In August of 2013, I flew back to America to sit the mandatory French testing that would guarantee me a placement in the Peace Corps. I’d worked on an organic farm outside of Shenzhen, China, and with proof of my French skills, they were certain to ship me off to some distant clime in West Africa. While I was home, I scoped out locations and soaked up the atmosphere of Morro Bay, a place I hadn’t seen in two years. I hashed a bit at my outline, in between visits with old friends, meals that involved cheese and good beer, and endless games of Europa Universalis III.
A month later, in September, I flew back to China, flush with success. I started a new semester at Northeastern University’s online program and hit the bricks, looking for work. I knew the schools had hired while I was an ocean away, but that just meant more tutoring opportunities, right?
A month later, I was still hitting the streets. China’s National Day had come on October 1, a weeklong vacation where, as with every Chinese holiday, the students go home to their parents, sleep, eat mama’s cooking, and sleep more. And eat. And sleep. Zhuhai, already a sleepy little seaside city, was sleepier still, soaked in its own turpitude.
It was during the holiday that my girlfriend broke up with me. Two and a half years come to an end. Looking back on it, it had been a long time coming. I’m glad she pulled the trigger – and I’m still glad she stood by me as long as she did. I said goodbye to her and cut our staycation short, walking home instead of taking the bus. It was four straight miles through the dark starry Zhuhai night, where the sea is slate-grey at noon and muddy brown at dusk, and the suspicious smell of the Pearl River’s effluvia poison the Pacific…but hell, at least the air’s clean enough to breathe.
I went home to the cavernous four-bedroom apartment that my roommate had fled months before, where we never did buy furniture and the kitchen always seemed in constant danger of being overwhelmed by some lifeform or another. It was a whitewashed tomb on the eighth storey, full of closed doors and regrets. My room and the kitchen were the only places that even seemed inhabited, and my room only because of the three luggages and the small collection of Tsingtao beer bottles I’d collected after each day’s job hunting.
The collection got bigger as October wore on. My internet gave out and never came back, the food in the fridge went bad as I dined, night after night, on a bottle of Tsingtao and two packets of Chinese peanuts. I began to take up residence in the local gwailo bar, an Authentic Australian Bar joined at the hip to a dodgy Italian restaurant, owned by a Welshman and staffed with the best English students the Zhuhai universities could provide. I ordered the garlic chicken at the extravagent price of ten dollars, and made four meals apiece out of it, washed down with copious amounts of the local swill beer that was priced just right at less than a dollar per pint. I did my homework over their wifi, perched on a rickety stool in the back and with my computer shoved in between the skittles table and the wall, ducking down if I saw my ex or any of her colleagues so I wouldn’t run the risk of embarrassing her.
My Hemingway impression was perfect.
I began, in a crude way, to figure out that I was destroying myself, and that unless something was done, my grades would suffer. Unless something changed. Unless I changed. Unless I did something…adventurous.
I signed up for National Novel Writing Month on October 20, my mother’s birthday. I shaved my beard on October 30. I had an ill-advised one night stand thanks to my Doctor Who costume on October 31.
On November 1, I nursed a hangover and opened a new word document. At the top, I typed NO TIME: THE FIRST HOUR. And I began to write.
I’d written a novella the previous year, a patchwork piece of five interconnected pulp stories entitled Ian Brown and the Hand of Fatima. But I’d never finished a full-length novel. National Novel Writing Month asks for 50,000 words. The 12-chapter mystery formula asked for 60,000. Well, Hell. I had no job and no girlfriend and my life consisted of online classwork, the pub, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, green Tsingtao bottles, and my bed.
And now, a book. Gooch took shape immediately – I’d done preliminary work on him, Rachel and Maria a week before I started. I groped for Rachel’s voice and found it once I realized the person I thought she was was actually Debbie-Anne. Maria took her entrance and characters began to crawl out of the woodwork: Uncle Jerry (then under the pseudonym Uncle Wrex), Matthew Park, Alison Wingate III.
Francesca Caballero y Gutierrez, Ama, was a particular treat. Until Gooch opened that door, I was expecting the frail old woman from my notes. The woman who appeared on the page is still blind, but her fingers are strong and her ears sharp. Age didn’t diminish her – it refined her. And I fell in absolute love with her (still am!).
The soundtrack coalesced. Gooch’s “Telegraph Road,” Maria’s “Heaven on Their Minds,” the tick-tock of “No Time” and the spare acoustic eulogy of “Beast.”
I remember finishing chapter four and talking to my mother on the phone and going “I wrote this character who’s just like you!” (Alison)
I remember writing chapter nine and calling her again and going “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t plan this. Alison just …kind of got away from me there.”
I remember spending almost a week on chapter eight, as it metastasized and threatened to strangle the book like a cancer. As it simply kept growing as fast as I kept writing, and of the sleep-deprived despair I felt at ever finishing the damn thing. I remember Lachlan Atcliffe steeling me to carry on and listening to my rants about how much I hated it.
