Today I’m delighted to welcome Laurence Westwood to FromBelgiumWithBookLove! Laurence is the author of The Willow Woman, which I reviewed a last week, if you missed it, it’s right here. The Willow Woman is set in China and quite a lot of information and facts are woven into the fictional story, so much so that I really wanted to know why Laurence is so fascinated by China and how it is he knows so much. So I invited him over for a Q&A and he graciously accepted. Incidentally, this is his very first Q&A, so be gentle, k 😉 Be sure to read on because I will be telling you how you can win a paperback copy of The Willow Woman!
First of all: this is Laurence!
Laurence! Hi, welcome! I’m dead chuffed that you’re willing to answer my questions and satisfy my curiosity! How are you today?
Okay… but maybe a little bit worried about how much I might reveal during this Q&A.
No need to worry, we’ll take it nice and easy and I promise I won’t pry (much)… Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let’s first set the mood. Back in February, I went on a virtual trip with Ariana D. Den Bleyker to Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. If you were to take me somewhere for our chat, where would that be? Would we go for coffee, would we grab a bite to eat, where would we go, and why?
I don’t really have an emotional connection or affinity for any particular place. So I would take you back to a time when I was at my happiest. I used to be a criminal investigator for local government and then for the software industry here in the UK. Once the initial stages of an investigation were completed, well before dawn I would sit down with the investigation team I was working with for the final briefing in regard to the search warrants that were about to be executed. It was an exciting time, the adrenalin pumping, the investigation finally balanced between success and failure, no one knowing – no matter how much intelligence had been gathered and background work completed – quite how the operation would turn out. So you and I could take a few moments to chat quietly outside in the cool pre-dawn air, once the final briefing was done, while waiting for the order to jump in the cars and go….
That sounds thrilling! And I do love that moment just before dawn, to be awake when everyone else is asleep, when the world is fresh and quiet. You don’t mind if I have a cuppa to warm my hands while we talk? Okay so, let’s talk books and China! While I was reading The Willow Woman, I couldn’t help but wonder about your connection to China. There is just so much love for and knowledge of China in there. The bio on your website states what’s obvious to any reader of your book, namely that you have a “long-standing fascination with the political, military, social and legal history of China”. But why? Why China? What sparked that fascination?
This is a bit of a strange tale. I had always read history. Up to about 2006, somewhere in the house I had a history book about almost every part of the world – except for China, that is. It was in that year, after I had given up the investigation work – the ‘why’ is a long story in of itself – I finally decided to sit down and write seriously. I struggled along with a couple of different plots set in the UK but I couldn’t get anything to really work. Then, late one evening, I suddenly remembered a Japanese TV series I had loved back in the 1970s based on the Song Dynasty Chinese novel ‘The Water Margin’ (aka Outlaws of the Marsh) which featured – among its cast of heroes – an honest judge. I suddenly had the crazy idea that I could write a story set in Song Dynasty China about the adventures of an honest judge. I found a notebook and quickly wrote down the names: Magistrate Zhu, Horse, Fast Deng, Slow Deng and Little Ox. It was as if those names had been waiting in back of my mind all along. It was the weirdest feeling. I arbitrarily picked a date in history in the middle of the Song Dynasty (1086) and closed my eyes and put my finger on a map of China (the hills to the west of Chengdu). Realising I might have to do a bit of research (I had no idea then how much research I would have to do!) I started collecting history books and academic papers on the period. The more I read, the more I became fascinated with every aspect of China. Odd as it sounds, it was like I had found my inner home. By 2009, I had written The Balance of Heaven and Earth. Unable to sell the book – my agent at the time told me the publishers couldn’t quite figure how to market it – I did not write again for a couple of years. Then, in 2013, I decided to have a crack at writing about modern China. It took me a long time to come to this decision as modern China is highly complex, and setting a police procedural in an authoritarian state morally challenging. However, I thought I might have a better chance of selling such a novel to publishers. I was eventually to be proved wrong on that, but, after loads more research (and many, many drafts) by the end of 2015, The Willow Woman was finally completed. So, bizarre as this sounds, I feel that China somehow chose me.
