Jonathan Chamberlain, author of Dreams of Gold (May 1 - 5)
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Hello, For anyone who doesn't know me - most of the universe I imagine - I have written a number of novels (a comic novel about the Olympics 'Dreams of Gold'; a rather violent anti-violence novel about war - The Alphabet of Vietnam; and a Japanese-centred Noir novel set in an unnamed US city on the Pacific coast - Whitebait & Tofu). Also a number of non-fiction works: a memoir (of my life with my profoundly handicapped daughter) - Wordjazz for Stevie; The biography of a Chinese playboy (who once owned all the opium in Hong Kong) King Hui - and a book about Chinese folk religion - Chinese Gods.
I also have a strong interest in cancer since my wife died and this can be followed at my website www.fightingcancer.com
As you can see there is a strong Asian connection with my work - not unconnected to the fact that I have lived most of my life in Hong Kong - though I currently live in Brighton, England.
In addition to all my books I have recently started a blog - In Praise of Older Books - at www.2ndhandbooklover.wordpress.com
I am happy to talk about any and all my books and the process of writing or indeed anything else. Looking forweard to the chat.
OK. Let me add that I am an intuitive writer. I don't plan my books out, they tend to grow organically as I move through them. I trust my unconscious to know where the stories are going.
I first had the idea for Dreams of Gold four years ago. It happened like this. I walking with a friend in the hills behind Brighton - the so called Sussex Downs - when my friend said that he was thinking up projects to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. He is a military buff and this was a subject that excited him and he forsaw that there would be a lot of interest at that future date. I am not at all interested in war, or the first world war, so this idea was not interesting for me - but then it occurred to me that the London Olympics was going to be a major event. Maybe I could get some promotional mileage by focusing on that. So I sat down and wrote a screenplay (this was really an exercise to see if I could). I was very pleased with the result. Sadly, no one else was in the least bit interested. I had imagined that British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost might take an interest - they didn't. Time passed and so I thought that if a film wasn't going to work out then I should try to re-write it as a novel. I did. The result was even better (in my opinion!) but still I couldn't raise any interest from publishers. Perhaps they thought the focus was too restricted to an event that would come and go in a few months. So, with time running out, I self-published it. This meant that none of the national or even provincial media would touch it - Yuk! Self-published!!! - so, what have I learned: It is damned hard to market a self-published novel, no matter how wonderful it is (I have got a few 5 star reviews from top Amazon reviewers). So, there it is.
However, I do recommend the strategy of drafting out a novel - if it is that kind of action-based story - first as a film script and then using that as the skeleton on which to put the meat of prose that turns it into a novel.
Has anyone else done anything like this?
Hi Jonathan, thanks for your comments here so far. Your account of the experience of self-publishing Dreams of Gold is interesting. Would you recommend the self-publishing route to any type of writer in particular? If this is your first self-published book how has the experience compared to having your earlier work published the conventional way?
Hi PB welcome to the chat! I have quite a long history of self-publishing. My first was way back in 1981-2 when I self published my Chinese Gods book. I knew I had a book that was of interest to a particular community so I paid for 2,000 copies and sold them over 2 years - but that was because I was living in Hong Kong so I had a very clear target audience. Puffed with this success I self-published a novel and a book of humorous letters which both just about broke even - but these were aimed at the xmas market and again very clearly defined audience. So lesson 1: a book with a small but very clearly defined audience, it makes sense to self-publish. More recently I have self-published my cancer book The Cancer Survivor's Bible and although sales haven't made me rich they may do soon (ha! ha! ) - again very clear target audience. With a novel or other more general interest book it is hit or miss - if you self-publish thrillers, vampires or erotica you may make good sales. Otherwise...?
But of course the question comes down to profit/loss. Nowadays, you can basically upload a Kindle for free - it may not look good but it hasn't cost you anything - and then it comes down to hooking readers (the tricky bit).
Now, I know the embarrassment that comes from publishing a poorly editied book - my Chinese Gods book was an editorial disaster - so before you plunge into publishing I do recommend spending a few hundred dollars/quid /whatever on basic proofing, editing and layout design. This is where self-published books tend to be criticised (often rightly)
And then we come to having hard copies. Print-on-demand technology is again cheap - and if you have spent the previous few hundred $$ /£££ then why not take it to the next step and find one of the services available who will do this and upload for a few more £££ (my guess is that for £700 you can have your book available online as a paperback that can be bought on Amazon and as a Kindle, with a nice-ish cover (I spent £300 on my Dreams of Gold cover and I am very pleased with it.) If you want to message me privately I can recommend a couple of people who will do this for you.
There are I think 2 big no-nos 1. don't print off 2,000 copies to store in your garage unless you know who you are going to sell them to and 2. Don't use the kind of self-publication company like Lulu etc which won't get your book into the main section of Amazon where all ther best sellers are and which won't allow you to set a sensible price and make a decent profit.
