Novels give us a few hours of escape. A mystery or adventure novel may distract from a long airplane ride. One purpose of a novel is thus entertainment.
Novels help us appreciate the human condition. We may discover or confirm we aren’t alone as we read the ordeals and troubles of fictional characters; how they deal with lost love may help us do the same. Another purpose of novels is learning and understanding.
Novels also introduce us to people, places and events. Few of us know of the horrific events that occur in Tibet, almost daily, or that such events parallel how the British dealt with Native Americans, three hundred years ago. Novels expand worldly awareness for the reader.
The novels, of Eliot Pattison, below, especially his Inspector Shan and Bone Rattler series, are not escapist, in the style of detective fiction or bodice-rippers. He composes intricate, compelling plots that expose readers to horrific abuses in Tibet, today, and against Native Americans three hundred years ago. Pattison pulls readers into a story, its time and place.
Heroes are outsiders. Inspector Shan is no different. Shan was once a member of the Chinese elite, but ousted to a brutal concentration camp for his Tibetan sympathies.
When the Chinese elite face a baffling crime, they release Shan to solve it. The Chinese force Shan to help them by imprisoning his friend, Loekesh, an elderly Tibetan monk. Shan usually finds ways to show the oppressors the costs of their oppression and need for remorse, thus leaving the reader hopeful for a better Tibet.
A mystery writer that weaves a factual background into an intricate mystery, with flare, is rare. She or he must have a feel for balancing information, not too little or too much. He or she must have a sense for finding and narrowing links among facts. She or he must have a sense of what is unusual and typical. Above all, he or she must respect research and willingly dive into it as deeply as necessary.
Eliot Pattison is all this and more. He writes of lifelong passions, Tibet and Colonial American, with remarkable style. He anchors key information firmly in the mind of the reader. It’s refreshing to find intricate mysteries set against a background that few know. The result readers thus become more capacious.
Eliot Pattison writes a book a year, but continues to practice law. When he graduated law school, the world was opening up. “I travelled, for work, to China and Tibet, which I studied for years. Being on the ground in Tibet brought my education to life,” says Pattison.
“I saw the self-immolations, in Tibet, which I describe in ‘Soul of Fire.’ I saw Beijing go from a city of bicycles to a city of skyscrapers and Mercedes Benz. I witnessed much of the background of the Inspector Shan series.”
In this interview, Eliot Pattison talks of Tibet and China, the Inspector Shan and Bone Rattler Series and how he writes a book a year.
Grub Street (GS) Uma Thurman, the actor, recently presented you with an award for your pro-Tibetan work.
Eliot Pattison (EP) Yes, it was a little surreal. I should mention that Bob and Nina Thurman, the parents of Uma, run Tibet House. They work, tirelessly, for Tibet through Tibet House. It’s a true act of love.
GS An award from Tibet House must have elated you.
EP It did, but the organisers told me little about it, at first. Tibet House told me I was to receive an award. There was no explanation other than it wanted to give me an award. I presumed it was for my work for Tibet House, the Inspector Shan Series and so forth.
Tibet House held a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, on 5 March 2015. Would I speak? They weren’t sure. “Please attend,” they said, “it will be great.”
I attended. Miley Cyrus sang, as did several older rock bands and so forth. It was fun and interesting. The bands, I understand, had to work around contracts with record companies, agents and managers to perform. As a practising lawyer, I found this interesting. The result was that many mixed groups appeared, Patti Smyth with “Blonde” and so on.
After the concert, say, 11:30 pm, a group of Tibetan women asked me to follow them. They seated me at a large table, beside Uma Thurman. We had a great chat, for a long time; she’s pleasant.
Then Bob Thurman made his speech and it was time to present the award. I followed Uma on to the stage. There I was, onstage, before an audience, older musicians and celebrities.
With Uma Thurman standing close by, I received the award. Cameras begin clicking.
Uma makes sure she's right beside me all the time. She’s rubbing my back, keeping me nearby. What a thrill. Everyone wants a photograph of Uma Thurman, but I must be in them all, too, as we are standing thisclose to each other.
GS Bob and Nina Thurman have devoted their lives to working to support Tibet.
EP Yes, but Bob and Nina are trying to retire. Both are getting on in years and they're trying to phase out. It’s hard because they're so committed to the Tibetan cause.
GS It will never happen.
EP I know it won't.
GS What’s your favourite word?
EP Spiritual is my favourite word.
GS What is the story of “Soul of Fire,” your newest book?
It’s unavoidable, when we talk of “Soul of Fire” or any of my stories that we first go over the wider setting I try to address. That wider setting is the state of human rights in the world, today, especially in Tibet. “Soul of Fire” is a story of the state of human rights in one country, Tibet.
Some readers say my stories are wrenching, tough or emotionally painful to read. My response is that Joseph Conrad, the author of “Heart of Darkness, for example, wrote wrenching books, too. When asked why he wrote those books, Conrad said, “Because I want my readers to glimpse the truth they forgot to ask.”
GS I like that quote.
EP Yes, it resonates for me because too many of us forget to ask about truth. Forgetting to ask, “What’s the truth,” is a great tragedy of the last century, but a great lesson for where we’ve gone in the world and the price of geopolitics. That’s the loftiest reason I write what I write, to answer what readers and others forget to ask.
Obviously, as a mystery writer, I want to engage my readers, give them reasons to turn the page. I start with that basic craft. I never set out to write escapist literature.
GS How does your career in law effect you what you write?
EP I’m an international lawyer by training. I was lucky to spend most of my career, well, my middle twenties, anyway, travelling the world; going to all kinds of exotic places. I logged one million air miles in the 1990s, alone; I stopped counting after that.
GS What does an international lawyer do?