And have you ever been to China? To do some research or to get a feel for the country, or the culture?
No, I have never been to China. The Willow Woman is definitely set in a China of my imagination.
Am I right to assume a trip to China is on your bucket list then?
I would certainly like to visit someday, see Chengdu, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. However, if anyone in the government there reads The Willow Woman, it is quite likely I might not be let in! Sections of the novel would certainly fall foul of the recently updated censorship rules.
Probably! I did think I detected some criticism. Was that just your characters talking or do you actually believe changes should be made in, for example, the legal system, or the organisation of the police force?
China has a fully-functioning legal system that handles over 800,000 criminal cases a year. However, not only is corruption endemic within the police and the judiciary but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retains full control of the legal system at every level. Regardless of what is written in China’s constitution and in the criminal law, the CCP (when it suits) will always place itself above the law and act in such a way as to protect its own power and interests. It is thirty years since the massacre at Tiananmen Square. And, though the memory of this event has largely been suppressed in China (so much so that many now in China have never have heard of it or even believe such a thing possible), we should never be in any doubt that the CCP would act in such a brutal way again if it feels its authority or legitimacy is under threat. As we speak, well over a million Uighur Muslims are being held in concentration camps in Xinjiang Province undergoing ‘thought reform’, their culture considered a threat to the state. My characters do not have the power or (even the intent at present) to challenge the system. But it is my personal belief that true justice – no matter in what country, regardless of whatever legal system is in place, and regardless of position or status – always begins with the individual, in that an individual always has a choice whether to treat another justly or not. And so I have my characters operating in a corrupt and unjust environment but doing their best to bring whatever justice they can to the people – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – just as, I am sure, that there are honest police and prosecutors in real life in China that are trying to do the same every day.
To be honest, I had no idea that China has concentration camps in this day and age, and that an outdated practice like ‘thought reform’ is still in use. This may be the ideal time to ask you if you believe in karma.
No, I don’t believe in karma as such – not the belief that if you do something bad then something bad will happen to you. I think one of the toughest lessons we have to learn as we become adults is that bad things do happen to good people. But it is interesting to note that when Buddhism spread to China, because the family unit is so important in China, the concept of karma was transformed into a family affair in that the sins of the family are considered to be passed down from generation to generation. I have tried to reflect this in Philip Ye’s complicated attitude toward his family, and toward his father especially. I also think there is some real truth in that many of us spend the majority of our lives coming to terms with (or trying to escape) the legacies – physical, mental, financial, whatever – passed down to us by our parents and their parents before them and so on.
There’s some food for thought! And do you, like Philip Ye, believe in ghosts?
Yes, I have no problem with believing in ghosts. When I was a child my parents were regular attendees at the local Christian Spiritualist church, so in a sense I grew up in a world of ghosts and spirits. It all seemed so normal when I was young – and still does, to be honest. A science degree has done little to change my view that the world is full of deeper mysteries than science is yet able to explain.
You have not only a science degree, you have your own management consultancy firm, and you lecture at the University of Warwick on computer law and IP enforcement. When do you even have time to write?!
This is true. I do have my own firm. But all is not quite what it seems. I am semi-retired now but have the joy of being a full-time carer for my 87 year old mother. Life doesn’t always go to plan! But she’s not so bad, even though she believes real men don’t write: they either work in factories or dig holes in roads. She also doesn’t mince her words when it comes to subject matter. When I told her I was writing about China, she said, ‘Who wants to read that rubbish?’ (See above for the question about karma). Anyway, apart from a bit of lecturing at the university, I take on any work I can that I can easily do at home. This leaves me a fair bit of time to research and write. I am in awe of anyone who can write a novel while working full-time or bringing up a young family.
