Interview: crime writer Qiu Xiaolong on his relationship with his most famous character

The renowned Shanghai-born, Missouri-based novelist swings through for the International Literary Festival

Photograph: Howard French
You wouldn’t know it from his most famous novels – the Inspector Chen series that has spanned two decades, 11 books and sold over 2 million copies worldwide – but author Qiu Xiaolong didn’t set out to become a crime writer. The Shanghai-born, St Louis-based novelist and poet simply wanted to write about changing Chinese society, and for him, the mystery genre became the most ‘convenient’. Qiu has melded his series to explore life in modern China via the life of his well-known character, Shanghai detective Chen Cao, as he navigates the murky waters of difficult cases.

As Qiu returns to Shanghai for the International Literary Festival, we get stuck into his evolving relationship with his most famous character over the years and what’s next for Inspector Chen.

In the past, you’ve touched on the fact that you almost got into crime writing unintentionally. Where did that unexpected direction come from?

To begin with, I did not set out to write in the mystery genre. I wanted to write books and novels about China today. But I found it really convenient to write about a changing society in this way – asking all kinds of questions, knocking on people’s doors, walking around the city... It’s all about problems in society [and] in the first book I just tried using this genre to tell my story and my publisher liked it and people liked it. So that’s why I [went] all out and right now I’m at book number 11.



When you first started the Inspector Chen series almost 20 years ago, did you see yourself coming as far with it as you have?

I didn’t even know it was going to be a crime novel, it was just one standalone novel. But my American publisher said ‘No, you have to go on with a second one.’ The contract was [for] three books and once you sign the contract, you have to work on the second one and then a third one... It’s [still] interesting for [me to see how] the character grows and evolves... The character evolves as Chinese society evolves, so in this sense, it’s not just a series of books, but also a series of things happenings in contemporary Chinese history.

Where do you continue to find inspiration for your stories? When you finish one, do you have an idea of where the next is going to pick up?

Within China so many things are happening; if you read online, almost every week you can find some news story, so a lot of the fiction [is inspired] by real-life stories... [Sometimes], even before finishing a book, from seeing some new event in China you already have an idea there is something to write about, but sometimes when you finish a book you have no idea what you’re going to write next.

One reason for me to come back to [visit] China is to get inspiration. It’s easy to do research online, but at the same time, it’s different from what you see for yourself walking in the park or what you eat even... I try to combine both ways for my writing. I follow things quite closely [online], but there’s still perspective distance – this may not be bad, because it gives some objectivity, but at the same time it’s good to come back, to be really in the middle of the things.

In between Chen books, last year you published Inspector Chen and Me, a reflective and experimental work that in part explores questions asked about your own relationship to Chen. What was your motivation for that?

One of the most commonly asked questions from my readers [is about how much inspiration I draw from myself]. And at one point I thought ‘Okay, let me do something about it.’ To put it simply I can say I have never been a cop or a Party member [like Chen], so of course, it is fictional. But on the other hand, I had not planned to stay in the United States or to write in English, so in that sense, Inspector Chen is like a projection of what I might have done had I stayed in China. Not necessarily as a cop, but at the time, I really dreamed of doing something in China for China… Philosophically, it is also complicated, like how the persona or how other people can shape me, it’s an interesting question to myself.

kill him off

What would you say are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen in yourself and Chen since you started the series?

At the beginning of the series [Chen is] certainly more idealistic. He believes he can make a difference by being an honest cop, so that’s what he does. But in the last books, he’s become more disillusioned and gets into more trouble himself… For me, after living in US for so many years, with distance, perspectives change. Especially recently... certainly my way of thinking and looking at China [has] changed.

What does the future hold for Chen? Do you still have big plans?

In the last two or three books, he’s become more pessimistic and gets more into trouble. Some readers have written to me that they’re worried I might kill him off. But I’ve told them, I have no immediate plans to do that because there are still so many things happening in China. I still want Inspector Chen to work around a little bit more...

Qiu Xiaolong's talk 'The Bund Park – 12th Volume in the Inspector Chen Series' is on Sunday 24 March at 4pm. Book your tickets here.

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