With two books in different waiting-places in the publishing universe, I’ve now got a wonderfully blank sheet in front of me, and a story I want to tell but I’m not sure I’ve got the nerve to tell it.
The story’s not deep or anything. If I pitched it, I’d say it’s something like Mission Impossible meets Catcher in the Rye, emphasis on the former. The reason I’m hesitant to write it is that it’s set in Shanghai.
Some kids love reading about foreign places. Some—no—a lot, don’t, probably because books set abroad require the same kind of reader focus as fantasy books. Rules of the world must be crystal clear in both genres, and therefore the reader, by being willing to take time to understand the world, is required to invest in the story even before beginning to read. However, unlike fantasy, there’s no reward of magic, or flying, or Prince Charming.
So how to hook an American teenager into reading about some place on the other side of the planet? When setting a story abroad, the setting is as important a character as the characters. Fortunately, Shanghai is big and bawdy, a metropolis that sparkles through its congestion, that is rife with back alleys and penthouses, fat sewer rats and neon-pink poodles. In the middle of rush-hour traffic, a white butterfly might fly into your taxi window, whispering of stillness. And when you pass through an alley stinking of urine, at the exit might be a towering bush with petite yellow flowers so fragrant you can’t remember what it was you had smelled two minutes ago.
Shanghai is the hook I need. Doesn’t it sound like an exciting place to be? It is, even to locals. Critics, myself included, are quick to dismiss books set abroad that stereotype or shade a culture exotic even slightly–a few years ago I felt passionate enough about this topic to write a thesis on it.
But Shanghai is exotic even to China. It is a world unto itself, it makes its own rules, defies authority where it can, and people here (including hundreds of thousands of foreigners) are as generous as they are greedy. This city is fit for fiction. Almost nothing needs to be made up. My American teenage hero won’t know what hit him.
So, setting aside my own worst critic, I’m going to write the story I’ve got to tell, a Shanghai story.