Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
An Interview with author Christopher Belton
9/8/2009 5:59:37 AM
An interview with Christopher Belton, author of over 40 published books!
This week, my special guest is Christopher Belton, an accomplished and prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. This transplanted Brit has called Japan home for almost three decades!
You, sir, are a long way from home. Where were you born and how did you end up in Japan?
CB: I was born in London, England. I met my wife, who is Japanese, while working in London, and after three years of marriage we decided to visit Japan with our two-year old son. That was back in ’78, and apart from four years in the mid-‘80s, we’ve lived here ever since.
LS: How and where did you get your start in the writing profession?
CB: I have wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember. I wrote my first book at the age of eight (a sort of biography of my favorite cricket player, Colin Cowdry,) and have been writing continuously since then. I have a stack of scrapbooks containing all of the rejection slips I received right up until the age of 45, when my first novel, Crime Sans Frontiers, was accepted by a UK publisher. That was published in ’97, and a Japanese-language edition came out in ’98, which gave me my first introduction to the industry over here.
LS: I know your heart is in fiction. Can you tell our readers what is your favorite genre and why?
CB: With the possible exception of romance, I’ll read and enjoy any book. I tend to go through different periods when I concentrate on certain genres, such as techno-thrillers, action/adventure, mysteries, historical, horror, etc., but I also love comedy and the so-called ‘classic’ style of literature.
From a writing point of view, I usually let the book decide the genre. I invariably start out with a ‘what if?’ theme that I want to portray in a novel, and then build the story around this without a specific genre in mind. The genre sorts itself out quite naturally as I construct the plotline. For example, in ‘Isolation’ my theme was ‘what if Japan was removed from the global economy?’
After careful consideration I decided that a highly contagious disease and the resulting political turmoil was the best way to isolate Japan from the rest of the world, and the book turned into a techno-thriller.
In ‘Nowhere to Run’, my theme was ‘what if detectives from North America, Europe and Asia were required to solve the same crime: what differences would be apparent in their approach to the problem?’ The crime I chose was computer crime, and the book turned into a suspense thriller.
LS: As the vast majority of my blog readers are into genre fiction, why don’t you tell us about your latest title “Reincarnates” that is due for release later this year?
CB: The theme I wanted to expand on with ‘Reincarnates’ was ‘what if nature takes a larger role in the affairs of mankind than we think?’ I answered this question by deciding that nature controls the balance between good and evil in the same way that it uses geography and available food resources to control the population of certain species (to ensure that there are not as many deadly scorpions as there are ants, for example.) The premise I finally came up with was that people are reincarnated together with the wisdom (not the knowledge) that they have accumulated in their previous lives. The more lives they live, the wiser and more compassionate they become. But, the amount of sin that they are able to commit throughout their multiple lifetimes has a limit, and once they have reached that line they can expect no more reincarnations. This means that the inherently bad people get only a few lifetimes, whereas the inherently good people have more; thus ensuring that the human race is generally more compassionate than evil. This premise needed a little extra touch of spice to animate it, so I mixed in a little Japanese history and mythology and turned it into a fantasy.
LS: What a fascinating concept! I love books that force the reader to re-evaluate life and all its possibilities. I’ll definitely have to check out ‘Reincarnates’ when it’s released. Now, with so many published works and many more on the way, where do you find your inspiration? Are there any authors you can credit as a major influence in your career as a writer?
CB: I am mostly prolific with my non-fiction work, which requires very little inspiration, and in most cases I am contacted by various publishers and asked to write books that they think will sell. The initial ideas, consequently, are not mine. Having said that, all I usually receive is a single page outlining what they want, and they then give me full freedom to expand the subject as I wish.
With regard to my fiction work, so far I have had no problem coming up with ideas and concepts, and they are usually born out of the simple ‘what if?’ questions that I mentioned above. Every writer I have ever read has influenced me to a certain extent, but I would probably say that I was most influenced by the discipline of Frederick Forsythe, the attention to detail of P.G. Wodehouse, and the satirical genius of Art Buchwald.
LS: As for your style of writing, do you tend to plot out your story in great detail? Or is your writing more organic, allowing your mood/characters to drive your story?
CB: I tend to plot in great detail. I write resumes outlining family background and education for all of my main characters to make sure I get the style of speaking and intelligence levels correct, and I plan every chapter in detail before I actually start writing. I also create a timeline of events to make sure that the balance is right. If there is a lengthy gap in the timeline without a significant event, then in goes another murder or something equally spectacular.
A detailed synopsis also enables me to approach each chapter as a sort of individual essay, so it is not completely necessary to write the book in chronological order. On many occasions I have skipped important chapters and written them at a later stage when I knew I was in the right mental condition to acquire the best results.