EP Well, she or he does a great deal; international lawyer is generic title. I worked for companies, North American mostly, wanting to invest in various parts of the world. Sometimes, in the early part of my career, I was in Washington, DC, representing foreign countries.
I’ve seen the world and spent much time in Asia, especially China. I did some work for the government in China. I spent a great deal of time South America, Europe and Africa. I was fortunate.
I’ve seen all levels of the food chain through my legal work. My favourite pastime is mingling, with people, on the street. When I travel, I prefer simple pastimes, such as mixing with the people, not only the fancy, upper class hotels or restaurants and those that patronise those places.
I’ve seen a great deal. I deliberately, but instinctively, go to places less travelled. That’s where I see the most of everyday life.
GS How did you connect with Buddhism?
EP Through those years, I studied Buddhism. I have a long-standing interest in Asian religions and Asian history. I studied Buddhism in college and the interest stayed with me.
My interests focus on traditional Chinese history and the history of Imperial China. I started going to China in 1980; that was my first trip. That was the first month of normal relations, with the USA; Canada had been there a few years before.
At first, it was exotic, exciting, something different. I have a huge interest in history. The more I would go to China, the more I would try to find temples. I would try to find repositories of Chinese history, open to the public.
I began to realise how the Chinese government dealt with the Tibetans and members of any faith. It nagged at me. As I visited China, different parts of Asia and going around the rest of the world, this issue would nag me until this day.
GS What is your least favourite word?
EP Exclusive is my least favourite word.
GS How did you handle the nagging feeling in such a repressive country, as China?
EP I dug into Tibet and China. I experienced, first-hand, some of the repression doled out by the Chinese police. They push Tibetan monks away, as they, the monks, tried to talk to the travellers, to westerners, to me.
GS Are the issues between China and Tibet purely based in faith?
EP No, it was never a matter purely of faith. The Chinese Communist search for more land as well as the natural assets, of Tibet, such as timber, drove the conflict. Many people don’t know of Tibet; they think Tibet is a fantasyland, from the 1933 book, “Lost Horizon,” by James Hilton, or the 1937 movie of the same name.
Tibet is vibrant and spiritual, but, yes, the government was the church. Tibet is a complicated place, too much to go into here. For me, it’s the most distinctive and unusual civilisation, until the middle of the twentieth century when the Chinese invaded.
The point is Tibet was different from any place on earth. It had its own medicine. Its method of diagnosing illness attracts much interest, today, especially from the West, which, until recently, never imagined what Tibetan medicine had to offer.
GS Does Tibetan Buddhism differ from the Zen Buddhism that’s familiar in the West?
EP Yes, all Buddhism originated in India. It blended, well, with the Animistic Bon religion, the indigenous religion of Tibet. The Zen strain is more philosophical, I think, if only because of the high level of education among Americans, the greater degree of literacy, in the USA, and such.
In the older Tibetan Buddhism, a spirit animated every natural formation. Some North American Native tribes are similar, animated by the spirit of the bear, snake or wolf, say. In Tibet, Buddhism is more mature, there are more symbols than in American Zen, more physical parts and tools.
Tibetans have a sophisticated, complex hierarchy of spirits, gods and goddesses that protect the people from demons. There are specific rituals and offerings for certain days and deities. There are Kitchen Gods, Barn Gods and so forth.
Tara is the mother goddess of Tibet. There are fifteen to twenty Taras, a Blue Tara, a Green Tara and so forth. Tibet has a rich tradition of religious paintings called, Pangkas, which depict different Taras in different ways.
Pangkas are incredibly complex. There are little images and symbols, in each Pangkas. Each image or symbol has a different meaning.
GS Mixing governance and religion must mean much complexity.
EP Yes, as governance and religion intertwined, in Tibet, social life grew complex. This made Tibet unique. This makes it captivating.
Tibet is a unique place, pacifist; everybody focuses on personal enlightenment and the church. Tibet rejected much modern technology; the wheel was prayer tool before using it for other purposes. Tibetans were on a different path from the rest of the world.
During the Korean War, China invaded Tibet, which has no army and, in no way, is militaristic. The Chinese name for Tibet is Western Storehouse, reflecting its massive natural assets; it had massive forests, large mineral deposits, its huge hydropower flows down from the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world.
GS That’s easy to forget, everybody think the Himalayas are only in Nepal.
EP China wanted access to Tibetan assets, but also feared the country would fall under Western influence. As the West focused on Korea, after the Second World, it was easy for China to invade, to take over, Tibet. Some resistance took place, but it was muskets and swords, bows and arrows, against machine guns, fighter planes and tanks. Tibetan war stories are heart wrenching.
A million Tibetans died, but there are six-to-seven million Tibetans, today. The Chinese destroyed ninety per cent of the temples and massacred monks, lining them up against walls and shooting them with machine guns. Often, monks would refuse to abandon monasteries; the Chinese would kill everybody and destroy the building, using long-distance artillery.
GS How does the Dalai Lama fit into the picture?
EP That’s a separate drama. The Dalai Lama ran the government. The current Dalai Lama was a young man when China invaded Tibet.
At first, the Chinese claimed they wanted to help Tibet; to save the poor from religious exploitation, introduce modern technology and so forth. Tibetans never asked for help and, uniformly, opposed the Chinese. China imposed itself on Tibet.
In the late 1950s, the Chinese decided to kidnap and imprison the Dalai Lama. In dramatic fashion, he escaped to India and set up a government in exile, which still exists. That’s when the Chinese went berserk, killing and destroying.
There’s never been a more deliberate effort, in the history of the world, to take apart, to destroy, a society, as the Chinese mounted against Tibet. Today, Tibetan children can’t speak Tibetan in school. The Chinese assign each child a Chinese name when she or he starts school.
