One Woman's Writing Retreat

Dean Barrett

Interview by Catherine Tudor


Based in Hollywood, talks to hundreds of studio, agency, publishing, TV and production company executives every week. The site includes contests, a newsletter, a writers' forum, and informative articles written by the film industry's top players. MovieMaker Magazine has called "A virtual monopoly on the concept of . . . world cinema".


Research Cover of Hangman's Point.

CT: When writing an historical novel, what is your first priority: to tell an entertaining story or to stick to the facts?

DB: The first priority is always to tell an entertaining, dramatic story. In whatever field, be it fiction or musical theater, anyone who attempts to stay too close to the facts is probably not going to tell a very good story. Life is not art; art is fashioned from life as distilled experience. However, I do love history so I made certain that I changed as little as possible. I attempted to weave fiction into the structure of what actually happened, rather than change what happened. For example, in Hangman's Point, if, for plot purposes, I needed the British fleet to leave Hong Kong a day or two earlier than they did, that was OK. If the fleet had never been there, however, I would not have made it up. Hangman's Point is also a mystery/thriller so I like to think that the novel is a fun way for people to learn about Chinese culture and early Hong Kong history.

CT: Do you conduct a lot of research before you begin to write, or look up needed details as you go along?

DB: Enormous research. Some necessary, some I just love to read about. I love the period of history when East first met West, in small but growing numbers. The clash between the British in China is sometimes referred to as the clash between The Lion and the Dragon. The clash was not only military but also cultural. Some incidents were tragic, some extremely humorous. I spent over a decade researching the musical, Fragrant Harbour, set in Hong Kong in 1857. That musical involved the true story of a poisoning case in which some Chinese bakers put ten pounds of arsenic in the bread taken by all the foreigners in Hong Kong. That poisoning became one of the major interconnected plots of Hangman's Point. I spent many happy years researching this period of history in Hong Kong, in England, and in the United States, everywhere from whaling museums to research libraries. Finally, I worked on board the HMS Rose, an exact replica of a 1767 24-gun frigate. Nothing like hands-on experience to learn how people lived. I also gained great respect for the hardships of sailors of that period. So the research on the musical Fragrant Harbour led to my writing the novel, Hangman's Point, which led to my writing a film script in which Vietnam War-era GI's accidentally fly their helicopter back into that period, Dragon Slayer, and to a play about the Chinese slave trade set in that period, Bones of the Chinamen, and to an erotic novel set in that period, Mistress of The East. And so it goes.

CT: With the volumes of information you have collected, how do you organize your research materials?

DB: Well, for example, I would research all day long in Manhattan's wonderful 42'nd Street and 5th Avenue research library, then go home and put all my handwritten notes in the computer. By which time it was about 8 or 9 at night and I was much too tired to use the treadmill which is why I got overweight which is the real danger of historical research! Of course, I also have a huge collection of books and photocopied documents about the period, most of which are now languishing in a warehouse in Queens, New York.

CT: Do you believe a writer should always visit a place before they can write about it?

DB: Not necessarily, but it really depends on the type of writing. For example, if you want to write a realistic murder mystery set in modern Hong Kong, I think it would be a good idea to spend some time there. On the other hand, if you are writing a tall tale, remember, Longfellow never visited Louisiana when he wrote Evangeline. The great non-fiction classic on post-war Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was written by a woman who had never been in Japan. All from documents. So it really depends on exactly what it is you are writing. There are no hard and fast rules on that.

CT: Have you ever had difficulty finding out information when working with other cultures or governments?

DB: While researching Hangman’s Point, I had little trouble as it is set in history. However, in England, the company known as Jardines (James Clavell's Taipan was based on that company’s director) would not let me into their library to see letters written by people in Hong Kong during the early period of Hong Kong history. No doubt they were afraid I would write about the opium trade because Jardines is still going in Hong Kong today and was involved in the opium trade. That was my only real disappointment. In Asia, getting information is sometimes difficult because of the language barrier. For example, my Thai is OK but when I begin researching my next novel set it Thailand and go to the Thai-style boxing camps, I will most likely take an interpreter, as I'm not familiar with specific boxing terms.

CT: What is the likelihood of talent rising to the top, considering the people who run the industry. Do you wonder if we are getting to read the best writers of this generation?

DB: Some talent rises to the top; some doesn’t. When nine million Americans buy slop like Women are from Venus; Men are from Mars, it makes you wonder about the American educational system. Incidentally, I'm now working on my satirical version, Women are from Hunan; Men are from Szech’uan. :-)

If we are reading the best writers of this generation, they are probably being published by small presses. An imprint from a major publishing house does not guarantee quality; it simply means that that particular publishing house thinks they can make money on the book. A perfect example is the case of a friend of mine who wrote a brilliant novel only to have it turned down everywhere. A small company published it and then it got picked up by one of the major NY publishing houses who had rejected it previously, only now they had to pay much more for it. Draw your own conclusions about NY publishing houses from that.

