A Conversation with Simon Lewis, author of BAD TRAFFIC
Q: In BAD TRAFFIC, Inspector Jian arrives on English shores unable to speak the language or understand many of the English customs. How were you able to create his experience? SL: The first time I worked for Rough Guides, I was sent to the northeast region of China, and told to write a guide to it. I didn’t speak any Chinese at the time so I spent several months bewildered, befuddled and alienated. This experience was very helpful in imagining Jian’s reactions when he’s in a similar situation.
Later, when I started learning Chinese in London, my first teachers were illegal immigrants – I taught them English in return for Chinese lessons – and they gave me many insights into the kind of things Chinese people notice about England – public kissing, no bars on the windows, neat gardens, and so on.
And after that, I lived in China for a few years, and when I came home I noticed things that I had take for granted but which now seemed bizarre – like, all the pet dogs being taken for walks and how the streets are so deserted.
I tried to use all these experiences to see through Jian’s eyes, and, in the process, make the familiar strange.
Q: What inspired you to write a fictional story about human trafficking? SL: The book began life as a response to two real crimes: the death by suffocation of Chinese illegal immigrants in a lorry container at Dover, and the drowning of the cockle pickers on Morecombe Bay.
I felt an urgent need to write about the world of these illegal immigrants and the snakehead gangs who treat them as indentured slaves - because it was secretive and unknown, because it was a disgrace, because no one else was writing about it, and because, as a dangerous milieu whose protagonists are involved in life or death struggles, it was obviously a great story. I felt that if Dickens was around today, it's what he would be writing about.
Q: In the book, Ding Ming has been illegally smuggled into the country, separated from his wife, and told not to speak to anyone otherwise he’ll be arrested. When he finally escapes he is panicked rather than relieved, why? SL: Chinese illegal immigrants are in hock to the people smugglers who brought them over here. On arrival they usually owe around eighteen thousand pounds – a debt that takes years, even decades, to pay off. The snakeheads use threats against the immigrant’s relatives back home to enforce their authority. So when Ding Ming is taken from his gangmaster, he is terrified of what will be done to his family, and his only thought is to find a way to return – even though the guy has abused him.
Q: What is the “Gold Mountain” that Ding Ming expects to find in China? SL: Gold mountain, jin shan, is Chinese slang in certain quarters for the west. It is possible for Chinese peasants to make much more money working over here than it would be in China, even as an illegal immigrant being paid a couple of dollars a day, and even with a huge debt to the people smugglers to pay off. Money sent home as remittances will support a whole extended family.
In Fujian there are ‘widows villages’ where most of the men have gone abroad to seek their fortune on ‘gold mountain’, and those who have stayed are mocked as unadventurous. There are simply no prospects for advancement at home.
Q: Inspector Jian comes from the North of China, and Ding Ming from Fujian. How do the different regions shape their personalities. Do they both think of themselves as Chinese?
SL: There is great variation across regions in China, and it’s common for people to feel more loyalty to region than to nation. The northeast, where Jian comes from, is more old fashioned and communist than elsewhere. The many state owned factories here are closing as China embraces capitalism, and the resulting hardship makes people much more ambivalent than they are elsewhere about the rush to a market economy. The Chinese believe that geography helps to shape personality, and their idea of the typical northeasterner is someone who is big, hearty and a bit rough around the edges.
Ding Ming is from the south, from coastal Fujian – a very poor area with a long history of emigration. In China, the Fujiennese have a reputation for doing the jobs no one else would do.
I deliberately made both characters from rural, poor areas at the margins of the Chinese world, because these are the kind of people you don’t normally see represented in fiction.
Q: What were some of your stylistic influences for this novel? SL: I’ve watched loads of martial arts films, usually from Hong Kong, and these were a big influence on the story. I wanted it to be fast paced and pulpy, like those, with a ruthless lawman out for revenge, a naïve sidekick, and a heartless villain. It was great fun to flesh out these types and put them entirely out of context in the English countryside. In literary terms, my influences are American crime writers such as James M Cain and Elmore Leonard – I love that flat, dry style – and my inspirations are old fashioned British novelists such as Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham who were adventurous and outward looking, and combined serious intent with the ability to spin a good yarn.
Q: Do you have future plans for Inspector Jian or Ding Ming? SL: Yes, in the next book I intend to take them to Tibet.