By Felix Cheong
His is a story any writer would dream of Ė a first manuscript that had sparked off a bidding war among UK publishers. Not that heís famous; in fact, outside of the Hong Kong and China business circles, heís virtually unheard of.
Yet Adam Williamsí novel The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure generated a lot of interest and is now slated to be made into a movie. Set in northern China during the Boxer Revolution of 1900, it is an epic with all the trappings of exotica and the familiarity of a James Clavell novel. At its heart is a love story between a young woman and an English rogue. And an unlikely friendship between a missionary and a Chinese mandarin.
The son of a Hong Kong taipan whose family has been living in China since the 1880s, Williams was born and raised in the territory. Educated at Radley and Oxford, he has worked for the Sino-British Trade Council and was chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in China between 1996 and 1998. He is currently the chief representative for Jardine Matheson in Beijing, a position he has held for the past 18 years. In 1999, Williams was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to Sino-British trade.
Williams is also something of an adventurer. In 1995, he bravely ventured where few dared Ė a gruelling camel expedition across the Taklamakan Desert in search of the lost cities of the Silk Road. This did not quell the wanderlust though, and like a boy addicted to adrenaline, he went on to compete in the East African ďRhino ChargeĒ rally in 1998 and the London-to-Peking marathon in 2000.
Williams breezed into town last October to promote his book. Felix Cheong caught up with the burly Englishman and pinned him down for an interview.
FC: How did the genesis of this tome of a book come about?
AW: I suppose Iíve always wanted to write. Itís always been a dream. Perhaps itís because I like reading. Reading as a boy, I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote at school and university. But then when I left, I started to get on with life and learned Chinese. And China became a full-time occupation... led me into the business world. I spent the last 20 years working for those companies in China. Always at the back of my mind is the feeling that one day, Iíll do it, when I didnít have anything else to do. If I can think of a plot, if I can think of something to write about.
I suppose I did a lot of travelling in the 90s. I went on expeditions during my holidays to parts of Central Asia. I started to write... diaries and accounts of them.
I suddenly started thinking about it at the age of 45: if you donít start doing it soon, youíre not going to have time to do anything. And suddenly, the idea for a novel came. I wanted to write a story about China. I spent most of my life in China. I come from four generations of my family who lived and worked in China one way of another. It seemed an obvious subject.
But I didnít want to write about the China Iíd been through. Because I didnít think it would be so interesting. I wanted something more exotic, so the idea of the Boxer Rebellion, which my great grandparents had lived through, seemed a good subject, and certainly a good background for all sorts of moral predicament which I could inflict on my poor, suffering characters.
One weekend [in í97], I literally sat down and started chapter one. Iíd worked out a synopsis, a pattern for the book. It was a weekend hobby; I have a full-time job and so I could only spare weekends and holidays to do this.
The book began to take hold of me. I began to think of some of the charactersÖ not as real people, but they do take on a sort of life. The story was always in the back of my mind. So, over 5 years of weekends and public holidays, I managed to complete the manuscript.
FC: How much of your experience as a businessman went into the writing?
AW: At the heart of the book is a moral debate between a Christian missionary, vaguely based on my great grandfather who was a missionary, and a Chinese mandarin. As Westerners, we think thereíre more absolute ways of thinking Ė what is right and wrong.
What I felt about business negotiations in China is that thereís a much more pragmatic approach to life. That perhaps because in China, which is a heavily populated country where people often live on top of themselves, thereís a highly-developed social sensitivity, thereís an ability to compromise, which is perhaps not for other peopleís feelings but for oneís own advantage. Thereís an expediency Ė a dirty word in the West sometimes Ė but in China, itís common sense.
Within my book, in this debate between the doctor and the mandarin, Iíve put some of the various experiences Iíve had listening to business negotiations between two sides with me in the middle, trying to interpret the cultures. This has come into the novel, become the theme of the novel. This is the background theme of the novel. Hopefully, the foreground is a good story.
FC: In the process of drafting the novel and seeing it come to life, have the characters come to life too and obsessed you in any way?
AW: I wouldnít say I was obsessed by them, but I kind of got to know them over the last 5 years. You often hear that writers will say that the characters take on a life of their own and did things.
You do realise once a character is half-written, he does take on a certain personality. So you know how he reacts in any given circumstance. When youíre doing your synopsis, you donít know him so well, you havenít worked it out properly.
I sometimes find that when Iím writing, the characters do things that surprise me.
Writing is a very enjoyable process. All sorts of things are happening. Sometimes you actually get lost in this world. Youíd be writing for hours and suddenly you wake up and you almost feel jetlagged, as if youíve travelled from a faraway place and come back to reality.
FC: How much research do you have to do, if at all?
AW: Not much, to tell you the truth. Simply because the Boxer period was something which had always fascinated me, since I heard my Grandmotherís stories, so all through my life, Iíd read about the Boxers. I knew the period quite well.
FC: The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure obviously has the kind of scope Western readers expect of novels set in the Far East. Do you feel itís in danger of exoticising the east?
AW: This is always a technical difficulty. Perhaps some of the Western characters speak better Mandarin than perhaps they might have been able to. If you have an interpreter every few minutes, it would not work.
In a novel, you have to temper things. I suppose my technique is: when characters are speaking Chinese, Iíve been getting them to speak in colloquial English. When people speak in any foreign language, thereís an instant understanding. Occasionally, I have characters who donít speak Chinese so well or donít know it, in which case I have them speaking rather broken English.
Since the medium is English, Iíve given them English slang as opposed to Chinese slang. Some of the expletives might be English expletives rather than Chinese. This is a device.
FC: How did the whole bidding war thing come about?
AW: It was very late on that I approached an agent, with some trepidation. I was delighted when they were interested enough to take me on. The book wasnít finished then. With their encouragement I did complete it. I went back to England [May Day 2002] and spent a full day brainstorming with them. Every writer needs an editor to challenge you, to force you to face the things which youíd been too lazy to write about, the problematic things you had put aside hoping no one would notice.
My agent told me, ďBe patient now. It will take months and maybe nothing will happen.Ē
The first bid came in on Monday morning. For the rest of that week, it was like watching NASDAQ, going up in multiples! And on Thursday, theyíd sold it! And suddenly Iím an author!
I was on cloud nine! How did I feel? In a bit of a daze. I still donít think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a businessman who writes in his spare time. But I suppose thatís not true anymore.
FC: With such an expansive canvas full of cinematic possibilities, your novel mustíve also generated a lot of interest among filmmakers.
AW: Yes, a British film company has taken up an option. Theyíre now looking for a scriptwriter. No final decisionís been made. Perhaps it wonít be a movie. It might be a mini-series, because itís a big book with a complicated cast and complicated plot.
My agent gave me good advice. She said, ďIf you get a movie made of this, itíll be a wonderful bonus. But donít fix your mind on it. Youíre a writer. Concentrate on your writing.Ē Iím writing a sequel now. Deadline: next summer.
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004