In the absorbing novel, The Moon and Sixpence written by W. Somerset Maugham, the narrator finds himself face to face with the protagonist of the story, Charles Strickland. Strickland has given up everything: his wife and children, his home, his career, and has fled to Paris to pursue a life of painting—something he has never done before. When the narrator tries to convince him to reconsider his decision, Strickland replies, “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”
I have reached a stage in my life where, like Charles Strickland, I feel that I must write.
Up until now I have been asked to do a great deal of writing in one way or another. In school, obviously, I had to complete writing assignments, although they were not always of the sort I liked. Since the mid-1990s, most of the writing that I have engaged in has been of the professional variety. In academia and in work I have written, for example, about the impasse on the Korean Peninsula, or about international relations in East Asia in the changing economic and political environment, or about energy security in Asia, or about nuclear proliferation. During the four years I worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Pentagon I was called on every day to write one-page briefs, speeches, or lengthier policy memos. Unfortunately, I have had little time to write creatively. Apart from travel journals, my only creative outlets have been personal letters. Now, I feel the need to write creatively.
I am a fifth generation Texan, and my family has been in Austin since the 1840s. Consequently, I have read and heard countless stories of my ancestors and their trials and tribulations over the last century. I have come to be the possessor of old family letters, photos, and documents. Several of the fiction novels I plan on writing will be based on family members, so that one day my children and their children will have a semi-record of their ancestors, even if nobody else cares to read them.
I have been fortunate in that my experiences thus far have given me plenty of grist, which I hope to mill into additional creative writing projects. Two countries where I have lived, Japan and Russia, have had a profound influence on my intellectual development. My interest in these two nations is not just about their history and their political development, but also their culture and literature, which I have grown to know and love. I am particularly drawn to the movements and hardships of people swept up in the chaos of war and revolution. For example, the large community of Russian émigrés scattered across Northeast Asia after the 1917 revolution is a topic that I have become quite familiar with. Many people know of the displaced nobility and the wealthy groups of Russians who ended up in Europe and North America in the 1920s—primarily because they had money and connections. Less well known is the fate of the merchants, artisans, farmers, soldiers, and other groups that made up the lower and middle classes of Tsarist Russia. Many of them ended up in China or Japan, mainly because it was easier and cheaper to escape there. It is stirring to be walking in China or Japan and come across an Orthodox Cathedral, as I have done unexpectedly on several occasions.
There is a plethora of fascinating topics like these that are often passed over in history books or are given a mere sentence. When I come upon references to details like these—seemingly just thrown down on the page—I often find myself craving to know more about these anecdotes of history. These mere footnotes are to me fascinating vignettes that can vividly portray vexing social issues during momentous times. I plan to write stories based loosely on the tragic – and yet sometimes comical and farcical – situations that peoples often find themselves during transitions, when they are tossed about like foam on an ocean wave, all events and circumstances completely beyond their control.
An understanding and an attempt to gain compassion for such groups is timely because we are now witnessing an epochal change that we call globalization. Although the meaning of this term is viewed differently by different people, there is little doubt that these changes have affected vast numbers of peoples, and there are numerous societies in transition—including our own. Understanding earlier periods of people swept up in the tide of momentous global changes is in this respect quite timely.
Join me on this journey!
Above the Water
My first novel Above the Water is loosely based on several family members and includes anecdotes from my own experiences in East Asia. The title is a play on the Chinese characters for ‘Shanghai,’ which literally translate to ‘above the sea’ denoting the city’s location at the confluence of the Yangtze River and the East China Sea. It is an allegory about the compromises people are forced to make in difficult circumstances. Two lovers, Harry and Viktoria, have been cast apart by war and are making individual sacrifices in their respective journeys to find one another again. It’s a story of love, family, moral ambiguity, and perseverance. It is similar in scope and genre to the novels Atonement, The English Patient, and Doctor Zhivago.
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