It’s hard for Tibetan adults to find work. Chinese immigrants overrun Tibetan cities. The Chinese take all the jobs.
GS I understand why the Thurmans put so much effort into helping Tibet.
EP The Chinese use these tactics, repeatedly. Jang, which is in Northern China, is mostly Muslim. The Chinese use the same tactics to control Jang and its residents.
GS Media in the West don’t cover Jang, I guess.
EP True, but the Muslims are not pacifists. Word doesn’t leak from Jang, much, but there are horrifically violent incidents there, all the time. Freedom fighters are active in Jang, but not in Tibet, because the Dalai Lama says no violence.
GS What sound or noise do you love?
EP I love a crackling fire in a fireplace.
GS The way you describe Tibet makes great sense. I wonder, though, about technology and progress. Ideally, blending the two is important.
EP Left alone, Tibet would not look as it did in, say, 1950; it’s not immune to progress. Traditions, unlike any in the West, would have thrived, alongside necessary progress. A different approach to medicine would have flourished and probably influenced Western medicine, earlier and more. Tibetans do mainstream science; they aren’t without modern science.
Going to the moon or mars would be less of a priority, in Tibet, I think, but not forgotten. Tibetans need to fulfill spiritual ends, first. Looking after each other and non-violent means to other ends are priorities. Then technological ends come into view. Blending the Tibetan emphasis into the West would likely improve the shallow, short attention span, of the West, for example.
GS That would be great.
EP Yes, but Tibet was no Utopia, it only highlighted important and different philosophies, goals and priorities. I think the world could have learned from Tibet. That society has so much to offer.
China stopped sharing with Tibet. The Chinese point to the standard of living in Tibet before the invasion. Tibet had a lower standard of living than it does now. Circumstances in China were likely no better, at the time.
After the invasion, life probably improved in Tibet, in a few ways. Fewer Tibetans starved, general health improved and wider literacy became a fact. Still, these and related improvements don’t justify what the Chinese did to Tibet, in the 1950s.
GS How do these circumstances define your books?
EP Readers argue there are lessons for the West to learn from old Tibet. This offers an incredibly fertile environment for a novelist. The circumstances allow a great range for plot and character development.
There’s much, in Tibet, to encourage readers to pause, to think about, say, a different way of living, governance and such. My direct experience shapes the Inspector Shan Series. At my public appearances, I talk of how fortunate I am to have the experiences that I relay in the books.
Readers understand evil is mostly the same across cultures, but the reasons for evil vary a great deal.
The Chinese offer all forms of excuses for what they did to Tibet. The Inspector Shan Series asks if the Chinese action was valid, was it worthwhile. Could the West move in the same direction, it did with the Native populations of North America, many centuries ago?
GS The natural writer in you must have arched to express what you say.
EP Yes, I wanted to discuss what I discovered on larger stage. I had written non-fiction books. I had written some business books and some legal books, but no fiction.
I tired of writing non-fiction. Non-fiction was no longer satisfying. I always thought about writing a mystery, but, at the same time, the gnawing doubt and anger about what happened to Tibet also drove me.
I thought about writing a non-fiction book about Tibet, but there are so many of those already. The same people read each one. The non-fiction books don’t reach a wide audience, fiction does.
One day, I had an epiphany. I would capture two birds with one hand. I would write a mystery set in Tibet; that idea became an eight-book series, the Inspector Shan Series and I’ll start the ninth book in a couple of months.
Shan allowed me to use, as a backdrop, the story of the Tibetans. I should set a mystery in Tibet. No one else had done so.
A wider audience was my goal. Today, the Inspector Shan books are available in twenty languages, more than a million books in German, for example. More readers are discovering the horrors of Tibet.
GS What turns you on?
EP Nature turns me on.
GS Is the Inspector Shan Series for everybody.
EP No, my stories are not for every reader. Some reviewers say, “Oh god, it’s a mystery set in Tibet. Nobody wants to hear about that.” All the publishers I sent the first Inspector Shan book, “The Skull Manta,” gave the same reply. Inspector Shan is more than set in Tibet.
GS I’m not sure they sell well at airports, but I imagine they sell everywhere else.
EP Readers tell me, “I saw your book in an airport.” They laugh. Inspector Shan is not escapist; not what a passenger wants to distract him or her from the boredom or fear of air travel. Another reader sent an e-mail saying she saw Inspector Shan at a Wal-Mart.
GS What turns you off?
EP Arrogance turns me off.
GS In the “The Skull Mantra,” you write of witnessing a police attack on a praying monk. How did that make you feel?
EP It’s horrible. It’s much worse than most of us can imagine. There’s nothing worse than violence born of arrogance.
The violence performed by the Chinese in Tibet is complex. It’s not as simple as saying, for example, “The police beat him with batons.” Every part of the repression I recorded is factual. I don’t need to make up anything.
The Tibetan monks do nothing harmful to the Chinese. Yet, the repression is ghastly; the beatings are horrific. When I first visited Tibetan temples, the police would remove the monks. They didn’t want them talking to anyone from the West.
I would arrive at a temple, where monks were praying at an altar. The police would hit them hard, on the shoulders, with a baton. This made the monks meekly leave my presence.
The repression continues, but managing tourists, today, lacks the bluntness it once did. Chinese advisers make it better for tourists. Still, I wonder how I came to witness such an event.
There are areas tourists can’t visit, in Tibet; these are mostly concentration camps, in every sense of the word. The Chinese round up Tibetans for internment. In “Mandarin Gate,” I describe a campaign to round up all the shepherds from the Giant Ten Plateau.
A million or more nomads live on the Giant Ten Plateau, which is a massive area, rich in wild life, one of the great wildernesses left, in the world. The Chinese claim the nomads don’t have schools, health care and so forth; the camps are for the good of the nomads. The nomads are rounded-up, moved to internment camps, which the Chinese call factories.
In fact, though, the roundup of nomads on the Giant Ten Plateau is one of the least violent conducted by the Chinese. The other violent incidents, I write of in “Mandarin Gate,” also occurred. As well, more than one hundred and thirty self-immolations occur, maybe more, as last, desperate efforts to protest.
Tibetan leaders urge non-violence. The Tibetan people can’t coexist with the Chinese. They can’t get jobs. Their children taken away, sent to boarding school, and families split, perhaps forever.
It’s difficult dealing with the Chinese. To get attention for their plight, some Tibetans set themselves on fire, self-immolate. Despite such extreme actions, the world ignores them, rather than listening to screams of these people.
The most satisfaction I get, writing the Inspector Shan books, are in e-mails from readers and supporters of Tibet that say, “I never understood this conflict with Tibetans and Chinese until I read your books. Thank you so much for writing the books.”
GS What inspires you?
EP Experiencing people that passionate about and acting on what they believe.
GS Inspector Shan is Chinese, but identifies with the plight of Tibetans. This gets him shipped to an internment camp in Tibet.
EP Right. In the “Soul Mantra,” the first book in the series, Shan is the stranger in the strange land. He was a successful investigator in Beijing. In fact, he was so successful; he became an adviser to top officials and was the inspector for ministers of state.
When he caught wind of the corruption at higher levels of the Chinese government and spoke out about it, Shan went to imprison. He went to the worst camp, the Fourth Construction Brigade, where most prisoners died. Shan didn’t die.
In prison, Shan lived among former Tibetan monks, mostly Lamas, the senior monks. Treated the worst, the Lamas were subject to regular interrogation and beatings. Yet, they survived and reincarnated Shan; nursed him back to health.
Shan is deeply, deeply impressed with the Tibetans: their faith, their stamina and their saintliness. After eight years in the Fourth Construction Brigade camp, Shan helped a local military leader solve a murder; this earned him an unofficial release.
Released, with no travel papers, he wanders remote areas of Tibet. When the residents face any crime, Chinese law is of no use; there’s no way to resolve a grievance for the Tibetans. Shan solves the crime.
Shan works the Chinese way of life, but in a Tibetan context. When he finds vice, it’s a rough makeshift vice, which sometimes involves the formal institutions of punishment. Other times, it’s a spiritual punishment, which is a vice the Tibetans find acceptable.
From a deeply spiritual Chinese background, what the Chinese are doing to the Tibetans bothers Shan. He doesn’t want to go back to China to be an instrument of that government. If he wanted, he could be a leading official in Beijing, but he prefers Tibet and Tibetans.
GS Soul of Fire” is full of interesting examples of the soulless bureaucracy, especially when the Chinese seek help from Shan.
GS When Major Ren holds Lokesh, a Tibetan monk, hostage, as an advantage to ensure Shan helps, for example. Shan helps Ren to free Lokesh. It is something for something, in a way; blackmail.
EP That’s right.
GS That’s soulless.
EP It’s factually based, though. The Chinese take such action all the time. They assume anyone that spent time in a prison camp has broken, given up and the can manipulate him.
Thus, the Chinese believe Shan is especially valuable. They assume Shan broke in the Fourth Construction Brigade camp, which he did not; he is not their puppet. As well, he speaks English and can deal with foreigners.
GS The hypocrisy is astounding.
EP Yes, it is. Another key theme is the implicit effect of oppression on the oppressor. The Chinese officials, which carrying out the oppression, often pay a huge price, too. If she or he has any soul, a sense of a conscious, the oppression eats away at him or her.
GS I think the price paid by the oppressor is a leitmotif of John le Carré, too.
EP That could be. I always have such, almost regretful, Chinese characters in my books. The physician, in “Soul of Fire,” is an example. These characters are an amalgam of the Chinese people I met.
GS What is your favourite indulgence?
EP Walks with my dogs.
GS Has anyone said, that because you're an American, a white American, writing a Chinese character, you're doing “Charlie Chan”?
EP There are some complaints, but not as many as you might think. In a way, I’m an easy target in that regard. Still, I have a thick skin and my themes are universal.
GS You offer a view that’s not widely available in the Western media.
EP Yes, I agree. Depending on my audience, when I speak to groups, they may want me to talk of China. There seems great interest in China, especially if the source is reliable.
I always mention how China used to call the US, “The paper tiger.” I think China is a paper tiger, now. China is hallowing itself out, as an economic power and political power; there's going to be a huge price to pay for such current policies.
The West enabled China. It allowed all this to happen. The West transferred trillions of dollars to China, in the last 50 years, especially the last 30 years.
This allowed China to flourish, which it deserves, in many ways. Deprived for a long time, China needed to improve the standard of living. What is the cost, though?
The Western media introduced the idea of a Chinese miracle; how wonderful it is for a government to feed more than one billion people. This is true, but the cost is horrible. The media do not try to show the complete picture is frustrating.
GP Did the transfer of wealth the form of allowing China to buy bonds, issued by Western nations.
EP Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, yes, that’s true. In those days, I was a young, inexperienced lawyer, set loose in a China deeply deprived, economically. They were living in the middle ages, in many ways.
I would travel the highways between cities. In the USA, we have fancy rest stops, along highways. In China, at the time, a rest stop was a flimsy hut built over a rice paddy; everybody was going to the bathroom in rice paddy water.
The first transfer of wealth was to companies. Factories closed in the West and moved to China. There were export control that didn’t work; China benefited.
GS I have a friend that was a diplomat. She first went to Beijing, in 1990, when it was a city of bicycles. On her last trip, in roughly 2001, Beijing was a city Mercedes Benz.
EP Yes, when I first went there, in 1980, you could go down the huge main streets in Beijing, the wide avenues, in the downtown area, and see 100,000 or more bicycles. I'm sure of it; everywhere you looked, there were nothing but bicycles. There were no skyscrapers, only trucks or official limousines were on the roads, but there were bicycles.
In those days, I had blonde hair. People would mob me, in the streets. Women and men wanted to touch my blonde hair, which they’d not seen before. It was as if I fell out of the sky into another century.
Today, I don’t care to return to Beijing. Skyscrapers are everywhere, MacDonalds, Gucci bags and too much smog. The air is unhealthy. Blonde hair is much more common, now.
It’s not fun, any more. The first few times I went to Beijing, it was an adventure. No longer is the city fun.
GS What item must you have with you always?
EP A pocket watch, I love pocket watches. A pocket watch is a timeless timepiece. It means a lot to me. A pocket watch is a sign of a civilised society
GS Where did you got to school?
EP I went to Indiana University at Bloomington. It’s a great school, with a great programme in Asian Relations. I wish I had stayed longer.
Then attended and graduated from the Boston University Law School.
GS How does your rather conventional education, from A-list universities, lead to such deep empathy with the Tibetans?
EP Well, it doesn't matter what your education or occupation. Someone that’s observant and sensitive, someone that looks at the world in a neutral way, can learn much and continually expand his or her knowledge. It’s a matter of taking the time to learn, of being curious.
My legal training lead to a great career; it got me around the world. Also, to be a good lawyer, you have to be a good at engaging women and men. Maybe this is why a fair number of lawyers wind up as novelists, she or he sees the world and life as transactions, which, strung together, tell a good story.
GS Steve Berry is one example.
EP Yes, there are many others, too. The law used to be much like the classics; it helped practitioners evolve. If one was intelligent, but didn’t know what to do, with him or herself, there was the law.
GS An old British upper class way of describing an unsettled young man was to claim, “He’s reading the law.”
EP Yes, I think men and women that are deeply into the law mature a great deal; an active mind keeps growing. Writing helps with maturation, too. When I was at law school, I wrote book reviews for the Boston “Globe.” Writing is one of my passions, too.
GS You still practice the law.
EP Yes, when I start a book, it’s not to maximise the commercial potential. I want to write a story I think needs telling. I'm not writing to fill the shelves in airport bookstores.
I would love to sell more books, sure, but what I want to do is tell the stories I tell. Selling more books means more readers know my stories and the factual base behind my stories. That would be great.
GS Writing is important to you.
EP Yes, not long after graduating law school, I began writing legal books. Then, I wrote two business policy books. I tired of non-fiction. I had so much pent-up knowledge. I wanted to get it out.
Thus, I began writing fiction. It worked out well. Writing fiction is a great release for me. It’s satisfying to write of the issues I do.
I have a deep conviction that good novels can be important to readers. I'm not saying mine are good, but I try to be a good writer. I strive to take my readers to new places, to get them to think of that new place and to think about the book after they put it down. I want to write more than a few hours of escapism or mere distraction.
Some readers say my books are tough reads. Perhaps my books are tough reads, but, more to the point, my books are emotionally draining. For some readers, some stories are painful. I think such stories are necessary to know.
EP “Soul of Fire” is a tough book. I talk about it in the note, at the end of the book; I explain how writing that book was wrenching for me. I kept thinking of how these people that go out and set themselves on fire, self-immolate, for cause, my god, what a price to pay for beliefs.
The last few times I talked of my books to groups, I've passed around the list of self-immolations kept by International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). You can look at it on their website, savetibet.org. They list everyone who has self-immolated. ICT have photographs and a brief life story of each person.
The list makes this extreme form of protest real. The ICT details the factual circumstances of the death. Boy, it’s tough. People, like somebody at my last appearance, said. “What about those poems?”
I offer little verses ostensibly found at the scenes of the immolations. The poems are not real; I make up each one. I’m not aware of any poems found near the immolations, but I wanted a way that was poignant yet concise and emotional. I wanted a snapshot to grab the reader after each self-immolation.
GS There's truth in your fiction.
EP I intend that to be the case.
GS Anyone that might research whatever truth you have in, say, “Soul of Fire,” would find something similar to what you write.
EP Yes, from some items, such as verses, one would find little qualities here and there, which are the license of a novelist. The immolations are factual, of course. Do the immolations occur as I describe, yes.
There is an incredibly severe police style, yes, of course. There are secret agents hidden in the monasteries and at all levels of the government; yes. As I write, in “The Mandarin Gate, “s there a training school that prepares spies to go into monasteries, posing as priests.
GS Few fiction writers can claim more than a speck of truth and your work is steeped in it.
GS As well as your own books, what books do you urge readers to read?
EP I urge readers to seek out, find and read Asian history books. There’s much to learn of that part of the world and media, in the West, avoid covering Asia, well.
GS Shan is a metaphor for what's going on between China and Tibet. How does Lieutenant Meng fit that metaphor?
EP I only have a few female characters, with important roles, in my books. Historically, the leadership in China was mostly male. If I wrote, based on the typical Chinese policing, it would be a male dominated; credible female characters would be difficult to find. Readers, especially in the West, want female characters, especially leads.
I want female leads, too. I always have at least one strong female lead in my books. Those females, in law enforcement, and there are several of them in the various books, highlight the idea of oppression to the oppressor. There's the sacrifice of the female lead in “Mandarin Gate,” for example.
She sacrifices her personal life and family life to be a public security police officer. This character highlights one part of the personal toll the severe society takes on the oppressor. A female character may drive home the results of oppression more fully than might a male character.
GS That’s an interesting tool. You're suggesting Meng plays a conventional role, where women are conduits for much good and much bad.
