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.
AUTHOR INTERVIEWS HIMSELF: JONATHAN CHAMBERLAIN
What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.
In fact, I have three books that came out almost simultaneously – all on the subject of cancer. The first of these is my big book The Cancer Survivor’s Bible. This is the book everyone should read - ideally before they get cancer or when they are first diagnosed. The second book is The Amazing Cancer Kid – the true story of Connah Broom – an amazing kid who has beaten terminal stage cancer without the aid of chemo or radiation or surgery. And finally, I have a short book called Cancer? Don’t Panic! which people can get as a free download from my website www.fightingcancer.com
OK. Let’s start with the big book. What is it? And why did you write it?
Let’s start with the Why? question. The reason I wrote it is because exactly 20 years ago my wife, Bernadette, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Naturally we went along with everything the doctors recommended and fifteen months later, after a great deal of pain – both physical and emotional – she died. She could not have died faster if we had done nothing for the cancer. Throughout that experience I was desperately searching for books that would tell me what to do, what was the best way to think about cancer? What were the facts and what were the options? I came to realise that the book I was looking for didn’t exist. I also still didn’t know what I would do if I myself got cancer, even though I had already read well over a hundred books. So I sat down to write the book I wished I had had. And I wrote it for me.
That first book was called Fighting Cancer – A Survival Guide. It has now been through two more rewrites and is now, at 550 pages, pretty much everything that I want people to know about cancer – and I wrote it to be easy to understand. And since it is now pretty much complete, I called it The Cancer Survivor’s Bible. This is the whole truth of cancer. Let’s face it cancer incidence is growing. Cancer is coming to someone close to us. That is 100% certain. Doesn’t it make sense to be prepared? To anyone who thinks they will just go along with what the doctor says, I will say this: You can save yourself a lot of pain and damage and very likely live longer if you just take the threat of cancer seriously and prepare yourself. It is coming. So this book tells you what the facts are, what the issues are and what all the options are. It is for each reader to put that information together for themselves. We are all different so we will make different decisions.
That’s very interesting. And what about The Amazing Cancer Kid?
OK. Connah Broom was 4 years old when he was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma. Stage 4 is the last stage, often called the terminal stage. He underwent 8 months of chemo and at the end of it he still had the same eleven tumours that he had when he started the regime. So the doctors said there was nothing more to be done and sent him home to die. Actually they did want to give him whole body radiation but this is a brutal treatment and carries very little chance of success and his grandparents, who were caring for him, managed to resist this. There was a threat the doctors would get a court order to impose the treatment on him but as I say they managed to avoid this. And so their journey began. They made some interesting choices and amongst them was a decision to do sono-photo-dynamic therapy, which they had to go to Mexico for – and it wasn’t cheap. Now, eight years later Connah is virtually free of his cancer. He still has one tumour left but the latest scans are showing that it too is dying. He is a robustly healthy young lad. This book was written to be enjoyed by pre-teens and young adults so it is attractively laid out and illustrated.
And what about the other book: Cancer? Don’t Panic!
Right. For most people the situation is this. Everyone knows about cancer in a vague sort of way but no-one takes it seriously until they themselves are diagnosed. Then they panic. They clutch at any straws the doctors offer. We can do this. We can do that. Yes, yes, yes, people say. I’ll do anything. And once they have gone this far they will reject any other information that doesn’t support this decision. Now whether or not this would be the right thing to do – in some cases it might be, in most cases not – it surely makes sense to think about cancer and to have some sort of understanding of the parameters of the question. So I wrote down some of my thoughts, some of the wisdom I have acquired over the last twenty years. And because I want as many people as possible to read it, so that people can be better prepared, I have made it available as a free download (www.fightingcancer.com) – it’s also available in Kindle and as a paperback. This book is designed to help people think about cancer in a sensible way. And yes. There is no need to panic. Panicking is definitely the wrong thing to do. People do have time when they are diagnosed to go away and read up on the subject – there really is no need to rush into an operating theatre. You can certainly give yourself three to four weeks to get your head round the situation you have now been faced with. The best decisions are thought ot, informed decisions. Panic-driven decisions are generally very bad.
So, you got into writing these books because of your own personal experience with cancer – with your wife’s cancer. You’ve read hundreds of books. What should people do if they get cancer? What’s your advice?
(laughs) I’m afraid that’s the one question I can’t answer. As I say, we are all different. We have different cancers and we have had different upbringings. We differ in age, education, social situation and in a hundred other ways. All of these things affect our view of the world. Part of the journey to recovery is doing the work of reading and deciding for yourself. That way we own whatever decisions we make. My job is to give you everything you need to make those decisions for yourself. However, I think it is very important for people to be self-aware about their own attitudes, and of the implicit attitudes of those around them so I have prepared a short questionnaire – which you’ll find in The Cancer Survivor’s Bible. Being self-aware is an important part of the process of negotiating information and if you and your partner are filtering information differently, then the result could be unnecessary conflict between you. I know about this because I have been there.. You can find the questionnaire in the first part of The Cancer Survivor’s Bible.
So who are you when you are not writing cancer books?
I used to be a teacher. I am now a full-time writer. I have written textbooks, novels, memoirs and other works. I have also founded two charities for families with children with developmental disabilities, one in Hong Kong and one in China. I have been very busy!
The Cancer Survivor’s Bible by Jonathan Chamberlain [ISBN 9781908712097 RRP US$29.99]
The Amazing Cancer Kid by Jonathan Chamberlain [ISBN 9781908712103 RRP US$12.50]
Cancer? Don’t Panic! by Jonathan Chamberlain [ISBN 9781493703807 RRP US$6.29]
Jonathan Chamberlain has written the following works
The Cancer Survivor’s Bible
(Also available in 8 short books as Cancer: The Complete Recovery Guides, Books 1-8)
The Amazing Cancer Kid
Cancer? Don’t Panic!
Cancer Recovery Guide: 15 Strategies.
The Alphabet of Vietnam
Dreams of Gold
Wordjazz for Stevie
King Hui: The man who owned all the opium in Hong Kong
Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion.