How did you come to write River of Smoke?
River of Smoke is the second novel in a series that began as a trilogy (I call it the Ibis Trilogy). The first book was Sea of Poppies; soon after I started writing it I realised that the characters and their stories would take more than one book. The books are not meant to be a single linear narrative. I always thought of the relationship between the books as a tangential one (as, for example, in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet). Some of the characters recur, but each book has its own themes, settings, spirit, mood,
and so on. In this sense each of the books can be read as a complete and self-sufficient novel in its
What was most difficult about it?
The setting. Most of the action takes place in Canton in 1838 and 1839. To get the background right was a real challenge: I had to learn some Cantonese.
What did you most enjoy?
The travel! I spent several weeks in Guangzhou and my visits to China have been extremely
rewarding in many different
How long did it take?
About three-and-a-half years.
What has changed for you since it was first published?
Both my children are in college now. This is a bigger change than I had imagined.
Who’s your favourite writer?
It varies with the year, the month and even the week. My favourite writer of the moment is Philip Hensher, whose new book, Scenes from Early Life, I am currently reading.
What are your other
My rule, when I’m stuck and in need of inspiration, is “read the Russians”.
Give us a writing tip.
Writers’ tips are usually about revision and rewriting; daydreaming is rarely mentioned, although it is actually far more important.
What, if anything, would you do differently if you were starting the book again?
I would pace myself better.
What are you working on now?
The next book in the trilogy.