Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director of five feature films. He also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and a founder and managing editor of Asia Literary Review. Along with his wife, Charmaine Li, he runs the TV production company, Tiberius. He is a social commentator on Asia and regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives and South China Morning Post. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.
His first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai was a bestseller. He also co-storied the graphic novel, Darkness Outside the Night with Xie Peng and is currently writing a crime series due to be published by Quercus. The first title, Emperors Once More, is coming out in March this year.
In this interview with Kitaab, Jepson talks about his love for writing and the two novels that he has authored so far.
A lawyer, a novelist, an award-winning film director, and the managing editor of a reputed journal–these are some of your identities. Of course, you do much more than that. How do you manage to wear so many hats and what’s your first love?
My first love is storytelling. I’ve always loved stories whether as part of the audience or when I’ve been lucky enough to get the opportunity to be the storyteller. Different media allow different ways of telling stories and it’s exciting to explore them. However, in all the adventure and passion one has to constantly remember that technical skills in each media are crucial and it’s a lifetime pursuit.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Since I was about twenty. I kept it quiet until All The Flowers in Shanghai was published, and I didn’t think it would happen until I saw the book. I suspect most people who knew me then are surprised. Again it is a love of story whether it is when you’re at work where you’re one of the characters, being in the audience experiencing the work of another storyteller or telling one’s own.
How do you approach writing for film or TV versus writing fiction?
My experience is that in fiction the reader ultimately visually creates their own story from yours. They picture the characters and locations. The reader sees everything themselves. Film and television are more direct, a great deal of the work is to create a story that absorbs the audience, suspends their disbelief so they forget they are in a cinema or at home on the sofa.
Your first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, was a bestseller. Tell us about it. What inspired you to write your first novel?
I wanted to write a story that explored Chinese mother daughter relationships, their power and their weaknesses. I also wanted the main character, Feng, to look back at her life and relate her mistakes to her children. The book is set in Shanghai in 1937 and follows the changes in China until the Great Leap Forward, during that time some of those mistakes cost her children dearly. The book is written in the first person so it’s subjective and it is only later in Feng’s life, and therefore also in the book, that she reflects and is finally able to explain herself.
I wanted to try to write to a broader audience and I felt a crime story might give me that opportunity. It also seemed a more entertaining way to discuss a subject, which for this story is about how different generations of Chinese see their place in the 21st century and their relationship with the world. The challenge was to find the pace and voice.
How was Alex Soong born? Did anyone inspire you to conceive that character?
Not really, but there were a few aspects of the character I wanted to explore – to be educated in the west, be mainland Chinese, to try to be incorruptible and be a loyal friend. He is a part of a new generation of well-travelled, globally experienced Chinese, almost seeing themselves beyond nationality, and he comes up against an adversary who is Chinese but with an almost opposite perspective and from an older generation.
Who are the authors who have inspired you over the years?
Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, Herman Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Cormac McCarthy, Ken Kesey, and many more.
What is your advice to writers struggling to get a break?
Write as much as you can and be honest about your efforts.