I’ve known Adam Brookes since 1999, when we met in Beijing where he was covering China for the BBC, and I’ve followed his career with interest ever since. When I learned that Adam, whose latest reporting assignment has been the Pentagon, was trying his hand at a spy novel, I was intrigued. Then, after reading an advance copy of Night Heron, I was impressed. I found it a gripping read, well deserving of the strong reviews its been getting in varied periodicals. (In his review of the book for this publication, Paul French aptly described the book as a “genuine page turner” by an author who is “excellent at describing contemporary Beijing” and knows how to “grab us from the start” with clever plotting.) I recently caught up with Adam and asked him a series of questions about his shift from working in journalism to writing fiction, which he was good enough to answer via email in a thoughtful and detailed way:
JW: It was a big leap to go from reporting to writing a novel, but I’m wondering if there are some parallel issues you needed to address, specifically relating to China, in these two very different modes of communicating. You need, for example, to deal with keeping an audience engaged that doesn’t know any Chinese and may even find Chinese names hard to remember due to their strangeness. Do you see a parallel issue here and if so, how did you decide to deal with the Chinese language in the novel?
AB: Reporting China for a Western audience was always an exercise in contextualizing. Both audiences and readers, I think, tend to find China a bit forbidding. The history is alien, the terrain can seem bleak, and pinyin romanization of the Chinese language is utterly perplexing unless you’ve studied it. How on earth do you read xue, or qiu? So keeping the viewer or the listener oriented, keeping names and places differentiated, is a task for both journalist and novelist. I decided to meet these problems head on in Night Heron. I did not shy away from Chinese – there’s quite a bit of it in the novel – but I tried to supplement a Chinese name or expression with something extra for the reader to hang on to. And I tried to ensure that no Chinese expression was plot critical, so even if you skim over the Chinese names, you won’t lose the thread. And yes, leaping from reporting to fiction writing was a leap in the dark. Some tools of journalistic writing came in useful, though. Writing for radio and television requires writing short and tight, an understanding of pacing, and mastery of the tricky art of transitions. Those aren’t bad tools to have in your box.
JW: In a related vein, the central Chinese figure in the book is referred to by the nickname “Peanut” a lot. Where does that nickname come from and did you use it partly to make him more relatable to audiences whose life experiences would be a world away from his?
AB: His real name is Li Huasheng. The given name, “Huasheng,” means something like ‘China Rising’, the sort of patriotic name that someone his age, born in the early, heady days of communist rule, might have been given. But said using different tones, “Huasheng” can mean “peanut,” hence the nickname. As you know, Chinese is full of that sort of punning and wordplay, and it allowed me to give a Chinese protagonist an English name, which I felt would be helpful. I think it makes it easier for the reader to visualise him, somehow. “Peanut” evokes his almost bald head, and his rotund figure, too.
JW: One journalist friend of mine, who has recently left China, pointed out that you include a lot of descriptions of meals in novel–she said, in fact, that reading it made her intensely hungry for foods she liked and missed. Was that a conscious choice or is it just natural when writing about China to discuss what people are eating and drinking?
AB: It was a conscious choice. Food is easy to imagine, and it’s viscerally interesting to most of us. A meal, its look, its smell, provides an immediate point of connection for the reader to the imagined world of the novel. And an elaborate food culture is just a dominant feature of life in China. Food, everywhere, all the time, in conversation, in the visual culture, on the street, in your nostrils. Cuisine is a powerful signifier of region and identity. Rice in the south, noodles in the north, chilis in the west. Crazy food. Spicy pig’s face. Fried scorpions. And Chinese food just has this potency and color to it. It’s not polite, and only rarely delicate or refined. It’s cooked in great gouts of flame and it sizzles and makes your throat catch and your eyes water. I find it great fun to write about. Lots of countries obsess about their food, of course, but the Chinese really take the dangao.
JW: Finally, the details you give, via the lead Western character in the book, of the challenges of covering China is a very appealing part of the novel. Obviously, you had your own experiences working in China to draw on, and presumably identified to some degree with the British journalist in the story who gets caught up in the world of espionage, but did you do additional research for that part of the book? Did you go back to China and hang out with journalists, interview people you knew, etc., to get a sense of what has and hasn’t changed since you switched from covering the exotic world of Chinese politics and society to the perhaps equally exotic one of covering the Pentagon?
AB: I follow China coverage intently, and I try to stay aware of the ways in which news is gathered there. I talk to friends and colleagues and keep track of who’s doing what and who’s being hassled by the government and subjected to visa woes and why. Facebook and Twitter are great for this. Since I was a reporter there, China’s own social media has changed the news landscape. Western reporters like Mike Forsythe and Chris Buckley and others have made some astonishing inroads. But the challenges they face are not dissimilar to those I encountered: an obstructive state, an atmosphere of suspicion, surveillance, retribution for unflattering coverage and all the rest of it. (Wait, am I talking about China or the Pentagon, now? China, of course.) My journalist character, Philip Mangan, faces the same problems with accreditation and the daily grind of reporting in a repressive state as those faced by foreign reporters for the last twenty years. When he allows himself, through his own vanity and misplaced curiosity, to get drawn into espionage, he faces a whole new set of problems.