CT: Your cover artist, John Taylor-Convery, who designed the hardcover edition of Hangman's Point did a beautiful job. What was his background? How did you meet?

DB: The irony is that John and I have never met. I can tell from phone calls and from favors he has done at little or no cost he is a very nice fellow, but the one time we tried to meet at the Book Expo America in L.A., we missed each other. He is a fine designer of covers and book interiors as well. His background is in books, and he enjoys publishing poetry and literary works. We met on a listserv for publishers. Even the cover designs of two other titles of mine, Kingdom of Make-Believe and Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior were done by the talented Mayapriya Long, a woman I had never met at the time.  Robert Stedman of Singapore has done many of my covers including Dragon Slayer, Murder at the Horny Toad Bar and Skytrain to Murder.

CT: What are your favorite marketing methods? Which ones do you feel work best?

DB: Postcards are cheap but look good. I like to send out postcards. It makes me feel I’m doing something. I have also given several book readings/signings but if you are not famous you won't draw much of a crowd. I also have over one dozen Web sites, some for my books, some for my plays, some for my musical, some just for fun. I've signed books on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue at the Mystery Writers of America booth and at other booths, I've been to Bouchercon conferences for mystery writers and been on panels, etc., I have also joined listservs in my field from time to time. Especially If you live in a small town, work the computer, work the computer, work the computer. Do not spam! People will resent you and not buy your book. But use the power of the Internet to promote your book intelligently.

Book into Film

CT: Many authors cast their characters while writing. Did you ever visualize a major star playing Andrew Adams as you wrote Hangman's Point? Do you think doing that helps or hinders the characterization process?

DB: I never thought of anyone playing Andrew Adams while I was writing it; but I was aware that I am too long in the tooth to play the role (sob). I do think Mel Gibson would have been just about perfect. Bruce Willis is another possibility. We would now need a younger version of one of them, perhaps.  No, I doubt visualization hinders the characterization process; whether or not it helps, I’m not sure because I don’t think of major stars when I write.

CT: Hangman's Point would make an exciting, entertaining, and I imagine, popular movie. What have been your experiences trying to option this book for film?

DB: I mentioned above it has been optioned for film five times. As with most film options, they were not exercised, but options help pay the rent. Not to mention the printer. I actually would prefer a mini-series, because if someone tries to boil Hangman's Point down to a two-hour movie, a great deal would be lost.

Alex Ross, my manager/producer in L.A., was instrumental in getting the options. He had James Cameron's company interested for a while as they said it was one of the best books they had read. But I've learned that things only really happen when a writer's output meets a company's or star's agenda. That is the magic moment, be it in film or theater or whatever. I must add that Alex has two things a writer needs: he has long had faith in my writing and he has a wide network of industry contacts. In fact, I'm happy to say that he just managed to get one of the biggest management/production companies in L.A. interested in Hangman's Point. They have given it to their client, an outstanding director. And the manager in question, in addition to being enthusiastic and very competent, is one of Hollywood's stand up guys. (Yes, Virginia, contrary to rumor, there are a few in L.A.) So, I've got my fingers crossed at the moment.

CT: Any tips for someone wanting to pitch their novel to Hollywood?

DB: As someone once said: "T'is time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss."

CT: When do you plan to release Thieves Hamlet, the sequel to Hangman's Point?

DB: I have written about one-third of Thieves Hamlet. I must still make one more research trip to London so that I can continue. But as I am so tied up in other projects, I'm not sure when that will be. But I will finish it. That I promise. I hope for at least three titles in the Andrew Adams's series.

CT: Any other advice for writers?

DB: Sure. If writers don't know by now, writing may be the hardest job in the world. I think Hemingway said something about putting a sheet of paper into the typewriter was like "wrestling with the white bull." Furthermore, we live in a society which idolizes sports and entertainment to the point that sports figures with the I.Q.'s of dying breadfruit trees make tens of millions while the multi-lingual heads of East Asian Studies Departments at major universities make, in comparison, peanuts. Writers would be lucky to make peanuts. Also, many forms of entertainment have sprouted up which take time away from reading books. It takes some effort to interact intelligently with an author while reading his or her work; it takes much less effort to sit in a theater and watch a movie or play a computer game.

And no matter how good you are much of our lives depends on luck. I believe it was Dustin Hoffman who said, "Yeah, I’m talented, but so were a lot of the guys in my class; but I got the breaks." And Napoleon listened politely to his aide trying to convince him to hire a general whom the aide said could do this and do that. Napoleon waited for him to finish and then asked, "Yes, but is he lucky?"

All we can do is continue to write, hone our talents and skills, enjoy life, believe in ourselves and in the value of our work, and make sure we are ready when Lady Luck knocks on the door or sends us an e-mail.


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Copyright © by Catherine Tudor, 2003.

Catherine Tudor (formerly C.T. Atherton) founded One Woman's Writing Retreat in 1996 in order to create a network for writers at all stages in their careers. Read more about her here.


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