Interview with David Clive Price
Interview by Eric Weng from www.unexploredterritory.net
Q. What really floats your boat? Why did you go to the Far East and why now publish all these books about Asia business cultures, along with novels and travelogues set in Asia?
I have always been attracted by other cultures and what lies beyond. It’s like an instinctive reaction to any new place. I get a sort of obsession with the idea a new and strange experience – a world I have never set foot in before, an adventure, something with risk involved, something that may or may not make me money but that promises to be in some way spiritual.
Q: What do you mean by that?
I don’t mean holy and going to church (eve if I have become a Buddhist on my travels). It means discovering something about the world that suggest other dimensions, like all those spirits and demons and Taoist or Shinto gods of nature in Asia cultures.
Of course, it can be something quite banal like lighting incense for the God of Prosperity or choosing the lucky number 8 for your mobile phone and house numbers, as almost all Chinese do. But it can also be the discovery of religious rituals or simple domestic and family beliefs that make life seem so much richer and full of wonder.
Q: When did you first discover this about yourself?
It’s hard to say exactly when. I was a precocious schoolboy with a penchant for entertaining my classmates with ironic pop songs (Tom Jones, for example) and little skits that made the class laugh before the teacher arrived. I played Hamlet at school, fell of the stage at a school play competition and discovered my ability to be resilient by just carrying on. I recited Keats and Wordsworth to myself in my bedroom mirror or in the local woods. I loed to go out on ventures.
Later I won a choral scholarship to Cambridge after the tutor got me completely drunk on sherry because of my nerves. The common thread in all this was a belief in my guardian spirit, and in my resilience, and a readiness to take on the new in order to learn. I was always in the library and I date my passion for the German, Italian and French languages from my time at school.
Q: You seem to have had everything necessary to pursue a successful career. What happened? Your career is not exactly a straight line from the look of these books.
‘Every time I have been set up with what seems a conventional career, I have taken a calculated risk and broken free to pursue something entirely different, something that is often diametrically opposed to the world in which I have been trained to excel.’
‘When I finished my Ph.D. on ‘Music and Patrons of the English Renaissance’ (the History Faculty at first refused the subject) I didn’t wait to receive my doctorate. I headed straight for Switzerland and my first big love affair, living in a tiny rooftop atelier in the old town of Zurich.’
‘However, the British Academy had given me a fellowship to do postgraduate research at Bologna University for a book on the Italian Renaissance. I therefore continued on to Italy (my second great love) and pursued this research diligently in the archives of various north Italian cities. But after a year of being a professor type, I jacked it in and went over the Apennines to search for a cheap place to live and perhaps write a completely kind of book and lead a more satisfying life.’
Q: Where did you end up?
My partner and I found an old farmhouse in an Etruscan hilltop town, dirt cheap, perched on the side of a valley with a lovely tower for my study. To the accompaniment of sparrows in the roof eaves building their nests, I first of all translated into English the Italian poet and filmmaker Pie Paolo Pasolini on his travels in India and then considered what kind of book I might write myself.
I was farming wine and olives and vegetables quite intensively by then, and had entered full scale into the local country life, making friends with all the neighbouring farmers. My own “mezzadro” (share cropper) was teaching me all about binding vines and pruning olive trees so I ended up writing a book about Italian rural life called The Other Italy. It’s still in print on Amazon. And I began a novel.
Q. Why did you decided on a novel? What was the inspiration?
A journey I took to shake up my comfortable rural existence. I went to New York for a year in 1979 and decided to live in the most “edgy” neighbourhood possible: Alphabet City, or Avenues A to Z. Nowadays it’s been gentrified but back in the early 1980s it was a hotbed of creativity, drugs, prostitution, the gay and lesbian underworld, and a fascinating mix of blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, every race under the sun.
So I began the novel from a ringside seat in my Lower East Side apartment on a very edgy street, and finished it in total calm in the Tuscan countryside.