EP Yes and similarly, readers often ask me why there’s not more sex in my books. Well, that’s not Shan and that’s not me. There is some sex in “Mandarin Gate,” but that’s the only one, with sex, of all my books.
GS Sex scenes in the Shan series might trivialise your larger goal.
EP Yes, Shan is similar to a monk. He’s trying to live the truth. Sex scenes would not provide the sharp contrast I want; it would make him seem too domestic.
GS In the West, there’s also an idea there’s little sex going on among Tibetan monks. It would be a blunt shock if there were too much sex, which might take away from the extreme effectiveness that you’ve achieved.
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
GS Your Bone Rattler series parallels, in many ways, the Inspector Shan Series.
EP Yes, I want readers to develop a passion for my books. That means, first, I must have a passion for what I write. I have a passionate interest in Tibet and that part of the world.
I have a passionate interest in American history, too. I’m especially interested in Colonial American history. My passion is the 18th Century, French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution.
If a writer doesn’t write of his or her passion, a chill descends on the work. Readers notice the chill; no writer can fool readers for long. They may stop reading the book or maybe ignore future books.
There are parallels, of course, in my passions. Centuries ago, the British treated Native Americans poorly, perhaps as poorly the Chinese treat the Tibetans, today. The results still plague Native Americans.
The British destroyed Native cultures and killed millions, directly or by disease. The Chinese would like to do the same in Tibet. The Iroquois Confederation, mostly in the North-eastern US and Canada, built a sophisticated culture, which the British all but wiped out.
My heritage is Scottish. I love Scottish history. I wanted to write about both topics, Scots and 18th Century America. I came across passages about how the Iroquois and the Scottish Highlanders got together and developed a bond, instantly, when they met; that tantalised me.
That bond is factual. Thus, it permeates the “Bone Rattler” series. That series will soon move on to the American Revolutionary War.
GS What is something you like to collect?
EP I collect collectibles, odd items and such, but especially old newspapers. I have newspapers going back to the early 18th Century.
GS You must spend months or years researching each book.
EP Essentially, I have spent all my life researching the histories of the cultures of central Asia, Tibet and China, as well as Colonial American history. These are lifelong interests. When I began writing the Inspector Shan and Bone Rattler series, I was at a higher place than average, when it came to background knowledge. Still, I must do much research. I research constantly. Researching these cultures is another passion of mine.
I'm ninety per cent done my current book. Yet, I'm researching it every day. I want to make it the better and better. I think every writer has some base knowledge of what she or he writes, but the challenge is to continue researching to the last moment.
If you look at the Shan series, from a high level you can see each of them has a different theme. “Soul of Fire” is about the immolations, for example. I had to research that topic, deeply.
For “Manner of Day,” which is about the nomadic transfer programmes, I had to dig into that material. Other books, in the Shan series, focus on Tibetan medicine, reincarnation and art theft. Each new book calls for much research.
I deliberately pick a subtopic that I must research more heavily. I like to research topics and issue about which I am passionate.
GS There's so much readers don't or can’t know unless she or he reads your books.
EP The balance is dangerous. If I overload readers, with too much information, my books become Anthropology. I don't want to go too far.
If I don’t provide enough information, the reader has too many unanswered questions, which does not make for a good read. If I don't have enough information, I haven't sold a good story, well enough; I haven't done my job of taking or transporting the reader to the world where the story takes place.
It’s a delicate balancing act. I'm fully aware of that balance when I write. I try to cut off possible criticism before it arrives.
Still, I am criticised. The most vocal critics are know-it-all American Buddhist. It’s never the Tibetans or the Chinese or any Asians that are critical.
Americans that criticise my Tibetan Buddhism passages, such as the presentations of what goes on at an altar, always have some background-in or knowledge of Zen Buddhism. Elsewhere, readers are less critical about small details. Elsewhere, readers love what I write and say, “It’s so great you're able to present these in the way that you do.”
GP That’s interesting.
EP Finding and upholding that balance, of too much or too little background, means I must face criticism. Last summer, a fellow wanted to debate several symbols that appear in “Soul of Fire.” He focused on the ram and the fire.
He claimed I misrepresented both symbols. The horns on the ram were not long enough and so forth. I had to bite my tongue note to laugh.
GS Perhaps this fellow has too much time on his hands.
EP What that fellow suggested was far too much detail for a good story, a readable book. Thus, I turned the discussion to how I strive for a balance. I appreciated his interest in detail, details Tibetan Buddhist use, but I have to keep my books interesting too. I don't want to lose my mainstream readers that are not Buddhists.
GS That's a good example.
EP I have another angle, as well as writing a good story. I want to teach history, especially in the Bone Rattler series. I want to engage readers in another era.
I attended a workshop called, Arts and History, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 2014. I was a keynote speaker. The audience included women and men, with artistic contributions to the era, such as powder horns or long rifles, ceramic pots or books focused on the 18th Century.
At the conference, there was much talk of the declining place of history in schools. In many school districts, history is no longer part of the core curriculum. I guess school trustees do not think history is important, even though it helps us understand where we're going.
The historical novel has a large part to play in the usefulness of history. History books are often sterile. The historical novels, when written well, which means accuracy on major events and personalities, are genuine. Well-written historical novels can translate into books that people can engage, personally, from which they can learn.
GS What occupation, other than writing and the law, would you like to try?
EP I want to be an astronaut.
GS Do you set aside a part of every day to write.
EP I get that question often. The answer is, yes. I try to write seven days a week.
It’s interesting how talking about writing habits gets other writers worked up. When I attend conferences or workshops, writing every day is huge topic. Someone will say, “I love to write, but I’m a housewife, with little free time.” I tell her or him I’m a practising lawyer that tries to write one book a year and usually does.
I set aside two hours a day to write. That’s it. Two hours a day gets me a novel a year.
