old Shanghai which hopefully I never… I do glamourize it to an extent, but hopefully always remind you that there was terrible poverty and terrible disease and people dying in the streets. It was a city with no safety net. A city with no welfare.
And then there was this chaotic time after the war. And then of course there’s the revolution. Now the revolutionary times are for someone else to tell. But I want to do this last period of desperation when all of these people had to make decisions about where they were going to go and how they were going to get out of the city.
But again, it will be based around true stories at that time. And based around true crimes. Because people undertake criminal acts when they need to get money and get out of somewhere. With some reprise of various people from City of Devils.
So I’m staying very much in that world. But once again, I’m already and have in the last year or so, I’ve just been in America and before was in Hong Kong, there were lots of American soldiers in the city at that time. And I’ve managed to meet quite a few of them and their children who have lots of photos and things.
So by moving into the post-war period, I am meeting… There’s still quite a lot of guys around, particularly, and some women who worked for the United Nations, who were in Shanghai in 1949 as young GIs, as young typists and secretaries with the United Nations.
And many people here in London, particularly in Sydney, who were children at that time as their parents were working out where they were going to go. They’d come from Germany to Shanghai. They certainly didn’t want to go back to Germany or Poland or anywhere. They were looking, you know, can we get to Australia? What is Australia? That was always the question when they were told, well, there’s a visa for Australia. They’d be like, what’s that? Never really thought about it.
America, whether they can get to Hong Kong, South East Asia. You know, all the places that the foreign and Chinese diaspora went to and how they got there.
So it’s another kind of big swirling milieu of a story. So it’ll take a while.
Yes. Well, considering the amount of research that you obviously like to do it probably will!
So what would be, let’s sort of finish up on… For people who are listening to this and they think they love this idea of finding a period in history that they’re obviously interested in and to write non-fiction about it in this vein, what would be your top three tips?
Number one is you have to be a complete obsessive. You have to be totally obsessed with that period.
And the story within the period. Because if you’re not, you can’t expect anyone else to be.
And if you’re going to do a book that really recreates that period, it is going to be a lot of work. You’re going to have to read novels from the time. You’re going to have to read newspapers, magazines, watch movies, if you can, from that period. You’re going to have to read lots and lots of badly written self-published memoirs.
You’re going to have to read the academic work, as well. I mean, I have to give a big debt to academics who do this work that only a few people read, and you take elements of it and make it much more popular.
You’re going to have to do all that. You’ve got to immerse yourself. Don’t listen to anything but the music of the time. Only watch films from that time. Read film scripts from that time to get a sense of the rhythm and the style of language.
You’ve got to completely immerse yourself. And if you’re not willing to do that then I don’t think you can really expect anyone to be willing to give you the seven, twelve hours that it will take to read your book.
So that I think is really the major tip.
The second one would be, I think, yes, become obsessive. And then the other one would be the tip that every, that should be the first thing that every writer, would-be writer is ever told, although I’m not so sure it always is, is read.
You’ve just got to read and read and read. And you’ve got to read around your period.
I’m very honoured when reviewers, with Midnight in Peking and more with this book have said things like, oh, it’s like reading Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett or someone like that. And I think, well, I’m going to take that compliment.
Except it’s not, because those guys were writing about contemporaneous society around them in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, and so on. What I’m doing is more what you would call neo-noir, which is more writers like James Ellroy and people like that. We didn’t really live in that time. Not as adults, in Ellroy’s case. He was a child for some of that time. But we’re looking back at a world. We’re trying to recreate a world. So in order to do that, you have to read what people were reading at that time.
For my time, the pulp fiction. But I constantly read and re-read writers from that period. Graham Greene, Antony Powell, George Orwell, Henry Yorke, the great writers of the 1930s, really, to try and get a sense of how they talked and how they structured things.
Not to imitate, but just to kind of by a process of osmosis try and take it in. And then out of that comes your writing style.
And I think when you’re writing historical fiction or non-fiction, you need to think of the style. I read a lot of historical fiction that’s written in a very contemporary style and it loses me somewhat.
Because the writing of the period, you need to think of what’s the right style for the story you’re telling.
When I did Midnight in Peking, I thought because it was a murder case, I thought it was more procedural but with quite a few descriptive passages. When I did City of Devils and I started writing about Shanghai, we’re talking about a city that really does have lots of neon rain slicked streets, jazz, cabaret, chorus girls, gangsters – I thought, this is noir. This is your class 1930s noir city.
And you need to take the conventions and the tricks of noir writing. Whether it’s the noir writers of the 30s and 40s, Dorothy Hughes, or Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, people like that, those great writers. The hardboiled detective fiction writers. Or the neo-noirs like Ellroy and people. And you need to look at how that style helps you create the historical immersion. And I think that’s very important.
Sometimes I read historical fiction that really isn’t giving me the kind of… I’m feeling it’s written in 2018 about that time. Whereas someone like, and I know nothing about her period, Hilary Mantel of course, you know, without copying medieval literature, her style is part of what takes me back to that period. Even though I myself, I’m completely in her hands, because I would fail any exam on that period of history.
And so I think style is the second thing you have to think about.
Yes. Awesome. Okay. And did you have a third?
I think the third for me, if you look at good true crime literary non-fiction and so on, is to look at all the stuff that goes around it. So I mean I think that your readers probably do want maps and photographs and images and to see what the newspapers looked like at the time.
And there’s ways that you can give them that. In City of Devils, I actually reprint some newspaper articles from the time to try and give you a sense of the period and what was going on around these people. They didn’t live in isolation. There were also things going on around them.
And I think, think of the book not just as 90 or 100,000 words of text. But think of telling these stories… Particularly with all the eBook technology we have now, and audiobooks and so much, people are reading in so many different ways.
And the printing techniques we can do. I make quite a big deal about what typeface I want. I want that Art Deco typeface.
I wondered about that!
Anything, anything that can help take the reader into the period, I think, is very important.
You can do all of that so easily now. When I first started writing, trying to lay out pages was like… To get anything put in, like dinkuses, the little things you use to break up paragraphs. Or to try and get things done as an Art Deco font at the start of chapters would have been very difficult. But now with laying everything up on computers, it’s easy to do. I just think that so many writers don’t think about those aspects of things.
That is… That’s fascinating. I could talk to you for hours. But we’ve come to the end of our chat. Congratulations on City of Devils. And I can’t wait to read the next one now.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Paul.