LS: Thank you for sharing this writing tip! I’ve had to create timelines for my fantasy series as it plays out over 1000 years and I’ve had to create an outline of principle characters and their relationship to each other for a film producer, but I never thought of writing resumes outlining family background. I’ll have to try that. Now that we know about your writing style, do you have any rituals you partake in before hunkering down to the business of writing?
CB: I like to start with a spotless desk, but that’s about all. Although not really a ritual, I do have a strange quirk, and that is to write all of my notes in red ink. Not even I can explain that one.
LS: I wish I can adopt this ‘clean desk’ ritual myself, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon. Oh, look! Amongst the clutter on my desk, I’ve found another question for you: From time to time, many writers experience a bout of writer’s block. Any secrets that you’d like to share with our readers about how you get around (or over) this wall should you hit it?
CB: I have days when I lack concentration, but so far I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never experienced writers’ block. Or, maybe I have, but I just didn’t notice. My philosophy is that you need to be in the correct frame of mind to write a particular piece. When the words are reluctant to come, I just put it down to a lack of concentration and start working on something else. I usually have two or three different books on the go at any given time, and I find that this cleanses my palette and keeps my mind fresh, so when I am stuck on one, I just put it aside and work on another; safe in the knowledge that the book will write itself when the time comes.
LS: What is the most profound discovery you’ve made in terms of your writing and how it has touched the lives of others?
CB: I don’t know if you have read the Harry Potter books, but there’s a magical implement that appears in the series known as a pensieve. A pensieve is a bowl into which a person’s thoughts are placed to obtain a clearer picture of them. To me, pen and paper (or screen and keyboard) are my pensieve. My mind is a whirlpool of different thoughts from which it is difficult to extract a firm opinion on anything. I guess I’m one of those annoying people who readily agrees with everybody’s point of view; even when they oppose each other. I’m a natural fence-sitter when it comes to conversation, but put a pen in my hand and suddenly I am able to weigh the pros and cons of every argument and come to firm and informed decisions that I am able to write down both clearly and succinctly. Discovering this was, for me, an extremely profound experience. The jury is still out, however, on whether or not this ability has touched the lives of others.
LS: When a reader is anxiously awaiting the release of one of your books (like I am waiting for ‘Reincarnates’), then believe me, you’ve touch people’s lives! But back to the next question: Living in Japan, a country driven by technology, are e-books becoming popular in that country, enough to force the publishing houses to re-think the future of paper and hardcover books?
CB: I can’t see that happening in the near future. E-books have been around for nearly a decade now, but the public has mostly ignored them. One of the reasons for this is that Japanese paperbacks tend to be much smaller than those found in the West, so the advantage of e-book readers being compact is lost. I have had a few of my published books reissued as e-books, but I’m lucky if they sell a hundred copies each a year.
LS: What are you reading now and what made this particular book special enough to earn a place on your must-read list?
CB: As mentioned above, I will read anything and a book must be very poorly written for me to put it aside without finishing it. At the moment I am re-reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code because I have been asked to review his new book, The Lost Symbol, for a magazine when it is released in September and I want to establish a line of comparison in my mind. The books I have read recently include Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (also for a review,) My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor’s, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Map of Bones by James Rollins, The Shakespeare Secret by Jennifer Lee Carrell, and—wait for it—every novel and story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote about Sherlock Holmes.
LS: I’d like to conclude my interviews with this question: Where do you foresee yourself and the direction of your writing career over the next 5 years?
CB: I have been fortunate enough to have made a bit of a name for myself in Japan as a non-fiction writer, but as you pointed out earlier, my heart is really in fiction. I decided at the end of last year that I wanted to return to fiction after a five-year break (my last novel was published in the U.S. in 2004,) and so far my efforts have been rewarded with two novels currently being serialized in Japanese magazines and one novel that is scheduled for publication as a Japanese-language original at the end of this year. Depending on sales, it is my hope to expand this novel into a series, but it is too early to say at the moment if that will be possible. If everything works out the way I intend, in five years’ time I hope to be writing one full-length novel and two or three non-fiction books per year (at the moment I am writing between five and eight non-fiction books per year.) And, like every other writer, I intend to be writing these from a twenty-room mansion nestling in several hundred acres of land; purchased with the royalties from my multi-million selling book…J
LS: I love your answer! And with your drive and never-ending imagination, I do believe it’s quite doable! Thank you so much for taking the time from your hectic schedule to answer these questions and to share some of your writing tips, Chris! I’m looking forward to your next guest blog when you discuss translating novels for a foreign market, how not to get lost in translation from a cultural standpoint, and more!
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