GS Unbelievable, with all the research you must do.
EP As I mentioned, research builds. I have a big library on Colonial history and a big library on Tibet. I add to the libraries as go along.
GS Are these the same two hours every day, such as 6:00 am to 8:00 am or other regular time.
EP I try for late at night. I’m a night owl. I try to write when my world is quiet.
GS Most writers I talk with these days are night owls.
EP I know some older writers, novelists of the early 20th Century, would get up at dawn, the way Hemingway did, often writing until they fell asleep. I could never do that. Although my children are adults, I got into the late night habit when they were young, I like writing at night.
I stick with those hours, weekdays. On the weekend, I’ll find an extra hour or three, maybe. It’s not always easy, but that’s what I try to do.
GS Your productivity is in your routine.
EP Yes, many writers, many people, don’t realise how a routine is effective. Anyone can do it. Every writer has a different routine, but the routine is what counts.
At workshops, I tell writers to find their own routine. You’ll find your own voice much easier, with your own routine. Don’t follow anyone or me too closely. Go your own way.
GS Do you set a target, say, so many words or pages, for the time you write?
EP I don’t. I tried different targets. Nothing worked.
I start by reviewing what I’ve written and move on. I’m always going back and forth. When writing a new novel, most of my effort is on the early chapters: getting the right characters, finding their voices and so forth.
Once the basics are down, I move quickly through the rest of the story. After the story and characters form and I block out the story, the rest, in a way, falls together. Characters do speak for themselves.
GS You write two hours a day for 365 days. That’s roughly seven hundred and thirty hours of writing for three hundred pages of polished, finished novel. That’s remarkable.
EP Yes, I guess. Many well-known authors do one book every five years. I blame their routine or lack of it.
I like to start a novel, but I also like to wrap it up. I’m uneasy about investing five years in one novel, as is the case with some writers. I enjoy starting a new novel and staying that way for a year, but then I want to move on to the next one.
GS How long does it take to get the first full draft?
EP Eight or nine months, I’d say. This is what I’m doing now. My next novel is due in a month. I finished the first chapter, but I’ll get there.
GS Do you expect it to be doing some nano-writing on this one, if it’s due next month.
EP Do you mean more effort than the two hours.
GS Yes, writing like crazy for as long as they can every day.
EP I think keeping a routine leads to more production than does nano-writing. There’s never a day that I don’t write. It always works out. I can write a novel a year and do, roughly.
GS Is less, in fact, more.
EP I think so. For many writers, I think, a book is complete, not because she or he is happy with it or the story even comes to a close, but because it’s due.
GS I like that.
EP I’ve been lucky with my editors. What I like to do is send my editor a draft on time and tell him or her I’m still polishing. They understand and give comments.
What I eventually send satisfies me, meets my standards, and the editor likes it, too. I thoroughly polish my final manuscripts. Each stage of manuscript refinement improves the novel and is usually great fun.
GS You mentioned characters write themselves: do they.
EP That’s one advantage to writing a series; the main characters are old friends. I know what they do or would do, given circumstances. One of the pointers, I give at workshops, is if you’re going to write a series, you must know your characters, well.
I have biographies for most of my recurring characters. Some of the biography is in my head; most of it I write down. I know much more about Inspector Shan, for example, than is yet on the page of any novel.
I have ideas about each character. Each one is alive, in my mind. There are parts of Shan that I’ll never put into the novels. That makes him a real person.
GS Do you experience writer’s block.
EP No, if I have a tinge of writer’s block, which I usually don’t, it’s has a short lifespan. Should I block, I let the characters take over. They write the story for me. Blocked or unblocked, the characters always move the story along.
GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began writing, which you now regret.
EP Yes, the spelling errors neither my editors nor I ever caught. One of my books went through several printings before someone noticed I had written Revelations rather than Revelation, when mentioning a book of the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
GS I wonder about the use of passive voice in fiction.
EP It’s a challenge for every writer to avoid drifting into a passive voice. I think the quality of writing improves when the writer steers away from the passive. This applies to writing fiction and writing, in general.
There’s another part of the challenge of writing. There’s a great temptation, it seems, to preach to the reader; preach about human rights and so forth. At workshops and such, there’s a tendency to introduce me as a human rights activist, which I am, in a way, but not only.
To me, to describe me as an activist suggests I preach, when I try hard to avoid it. I must be careful. Preaching is seldom a successful way to get ideas across.
Telling good stories is more effective than preaching. A story that engages the reader and makes points, well, that gets ideas across, well, that’s influential. That is my goal.
GS I get the sense you write for you and the audience will find you.
EP That is a bit true. I write for personal release, but I have to write books I would want to read. I’m fortunate other people find my writing interesting, too.
GS What do you think of adverbs?
EP You know I can’t write without adverbs. Sometimes, my editor will say I use too many adverbs. I’m not a fan of writers that never use adverbs.
GS Writing without adverbs can be sterile.
EP Yes and I can’t see how or why editors and some writers get so wildly excited about them. I’m a traditional writer. I love rich language. Often, I can’t tell a story or make point without an adverb, honestly.
The English language is great and there are many ways to write what you want to say. When someone says, “No adverbs,” it’s similar to saying I must write with one hand tied behind my back.
GS Elmore Leonard, although he was writing different stories than you write, urged writers to use “said” for assigning dialogue to characters.
EP I usually ignore his advice on adverbs, but try to stick with “said” for attribution. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I use “said” too often. Is there another way to credit dialogue? I think editors like that rule, though; it’s simple.
GS Steven King is against adverbs and prefers “said,” too.
EP I listen to his books. I find when I read, my eyes drift over the word, “said.” When you listen to an audiobook, the point about too much use of the word, “said,” strikes home; the reader is constantly saying, “He said,” “She said” and so forth.
