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The Sirens of Suspense




Jan-Philipp Sendker, born in Hamburg, was at different times, the American and Asian correspondent for Stern.  In 2000 he published Cracks in the Wall, a nonfiction book about China.  The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, his first novel, was an international bestseller.  The Language of Solitude is his fourth novel.  He lives in Berlin with his family.



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Traveling in China is never boring. Even after twenty one years and nearly one hundred journeys the country never fails to surprise – and move me. It is so full of raw, extreme emotions that it captivated my (novelist) imagination from the first time I went there.

I am very lucky because I have had the privilege to watch the rise of China first hand. The first time I went to the middle Kingdom was in the spring of 1995. I had just moved from New York to Hong Kong and became the Asia correspondent for “stern”, a German weekly magazine. In the following four years I went there countless times to research my stories. I talked to hundreds of people from all areas of life, all parts of society. I spend time with newly unemployed factory workers, with private entrepreneurs, the nouveau riches, priest and prostitutes. I left Hong Kong in 1999 and have been back to China every year. For every novel I go back for at least two or three research trips.

When I travel there I see a society that is outwardly modernizing at a speed and with radicalism that lacks historical precedent. When I first went there, it was a poverty-stricken nation; the cityscapes were dominated by bicycles and horse- and ox-drawn carts. Today, China has the largest car market in the world. It owns the most skyscrapers, the fastest trains, the largest shopping malls and the newest airports. And it is becoming an increasing contender to US leadership claims, both economically and geopolitically. At the same time, I see a country that is not en route to becoming a confident world power, but one that is in search of its soul, identity and place in the world It is torn apart, full of doubt and overwhelmed by its own effort to jump straight from the 19th to the 21st century. I see a society in which contradictions are the only constant and which appears far more stable on the outside than it is on the inside. I encountered them in China almost every day. I am a story collector and this is a country full of rich, amazing, moving and yes, inspirational stories. They are the fabric my new novel is (or: my China novels are) made of.

It is especially true when you include some mystery and suspense into your novels like I did in my trilogy. Because in China, you never really know. It is not an open society, it does not have an independent judiciary, the media is heavily censored. It is almost impossible to find out who is really in charge. Who pulls the strings. Research and investigations can take the most surprising twists and turns because so much is hidden or takes place in gray, dark areas. Even after spending much time there many things remain a mystery to me.

People distrust the police, judges, the whole legal system. In many conversations over the years I learned that there is very little trust in people and institutions in China, but I wonder if can you really build a modern, stable society without it?

This question is one of the themes I explore in my new novel The Language of Solitude. What does it do to people, their lives, their psyche, if there is no trust, either in the public or in the private sphere. How this erodes relationships and leads to an almost unbearable sense of loneliness. How do people cope with their solitude?

When I start writing a novel I do not have a master plan, which makes it a bit more complicate to write when you have suspense and mystery in your book. But I have no clue what is going to happen in Chapter nine, fifteen or twenty-one. I need what I call emotional hooks that connect me to the central characters. In The Language of Solitude, it is with the main character Paul and the pain he feels after the loss of his young son. With his girlfriend, Christine, it is her anguish about the family secrets she discovers. With the Chinese family, it is their anger and fear when they are betrayed and lied to.

Those emotions are my starting points. I develop a rough outline of the story, start writing and do not know where this will take me. The story changes, the characters grow and I honestly do not know where it ends. If I knew it I probably would find it boring. What is the point of writing it down when I already know?

What I did know is that I wanted to write about injustice and what price we are willing to pay when we fight for justice. And that question can rip a family apart because different family members might have different answers to this question.





WHAT COUNTRY WOULD YOU LIKE TO VISIT? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF SOLITUDE! (US entrants only, please.)



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