When The Fury of Beijing is published at the start of the new year, it will be the 19th book in the Ava Lee series—15 featuring Ava, and 4 featuring her mentor Uncle. They comprise about 7,000 pages, and 1,500,00 words. Not too shabby for what began with just her name and a couple of sentences bouncing around in my head.
Fury will also be the last book in the series, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to write about how it began, and how it somehow made it as far as it did.
The Ava journey started in July, 2009 and coincided with me having some major surgery. It wasn’t something I’d planned before the surgery, but then post-op as I was being wheeled to my room an orderly had said to me, “If you see any nuns don’t speak to them.”
“Why?” I’d asked.
“Your room is in the old wing of the hospital, and the nuns are ghosts who come to visit you if they think you are going to die.”
I was highly medicated and that undoubtedly contributed to my reaction—which was total fear. I spent the night seeing shadows and hearing swirling skirts, and as I lay on my bed, I thought about all of the things I hadn’t done in my life that I wanted to do. Writing a novel, or at least trying to, was at the top of the list, and I promised myself that if I got out there alive, I was going to give it a go.
A few days later—still somewhat medicated—I sat down at my computer, wrote the name AVA LEE at the top of a page, and wrote this: “When the phone rang, Ava woke with a start. She looked at the bedside clock. It was just past 3 a.m. “Shit,” she said softly. She checked the incoming number and saw it was blocked. Wherever the call originated, she was sure it was somewhere in Asia, and the caller was either ignorant about the time difference or just too desperate to care.” It set the tone I wanted, and somehow survived my editor’s pen.
I am a seat-of-the-pants writer, and have never outlined a book, or created character studies. Ava, for example, came to me fully formed. I didn’t make a list of names, or sketch her life, she was just there for me, and without having to think about it, I somehow knew everything about her.
Once I started writing, I wrote every day, and even when not at the computer I couldn’t get Ava or the story out of my head. It was an enormously happy time. I felt completely liberated, the work flowed, and I knew very quickly that I was going to finish the book. Whether it was going to be any good or not was for someone else to decide. About half-way through that first book, though, something strange happened—I found myself thinking of a plot for a second book. I don’t know where the idea came from; it was just there, and I built a reference to it into the first book.
When I finished that first Ava, I began writing the second on the same day. Then about half-way through it, I had plot ideas for a third and a fourth book. I didn’t question why that was happening, I was simply grateful that it did, and it has never really stopped. For example, I was writing the third book when I suddenly realized how the sixth was going to end, and soon after I had a story arc that extended to at least ten. And I just kept writing every day, the joy of it never abating. It took me eight months to write the first four books. I slowed down a bit after that—mainly because of other demands on my time, such as literary events—but I’ve still managed to average a book and a half a year.
It is one thing, though, to write that many books, and quite another to keep the books fresh. Good plots are part of that, of course, but maintaining interest in your characters I thought was just as important. So I decided early on to do everything I could not to be repetitive, and Ava’s life and the people in it were an important part of that. Ava becomes increasingly more experienced, and her life changes in meaningful ways. I surrounded her with a large group of characters that I found interesting; some come and go from book to book; some leave entirely; and some even die. There are also new people constantly being introduced, and sometimes they surprise me. For example, when Ava met Lau Lau in the Goddess of Yanai, my plan was for her to have at the most two conversations with him, and then he’d disappear from her life. Instead, as I was writing the second conversation, I found Ava being drawn to him, and suddenly he became a character in five more books, and in some of them he was prominent. My rule of thumb is—when I stumble onto a character who intrigues me, I run with them; when I’m writing about one who bores me, I dump them.
Another thing I had going for me in terms of keeping the books fresh was the shifting locales. With only a few exceptions I have been to them all—and often for extended periods of time. That said, I go to great lengths not to write a travel guide. What I try to convey is the sense of a place, and what makes it different based on my own experiences and reactions. For example, the pothole issue and daily power outages in Georgetown, Guyana both found their way into The Water Rat of Wanchai. The dogfish plant in Northern Denmark that infuses Ava’s clothes with urine odor became a recurring theme in The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. And, the temple in Surabaya that is a place of worship for three different religions, made an appearance in The Scottish Banker of Surabaya. In all cases, these were things that I experienced and was fascinated by.
As I was traveling and working in places like those, I made a point of trying to learn as much could about the history and culture of the people who resided there. I spent more time in Hong Kong that anywhere else, and aside from reading about it, I made many friends there, was welcomed into their homes, and was given a glimpse of the family dynamics that I utilized in the Ava books. I also attended funerals and weddings (including the wedding of a man taking a second wife), and again these experiences found their way into the books.
Another truth, and it’s far more bittersweet, is that as I wrote earlier, Fury is the last Ava Lee book. Every series has a natural conclusion and I think this is it. Ava’s friends have been avenged. There are no pressing issues for her to tackle. Hong Kong, and most of China for that matter, have become increasingly complex places for her to venture, and difficult for me to write about. And at home in Toronto, Ava is in a happy place with friends she trusts and the woman she loves. What more could I ask for her?