Category Archive: Duncan Jepson

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Crime Thriller Fella

We love writers here. They’re busy people, but they just gotta write.

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He’s produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine WestEast, and one of the founders and managing editors of the Asia Literary Review. A social commentator on Asia, he regularly writes for The New York TimesPublishing Perspectivesand South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Tatler. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

His first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, was published by HarperCollins. He also co-storied the graphic novel, Darkness outside the Night with Xie Peng. Now, his first book in a crime series about Detective Alex Soong, Emperors Once More, is out.  You can buy it at places like this.

How would you pitch Emperors Once More to a potential reader?

2017, China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt. For many Chinese, this has the same strong sense of bitterness as the humiliations of the Opium War, Rape of Nanjing and Boxer Rebellion. One man in Hong Kong, deeply affected by colonialism, wants to use this new collective anger and indignation to push Chinese to demand China use its global power to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. To achieve these ends, he will draw on both ancient rites and modern technology.

It’s the first in a crime trilogy about Detective Alex Soong – how would you describe Soong?

First and foremost, Soong is of the new generation of Chinese – worldly, apolitical and, like many but not all, has strong views on right and wrong though these are still evolving as he lives and grows. He has also chosen to embrace difference, which many Chinese have traditionally eschewed, so by moving to Hong Kong, a city which despite its strong consumer attitudes maintains conservative Chinese values largely gone from China, he agitates against the often parochial views. Furthermore, he and his wife try to adapt to modern life, that their parents in China never experienced at that age.

Finally like many law enforcement officers, and certainly from my own experiences as a corporate counsel in a regional financial organisation, he struggles with how far he should pursue a situation regardless of the consequences such as personal conflict, loneliness and general antagonism.


Emperors No More

It is a very free market economy, one can make or lose millions in day, because it has been built by population of wealth seeking risk-takers, now not just Chinese but from all nationalities, who thrive on possibility. It is also a city of dense living conditions, people constantly touching each other’s lives, helpfully and harmfully – rich, poor, educated, street-wise, resolute and weak. These two general characteristics are shaped further by the contrasting architecture (huge towers and crumbling slums), the harbour and the night lights, offering all sorts of opportunities for grim misdeeds from white collar crime to human and animal trafficking. Even more exciting for the crime writer is that during the last ten years or so there is increasing work to fight crime providing another rich area of inspiration.

What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?

Deciding what I want to say, answering my own question – why tell a story in the first place? Once I have that then I take whatever time is needed to create the story, and this is found in personal experiences, observations of others, history and more broadly from the inspiration from others. Once the story starts to take shape, I then try to work on the characters and how they interact. This latter part is the most enjoyable but the most difficult. I’m still learning my craft so I have good days when little elements seem to fall nicely into place and then other bearish days when everything is lumpy and ill-fitting. Some days the story and characters are at odds and one must revise or simply leave it alone and go do something else so perhaps on return the way forward presents itself – this is much like everything else in life.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

During the day I work as corporate counsel heading a legal team in a regional (Asia Pacific) investment organization so my writing is done during lunch and at night. I try to write 1200 a day and some days I’m ahead and others far behind. From my experience the important element is to keep writing and progressing the story, not constantly refining the same pages – if one is stuck on the same pages it is probably because one doesn’t know the rest of the story.

Who are the authors you love and why?

Italo Calvino, a sublime storyteller and fabulist, who creates the beautiful characters and worlds. I have always liked Herman Hesse for the detailed journeys I would travel with his characters and the warmth of his writing.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

How do you deal with feedback?

Generally, providing it is explained clearly, I like feedback. I may not agree with the points made but I do find it interesting to hear and read how other people understood and experienced something I made. Writing is pretty solitary but I am used to working with others in my day job, in film etc and I like different perspectives. I was on a panel chaired by Professor Douglas Kerr who wrote a great biography of Conan Doyle, I made some comments about difficulties I had with the pace and nature of a crime novel and it was fascinating to hear him respond about the structure of both crime writing from an academic perspective and about Doyle from a biographer’s perspective.

You’ve had a varied career – how have your own experiences shaped your writing?

In this story, I was heavily influenced by my own experiences on some investigations, mainly the personal elements, not the crimes. But also as a filmmaker, I am influenced by detail and atmosphere which I try to capture to draw the reader into the particular world.

Give me some advice about writing…

Say something (have some purpose, hopefully people will listen), write everyday (even if you are very undecided about what you have written) and be honest about your work (your finaldraft is an editor’s first.)

What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Have a strong story and strong characterisations, try to finish the work or at least have a first quarter with a thorough synopsis, find an agent who you trust and then trust them, work with the editor and help market the book. Finally don’t be too difficult, writing a manuscript and making changes is indeed pretty solitary but publishing books is not.

What’s next for you?

I am finishing the sequel which is currently titled Us and Them and is set in Hong Kong, the UK and Thailand. I’m currently in the UK visiting my father and doing a little research. I am also still working on a documentary about social inequality but I’ve been at it for three years now.