Ah yes, man proposes, God disposes, don’t I know it! Well, next time she says that, you give your mother my regards and tell her you’ve found a silly Belgian who not only read that rubbish, but loved it so much she wanted to ask you a bunch of questions about it to boot ? So what is your writing process like? Do you have a regime you try to adhere to, certain habits to get the words flowing, a writing cave, a favourite drink, some music?
I need silence to write. When I am writing the first draft I tend to spend a lot of time staring out of the window, so I guess windows are crucial to the process! I usually write early drafts with a fountain pen. I find that using a pen slows my thinking down and calms my mind. I also get to play with different colours of ink which makes me childishly happy. I don’t worry if the words or ideas don’t come right away. I have learned through experience to sit with pen and pad and wait, for hours or even days if necessary. I don’t think it is a process to be rushed – not for me, anyhow. I try to write all morning and then in the afternoon close my eyes and explore the different routes the story might take. Sometimes I fall asleep, it is true. I think one of the most difficult aspects of writing is making decisions, not only in relation to plot and character but also in decide if the story is working or not, and if not to be prepared to chuck away a month’s work (or two months or three months or….) and start again.
I won’t lie, that would break my heart! Do you have a favourite part in your writing process?
I seem to enjoy all aspects of the writing process though writing a first draft can be seriously stressful as I don’t outline. Research can be a pain sometimes, especially if you can’t track down what you are looking for.
So it’s safe to say you’re a pantser, not a planner, you give your characters free reign?
I can’t outline or plan to save my life. An outline has no meaning for me. When I began The Willow Woman, all I knew was that an old man had been shot. I did not know why or by whom. This, for me, is what makes writing so exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. It reminds me of my old life as an investigator. I am discovering stuff about the plot and the characters as I go along. However, in a complicated novel, with flashbacks and sub-plots and things not always being what quite they seem, this means there is a lot of drafting and re-drafting. I guess I wrote The Willow Woman ten times over before I got it right (as right as I was able, that is). So 160K words x 10 = a shed load of words. In terms of giving my characters free reign, I assume from the outset that they are real people. That’s the only way I can work. So I spend a lot of the first draft getting to know them, getting to understand what makes them tick. All I ask of them is that whatever they do it must make sense – to them and to me. In real life, people often do the most ridiculous things and for the most stupid reasons; in fiction this will not work.
No, that’s true, put the crazy things that people do in real life in a book and readers start screaming bloody murder about improbable plotlines! As an author do you have a role model? An author you look up to and think: that’s who I want to be when I grow up?
James Clavell is probably the most obvious role model for me. Not only was he assiduous in his research, he was prepared to re-write a scene up to 40 times just to get it right. And he also wasn’t averse to changing history to suit the needs of a novel. SHOGUN has been criticised since its publication for being inaccurate in a number of places. I am quite sure he knew when I why he was playing with history and unlike his critics understood that a novel is a different type of history and does not have to be historically accurate to succeed (I do worry sometimes about people learning all their history from novels – or worse, films!). Another author I admire is James Ellroy. I don’t consider myself that well-read in the crime genre. But years ago, when I read James Ellroy’s L.A. quartet – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz – the thought occurred to me (a stupid thought I know), that I didn’t think novelists were allowed to write like this! They are truly amazing novels. Reading them gave me the belief that it is okay sometimes to really push boundaries. I once heard a literary agent explain that a police procedural cannot be sustained much past 120K words. Apart from the hard financial realities of publishing – the sweet spot for a crime novel is, I guess, about 80 – 100K words – I think this is nonsense. But as The Willow Woman clocks in at over 160K words then I am bound to say that, aren’t I??
Ha, yes you are! I have to admit it was a little bit daunting, 400 something pages, but once I was reading, I flew through them, and it never felt like a chore. Honestly, I’ve read books with fewer pages that took me longer to get through. I don’t think the size matters much if the story is well written, but I can see how slightly thinner books might be more easily marketable. Are you a reader as well as a writer?