Q. Do you like extremes? Is that what makes you a writer?
No, I’m not an extreme person in that sense. But I love a challenge and adventure, and almost instinctively I try to get right under the surface of the prevailing culture. In this sense, all the books that have followed including my novel Chinese Walls, just published and set in London and Hong Kong, and Phoenix Rising; A Journey Through South Korea, are attempts to get beneath the surface of other worlds (corporate London, East Asian, imperial Beijing, post-colonial Hong Kong, and so on).
Q. Is that what your business books are also about? I see they are called the Master Key Series.
Yes, in a way the business books and the Asia fiction/travel are inspired by the same passion: deep diving, learning from the clash of cultures, trying everything, listening rather than always talking, being patient, observing, learning a “new language”. The Master Key to Asia and The Master Key to Asia offer a system for getting into other worlds – in this case Asian business worlds – by learning the cultures and assimilating, not sticking out, imitating.
Q. Is that your technique as a writer?
Yes, you could say that. I was entranced when researching my CUP book on Elizabethan musicians and courtiers how much they had to dissemble and hide up their Catholic sympathies. Many of them led double lives, any yet they merged into the status quo of court life.
They were successful because they learned how to act. In terms of daily habits, this often meant that they had to lurk in strange places to meet fellow Catholic sympathisers. Chroniclers of the time described them as being “seen in lurcking sorte” in out of the way places like Esher or Dover.
Q. Is this something important to you? Being a kind of spy?
Yes, I rather see myself as a “lurker”. My novelistic technique is to hang around at street corners, go to places in a town where no one else goes, sit at the wheel of my car in a supermarket car park and watch what the people are doing. Novelists are always doing that, looking over the shoulder or from a distance, merging into the background. It’s a great metaphor for the way I work and research.
In the same way, I advise my business clients to become “Chinese” or “Korean” or “Indonesian” as much as they can, to try everything local and not be put off, to get out of the expat ghetto in the cities of Asia and discover the real world beyond. The best way to do that is to plunge in and be a spy from the inside, not from the outside.
Q. Finally, what came first for Chinese Walls or Phoenix Rising – the plot or the main character or the main idea or none of the above?
I usually start with a feeling inside, which evolves eventually into a starting point for a plot. The main character slips onto the stage at the same time. Then as I develop the plot and structure, I slowly start to get a feeling for what the book is about – its main idea. And after a few attempts at an opening chapter or two, it starts to flow. If it doesn’t start to flow, I put it away (perhaps only for a while or perhaps for years) and work on something else.
Q. Do you any other books in your Unexplored Territory trilogies that are waiting for the light of day in a bottom drawer or are ‘evolving’ into a plot?
The next novel in the Unexplored Territory series is called Last Train to Mandalay and is entering the final edit stage for publication by Christmas 2014. The next travel book in the series, Glimpses of Snow Country: Travels in Japan, is largely written but awaits 2-3 extra chapters on areas of Japan’s Snow Country, such as Hokkaido, which I am visiting in the near future for both a business conference and researching the book. A book on Japan will complement my book on South Korea and provide I hope an interesting comparison.
Q. What is the message you’d like to share with the world?
“To cultivate a sense of wonder.”
David Clive Price has been at various times a wine and olive farmer in Italy, a Renaissance scholar, speechwriter for one of the world’s leading banks, a strategic adviser to Asian multinationals, and an explorer of the unknown corners of South Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Myanmar (Burma), to name just a few of his ‘unexplored territories’.
He has written books on the ‘lost civilization’ of rural Italy, music and Catholic conspiracies in Elizabeth I’s England, Buddhism in the daily life of Asia, the secret world of China’s Forbidden City, the darker corners of corporate life in pre-recession London and Hong Kong, off-the-beaten track Seoul and South Korea, the ethnic sub-culture and risky underworld of 1980s New York.
All of David Clive Price’s books are available as Amazon paperbacks and Kindles.