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Shots Confidential

I have been a regional corporate lawyer across Asia for over a decade and have been involved in a number of investigations relating to fraud, insider dealing and market manipulation. These often begin dramatically but develop slowly.  Here I describe how a dawn raid on a suspect might take place.
The day has barely begun, the lift opens and out stride ten or so law enforcement officers. A dawn raid. The unsuspecting individual at the reception desk is shocked and confused at the sudden appearance of a number of uniformed and plain clothed officers with empty boxes. Too anxious to check the search warrant as they’re innocently laying out the morning papers for what should have been yet another long day directing suits to meeting rooms?
After being allowed to enter, the officers take computers, files and suspects. The first reactions for colleagues sitting at the nearby cubicles as the officers appear, the rough intimacy of open-plan offices, is surprise, then quickly caution and soon solidarity.
Within a few minutes, corporate counsel is alerted and for them there is an immediate problem. They are paid to ensure the company follows the law and the law in this situation is, as everyone knows, innocent until proven guilty. The suspect, suddenly taken away for interview downtown, should be presumed innocent. And yet what if he or she isn’t? What if they are guilty and because let’s face it, it’s what’shisor hername who was always playing it fast and loose, talking cheap, cutting it close, so then perhaps it’s not that surprising. Maybe it’s actually surprising it took so long for the officers to come. But personal observations and perspectives aside, the counsel knows the law, and that as an innocent employee, they must be represented. For the moment anyway.
Yet, there’s a problem, while Mr X or Ms Y are now sitting uncomfortably and being asked all sorts of inconvenient questions, the corporate counsel is also paid to protect the company and must act accordingly. An internal investigation must begin. The computer has gone but everything, emails, text messages, documents, spreadsheets, rubbish cartoons and dodgy photos are all stored in the corporate cloud. The enforcement agency will want some of these in time. So a law firm is hired to go downtown to represent the company and, perhaps temporarily, the employee. The charges are identified and investigation begins – people misuse their company phone and computer.
Mr X or Ms Y, bright and shiny at their desk the day before, exits the interviews and is understandably quite unnerved. They go home, still under contract – a holiday or perhaps for “much needed rest” – but must still be available for internal interviews which start soon afterward. Friends and colleagues become irate, covering for the suspect’s work and responsibilities, but also increasingly concerned they might be involved – even though they know aren’t. Self-doubt sets in, despite reality. And colleagues want to know what has happened but also in disbelief they defend their companion, after all he or she has been with them everyday of the week, at least eight hours a day for years. Weeks pass, the individual is still missing but less missed as colleagues, also the counsel’s colleagues, feel betrayed for some of them too must be now interviewed.

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Female First

Emperors Once More is the story of a serial killer motivated by what he believes has been the humiliation of China by the west during the last 100 years and he wants China to reclaim its rightful place in the world order. An incident occurs in the near future that leaves China humiliated again and that triggers the first killings, two Anglican priests. He is hunted down by a mainland detective Alex Soong who is young man educated abroad and who believes that the grim history of China’s past should be left there.


Please tell us about the character of Detective Alex Soong.


Alex Soong is a mainland detective working in anti-corruption and is brought to Hong Kong to investigate white collar crime. He believes in what’s right rather than what is necessarily legal but he also carries the burden of being born into well-known political family with a legacy he has rejected, which some see as a rejection of China itself. He finds it difficult to assimilate to Hong Kong and is suspicious of the compromise between Hong Kong law enforcement and organised crime which he cannot reconcile.



How much does your background in film help you to carve the imagery into your books?


One of the most important things I learned is the attention to detail of locations and atmosphere. To be able to build a world that is convincing. When you sit in a cinema watching a film you’ve made and follow the audience, you learn the importance of working hard to keep an audience engrossed.



Please tell us about the inspiration behind the story.


During the years of traveling and living in Asia, I often experienced and saw older Chinese people bitter and angry from lives under colonial rule and in disbelief that their culture of 5000 years was so far behind in the second half of the twentieth century. I was interested to explore this rage but in a crime narrative. Having written my first novel in the first person as a woman, I also wanted to write a story of strong male and female characters in the third person, a crime story gave me the opportunity to do this and hopefully create something entertaining.



Please tell us a bit about the Asia Literary Review.


I started the Asia Literary Review with Ilyas Khan and Nury Vittachi with the aim of creating a magazine to focus on Asian writers and Asian stories. The Review lasted in hard copy for nearly seven years during which time we published some great new writers, some well-established Asian authors, for example Su Tong, Han Han and Yan Geling, who were largely read by people searching for works in translation and also some key poetry by dissidents Liu Xiaobo and Liao Yiwu. It is now run by Martin Alexander who has taken it solely digital but continues the tradition of Asian stories and Asian writers.



Can you give us some insight into your columns with the likes of the New York Times.


I have been lucky to write columns on personal experiences such as SARS, losing my job in the economic downturn, observations on Asian readership and experiences in Nepal making my last film.



What is next for you?


I am completing the sequel currently titled Us and Them then hope to work on another story of a banking anti-hero.

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Crime Fiction Lover

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson
Set a few years hence in Hong Kongthe latest offering from director, producer and lawyer Duncan Jepson again features his home turf – the bustling city where East meets West, and where European ideas of freedom and transparency sometimes clash with the cautious and controlling bureaucracy of communist China. While the international media focuses on a vital summit of world leaders, Detective Alex Soong starts investigating what appears to be a random murder. However, events threaten to get out of hand when more deaths follow. Even more troubling for Soong is that he seems to be the only person able to thwart a deadly conspiracy involving China’s future, and a dark episode from its past. Out today.

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Myanmar Times

While not all of these visitors had direct experience with Myanmar, many were well-versed in the challenges of pitching Asian stories to British and American publishers, and they were under no illusions that the situation here would be any different.

Hong Kong-based literary agent Kelly Falconer – who describes herself as representing “Asian authors, experts on Asia, and writers living in Asia, be they Asian or not” – said she looks for works that will sell in the English-language market and have appeal to Western readers.

“I’m looking for fine writing, something that really captures my heart and takes my breath away, and that I hope will have a similar effect on anyone who reads it in the UK or the USA,” she said.

Falconer – whose clients include poet Ko Ko Thett, co-editor and translator of the 2012 anthology of Myanmar poetry Bones Will Crow – said that while she thinks the appeal of Asian literature is growing in the West, there are many challenges to overcome, including the tendency for agents, editors and readers to “reach out for the familiar”.

Photos: SuppliedPhotos: Supplied

“I think there are editors and agents who are looking for something to confirm their prejudices … Readers in the West often want something that’s very familiar. They’re reading about the Cultural Revolution in China and are still trying to understand how China has reached the point it has today,” she said.

“But my fiction writers are writing about what’s going on now, and I’m finding it challenging to convince the West that these are the fresh voices of Asia.”

Michael Vatikiotis, a writer and journalist who has published several fiction and nonfiction works on Southeast Asia, agreed that the world of publishing often relies on perpetuating stereotypes.

Photos: SuppliedPhotos: Supplied

“A publisher will fixate on something that’s worked – the Harry Potter of India – and everything else just falls off a cliff,” he said.

He cited Indonesia – the subject of much of his writing – as an example of a country that can be a hard sell to Western readers.

“Indonesia is probably one of the most colourful and interesting countries in the world … [but] there’s a rather bleak view of Indonesia – that it’s a dark, forbidding place that people do not really enjoy reading about.”

Writer Dipika Mukherjee, whose 2011 novel Thunder Demons is set in Malaysia, said she constantly struggles with the issue of how to connect with readers in the West.

“Malaysia is not a country that is very big in the American imagination. I think places like Thailand are a lot larger in terms of what people know about it,” she said. “So although there is interest, I think I have a much larger following in Malaysia, where they really get what I was trying to do with this book.”

Kerry Glencorse, a literary agent based in London who represents Golden Parasol (2013) author Wendy Law-Yone, said many readers prefer being “spoon-fed” stories that are easy to digest, making it difficult for books about unfamiliar cultures to break out of a small niche.

“But there are books like [Chinese author Jung Chang’s] Wild Swans from other cultures that have gone on to be huge successes. They can be really big. It’s just trying to find the right one,” she said.

“If you happen to hit upon a story that really works for whatever reason, then I think there’s great opportunity because there is a hunger and appetite for literature from these places and for a different point of view – especially one like Myanmar that has been closed for so long.”

Marysia Juszczakiewicz, who founded the Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong, said she tries to find stories that “speak to an international audience” and that “are not so steeped in that culture that people outside have no comprehension of it”.

One of the writers she represents is Duncan Jepson, the Hong Kong-based author of the novels All the Flowers in Shanghai (2012) and Emperors Once More (2014) and former managing editor of Asia Literary Review.

“You do end up thinking, ‘We can’t publish this because it’s too esoteric.’ It’s a story about Laos or some aspect of Cambodia that people think is too arcane,” Jepson said of his work at the literary review.

“But I was interested in communicating to a broad audience about things that are happening, so that there is greater awareness and understanding. It’s a slow process.”

For many Asian authors, regional idiosyncrasies manifest themselves not only in subject matter but also in writing style, which only adds to the challenge of cross-cultural publishing.

Myanmar author Ma Thanegi – who has written several English-language nonfiction works, including the travelogue The Native Tourist (2005) and the prison memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage (2013) – said the format and characteristics of English and Myanmar literature are very different.

“I can be irreverent in English, but the written word is taken very seriously by the Burmese – especially for a woman who is no longer young and ‘should be dignified’ – unless it is an all-out complete satire, which is also rather rare. Burmese satirical books often have the subtitle ‘satire’ just in case a reader misunderstands and gets angry,” she said.

Juszczakiewicz, who represents Chinese writers such as Su Tong, author of Raise the Red Lantern (1990), and 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, said Chinese novels are often constructed differently from Western works.


Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, Asia Literary Review

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine WestEast and one of the founders and managing editors of the Asia Literary Review. He is a social commentator on Asia and regularly writes for The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives, South China Morning Post andHong Kong Tatler. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

His first novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, was published by HarperCollins. He also co-storied the graphic novel, Darkness outside the Night with Xie Peng. His first book in the crime series,Emperors Once More, published by Quercus in March 2014.