GS Do you think a reader can follow the dialogue, without the constant use of “said”?
EP It depends on the scene. Are the characters well entrenched, in the mind of the reader. If so, the reader can follow a long exchange.
When the writer does a good job developing characters and storyline, I think readers can follow complex dialogue. They know who is speaking. That every character speaks his or her way is subtle attribution.
GS Is it necessary for fiction to be grammatically correct.
EP I debate that with editors. When I present a novel, editors mark it up and send it back to me, filled with grammatical errors. We disagree over grammar, a great deal.
I send comments back to the editors. I understand the rules of grammar. When I write, I put up with the rules of grammar, but I don’t believe these rules bind me.
e e commings perversely ignored the rules of grammar. I don’t. In everyday life, we seldom speak grammatically and a novel can or should reflect how we speak.
Usually, everyday speech is ungrammatical, in some way, yet well understood. Sometimes one character may not speak as well as do others; a good writer shows this fact. Sometimes the cultural and personal identify of characters becomes sterilised, with correct grammar.
GS I guess you would leave out the “ums” and the “ahs,” for example.
EP That’s right. There is a balance of proper and improper grammar as there’s a balance in all that we’ve talked of, today. There’s talking in the yard and there’s talking on the page. The writer needs to find the balance.
The writer leaves some parts of speech off the page. Sometimes, though, she or he must include improper grammar. I put something improper in because it feels like a vernacular of the ethnicity of this or that character, for example.
EP My editors think that’s going too far. Although it may not be grammatically correct, I won’t make the vernacular so esoteric the reader can’t understand it. Again, it’s balance.
GS Steven King is big on, “Write one word at a time,” which may be a metaphor, such as one-step at a time, but you seem a sentence writer.
GS Is that a conscious effort?
EP It’s instinctive more than conscious. I think in sentences. It’s how I get my message across.
Stephan King takes a crazy, wacky idea turned into an interesting plot and throws it at the reader. That’s great. It works wonderfully well for him; he grabs readers with far-reaching ideas.
GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
EP Kuhl jeans are my favourite clothing.
GS When you do an interview, is there ever anything you wish they’d ask, but don’t.
EP An uninterested interviewer is more irksome than an unasked question. Uninformed interviewers also get my goat; maybe she or he reads the blurb for a book and digs no farther. Different questions, not the same old questions, would be good.
In the most general vein, the answer to your questions is, “No.” Yet, I would like to talk about writing dialogue, but that’s not an easy topic and readers might not find it interesting. There are also ideas about the role of the novel, today; how less reading influences the author.
These are interesting topics for me. I think we ought to be more aware of the way we’re abandoning our literary traditions, the effects of a decline in traditional ideas of literary traditions and so forth. These are important topics.
GS What is the role of the novel, today?
EP The novel remains important, despite other content delivered in other ways, on other platforms. In part, I think this because I write novels. Still, novels may be an efficient way to tell readers, say, about Tibet or the 18th century in America, if the writer is as true to historical fact as she or he can be.
If writers don’t write novels, new and important works won’t appear. Not every story is open to efficient deliver on television, say, or in a movie. My Inspector Shan books, I think, sometimes need readers to return to previous passages to move forward, efficiently. This is yet as doable in a movie as it is in book form.
Sometimes a reader revisits a book and says, “Wow.” When she or he was twenty, the novel held one meaning for them; twenty years later, with that much more life experience, the meaning of the novel changes. Rereading a book can be a great experience.
So few younger readers, it seems, are not reading beyond class assignments. When I was young, my favourite pastime was hanging around bookstores or libraries. That rarely happens today or so I understand.
I think a dedicated novelist has a mission to help turn that around. I have in my particular circumstances, as an international lawyer, the opportunity to see differences in cultures and societies. In Germany, as I mentioned, my books sell especially well; my stories become radio dramas. I think Germans enjoy my stories much more than the average American reader, say.
When I speak in Germany, I talk of the differences with America. When I ask why the readership for my books is larger in Germany or why my stories become radio shows, they usually say, “German television is not good.” That may suggest American television is better, which leads to a reduced need to read.
GS I hope not.
EP Whatever the answer, I think it’s a complex equation. I believe books, the permanency books represent, are important for building civilisation and reflecting who we are and what we hope to become. Books are important for building self-awareness, in silent ways; we ought to keep chasing this goal.
I wish we had a more far-reaching dialogue on books. More and more, newspapers fire their book editors, first, to compensate for declining revenues. Readers ought to push back, try to engage more, if not via the media than among individual readers.
At some point, we need to return to the days when people would sit around and discuss books, politics, social change and so forth. The media need to promote engagement. The landscape is growing more barren, more barren than a generation ago, and that is not good.
GS Do you think technology may share some of the blame for the circumstances you describe?
EP If nothing else, technology has increased the speed of life and the expectation that satisfaction must come faster and faster. This is part of the equation. People don’t take time for much of anything. I hear statistics that reveal how Americans are falling-out of love with golf and think it’s probably something similar to reading: the payoff is not fast enough.
Golf and reading demand a commitment of hours to mine the pleasures each give. There doesn’t seem enough time to do either, any more. I think we’re stuck in a chronic case of societal attention shortfall disorder, which is not good.
GS Do you think the same reason explains why the National Football League (NFL) is getting bigger and bigger and bigger every year?
EP I guess that has something to do with it. Immediate satisfaction in six seconds, replay after replay. On opening day, of baseball, 2015, there were stories about how major league baseball is trying to make the game go faster.
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
EP Any government job.
GS What’s your favourite ice cream?
EP Butter pecan.
GS What city could you get lost in for hours to explore?
GS Thanks, Eliot.
EP You're welcome.
Published on SaveTibet.org 21 May 2015.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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