ELAINE ASH: Your profession was lawyering, originally, but when did you start writing? What was your very first attempt at fiction, and what happened after that?
JOHN BURDETT: I never really wanted to be a lawyer, I only ever wanted to write, but I found myself without a job and without prospects after I graduated with a degree in English and American literature. Times were very tough in the UK in the ’70s and in any event I was too young and too undisciplined to spend a couple of years in an attic trying to write my masterpiece. So I signed on at the College of Law in Chancery Lane, London, for a law course that would qualify me as a barrister. Naturally, the course took all my time and mental energy, and after that I was absorbed in learning my new trade. It was quite interesting, I spent a lot of time representing low-lifes in magistrates’ courts, with a few big fraud and other cases. All the time I was thinking I would use it all one day in a novel. Then my life changed when I got a job in Hong Kong as legal counsel to the colonial government there. I spent 4 years in the Attorney General’s chambers, then went private where it was possible to make real money. Finally, I had enough dough to follow my dream: I retired and wrote a novel.
ELAINE ASH: During those early days did you despair at having to depart from what looked like the correct path to being a writer? In retrospect, the path seemed to actually strengthen you in the background necessary to write authentically, but you mustn’t have known that at the time. Were there any key people who helped/influenced you that you’d like to mention?
JOHN BURDETT: I was in deep despair about many things. You have to imagine the UK then in the sort of psychic space Greece is in now. It was not as bad as Greece today, but there was a very similar feeling of claustrophobia, of a totally stagnant system like a quicksand from which it seemed impossible to escape. In addition, I’d been trying to write since I was about twelve – naturally I assumed I would be a worldwide success by age 16. I loathed everything I wrote though – looking back I was trying far too hard – to try hard without the discipline of stepping back and letting go is just as bad as not trying at all. Going into law seemed like a form of death, literally an annihilation of everything I had been up to then. So it was, but I had not yet experienced the healing side of the universe. The extreme discipline of law, especially with regard to precise use of language, and the exposure to senior lawyers of the highest mental power – I mean, real prodigies of astonishing brilliance – that started to shape me from within. When I finally started to write again, about a decade later, I found that I had in fact retained the old passion for narrative, but now it was much more adult, harder, sharper, with a deeper appreciation of the true power of language.
way into the books? Are you a practitioner of meditation yourself or is everything in there due to diligent research?
JOHN BURDETT: Although I am a child of the sixties, I had never given much thought to Buddhism before I started to write the Sonchai books. I’d allowed myself to be fascinated by everything else – all kinds of mysticism and most of my friends were either with Rashneesh or Meher Baba, but the Buddhism that came to the UK in the 70′s was a very pathetic, populist kind of religion taken up by mediocrities who wanted to wear saffron and walk around with shallow smiles on their faces. It was only when I studied it in order to get into the head of my main character that I began to find how utterly radical it is, what an amazing penetration into the nature of life. It was not any kind of light on the road to Damascus – it was far more subtle and penetrating. Little by little I had to admit that this was the most accurate description of reality I’d ever come across. I was hooked and it has change my life and my character. My companion today is a Buddhist to her marrow, and I cannot imagine living with someone who is not following the path.
ELAINE ASH: You mention “the discipline of stepping back and letting go…” When I started writing experimental short stories, I took on an assumed name, “Anonymous-9.” When I was freed from the assumptions of my name (gender, culture, expectations) I couldn’t believe what came on paper. This is what your statement means to me personally, but can you explain a little more what you mean by “the discipline of stepping back and letting go?”
JOHN BURDETT: ‘Stepping back and letting go’ makes me think of painters. If you look at videos of Picasso at work, you see all the time he steps back, relaxes for a split second, then resumes. In fact, he almost certainly borrowed the technique from Cezanne, who was known to find inspiration in minute alterations in the position of
his head that allowed him to ‘see’ the mountain or the still life in their full individuation. It was exactly this that I was no good at – anxiety froze me for decades. However, there is more to it than that. Since I discovered Buddhist meditation, I realized that this technique has very profound repercussions if we allow it to work on us. All sorts of mental – and I do believe physical – ailments may be diminished if we learn to do it not merely to achieve a goal but to give our minds space for natural evolution. Even that, though, does not do justice to the application of ‘letting go’ on a more spiritual level. Indeed, if one studies the Buddhist science of the mind called abhidharma, you find that this condition of ‘emptiness’ is actually nothing less than nirvana itself. We have such spacy ideas about that ‘N’ word, we often don’t realise that we all experience it all the time, unfortunately for such minute periods – much less than a second – we are unaware. The truth is that without it we could not function at all, because we would be permanently stuck on all the crowd of thoughts and emotions that swarm through our brains throughout waking consciousness.
ELAINE ASH: Can you comment on the state of the crime novel today?
JOHN BURDETT: For me the crime novel starts with Macbeth – although you could go all the way back to Satyricon. It comes to us via Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and others of the 19th century (parts of Oliver Twist owe a lot to the crime genre), via Conan Doyle who trivialises it a bit, but we don’t mind because the character of Holmes is so spell binding. From there it crosses the Atlantic to Chandler, thence to the great modern masterpiece of Gorky Park by Cruz Smith. Looked at in this way, the genre is as much about the perversion of human will, character, corrupt cops, atmosphere and immersion in the underworld, as it is about plot. Modern day purists who think crime fiction is simply clever plotting with wooden characters have it wrong – for me such writing is a pale and inferior caricature of the great original idea.
ELAINE ASH: With your literary level of craft, it seems like you could have chosen any genre. Why murder mystery?
When I was a stressed-out lawyer, murder mystery was all my attention span could tolerate. After I retired I figured there must be an awful lot of people in that same state, people who loved literature, but needed something that would nail them to the chair (or the seat in business class) to stop their minds racing on career problems.
ELAINE ASH: So it seems you looked at the market and made a calculated decision about which genre might give you the best opening for a market? Rather than what you naturally gravitated to?
JOHN BURDETT: Well, I had spent more than a decade in Hong Kong at that time – the world center of capitalism – but nothing is really that simple. I had come to admire the crime novel as a form, and I found that my mind naturally expressed itself that way. You may have got the wrong impression, I may be a compulsive book worm and sound a little high brow, but you only have to read my books to realise there’s an authentically sleazy side to me – I most admire the poetry of gifted crooks and gangsters in the French tradition like Genet (who spent a chunk of his life in jail) and Villon (who was hanged). I have much to be grateful to detective fiction for – it allows me to let rip without inhibition – I cannot think of any other genre that would offer that kind of freedom.
THANK YOU SO MUCH, JOHN BURDETT!
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