No, seriously, fuck chapter eight.
I remember writing about Gooch’s love of tequila, inspiring Big Joel to suggest a round of tequilas. And another, and another. We whispered terrible secrets in the dark, the things that haunted us and drove us to that dingy bar, that distant continent, that fish-smelling village of Tangjia that had once shown so much promise.
There is a pervasive energy to the gwailo, a malaise and a shadow that hangs over us whenever two or more gather – the mingled love and fear of Home. In large cities, young cities, husky, brawling, where there are Russians and Frenchmen and Israelis thrown together with the usual detritus of the Anglosphere, where some are still young and still on their gap year, where there is still some hope, the malaise ebbs. In cities like Zhuhai, it’s in the air – the sense that you have failed at life at Home, and will fail again if you ever return, that are less than a man if male and an invisible white ghost if female. In Haikou, it was suffocating as the jungle odor of the coconut groves and the punishing wet heat of afternoon before the monsoons came, and just as real.
There was an Englishman who tried to pick a fight with Big Joel that night, but the old brawling hockey-playing Irish boy from south Boston wasn’t having it. He was quoting Robert Frost instead, as he might have done before a tabernacle or a Harvard lecture hall in another life. So, after the tequila conspired with darkness to rob me of memory, he started in on me. They tell me we wandered out together as the bars closed at two AM, spilling into the street market beneath the shadow of the legendary Dragon Union dance hall and brothel and bordello, that dominates the heart of Tangjia.
Praise be to China and the Chinese, for they make use of every public space. Any square inch will be turned to community garden, to ballroom dance practice in the evenings, to the housewives’ tai chi in the mornings under the care of the wizened master, or to the street market. Enterprising young guns from across China, from Urumqi and Kashgar on the old silk road where the men all wear silk hats under Allah to the waterside slums of Shenzhen, gather in the night markets to buy and sell. The card tables come out at sundown, the portable barbeques are trundled from their hiding places, the restaurants retreat inside themselves while the Muslim boys banter and grill you oysters and kebabs and crucified chicken drumsticks and the toothless Hokka women smile at your Mandarin as bad as theirs and grill or blanche vegetables and pork by the mouthful. We whites set up ourselves a card table, between two pointless street gangs and a quiet table of low-grade tong soldiers.
They tell me that the Englishman became mean as he drank, as Englishmen do, and he began to insult my mother. They tell me I took a swig of beer, and asked with all politesse if he was joking around, or if he was really trying to insult my mother. They tell me I put the bottle on the table, quite deliberately, as the other six guys shifted around, ready to start the fight if I threw the punch. Hell, I had a brown belt in Uechi-ryu and a Boston southie going for me.
And the Englishman sputtered that he was just joking around. And I smiled, and shook his hand, and was pleasant.
That’s the bit that scared people, the bit they were haunted by when they told me the next morning. I was scary because I was friendly.
Finally, by November 30, I had taken a spare room with a Grand Old Gentleman and a scholar, and stayed up all night, powered by homework and cheap Tsingtaos and Pepsi, and plowed inexorably through the last few chapters. I wrote them all in that night, finishing at 5:50, the time on Gooch’s microwave when he stumbles into his house on Easter morning. I scattered [tk]s like confetti, marking places to fix in the second draft or after, leaving them spread in my wake as I sailed on towards the safe harbor of the end, the end in sight, -THE END-.
And I reached The End.
The dawn was just yellowing, the sun peeking triumphantly out before the factories would bury it under smoke and soot. I put on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and brewed myself a cup of jasmine tea. I spent an hour like that, wandering the house, as my roommate wandered out for his coffee and out to teach his morning class. I let it steep into me, into my bones.
I’d written a book.
At 62,000 words, I’d written an entire novel.
I uploaded it to NaNoWriMo for verification, and got my winner’s diploma.
Then, spent, I stumbled to my room, and slept.
On December 1, I took the ferry to Hong Kong. It was time for my visa run…and a party to go to. One I had damn well earned the right to go to.
Strange and beautiful things happened then in Hong Kong, but then they always do. Hong Kong, for my money, is the most romantic city in the world. And I had written a book. God damn. I’d really done it.
The rest of the story is a roundy-round of drafts and edits, shifting names and nationalities, Alison and Jerry and Ama assuming their proper place and dignity, things explained, verisimilitude. The story of publishing a book is rarely as interesting as the story of writing it. But, hey, that’s the company motto: Every story has a story.
And I’d written a book.
Edit: Big Joel died, not too long ago, in a freak car accident in the streets of Zhuhai. Wherever you are, raise a glass for him. Where he’s gone, everyone is a poet – and he can drink and quote Robert Frost in a night that never ends.