Adam Williams is a businessman and novelist based in Beijing. His historical fiction trilogy, comprising The Pleasure of Heavenly Pleasure (2003), The Emperor’s Bones (2006) and The Dragon’s Tail (2008) follows the fortunes of three generations of an English family, spanning from the Boxer Rebellion to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Williams’ latest novel is The Book of the Alchemist (2009), a morality tale which weaves between the Spanish Civil War and medieval Andalucia.
He is the husband of Chinese novelist and memoirist Hong Ying.
Why I write
I don’t play golf so having spent 20 years of weekends lying on sofas watching Zena: Warrior Princess or whatever else Star World had to offer, writing a novel seemed an incremental hitch up from slob-dom. One day a friend and I finished watching a TV version of Conrad’s Nostromo at three in the morning and whiskey fueled decided that ‘Mowal choice ish whash witing’s all about’ and then and there decided we’d each write a novel to illustrate it. Twelve hours of hangover later, trying stupidly to walk the Wall from Simatai to Jinshanling, whilst crawling from flagstone to flagstone and dizzying at the precipices, I somehow thought of a plot. It ended up with my friends calling the police to find me, but I had a novel in my head that five years later was published. Publish one they want another, so writing’s become a bit of a moonlight career (on weekends and public holidays of course, if anybody from Jardines is reading this).
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Certainly not. I have a proper job to occupy me most of the year and I’m far too undisciplined to do the recommended Graham Greene thing of five hundred words a day before preprandial. It’s a bit like trying to give up smoking, which I’m good at (I do it often) you can’t do it by halves; so with writing, it’s much easier to go the full hog than do bits at a time – so I isolate myself, usually abroad where there are no social or business temptations (I have a house in Italy now but wrote my earlier books in a hotel) and then I just – well – sit down and write however many words I can a day between breakfast and dinner until it’s finished – usually 2,000 to 3,000, sometimes 5,000 (but that’s not to be recommended on a protracted basis: next day you feel jetlag).
Worst source of distraction?
Anything. ANYTHING! Book out of place on the shelf (get up and rearrange), somebody talking outside (go out and eavesdrop); of course, every ping of an incoming email gets you onto the net for an hour and if the phone goes, you just wallow in the chatter even if it’s a wrong number. Any distraction that’s going, I suppose, but ultimately you have to drag yourself back to the desk again.
Best source of inspiration?
You never know until it happens. Of course the publisher will tell you what they want, a sequel or whatever, so that sets the outer parameters, but it doesn’t provide the ‘idea’ which is the invisible soul of the story. My first novel, as I’ve said, was an exploration of ‘moral choice’; second book it was reading Joseph Campbell and deciding I’d like to structure a book on a mythical ‘Hero’s Journey’ (of course this has to be very subliminal, can’t afford to have it too obvious in the final text); then for the third book, I was struck by Jonathan Spence’s portrait of Mao as a Twelfth Night ‘Lord of Misrule’; and the idea for my fourth book, which is about Spain, was sparked by Ian Buruma’s A Murder in Amsterdam that describes how the fundamentalist murder by Al-Queda of Theo Van Gogh unraveled the most tolerant society in Europe, and I thought, when was the last time that happened, and obviously thought of Moorish Spain when it was the Christians who were the suicide bombers. It’s a bit like those forensic people who can construct a face from a skull. The ‘idea’ is the bare bone, and the plot, characterization and everything else is the muscle and skin that hides it – but you couldn’t have a face (or a novel) without that invisible foundation.
How often do get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Every time I sit in front of a blank screen on my word processor. The fear goes once you’ve got a few sentences down. Think willing yourself to jump into cold swimming pools.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Boris Akunin and his Imperial Russian detective novels. Used to be George McDonald Fraser, but he’s dead now, the sod, (and without giving us his promised Civil war Flashman). Now, I know these are probably my literary equivalents of Zena Warrior Princess now I don’t watch the box any more, but I have to be honest and say my heart zings whenever I see a new Erast Fandorin or Sister Pelagia mystery is published in English and I’m straight on to Amazon. Of course I am equally delighted when I see there’s a new J.M. Coetzee, or Paul Auster on the bookshelves and I know my mind is going to be blown to pieces by their genius when I read such worthy tomes – but I can’t say my heart zings in quite the same guilty way!
Favorite Chinese writer?
Dead one – have to say it, though I’m repeating the same name as half the other writers being interviewed in this series: it’s Eileen Zhang. Of course.
Live one – Hong Ying, obviously (and it’s not just bias because I’m married to her, a year or so ago a booksellers’ poll in China put her as the only writer who straddled two categories – 100 Greatest Chinese Writers Since Confucius and Ten Greatest Living Ones – and anyway, Daughter of the River knocks every other Chinese novel written in the last 20 years into touch. Her latest, Good Children of the Flowers, is the sequel just out (not in English yet) and is wowing the critics as I write. Apparently it’s even better – certainly harder hitting – but my Chinese is not up to the beauty of her prose.
Best book about China?
If you want to find out about it and understand it, then it’s the first volume of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. Book I probably most enjoyed about China was Le Lotus Bleu by Hergé.
Tough one. Can I have a tie? The books weren’t written that far apart. Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars.
Sir Walter Ralegh.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
The War of the Three Kingdoms, the book I keep recommending to every newcomer to understand China. One of them found me out.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Old hat. Get on to the next one.