That's a lot to be getting on with but I have a lot more to say on the subject
On the second half of your question PB, how does it compare? Well, I have to say it is always a thrill getting a properly produced book in your hand - and on the plus side, it's a relief having someone prfessional to proof and design a book without having the worries over paying for it. Also, there is the fact that proper publishers have more marketing clout. On the negative side there is the loss of control. I once was asked to approve a cover design - when I said I didn't like it, I was told it was too late to make any changes. Then of course, real publishers can put your book out-of-print just when you were sitting back and expecting things to go on forever. So there are big pluses to self-publishing but the real nut that you have to crack is getting readers to buy...and there I'm afraid it's every man/woman and child for him/herself.
One last point is speed. You can get a book into print yourself much faster than a regular publisher - and sometimes, as in my case with Dreams of Gold, that's a major plus.
Mr Chamberlain, do you have a working knowledge of Chinese with ability to consult written Chinese sources?
No. Good question. My book Chinese Gods is very much based on secondary research - ie books written by others, often neglected and dated, writing in English. My wife was Chinese and so we would ask people questions. I also had at hand a PhD thesis on the subject of Feng-shui - so I was doing a deconstruction of symbols and stories in a way that hadn't (to my knowledge) been done before and as I have a background in Social Anthropology I was able to see patterns that allowed me to conjecture - I believe my analysis of the God Na Cha to be original and of value. But that's me. A number of reviewers on Amazon have taken me to task for my ignorance of Chinese and my non-scholarly approach. Fair enough. But the book has remained in print for 30 years now so I suppose some people have found it to be of interest.
On the subject of Chinese sources, it is my belief that the scholarly Chinese did not take much interest in the folk religion so there aren't really many - if any - Chinese sources to consult. Certainly sinologist John Blofeld, who I was privileged to meet in Bangkok shortly before he died, and who disagreed with me (as you can read in his foreword to my book) did not take me to task on that question. There is of course a great deal of information on Taoism, Confucianism etc - but my focus was on the belief systems that are implicit in Chinese culture and so are, if noticed at all, often dismissed as superstition.
Thanks ever so much for your full answers. I'm nowhere near ready to publish anything as I'm just dabbling with some short stories at the moment and nothing in a state that I'd call ready except for about 2 maybe 3 stories. Nevertheless, the whole books versus e-books and conventional v self-publishing situation is all very fluid and probably will remain so for the foreseeable... so it's much appreciated getting advice from someone who's been through both processes recently.
Good luck with Dreams of Gold.
Hi PB. Thanks for the good wishes - good luck with your writing ventures.
Thanks for your answer.
Scholarly and popular works serve very different audiences, although the latter may still provide an entertaining, leisurely read to scholars.
I would agree with you, on the point that there isn't much secondary literature, produced by Chinese authors. However, there are a number of important primary sources, which might be interesting to read, some which have been translated into English, such as Journey to the West in which Nezha (Na Cha) also makes an appearance.
Another thing is that Chinese people did not pay much attention to folk religion 30 years ago, at the time when your book was written. However, especially since the The Down to the Countryside Movement, a phase during the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s and early 70s, Chinese scholars have picked up interest in such folk believes. Living in the countryside these banished intellectuals first re-discovered this strain of submerged Chinese culture.
After the Cultural Revolution, this awakening has led to an enormous increase in these phenomena, and the Chinese Gods, spirits and guardians, are the main characters in numerous movies, and these days, computer games.
I have not read any other reviews of your book Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion but I would concur, sorry, that the book is very amateurish and lacks real understanding of the issue at hand. This is also reflected by a number of remaining proofreading problems, you've already referred to.
I bought a copy of your book in 2009 (Blacksmith Books edition), and have tried reading it a few times, but each time quit, because the chapters are muddled, things become less clear rather than clearer, as each chapter introduces a multitude of other (legendary) figures. The colloquial style works very confusing in many parts of the book, as in, for example:
(..) the guardians of Buddhist temples. They were naturalized Chinese citizens and were given the names Mo Li-ch'ing, Mo Li-hai, Mo Li-hung and Mo Li-shou. (p. 129).
which leads me to the next question:
Your book Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion is essentially a reference work. Since its first publication (30 years ago?) the Internet has taken shape. Much of the information in the book, nowadays, if not most of its content can be found on the Internet, notably on Wikipedia.
Do you feel the Internet is a threat to publications such as Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion?
OK. Where to start? I'm sorry you couldn't read the book.
Re: your last point - I understand that the originals of the four guardians were non-Chinese (Indian?) but that they had been sinicized (ie given Chinese names and identities).
No, Wikipedia is no competition to my book which is essentially interpretive - rather than factual. It is not primarily a reference book. Each chapter should not be read as an authorised account of a god, but rather my journey towards understanding them. I have built up an idea of the Gods from the symbols that are associated with them. I have not kept up my reading in this area - but you say my book 'lacks real understanding of the issue at hand." - what is the "issue at hand"? Have you read the account of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival at the end of the book?
