When I was 16 years old I had the most important and memorable class of my entire education. Our regular teacher was not available and his replacement, a Mr Williams, came into the room and said: “Let’s forget the lesson. I want to tell you all the important writers you should be reading.” And list them he did: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh… It was a sudden slicing through the artifice of our school curriculum - a breath of reality. I took the lesson very much to heart and from then on I devoured books by these and other authors that came to my attention: Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Malcolm Lowry. I should mention that my school once had Samuel Beckett as a teacher. He didn’t last long. He said of the experience: “I taught the cream of Ulster society: rich and thick”.
It was while reading these books that I decided to be a writer. It was the first time in my life that I had found something I thought I would enjoy doing. I also thought it would be easy! Hah!
When I was 29 years old, living on a small island an hour by ferry from Hong Kong, I woke up one morning and realised that all those books I thought I was going to write by the age of 30 hadn’t been written and weren’t going to write themselves. So, I sat down and started to write. I was interested in some images of Chinese Gods I had been collecting in the marketplace. I wondered what religion they belonged to (Answer: Chinese folk religion) . My researches resulted in my first book - Chinese Gods - which, although very flawed, is a book that is still in print and for which I have a lot of affection.
And then, a few years later, real life kicked in. First my unconscious decided enough was enough and tried to kill me by throwing me off a high rock into a shallow pool of water. That event resulted in a 10-day stay in hospital and prompted me to start taking my life more seriously. I proposed to my girlfriend, Bernadette. She said ‘yes’, and we got married. A few years later our daughter, Stevie, was born. Poor Stevie. She was born with Down’s syndrome, and just as we were getting used to that she had to undergo an open heart operation during which she suffered an oxygen shortage that left her brain damaged, blind, epileptic and so profoundly handicapped that she could not do much more than wave her arms.
This was a major life hijacking. For the next six years I devoted myself to setting up a charity in Hong Kong (The HK Down’s Syndrome Assoc.) and then another two years setting up a parent resource centre for families with handicapped kids in Guangzhou, China (Yang Ai Parent Resource Centre).
Then, aged 8, Stevie died. By this time I was already mired in my next hijacking. Bernadette had been diagnosed with cancer ten months earlier. This was my new mission. I read over 200 books but none of them was the book I needed. I wanted a book that would put its arm round me and say: “Jonathan, this is it. This is the whole perspective on what you need to know”. But fast as I read I couldn’t read fast enough to help avert the inevitable and Bernadette died the following April (on Easter Sunday) leaving me to care for our five year old son, Patrick.
You see what I mean when I say my life has been hijacked.
But throughout these years I persevered with my ambition to write. I had written a couple of novels and when Stevie died I sat down to write a memoir of my life with her. The result was published as Wordjazz for Stevie. I wrote it in the form of a letter to her to explain to her, to me, to the world why she had been so important to me.
When Bern died I sat down to write the book I wish I’d had at hand when she was first diagnosed. Perhaps then we might have avoided her fate. And although it was too late for her, it was not too late for me. In this way, perhaps I could avoid following in her footsteps. So I wrote this book first and foremost for myself so I would know what I would do if/when I was diagnosed with cancer. I decided then to share it with the world. That book has been through two more transformations and is now available from internet bookshops as The Cancer Survivor’s Bible. “The best book on fighting cancer. The others don’t come close.” - reviewer on Amazon UK,
Then, one day, Peter Hui (rhymes with boy), a Chinese man I had known for over ten years, stopped me in the street and asked me to write his life - and what a life it turned out to be: kung fu fighter, playboy, associate of triads, collaborator with the Japanese, CIA agent, would be criminal mastermind and a lot more. That book was published as: King Hui - the man who owned all the opium in Hong Kong.
One morning in Bali, thinking about a mess of words that I had written that stubbornly refused to shape itself into a novel, a voice in my head said: “Cut everything in half”. I went home and cut it down to its bare bones. It worked. The result was The Alphabet of Vietnam; “A postmodern masterpiece” wrote one American reviewer.
Since then I have written a number of other books. And so I continue writing. Writing keeps me sane. Each book sets its own challenges.