Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Qiu Xiaolong
By Yong Shu Hoong
Qiu Xiaolong wears many hats – poet, novelist, critic and literary translator. He is also an academic who lives in St Louis, Missouri, in the United States, with his wife and daughter. But he is most well-known as the author behind the successful Inspector Chen crime novel series.
Born in Shanghai, China, in 1953, Qiu published poetry as well as works of translation and criticism in Chinese before he visited the US in 1988 as a Ford Foundation Fellow at Washington University in St Louis. Fearing reprisals after participating in a fundraising activity in St Louis for student protesters during 1989's Tiananmen Square protests, he decided to remain in the US. He later obtained his MA and PhD in comparative literature at Washington University.
After visiting China again in 1995, Qiu was impressed by the social changes sweeping the country, which inspired the creation of his famous law-enforcing character, who just happens to share his own background as a poet from Shanghai well-versed in English literature. The first Inspector Chen novel, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), was bestowed an Anthony Award for best first novel by a mystery writer.
To date, 10 Inspector Chen novels have been published alongside collections of short stories, poetry, and poetry translations. Translated into more than 20 languages, his books have sold millions of copies. An Inspector Chen TV series is being developed by Keller Entertainment Group, while a new Inspector Chen manuscript titled Hold Your Breath, China has been completed and is slated for publication in 2018.
1. What are you reading right now?
A couple of classic Chinese poetry collections for a translation of these poems into English for Foreign Language Press, and also for an Inspector Chen story where an investigation in contemporary China finds a parallel with a case involving Judge Dee and poet Yu Xuanji in the Tang dynasty.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I would probably still choose to be Inspector Chen, simply because I can write poems through him. In accordance to the mask theory expounded by W.B. Yeats, a character (mask) may enable you to write in ways different from your established self, with something that feels like liberation for your imagination.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I am a crime novelist.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
T.S. Eliot, who taught me how to write in an impersonal way. And Maj Sjowall who, along with her partner Per Wahloo, taught me how to write crime novels with a sociological approach.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I believe in writer's block, but for each writer, the reason and situation can be so different. As far as my Inspector Chen series is concerned, I keep reading about what's happening in today's China. Nowadays, things happening there are much stranger than in fiction, so I have been constantly inspired by real stories.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
The ability to separate what he experiences as a human being and what he writes as an author, and then to work on the writing like a craftsman with real detachment.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Irresponsibility for your readers.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Yes, Inspector Chen often recites his favourite lines from Tang and Song poems, and if it's about a piece of advice from a writer, I think I've benefitted from so many writers. But one thing said by my MA advisor Bian Zhilin has really helped me all these years: "You have to write first before you can tell whether you can write it or not."
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
still have to keep it a secret for the people who do not know.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
If I am not that busy or stressed out, I will pick a tragedy, which can be more thought-provoking. Of course, it has to be a real tragedy, in the classic sense that, but for luck, what happens to the character may happen to me too.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Favourite: "perseverance". Least favourite: "surrender".
12. Write a short-short story in three lines that include the following three words: "tropical", "chamber" and "hurry".
I don't think this will make a good story. "The tropical forest enters me in the sleepless night… Then the same chamber finds me waking up in cold sweat. Helplessly, the laptop turns me on in a hurry."
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
If "object" here means something I want to achieve in my writing, then it is something others have not written, whether in terms of the storyline, technique or linguistic sensibility. But it is easier said than done, as you know.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I've not thought of such a scenario. But offhand, I would like to invite Prufrock, Linghu Chong (a character in Jin Yong's novel, Smiling at the River and Lake) and Pepe Carvalho (a character in Montalban's novels). No specific reason, just names that come to mind at this moment.
16. You have compiled the poems featured in the Inspector Chen series into the 2016 book, Poems of Inspector Chen. Are you trying to remind your readers of the importance of poetry to your famous crime-solving character, or are you reasserting that you're still a poet at heart?
The original idea for a poetry collection came from an Italian writer in an interview about the Inspector Chen series, but partially from a Spanish writer who showed me how he experimented in writing across genres. As for the factors you have mentioned above, I think they are also true. For me as a bilingual writer, poetry could be the very means to experiment on different linguistic sensibilities in this global age.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017
It's not for me to worry about that. Right now, I just want to write as best as I can, and then readers may decide on this in the future. Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty had a famous tombstone without a single word on it. Chinese historians have talked so much about it but never figured out why. It's a lot of fun.