As for the cultural revolution and its impact on Chinese culture, I started travelling in China in the early 80s when it was just opening up after the Cultural revolution. I was amused that instead of having traditional door god immages on the doors of the houses (since the doors are traditionally of the saloon bar type - ie two doors opening together with inward facing warrior images on either side. These warrior images had been replaced by red guard or People's Liberation Army images - but they were still effectively door gods. One thing to understand about the folk religion is that it is not seen by the people who use its symbols as 'a religion' in the same way we see Islam or Christianity as a religion. It is simply part of the package of beliefs embedded in the language - so it is not that people weren't so interested as they are now, it was simply reinterpreted and disguised. Perhaps urban Chinese have a slightly more objective view of these things - but even rich educated Chinese will take some effort to deal with feng-shui issues.
I was also there in China when temples were starting to return to the towns and villages and being re-inaugurated. Heady times. The noise and smoke from strings of firecrackers being let off. I feel very nostalgic remembering those days.
One more point about the confusion "as each chapter introduces a multitude of other (legendary) figures" - this can hardly be my fault. It is a reflection of the confusing multitude of legendary characters that exist in the folklore - many of whom are remembered simply as names. And of course the folk religion is not a discrete whole - there are enormous variations of tradition from place to place. It is an ocean in which different elements become concretised from place to place with some elements being broadly embedded, others having only local reference.
I am sorry I did not have time to read the book. Jeremy posted a reminder about the chat on my profile on May 1. My criticism is not based on a full reading of the book, and therefore not justified. I will surely get back to the book later, and read it with more attention.
Regarding the scope of the book, I can understand that some threads must remain loose. As John Blofeld wrote in his Foreword, your book is a pioneer work and that it covers only a few of the innumerable deities is entirely excusable (pp.19-20). The starting point of the book are the descriptions of glass panel paintings, which accounts for the relatively limited scope.
I am interested in your book, both because of the topic, and the way the book was written, as I also live in Asia, and often have ideas which I want to explore further.
To be honest, I usually avoid author chats, book signing sessions or literary festivals. I ever only once attended a visiting author event; when I was a student Joyce Carol Oates gave a presentation in my hometown (about 35 km north of Amsterdam), and later when I was a university students, there were a few visiting scholars / authors, such as Dame Helen Gardner, Prof. John Burrow and Prof. Frank Kermode. I usually avoid the events and go shortly before or shortly after to pick up the books.
Perhaps you attended a literary festival at the Bookworm in Beijing?
Although I must say they are pretty good at representing the Hong Kong publishers, and have a large section of the so-called special interest books, on China and Chinese culture, etc.
Do you still live in Asia?
I suppose the Southeast Asian region is quite appealing, and you must be quite familiar with the sub-set of literary people in, let's say Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, etc.
I can imagine your nostalgia for China / HK in the 1980s. I know of some people who worked here at that time, and some people who have been here for decades. Your meeting with John Blofeld, described in the Preface of Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion, is a real treasure.
I enjoy reading books that were written by people who came to China before; the ever changing perspective is fascinating in itself. It is also interesting to see that publishing in English in Hong Kong is going strong, even after the handover in 1997. I was not aware of Blacksmith Publishers (your publisher), but have read quite a few books put out by Earnshaw Books. Just last week I finished reading Hadley by Nick Macfie.
If your books are available at the Bookworm in Beijing, I will have a look.
First, I'll have a look at The bun festival of Cheung Chau.
Sadly I do not still live in Hong Kong and haven't attended any events at the Bookworm in Beijing - though Pete Spurrier, my publisher is certain to have been there. He has done an extraordinary job in helping people like me get into print. Currently I live in England.
If you are interested in real life in China in earlier days I would certainly point you in the direction of my book King Hui: the man who owned all the opium in Hong Kong. This is a true story told to me by a man who had a very odd life. Playboy, kung-fu fighter, gambler, collaborator with the Japanese - he witnessed the communist entrance to Guangzhou. He witnessed some of the excesses of the cultural revolution. A fascinating tale.
Anyway, thank you for engaging in the chat - an enjoyable critical engagement.
I will. I had a good look at all your publications, and will likely come across them sooner or later. I had no idea you were active on LibraryThing. Your profile seems relatively recent, while I had already catalogued my copy of your book in May 2009.
It was a good idea of Jeremy to alert me to the chat, and I enjoyed it too.
You might enjoy reading Hadley by Nick MacFie. MacFie lived in HK from roughly 1989 to 2003, and descriptions of HK take a very prominent place in the novel. You can read my review here
Hope you will have a good time during the 2012 London Olympics.
I will certainly look out for it. Are you aware that there is a Facebook group dedicated to reading novels set in hongkong, Macau and China -look for Kiska Sankey who runs it.
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