Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Dee and Lao, John and Me: An Origin Story — Guest Post by SJ Rozan

This is a wonderful account of all the serendipitous moments behind-the-scenes as SJ Rozan & John Shen Yen Nee brought The Murder of Mr. Ma to life — they went from total strangers to writing collaborators, they went through mountains of reading & research, and they found the right people at just the right time to get over a hurdle. The Murder of Mr. Ma launches today.

S. J. Rozan

Mid-2020, a couple of months into the pandemic, I get a phone call from my agent, Josh Getzler. He's working from home, I'm working from home, everyone's working from home. The isolation is beginning to grate, even on writers, who, like moles, spend much of our lives alone. Josh has just spoken to a guy, he informs me, a friend of Alex Segura's, another of Josh's clients and The Man Who Is Everywhere. The guy's name is John Nee, Josh was on the phone with him for an hour and a half, and he came to two tentative conclusions about him: One, he might be crazy; and Two, even if one is true, he might have a project that's perfect for me. Would I talk to this John Nee?

Now, at this point in the pandemic, I'm talking to the cat, I'm talking to the walls. Someone I don't l know, with a project I know nothing about? Of course I'll talk to him. So John calls me. We talk for an hour and a half, and I come to a definite conclusion: Josh is right on both counts.

Count Two, the project, is so intriguing that I don't care about Count One. John has imagined a multi-book series starring Judge Dee Ren Jie, a Chinese jurist from the Tang Dynasty. Not that he wants to write about the Tang Dynasty, which ran from roughly 600-900 AD. In the grand tradition of historical fiction, he wants to bring Judge Dee into the 20th century. Specifically, to start, London, 1924, and then after awhile, through the years. Well, why not? And he wants to hook him up with another real-life historical figure, the Chinese writer Lao She, who came to London in the twenties to teach. Lao will become Dee's Watson, the series narrator, while Dee charges around London, investigating murders and doing a lot of kung fu. Dee, in the stories about him (some Chinese oral history, some written by Robert Van Gulik in the 1940's, published in the 1950's), had a team, a supporting cast. They'd gradually be assembled and everyone would go forth solving mysteries and kung fu fighting.

What John needs is a novelist. His mind's like a Roman candle factory, spinning off ideas right and left. As an exec at both DC and Marvel he's used to handing off projects to writers and artists. He doesn't spend hours in a solitary mole hole choosing one word to put after another. I, of course, do. I love to. So John sends me his outline for Book One. It's sixteen single spaced pages and contains not only the kitchen sink but all the sinks from all the buildings on the block. Some, er, ah, pruning is needed.

There's another issue, too. While I know Judge Dee and have read his stories, I've heard of Lao She but not read him. The engine of this book is the Chinese Labour Corps in France during World War One. The what? I'm way behind. Don't worry, says John, I'll send some books.

This I take to mean, books from his home library that will get me up to speed. It does. It also means books from Bookshop.org, BetterWorldBooks.com, and that other behemoth online bookseller. Every time I turn around books are dropping into my mailbox. About the Chinese Labour Corps, about Chinese modern history, about Lao She, by Lao She. So I sit and I read and I read.

A second problem is, London, 1924 is also not my expertise. Who you gonna call? Laurie King, of course. Another box of books, old maps, old guidebooks shows up on my doorstep. I read some more.

Finally I'm ready to write a sample chapter. This is a fraught moment. If John doesn't like the voice, game over. It's how Lao She has spoken in my head, after all I've read by and about him. You writers out there will recognize this: once the voice has arrived, there's no changing it.

I chew my nails.

John loves it!

And we're in business.

One more snag, though. In the mists of the ancient past I studied tae kwon do. Thus Lydia Chin's skill in that form. In 1924, though, tae kwon do hadn't been invented, and if it had been, no Chinese jurist would have been practicing it. Kung fu is one more thing I know nothing about. That's okay, John says, we'll get a consultant.

Not so easy. Kung fu choreographers abound, but they work largely in the movies, where they get a bunch of actors together, choregraph on them, and charge $10,000 a scene. Nice for the movies. This is publishing. Not happening. So the fight scenes are languishing behind the rest of the book, which I'm writing and every couple of chapters sending to John for review. And here we have an example of what people mean when they say, If you put it out into the universe you'll get your answer. I never really believed that. But I'm at a birthday party and a friend asks how the new project's going. I tell him great, except we have a real problem because we can't find a kung fu consultant. The guy behind me, another friend, Henry, taps me on the shoulder. He apologizes for eavesdropping but says he studied kung fu for awhile with a guy down in Chinatown, Sifu (Master) Paul Koh. Probably, says Henry, this is a gig Sifu Koh would love.

So I call Sifu Koh. I send him the outline, I go meet with him and his assistant, Kristen Rosenfeld, at the Bo Law Kung Fu School. And he's fabulous.

Now we're really in business. The result of the business is THE MURDER OF MR. MA. And this is a business I hope to be in for a long, long time.


Kim Hays said...

This is going to be such a great read! I can't wait.

Anonymous said...

Intrigued! Excited to read this!