THE READING LIFE … Julian LEES
JULIAN LEES shares his thoughts with ERIC FORBES about his passion for storytelling
JULIAN LEES was born and grew up in Hong Kong. After attending Cambridge University, he worked for a decade as a stockbroker with UBS and Société Générale. Since then he has written and published two novels: A Winter Beauty and The Fan Tan Players (Sandstone Press, July 2010), an opulent family saga set in Macau, Russia, the Scottish Highlands and Hong Kong in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Both novels have been translated into German and published by Random House Germany with a third set for release in 2013. The Fan Tan Players has also been published in Polish by Proszynski Publishers.
“I was privileged to have grown up in Hong Kong in the late 1960s and ’70s when the pace of life there was slow and relaxed—very much like Kuala Lumpur is now. From the moment I was old enough to explore the city I was hooked—the cacophony of the wet markets, the perfume of stinky tofu and the hustling cries of rickshaw boys camped near the Star Ferry. The fact that I spoke Cantonese as my second language made me a bit of a novelty too amongst the street vendors; not many blond gweilo kids at the time could swear like a drunken sailor whilst buying a char siu bao (barbecued pork buns).
“At 13, I went to boarding school in England and then on to Cambridge University. Following that I maintained several fruitful, yet cerebrally unfulfilling, positions as a stockbroker. A few years ago I decided I wanted—no, needed—to write, so I packed in my stockbroking job and started staring at blank white pages for hours on end.
“I’ve written two novels so far with a third due for completion very soon. I’m quite excited about this third novel [The House of Trembling Leaves] as it is set in Malaya ...”
Lees now lives in Malaysia with his wife Ming and their three children.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF SANDSTONE PRESS
How do you find the time to read as a full-time writer?
I think it is essential for an author to find the time to read. I devour books! As a novelist I’m always looking to broaden my horizons and I find reading good fiction helps to hone my craft. It keeps me focused and bouncing on my toes. Narrative technique, use of language, dialogue style, plotting the story, conceiving the characters—all vary with every book I pick up. Of course, there are novelists who are more satisfying than others—someone as gifted as David Mitchell, for example, could make reading the grocery list sound interesting! As for finding the time to read, I think if a novel gets its talons into me, everything else gets left behind.
Tell me a bit about The Fan Tan Players. What was the seed of the novel? Is this your first novel?
The Fan Tan Players is my second novel, but the first to be published in English. The story opens in 1928 in cyclone-drenched Macau. Nadia Shashkova, in her late 20s, originally a child refugee from pre-revolutionary Russia, is contemplating her diminishing marital prospects. None of the Portuguese suitors who pay their respects appeal to her in the slightest. She’s independent-minded, astute, an outsider, yet she’s haunted by secrets from her childhood, memories of violence and rupture, and one terrible secret above all others will not let her go. Enter Iain Sutherland, an enigmatic Scot working for an early version of MI6, and who is very interested in Nadia for a number of reasons. As Nadia and Iain learn about each others’ histories, neither of them can anticipate what the future holds for each of them—a journey into Russia to find something that has been lost, internment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, a courageous rescue. It is essentially an adventure/love story, but really it’s much more than that—it’s about friendship, family and loyalty.
As for the seed of the novel, I think it stemmed from my first book, A Winter Beauty (translated into German by Random House Germany), which was a fictional account of my grandmother’s flight from Russia to Shanghai during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. When I was a young boy growing up in Hong Kong, my grandparents were always surrounded by White Russian émigrés—there was a band leader, a tobacconist and a horse trainer or two—and I wanted to explore the lives of these well-read, charming pseudo-aristocrats.
Do you think reading matters? In what ways?
I think reading matters more now than ever! With PC games growing ever popular, children and teens are no longer reading for enjoyment (Harry Potter and Vampire fiction aside). The situation got so bad in the UK last year that the Booktrust charity gave away two million books to schoolchildren to try to stem the tide. I’m sure children who read for pleasure do better at school than those who don’t.
What kind of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Marvel comics! Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men. Daredevil was pretty cool, too. I know, I know, what a hypocrite, here I am climbing on a soapbox and pontificating about how kids don’t read enough ... but comics lit a magic flare in my imagination; perhaps I needed those superhero stories to get my creative juices flowing. Anyway, back to the question—my first serious book was Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone when I was 13, followed swiftly by George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.
What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. I also really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace and nearly everything by Sebastian Faulks (although I haven’t read his foray into the world of James Bond—nobody but Ian Fleming should be allowed to tamper with such an iconic character.) I must confess that I enjoy contemporary fiction much more than anything written before 1950. I think it comes down to writing style.
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why did you enjoy reading it?
For some reason V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas remains one of my favourite books. I can’t really say why I like it. I guess I just liked the story and the characters in it.
Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
Rarely. I think it’s like going to bed with a woman. It’s never quite as exciting or magical or suspenseful the second time round!
As an avid reader, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
Well, in my opinion every good piece of fiction needs conflict. Usually the protagonist wants something desperately (be it independence, love, justice, or whatever) and when this desire is denied him or her, the rest of the novel is spent fighting to attain it. For a novel to take my breath away I have to believe the story. Take Martel’s The Life of Pi for instance; it’s amazing that Martel can make his readers believe that Pi, a boy from Pondicherry, can survive 227 days on a raft with a 450lb tiger. He has the rare gift of making a story crawl under the skin; he makes you think about it when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re sipping your teh tarik, when you’re searching under the settee for your son’s misplaced Buzz Lightyear. It’s this type of story and the ease in which it is told that makes me shake my head in wonder.
What are you reading at the moment?
Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, a story set on a Mississippi cotton farm in the 1940s.
For better or worse, we are now in the age of the e-book. What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-readers?
I’m going to sound like a fuddy-duddy here but e-books just don’t do it for me. There’s something very personal about owning a physical copy of a book—the smell of the print, the texture of the paper and the feel of the cover. It becomes a friend, an old pal you sometimes see on your bookshelf and say hello to. E-books? Yes, they are the way forward but given a choice, I’m still the old-school type.
Do you think e-books will replace physical books one day? Do you see yourself reading one?
I’m sure that in 10 years’ time we’ll all be reading e-books, some of us more reluctantly than others, but hey, that’s progress for you.
Can you think of any fallouts relating to e-books that might impinge on professional writers in the near future?
I think there’s a fear that if publishers start selling e-books at deep, deep discounts, it will devalue the art of writing.