Thatcher Robinson’s White Ginger is a colorful, action packed debut novel featuring Bai-Jiang, a souxan or “people finder” in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
We caught up with Thatcher to ask him about his new work and the culture he taps into inside the book.
MysteryPeople: I can’t think of a lead character who is as different from its creator. How did Bai Jiang come about?
Thatcher Robinson: I love Asian television, Asian food (including sushi), and Asian deserts like manju. I even eat tofu.
Bai is a composite of women I’ve known and women I’d like to have known. My wife, Susan, is a tall, beautiful and remarkably intelligent Asian woman. Bai Jiang shares some of her physical and psychological traits.
Another of Bai’s major influences is a Korean actress by the name of Kim Sun Ah, who has a sharp tongue and a sardonic wit. Kim is a big star in Korea; but few people know of her in the States, which really is a shame given her talent.
MP: Do you have anything in common with her?
TR: Bai has my sense of humor and my sensibilities. Everyone struggles to make sense of the crazy world in which they live. To do that, many of us turn to philosophy, religion, or alcohol. I’ve adopted a pseudo-Buddhist philosophy where I strive to be a better person; but, like Bai, my temper and impatience sometimes sideline my efforts. When that happens, I turn to the healing power of a good blended scotch.
MP: What makes the Chinatown triads interesting for crime fiction is the fact that so little is known about them. Could you rely much on research or did you use the mystique to create your own world?
TR: I did quite a bit of online research then tweaked reality to give a bit more structure to the way Sun Yee On does business compared with the way triads actually operate.
In reality, the Sun Yee On triad carved out a large territory in Hong Kong during the 1970’s and 80’s. They made money extorting businesses, especially film crews trying to make Kung Fu films on the streets of Hong Kong. When the Kung Fu mania died down in the 90’s, Sun Yee On tried to open up a territory in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Their efforts culminated in a shootout in a Chinese restaurant resulting in Sun Yee On’s being forced out of San Francisco. They then relocated to Los Angeles, but they never really recovered the prestige or power they held in the 70’s and 80’s.
Readers might be interested in the gang slang included in White Ginger. It’s the result of research on common gang language produced by the Hong Kong Gangs Task Force. I went back and forth as to whether or not to include the Chinese slang: it makes the scene, in my opinion, more interesting and realistic but also makes reading it a bit clumsier. I finally decided readers might like to learn how to swear in Chinese. I’ve found it comes in really handy when venting at public events because no one has a clue what I’m ranting about.
MP: What did you want to get across about Bai Jang’s culture?
TR: Entering a Chinatown in any major city is like traveling to a foreign country. The inhabitants of these inner city enclaves have different traditions, physical characteristics, foods, and language. However, we all share the same human frailties. We have a common bond in that we work hard for our families while worrying about our children, our parents and growing old.
Not surprisingly, another word for ‘foreigner’ is ‘friend’.
Bai’s world is a sub-culture within that more recognizable sub-culture. In her world, almost everyone is associated with organized crime. For the most part, a skewed perception of right and wrong is pervasive amongst those with whom she associates, a concept which creates opportunities for lots of dark humor. At the same time, some of the characters exhibit redeeming qualities like loyalty and courage.
As children we’re taught that good and bad are absolutes, like black and white. As we mature, we realize the difference between good and bad is often a matter of perception. Like many aspects of being human there are shades of gray.
MP: You have some really well executed action scenes. How do you go about crafting those passages?
TR: I love the action scenes. If I could write action scenes all day, I’d die happy. But action scenes, especially the fight scenes, are really difficult to orchestrate. I don’t so much write them as I re-write them over and over again until they flow.
Redundancy is the biggest problem. There are only so many ways a person can get smacked and only so many names by which you can refer to the combatants. I wish there was a magic formula for writing these scenes; however, each is unique, and I never know what’s going to happen until the image springs from my imagination.
I do have some experience in the martial arts. Small for my age as an adolescent, I studied a couple of martial arts disciplines until I realized I harbored absolutely no talent as a fighter. In all, I spent about ten years getting the crap kicked out of me so that no one could beat me up. The experience helps me to gauge what might be considered realistic, though I’m not above pushing the boundaries if doing so will make the scene more exciting.
MP: Do you have anything in store for Bai Jiang in the future?
TR: The sequel to White Ginger has already been penned. I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I will say that the action in the second book is an absolute juggernaut. The book is full of surprises when Bai learns that to win a war you sometimes have to lose a battle.
I plan to start work on the third installment of Bai Jiang in early 2014.
Copies of White Ginger are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.