'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' is a colourful debut novel full of love, memory and expectation that breathes life back into literary representations of modern China. The £150,000 advance paid to Justin Hill by publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson is said to be the largest, one-book offer made to a first time novelist on sight of a partial manuscript. Sinéad Gleeson puts some questions to the author.
Sinéad Gleeson: Would you say that the pleasures and pain invoked by memory are crucial to 'The Drink & Dream Teahouse?
Justin Hill: I think it's wrong to just limit the book to the idea of memory. Throughout 'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' there is a play on the nature of past, future and present: and people's relationship to it. All of these time zones are integral to the characters' view of themselves and their lives. Some, like Da Shan, look back to the past: both in his relationship with Liu Bei, and also in his desire to trace his family and find some comfort from cultural tradition. In contrast with this, Peach doesn't want to know anything about the past: and she looks to the future for her happiness. The contrasts between the characters probably represent different stages in life: when we are young we look forward to being able to drink alcohol, drive cars, leave home - become ourselves - while older people often look back to youth.
One character who struggles against both these is Old Zhu, who tries to stay content within the present moment. This is one of the more subtle messages of the book: a look at how expectations manage our states of happiness or unhappiness. If you have high expectations then you are more likely to be disappointed; whereas if you expect little then you might be surprised, but essentially the experience itself does not change. That's the crucial fact, the experience itself does not change - we experience it differently because of the expectations we bring to it.
SG: You taught in China as part of the VSO, why did you decide to write a novel?
JH: I had written a travel book set in China, in an attempt to give a more accurate reflection of China - but found the genre of travel writing quite frustrating because the writer is always the central character and the people they meet are reduced to comic, pathetic, tragic, romantic, sexual characters. I also found that travel writing is limited to the personality of the writer, events and the specific country. It is also very limited in where the book can go and what it can say. Fiction seemed like a natural turn to take because it would be much more challenging and exciting, and give me much more creative possibilities.
SG: The £150,000 advance paid to you by Weidenfeld & Nicolson is said to be the largest, one-book offer made to a first time novelist on sight of a partial manuscript. How did that make you feel?
JH: It was a very surreal process: for a number of reasons. The first was that since graduation I had been working for 7 years as a volunteer worker in China and Eritrea, earning a local wage which meant I was earning about £1000 a year: when I went shopping I couldn't afford imported Western luxuries like tomato ketchup or baked beans.
When I came back to Britain to start writing 'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' I obviously had very little money: and rented a cottage in rural Lancashire where I was doing my MA. To save money I didn't have the heating on, took cold showers, and cycled the 30 miles round trip to university rather than get the bus. I had a couple of freelance jobs that kept me going until spring, but then they dried up and I began to seriously run out of money. I had written a book on Eritrea that I was hoping would get published, but no one was interested. So I gambled on my novel and sent the first third off to an agent.
I thought I might get a few grand - enough to finish the book - but the bidding started at £40,000 - and then kept going up. I'd never met my agent - and this is when it got really strange. For two weeks there was a woman I'd never met phoning me up to read higher and higher figures down the phone - all the time I was watching my bank account get closer and closer to zero. When the bidding finally finished I was overwhelmed and stunned and had already run out of money.
SG: The bidding war for your manuscript involved several publishers - were you surprised by the reaction?
JH: After the publication of 'A Bend in the Yellow River', my travel book, my editor had left and the new editor was disinterested in anything I wrote. For 3 years I'd been getting rejection letter after rejection letter for everything I wrote. There are two ways of responding to rejection letters: either they make you stop writing - or make you write better. I was determined that I would keep writing. Before writing 'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' I had sat down and told myself that I would write a book that no one could say no to. But even so the strength of the response was overwhelming. It was a book that everyone wanted: from the literary publishers to the more mass market ones - and that was very gratifying because I wanted this to be a literary book that anyone could pick up and read and enjoy.
SG: Books like 'Wild Swans' (Jung Chang) and 'Memoirs of a Geisha' 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (Arthur Golden) paved the way for oriental fiction in the Western World, but do you think your book represents a very different side of China?
JH: I hope so!! For a start 'Memoirs of Geisha' is set in Japan; and 'Wild Swans' is a very different book to mine. Jung Chang has really helped make China popular in the West, but it's also a very backward looking book and a glut of 'misery' books have followed in its wake. Both 'Wild Swans' and 'Memoirs...' are set in the past, I was set on putting 'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' in contemporary china. There were a number of reasons for this: people have content stereotypes of China, which usually involve soft oriental music, a rural scene of paddy fields and a water buffalo or two. I thought it was time they got a realistic view of modern China - which certainly involves paddy fields and soft music pop music - but also hard drugs and concrete tower blocks as well. These contrasts make modern China such a fascinating place to be, and they also make it a very rich setting for a writer.
I think 'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' is also different from any other novels set in China because it doesn't have a Westerner as a central character. For a long time writers seemed to have thought that you had to have a Westerner in there to act as a mediator between the reader and China: much like travel writing. That seems bizarre, as if Chinese are something too different for 'us' to understand. I think it's all to do with the silly 'inscrutable Chinese' stereotypes. The Chinese aren't inscrutable at all.
SG: You completed a creative writing course last year at Lancaster University, what made you want to do an academic writing course?
JH: If you are a painter you go to art school. If you play piano you go to music college. I had reached the point where I had advanced as far as I could on my own and I really wanted to meet some other writers and spend some serious time working full time. I decided to do an academic course because it would give me a year of pure writing: talking writing, living words and putting down a story.
People often say you can't teach creative writing - which I agree with - but at Lancaster - the oldest course - there is no taught part of the course: it solely consists of workshops where you talk about your and each others work. I liked Lancaster because they don't segregate poets from novelists or screenwriters: everyone mixes up together and that was very valuable - learning to use poetry in prose. It was a great year for me - very intense and extreme - during which I was in a group of people who thought writing was one of the most important things in the world. I think it spared me a few years more lonely struggle and fast-tracked me to better writing.
SG: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
JH: When I was in China I had many friends who were artists and we talked about art/writing together. I think the fundamentals of any creative process are the same - and something I had decided for myself was that whatever I did should be distinctive. You should be able to see a picture and know who the artist is; read the first sentence and be able to say, "This is Justin Hill".
Perhaps the most important: the strength of writing depends on the strength of the personality of the writer. Not that you have to be an extravert or anything - but you have to have ideas, things you want to say. I think too much of literature fails because it is written by good writers with nothing to say. People without ideas write boring books. Another thing is to trust the subconscious: you may put all kinds of themes into a book or story - but the things that come out from your subconscious are the things that really make a book alive.
The last thing I would say is that I refuse to have writers' block: either I have something I want to write or I don't. The urge to write is like a pet: you have to exercise it and you have to let it rest. Don't try and exercise it if it is sleepy - because then you'll just start putting pressure on yourself. If you have nothing to write then go and live: and whatever you do will feed back into your imagination. Either that or go for a long walk. Don't do writers block.
SG: Do you think the universal themes in the book - love, loss, familial relationships and history - will make this book as accessible to the Occidental world as the Oriental one?
JH: Culture is the set of rules/habits we have that allow us to interact with the world we live in and with each other, it is nothing else. Take away culture and we are all the same: the experiences we have in life are the same.
I remember coming home from living in small town China and thinking that nothing I could write would be of any interest to people in Britain because they worked in offices and did 9-5 jobs and watched soaps on TV every night. Luckily I was wrong. In fact now I think the opposite is true: people are only interested in the core experiences of life, which involve relationships, love, family, food, health, death and life and how to live.
'The Drink and Dream Teahouse' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.09
Read a review of the book here.