Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Writing On The Wall

Getting on for 5 years ago, I tried an entry in a literary competition launched by my publisher-to-be and occasional commenter here, the lovely Moonrat. Part of the brief was to provide a nutshell author biography of myself for the back-jacket copy of a book. I put that on the blog here, and was then goaded by my principal commenter of the time, Tulsa, to add the other part of my submission, the blurb for a novel, too. But I never got around to it. And, as so often happens with my little literary noodlings these days, I can't find it any more; it's not on this computer, anyway. (Paper is so much safer a storage medium. I still keep turning up inane little poems and articles I wrote at university nearly 30 years ago. Yet stuff I've written just in the last few years keeps vanishing into some weird electronic black hole of unsearchability on my various hard drives.)

Instead of trying to recreate the blurb (I'm still endeavouring to unearth the original), I thought I'd describe my creative process in coming up with it - a manic brainstorm which produced quite a detailed (and surprisingly saleable-seeming!) outline in just a few minutes.

I thought... a thriller is likely to be the genre that finds the readiest audience (and is also going to be the kind of thing that I would find easiest to write at speed). I can probably sell the China connection, too, drawing on my experience of having lived here for the last 5-and-a-half years. (There hadn't been that many 'China books' - fiction or non-fiction - at that point; soon there would be a spate of them, and I fear that particular niche may have been overworked now.) Of course, there was a particular topicality about China in that year, since it was about to host the Olympics. And there was a likelihood that political anxieties about possible 'dissent' would be particularly acute in the last few months before the opening of the Games in Beijing. A foreign protagonist, I felt, would be likely to help the story sell better overseas (and, let's face it, a foreigner like me is going to struggle to create a convincing story with a wholly Chinese cast of characters). So, how might a foreigner interact with Chinese citizens in circumstances which might place them under threat from the state apparatus of oppression?

Well, the creative fields are where you tend to find the most connections between Chinese and foreigners - particularly in rock music and modern art. And I have hung out in those circles quite a bit myself, have a few friends among these ranks - so, that felt like a milieu I could write about. Then, my major brainwave was that the area where there was likeliest to be the most crossover between those two fields was graffiti art (which was only just starting to take off in China at that time); and this was a form that, because it was so public and so populist, was likely to be seen as having a high potential for subversion by the authorities here.

There were three elements in this story idea that particularly appealed to me: the impermanence of this kind of art (it often gets scrubbed off the walls within days or hours, particularly if it incurs the displeasure of the authorities; and thus it often relies on a photographic record being made of it to acquire a wider audience; cameraphones, and the rapid dissemination of snapshots taken with them via the Internet, were just starting to become a big thing back then, although we didn't yet have Twitter/Weibo); the politicization of art (the government is likely to gauge the 'threat' of this kind of thing by its impact on its audience, rather than the intention of its creator); and the commercialization of art (many artists I know feel very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to do things that they anticipate may prove popular and saleable; they seem to convince themselves that their 'purity of vision' may require a perverse clinging to obscurity and poverty).

So... my young foreign protagonist is a photographer who becomes interested in this very exciting guerrilla street artist and sets about trying to document his work. Eventually he meets the guy, and they become friends. The government becomes concerned about this anonymous artist at first simply because they can't control him and because he is becoming so popular; but soon they become alarmed that so many of his young fans are reading a politically inflammatory sub-text into his work. They determine to find him and take him out of circulation before his activities can disrupt the imminent Olympic Games or foment nationwide 'disharmony'. His photographer friend is, of course, the most visible link to the artist, so the secret police start trailing him to try to discover the artist's identity. However, the photographer is also being approached by certain large companies to act as the artist's agent; they are interested in using this hip new talent in their China advertising. The photographer sees this as a chance to save the artist from state harassment, from likely arrest and possibly even execution; if he can associate him with one of the Olympic sponsors and persuade him to give up his proud stance of anonymity, perhaps he can make the artist too famous to interfere with, untouchable. 

But how can the photographer contact the artist without risking exposing his identity or whereabouts to the Chinese authorities? And how can he convince him to renounce his most deep-seated creative principles - that he must continue to work anonymously and without reward?

Not a bad little concept, eh? And that really was just a few minutes' work. It all came to me in a rush, each element naturally suggesting the next. There was even a love-triangle sub-plot, with the photographer falling for a foreign girl who worked as a translator in the art community and was having a relationship with the artist. (The art and rock music scenes do tend to attract quite a few foreign fans. And I have myself suffered the heartache of falling for a woman who's become hung up on Chinese guys.)

Alas, I've missed the 'window of opportunity' on that one: it was really a story that needed to be written in 2007 and published early in 2008.

It was also a pity that the title I came up with (too obvious, I know; but so appropriately ominous), The Writing On The Wall, had already been used numerous times before, including fairly recently for a major non-fiction book on China by Will Hutton.


moonrat said...

...that can't really be 5 years ago, can it...?!? oh my gosh.

it's a lovely idea, indeed. you have a knack.

i'm publishing a thriller set in china in june that pins on some similar themes--a political artist gone underground is one of them. rather different focus; i'll tell you more about it.

Froog said...

Very nearly 5 years, Moonie dear.

How nice to hear from you again after so long! What have you been up to?