The following interview with Barry Hughart was conducted via mail during January-February, 2000. --Jerry. Kuntz

JK: All fans of the Master Li books want to know why the series stopped after Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Can you explain?

BH: The Master Li books were a tightrope act and hard to write, but not, alas, very remunerative. Still, I would have continued as originally planned if I'd had a supportive publisher: seven novels ending with my heroes' deaths in the battle with the Great White Serpent, and their elevation to the Great River of Stars as minor deities guaranteed to cause the August Personage of Jade almost as much trouble as the Stone Monkey. Unfortunately I had St. Martins, which didn't even bother to send a postcard when I won the World Fantasy Award; Ballantine, which was dandy until my powerhouse editor dropped dead and her successors forgot my existence; and Doubleday, which released The Story of the Stone three months before the pub date, guaranteeing that not one copy would still be on the shelves when reviews came out, published the hardcover and the paperback of Eight Skilled Gentlemen simultaneously, and then informed me they would bring out further volumes in paperback only, meriting, of course, a considerably reduced advance.

JK: When does your interest in Chinese culture date back to? Your years in the Air Force?

BH: When the Air Force sent me to Japan I was looking forward to R&R in Hong Kong, because I had read just enough to be interested in things Chinese. Enter John Foster Dulles. Allow a guy trained to dismember nukes to visit Hong Kong? With Ming the Merciless only an eyelash away? Perish the thought! So I had to visit China via libraries…

JK: Which came first: the idea of writing about an imagined China, followed by voluminous reading; or had you read a lot of your source material before you ever thought about blending them into a fiction?

BH: The Chinese history and literature that I had read in the Air Force lay dormant until I decided I wanted to write something to please an audience of one, meaning me; something unusual, something nobody else had done. Okay, what had I most enjoyed, purely as fun stuff? Treasure IslandThe Three MusketeersThe Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Invalid's Tale (being Mark Twain's account of the poor fellow who accompanied a departed friend across the country in the caboose of a train in mid-winter, unaware of the fact that the "coffin" was actually a case of rifles upon which someone had carelessly left a large chunk of Limburger cheese)…the travelling salesman bit in The Satyricon about the lecher and the boy who kept squealing, "I'll tell my father!"…large chunks of 1001 Arabian Nights…And things Chinese, which sent me back to libraries, and eventually, the Master Li books.

JK: Would your Master Li readers recognize any of the Hollywood dialogue work you've done over the years? Would you say that dialogue is the strongest feature of your prose skills? Or do you enjoy descriptive narrative just as much?

BH: I doubt very much that any of my dialogue work would ring a bell, one reason being that stuff having any merit whatsoever is seized by the producer/director/chief writer/star actor and altered beyond recognition. Actual sample:


Oysters…Lenny, listen to me…beget oysters, and clams - LISTEN TO ME, LENNY- beget clams, which means your daddy was one sick sorry son of a bitch!


(through PCB fog)

Man, you knew him too?

Not good, but reasonably lively, so the studio decided to sedate it:


Lenny lurches up the path toward the house


Since oysters beget oysters and clams beget clams, the civility of Lenny's parents is open to question.

Oh well. At least they didn't use "comity."

In novel writing I think my descriptive prose is pretty good, particularly in action scenes where my guiding deity is Robert Louis Stevenson. Remember the Round-House battle scene in Kidnapped? It must be reread to be believed, because all emphasis is limited to dialogue. The action itself is presented almost entirely without adjectives or adverbs, and certainly none used solely for dramatic effect. I can't pretend to such purity, but the example sure cut down on the purple of my prose.

JK: What was the reaction to the novels by academic sinologists? Were they impressed by your research, or were they horrified that you mixed elements from different eras and places?

BH: I believe I wrote you that sinologists avoid all printed material in which the text takes up more space than the footnotes, and that my sole academic response was from an asshole at Stanford who accused me of plagiarizing the sword dance in Birds, which was interesting because the sword dance was one of the very few things I had invented from whole cloth. My reply met with silence. Fortunately.

JK: It's tempting to view the Communist Chinese regime as another bead in the string of dynasties; and the Cultural Revolution as yet another instance of a new dynasty attempting to erase history. Do you think that the essential Chinese national character has changed in this century? Would you expect to see much movement towards democratic rule and human rights? Do you think they can shed the feudal/autocratic tendencies that seem ingrained in their culture?

BH: I think the Chinese gerontocracy is squatting on top of a powder keg, which in this case means the Internet. No people are quicker to seize a chance to make a buck, none are more ingenious in going about it. The opportunity to plunge headfirst into the global economy without having to move an inch from the exact center of the earth, or surrender one bit of cultural "superiority", will inevitably force an opening to the world and all that's in it, but will that mean democratic rule? Strong concern for human rights?

I doubt it. Some progress will be made, but I don't think the Chinese character has changed at all. They want feudal/autocratic government more than anything - just make it a little fairer, maybe, but for God's sake provide the comfort of clear rules (and knowledge of how far one can go to circumvent them) and powerful authority figures! I'd say they're very close to the Russians in that regard, but much more malleable. It will be interesting to see what they come up with, although I won't be around when the dust settles.

JK: Are all the songs and poems in the novels your creations?

BH: Almost all the songs and poems are genuine, although often from pro or pre leptic periods, but I occasionally changed this or that to make a point. So far as I recall the poems in the first draft of Birds are all genuine, and the only one I invented in the final version was the "jade plate" rhyme. Then in Stone I made up the Yuan Pen song in the prologue, half of the "In darkness languishes the precious stone" poem, half of the King of Chao's "cluck-cluck!" charm song (the king and his Golden Girls actually existed, incidentally, and were very close to my description), the boys' rhymes in the Wolf section, and half of the Gilgamesh "In the house of dust" poem. In Gentlemen - let's see…Master Li's impromptu "Purpose grave" rhyme at the beginning, but note that the Li Po poem preceding it is quite real. (Hell, even the hawker's "Soothing syrups" pitch is real, as is the little girls' "Cymbals a pair.") Also "Goat, goat, jump the wall", and perhaps a third of the Book of Odes - just the bit directly about the cavalier. Also the cavalier bit in "Blue raccoons are weeping blood" (Li Ho really did write the rest). The long poem "O soul, come back!" is quite genuine, except it's cobbled together to suit my purposes, and also genuine is Hayseed Hong's "I be a farmer", although the puppet play itself is largely my own invention.

JK: What noise has been made about making a Master Li movie?

BH: Everybody turned it down except Paramount, where it eventually reached the desk of a senior vice president who exclaimed, "Gooks? You want me to make a movie about gooks? And not even modern gooks?" Exit the silver screen.

JK: Mike Berro's web site includes images of all the covers of nearly every edition of the books. He has one image of the cover of the publisher's galley proof, where some editor or marketing executive scrawled, "SF?" Apparently, there was some initial confusion over how to pigeonhole your writing into a standard genre! Are you comfortable with the "Fantasy" label and the readership it has targeted?

BH: Hell no I'm not comfortable with the "fantasy" label, but I have to admit there isn't another one more apt. In my innocence I thought - and still think - that I'd created a new form, and Doubleday's decision to distribute my books to Fantasy/SF outlets only was the last straw.



Comments to: Jerry Kuntz