I do read a lot, but not much fiction these days. I am one of those people who has real trouble writing and reading fiction at the same time. If I read other people’s fiction, I lose focus on what I am doing myself. So these days I concentrate on reading histories and biographies, and on journals that keep me up to date with the latest research on China. But in the past I used to read a lot of fiction. When I was young I read a lot of science fiction of the Golden Age – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Azimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury – but the New Wave stuff (late 1960s onwards), I didn’t really understand and left me cold. I loved fantasy as well though I have to say that the genre no longer interests me as much as it did. However, if I am feeling low, I will always return to my beloved Earthsea novels by Ursula K. LeGuin (she always managed to pack so much raw power into every single sentence!). I might also pick up any of the Moomin novels by Tove Jansson. I know they are meant for children but I still love them. However, the turning point for me in the appreciation of novels came when I was about fifteen. On a visit to my local library I saw the most massive hardback I had ever seen – 1200 pages! It was SHOGUN by James Clavell, first published in 1975. I remember lugging it over to the librarian who looked at me as if to ask, ‘Are you sure?’ I certainly was. The book cover was simple: gleaming white with just an image of a Japanese sword. It just HAD to be good! I took it home, read it, and became aware for the first time of what a good novel could really do, how fiction could really take you to a place you had never been, to a time when you had not been alive, and make you feel that you were living every single moment of the story.
If a film company wanted to do a movie adaptation of The Willow Woman, would you want them to? Would you want to be involved? And who would you want to play your characters? Did you have anyone (famous or not) in mind when you created your characters?
I would be very happy for someone to make a film of The Willow Woman but I think a TV series would be better as there is so much going on! I am not sure how involved I would like to be. I think it is a very different discipline. I am also not a very visual person. When I write, I hear voices rather than visualise scenes. I honestly didn’t have anyone in mind when I created the characters.
Really?! That surprises me because you write very vivid scenes that I automatically visualised in my mind’s eye. The cover of The Willow Woman mentions “A Philip Ye novel”. Does that mean that The Willow Woman is just the beginning? Is there a series in the works?
Yes, I have four books in mind for Philip Ye: the Chengdu Quartet! I have spent the last two years writing the sequel, Liberation Street – more murder, mayhem and spooky goings on for Philip Ye to deal with. It’s working title for a long time was Warfare, which probably gives a better immediate sense of what the novel is about, that all is definitely not well again in Chengdu. But once you read it you’ll understand why I opted for Liberation Street – though I do reserve the right to change my mind again! I’ve put the novel aside for the moment but will revisit it in the autumn to work on it a little bit more to take into account some of my beta readers’ comments. I’m afraid it’s even longer than The Willow Woman! I am hoping to put it out in early 2020.
I can’t wait! Any parting words for my visitors today?
If you choose to read it The Willow Woman, I hope don’t worry too much about the unusual names (to the Western eye), the extended cast list, and the strange legal system, and that you will pick up on the joy I found in writing it, and maybe even laugh at one or two of the jokes I slipped within its pages.
As you know, I did worry a little bit about the names, but I found out there was no need to worry, I could remember perfectly who everyone was and the names didn’t seem so foreign after a few chapters. As for the legal system, it’s explained really well but without being pedantic, so no worries there either. I did pick up on that joy, and I do believe it’s part of the reason why I loved this book so much, I did laugh and I also became teary-eyed (not at the jokes!), and to make a long story short, I couldn’t recommend The Willow Woman enough!
Which is why… I am over the moon to be able to host an INTERNATIONAL giveaway! Laurence has kindly offered not one, but TWO paperback copies of his brilliant crime thriller! Head over to my Twitter page, retweet the pinned tweet and follow Laurence Westwood (@LWestwoodAuthor) and me (@kellyvandamme) for a chance to win a paperback copy of The Willow Woman. (Please don’t follow to unfollow, you’ll break our hearts) And/or head over to my Bookstagram page: follow me, like the photo and tag any number of friends. Bonus entry: follow my blog and tell me so on Twitter or Instagram. You have to be comfortable with giving me your address so I can forward it to Laurence who will send the books. Two winners will be announced on 10 June, one from Twitter and one from Instagram, good luck!