The Intel: Duncan Jepson
Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He’s produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine WestEast, and one of the founders and managing editors of the Asia Literary Review. A social commentator on Asia, he regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Tatler. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.
His first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, was published by HarperCollins. He also co-storied the graphic novel, Darkness Outside the Night with Xie Peng. Now, his first book in a crime series about Detective Alex Soong, Emperors Once More, is out. You can buy it at places like this.
How would you pitch Emperors Once More to a potential reader?
2017, China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt. For many Chinese, this has the same strong sense of bitterness as the humiliations of the Opium War, Rape of Nanjing and Boxer Rebellion. One man in Hong Kong, deeply affected by colonialism, wants to use this new collective anger and indignation to push Chinese to demand China use its global power to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. To achieve these ends, he will draw on both ancient rites and modern technology.
It’s the first in a crime trilogy about Detective Alex Soong – how would you describe Soong?
First and foremost, Soong is of the new generation of Chinese - worldly, apolitical and, like many but not all, has strong views on right and wrong though these are still evolving as he lives and grows. He has also chosen to embrace difference, which many Chinese have traditionally eschewed, so by moving to Hong Kong, a city which despite its strong consumer attitudes maintains conservative Chinese values largely gone from China, he agitates against the often parochial views. Furthermore, he and his wife try to adapt to modern life, that their parents in China never experienced at that age.
Finally like many law enforcement officers, and certainly from my own experiences as a corporate counsel in a regional financial organisation, he struggles with how far he should pursue a situation regardless of the consequences such as personal conflict, loneliness and general antagonism.
It is a very free market economy, one can make or lose millions in day, because it has been built by population of wealth seeking risk-takers, now not just Chinese but from all nationalities, who thrive on possibility. It is also a city of dense living conditions, people constantly touching each other’s lives, helpfully and harmfully – rich, poor, educated, street-wise, resolute and weak. These two general characteristics are shaped further by the contrasting architecture (huge towers and crumbling slums), the harbour and the night lights, offering all sorts of opportunities for grim misdeeds from white collar crime to human and animal trafficking. Even more exciting for the crime writer is that during the last ten years or so there is increasing work to fight crime providing another rich area of inspiration.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
Deciding what I want to say, answering my own question - why tell a story in the first place? Once I have that then I take whatever time is needed to create the story, and this is found in personal experiences, observations of others, history and more broadly from the inspiration from others. Once the story starts to take shape, I then try to work on the characters and how they interact. This latter part is the most enjoyable but the most difficult. I’m still learning my craft so I have good days when little elements seem to fall nicely into place and then other bearish days when everything is lumpy and ill-fitting. Some days the story and characters are at odds and one must revise or simply leave it alone and go do something else so perhaps on return the way forward presents itself – this is much like everything else in life.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
During the day I work as corporate counsel heading a legal team in a regional (Asia Pacific) investment organization so my writing is done during lunch and at night. I try to write 1200 a day and some days I’m ahead and others far behind. From my experience the important element is to keep writing and progressing the story, not constantly refining the same pages - if one is stuck on the same pages it is probably because one doesn’t know the rest of the story.
Who are the authors you love and why?
Italo Calvino, a sublime storyteller and fabulist, who creates the beautiful characters and worlds. I have always liked Herman Hesse for the detailed journeys I would travel with his characters and the warmth of his writing.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
How do you deal with feedback?
Generally, providing it is explained clearly, I like feedback. I may not agree with the points made but I do find it interesting to hear and read how other people understood and experienced something I made. Writing is pretty solitary but I am used to working with others in my day job, in film etc and I like different perspectives. I was on a panel chaired by Professor Douglas Kerr who wrote a great biography of Conan Doyle, I made some comments about difficulties I had with the pace and nature of a crime novel and it was fascinating to hear him respond about the structure of both crime writing from an academic perspective and about Doyle from a biographer’s perspective.
You’ve had a varied career – how have your own experiences shaped your writing?
In this story, I was heavily influenced by my own experiences on some investigations, mainly the personal elements, not the crimes. But also as a filmmaker, I am influenced by detail and atmosphere which I try to capture to draw the reader into the particular world.
Give me some advice about writing…
Say something (have some purpose, hopefully people will listen), write everyday (even if you are very undecided about what you have written) and be honest about your work (your final draft is an editor’s first.)
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Have a strong story and strong characterisations, try to finish the work or at least have a first quarter with a thorough synopsis, find an agent who you trust and then trust them, work with the editor and help market the book. Finally don’t be too difficult, writing a manuscript and making changes is indeed pretty solitary but publishing books is not.
What’s next for you?
I am finishing the sequel which is currently titled Us and Them and is set in Hong Kong, the UK and Thailand. I’m currently in the UK visiting my father and doing a little research. I am also still working on a documentary about social inequality but I’ve been at it for three years now.