I am not one of those writers (I am sure that they exist) who plot out a story and outline before they write. When I start a chapter, I really have only a general idea of where it might lead. I am as surprised as the reader when I finally find out what happens. This is part of the joy of writing for me. When I write I also feel a connection to ‘a muse’, or ‘other energy’ that writes through me, as if I am not the real writer, only the medium through which the story is written. This was particularly true when I wrote The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang. The story, which took place in 1937 China, was based on the experiences of my father and grandfather who were fur traders in Tianjin from 1923 to 1937 (Harry and Henry Cohen in the book, Harry and Henry Lang in real life). I most definitely felt connected to the spirits of my dad and grandfather when I wrote the story.
Besides being an author, I am also an international architect, and I feel that my architectural background helps in describing a ‘sense of place’ in my stories. Understanding what elements makes a space delightful, or conversely, uncomfortable, is a great help to my writing. For example, in The Witch of Wanchai, I describe the offices of Billion Dollar Real Estate, a nefarious real estate company in Pattaya, Thailand, as a traditional Thai building in terms that allows the reader to feel that they are there, from the oiled teak structure to the steeply pitched, upward-arching roof. In addition, in The Witch of Wanchai, one of the main characters, George Washington Smith, is an American architect living in Hong Kong. I describe in detail his dealings with his Burmese clients, and some disastrous client presentations.
One of my favorite type of scenes to write are fight scenes. I have a martial arts background, which allows me to vividly bring the reader into the fray. Whether it’s Japanese Lieutenant General Masanobu Hattori, in ‘The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang’, who goes to bars disguised as a Chinese peasant to pick a fight with the locals rather than go to a gym for a workout, or in “The Witch of Wanchai’, where Khin Khin, a Muay Thai expert, sets up a scheme to fight drunken Westerners in The Richard Nixon Bar in Bangkok (last three rounds with the little guy and win 1,000 baht), I feel that my experience can bring the action to life.
Although I write fiction, my stories have a firm foundation in real fact. In The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang, the story revolves around actual history as the Japanese army invades China in 1937. For example, the Battle of Shanghai, General Shiro Ishii and Unit 731, Manchukuo, opium use by the Japanese troops to control the locals, Chinese soldiers turning to banditry, were all real.
The Witch of Wanchai weaves through Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. Cultures throughout Asia differ greatly from country to country, and based on my experiences I can highlight these differences in the stories as the action moves from one country to another. Even the scenes which take place in Thailand in the 1980’s would be recognizable by anyone who had spent time in Bangkok through that era, as I did. I try to transport my reader not only with the events that were transpiring at the time of the story, but also by describing the food, the smells, the sounds, and the attitudes as accurately as possible.
I also enjoy illustrating humanitarian issues in my stories. The Witch of Wanchai, highlights the human rights abuses of domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines working in Hong Kong. I also describe in the novel the marginalized Burakumin, or untouchable race, in Japan. Jade mining in The Jade Triangle of Myanmar by HIV infected slave laborers is also described in the novel.
The primary reason that I write (other than to entertain myself), is to temporarily provide transport to another world; fascinating, sometimes dangerous, always engrossing.