Catherine Sampson is the author of crime novels Falling Off Air (2004), Out of Mind (2006), Pool of Unease (2007), and The Slaughter Pavilion (2009) set in Beijing of which she is a long-time resident.
Why I write
I think most people have a favorite way of expressing themselves, and for me it’s writing. If I didn’t write novels I’d spend all my time writing something else – long letters to friends, or angry letters to the bank. Someone once asked me what I’d do if I knew I had only six months to live – I said I’d sit in front of my computer and write down everything that’s happened to me in my life. My friends all said they’d travel, and I suspect they’d have more fun. I always think it’s strange to call myself a writer – surely everyone can write, it’s hardly a great distinction. But given all the hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve written and then deleted, I hope I’ve learnt something.
Do you write every day. If so, how many hours?
No, I wish I did write for a set number of hours ever day, because I suspect that is the secret of real success. Writing is all about self discipline – there is always something better to do. Washing up, for instance, holds absolutely infinite charm when compared with a blank screen and an even blanker mind. I’ve even sighed with relief at the sight of a tax return if it means I’ve got an excuse not to spend another day wringing my hands over a plot. My work pattern is untidy – there are great swathes of the year when I get no writing done. These periods are known as school holidays. Then there are months of intense work when the rest of my life goes to pot. As the deadline looms, this culminates in me locking myself in a hotel room for three or four days, working almost non stop, rewriting tens of thousands of words. I emerge, with a minute to go before check-out time, blinking in the sunlight and feeling decidedly nauseous, with great big bags under my eyes, but clutching something that can just about be called a manuscript.
Worst source of distraction?
Email – everyone deserves a full and timely reply, after all. And then there’s the great big worldwide web, fairly dripping with fascinating factoids that it would be irresponsible to ignore.
Best source of inspiration?
Newspapers. I read most of them online, which brings us back to the Internet. Every writer needs to do her research…
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Every day. My last book had reviews which are keeping me going at the moment. But I will never forget how desperately awful it was to be an unpublished writer. The whole thing felt ridiculous and humiliating. There I was, a perfectly employable person, and I was spending all my time on something that was probably no good and from which I was unlikely ever to earn a penny. It didn’t really feel like a choice, it felt like a compulsion. And most compulsions are dirty little secrets…
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Mystery writer Donna Leon. Some time ago I read a very snooty essay by Clive James about crime writers, but even he had to admit that he never missed a Donna Leon. Her characters are intelligent, sympathetic, human, and her plots move lazily through the Venetian sunshine, glinting in the waves trailed by the vaparettos on the canals. Her clever women are particularly finely drawn.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
Well, I found Yan Geling’s The Univited (The Banquet Bug) used a very light and readable touch to say a lot about modern day China. I was full of admiration.
Jane Eyre. I know, I know…
Dorothy L. Sayers
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
Wild Swans. Yikes, I’m going to be hung, drawn and quartered.