Party Members was certainly one of the more interesting of my reviews on China-centric books. Whether one agrees with the intense tone of the novel, or thinks it goes too far, no one can deny that the author displays a uniquely powerful talent at expressing his particular vision…
I was lucky enough to recently procure an interview with author Arthur Meursault, in which I ask questions to explore his writing process and inspiration.
And a very interesting interview it was, henceforth below:
Party Members is a rather unique China novel that delves into themes few other novels would dare to tread. What was your process like in writing the novel?
This will be ammo for my critics, but honestly speaking the book was remarkably easy to write. Once I decide to write something I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else until it is completed. Just ask my wife: She had to clean the house single-handed for about twelve months. Initially, Party Members started as just a short story about some middle-class Chinese nouveau riche one-upping each other over dinner (the current Chapter 3 in the book), but I just kept adding more and more detail till it mutated into a full-blown novel.
In total it took me about a year to write, then I just left the file in a hard drive folder doing nothing for another year before I went back and did some editing to it. When I get the urge to write I can do just that–I’ll write and write until the demon is out of me and the words are on the page. It’s like a madness that I have to exorcise and I genuinely find it difficult to sleep or concentrate at work if I have an idea that I haven’t committed yet to the page. Editing, on the other hand, is a tiresome process and one that I don’t find enjoyable. The resident Grammar Nazi at my publisher is an extraordinary individual who has a passion for correcting obscure grammatical errors with his red pen of pain. At first I thought that I had done a decent job of proofreading my own copy, but Mark at Camphor destroyed my confidence like a nerd at a prom night getting drenched in a vat of pig’s blood.
The book does go into some dark places. As an author, do you ever feel disturbed that your imagination goes in unexpected directions?
If you were to read some of my other short stories–and you can find a couple on my blog–you’d be surprised at how light Party Members is compared to some of the other things that I dream up. I’m generally a pretty misanthropic type of guy. If you were to ask me what my belief system is I’d probably tell you I was a nihilistic antinatalist who views all life as malignantly useless – but I’d tell you that with a smile and follow it up with a “knock knock” joke. As for whether I get disturbed by my dark thoughts or not, my answer would be that I feel I’m just one step ahead of most people. Look at the way the world is turning, and my dark thoughts are increasingly becoming today’s reality.
Since releasing the novel, have you been surprised at some of the reactions whether positive or negative?
It is divisive and the classic type of book that will get one star from one reader and five stars from another. That’s how I intended it to be. I didn’t want to write a safe harmless book that people could agree on, I wanted to write a book that would upset and disturb those who kid themselves to the nature of reality and bring solace or a knowing smirk to those who see the darkness in life. The response has been exactly that, but with some additional modern criticisms from “the current year’s” SJWs who stifle thought by saying that a straight white male shouldn’t be allowed to express a negative thought about anything other than himself.
When did you know that you were going to be a novelist?
I’m not a novelist–I’m very clear on that. I have a full-time job which takes up 95% of my waking life… and I just so happen to have written a novel. As much as I would like it to define me,it unfortunately won’t. Tomorrow I will still have to continue the day job and the reality is that a niche interest book about China with naughty content in it most likely won’t sell that well and will be all-but-forgotten once I tire of trying to promote it. Maybe, just maybe, one day I will swallow my pride and write something that has a potential of selling: An erotic fiction featuring vampires or the story of a tenacious black woman who fought against 1960s racism to become the first botanist in space. However, having sold my soul, I still wouldn’t call myself a novelist.
What authors and books have inspired you?
Have you ever heard of The Fourth Turning? It’s a theory published in the late 1990s that claims history follows the same 80-year cycle continuously. It also says that within that 80-year period there will always be four individual generations with four individual personalities. Furthermore, a person can look for people with similar thoughts and moods by looking for their generational counterpart in the previous cycle. So a person like myself who grew up during the “Unravelling” of the 1980s and 90s should find like-minded authors within the generation that grew up approximately 80 years ago during the previous “Unravelling” cycle. Since all my favourite moody and cynical writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Albert Camus and F. Scott Fitzgerald are from that era, I’d advise any author seeking inspiration to do the same process.
God, that’s a bit of a dry response, isn’t it? I’m in danger of taking myself too seriously.
Do you prefer reading books about China, or more international literature?
There comes a point in any man’s life when he simply can’t read anymore books about China. One more autobiography about the Cultural Revolution or an alcoholic English teacher in tier-88 Hunan, and I’d probably grab a samurai sword and go berzerk outside a Beijing branch of Uniqlo. I still read books about China, and when I do I post reviews of them on my blog, but for every book I read on China I now read another ten on something else. Michel Houellebecq is the king of the current European zeitgeist.
Are you working on anything new?
It isn’t easy when struggling to keep hold of a full-time corporate job during a period of economic decline, but I’m slowly working on a collection of short stories. I’ve written about half of them and they’ll be so dark that they’ll make Party Members look like The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Some of the stories include tales of a woman driven mad by her garden wall and a new computer game craze that makes people infertile. If that sounds all a bit too much then I can try and appear a little more balanced by telling you that I have already written a full-length children’s story about pugs but I keep getting tempted to add sinister undertones to the draft.
What advice if any would you give to aspiring expat writers?
Do it. Please. The world needs more writers. That vlog on YouTube you are planning may seem tempting–and there’s probably more money in it too–but there are already enough spiky-haired excitable people giving us 8 Reasons why Asian Girls are Better or The 3 Best Pumpkin Spice Lattes in Beijing. Buzzfeed might thank you for that, but your grandchildren won’t.
Lastly, do you have any thoughts on the future of literature in Asia be it by foreign writers or by locals?
Big Western Publishing will continue to publish boring but “worthy” books by well-connected authors who say the right things. Small Independent Publishing will continue to publish interesting and original works by new authors that will be ignored by almost everybody. And Chinese Publishing will continue to publish the works of Xi Jinping.