In conversation with Andrew Best

The Shanghai-based author on Parkour Girl and the Yellow Fish Car

This month sees the release of the first independently published comic-fantasy e-novel set in Shanghai. Parkour Girl and Yellow Fish Car follows a rudderless twenty-something American on his journey into a secret netherworld of Chinese super-heroes. Charlotte Middlehurst meets author Andrew Best.

Why did you write this book?
I wanted to write about all the things that go on here that are not in the ‘How to Succeed in China’ books or the mainstream news. I thought that the super-hero genre would be an interesting way to tell it.

Protagonist Zack Smith feels familiar. Who inspired him?
He's a mix of a few people I know. But there is a real Zack Smith. I took the name directly from a guy on the music scene here, half because it fits the character and the aims of the book, and half because I wanted to give him a laugh.

How much of the story is true?
I’ve lived here for ten years now. Despite being a book about costumed heroes, 80 per cent of it is pretty much true or directly lifted from things that happened to me or people I know. The opening taxi incident happened in my very first week here. Also, the story Zack's housemate tells him, about his trip to Southeast Asia, is a word-for-word reproduction of a story someone told me.

Was it hard to write from the perspective of a 17-year-old Shanghainese girl?
I've spent ten years working here with teenage students. I based her character and mannerisms on people I know and went through the character and speech with a couple of my students of the same age for their feedback and advice.

Why go with a comic book hero?
This is going to sound really pretentious, but I honestly think that the so-called super hero genre is so popular because it suits our times and lives. In the industrialised world there are millions of people living in cities for whom comic book-hero stories really resonate: the feeling of being anonymous and surrounded by tough challenges, the idea of being able to take control of it all. And in modern books, the heroes are flawed and more human, too.

The story feels Salinger-esque in parts where tiny events trigger lengthy reflections on life. Are you a fan of The Catcher in the Rye?
I don’t consciously think of it as formative to me. But I did go into this project with a style in mind. I love all kinds of writing but I’m really tired of the classic novel style where it’s narrated in the third person and peppered with the wit or wisdom of the author.I wanted to use very simple language and allow the reader to make their own judgments. I guess Pinter is more up my street.

Are comics taken seriously in China?
The problem here is that the industry is restricted by politics. It’s not easy for any kind of domestic arts industry to do high-profile work that’s also nuanced and serious. Once the grip is relaxed a bit, the Chinese arts and entertainment industry will explode in all areas.