THE MAKING OF A THOUGHTFUL DETECTIVE STORY—AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIC D. GOODMAN
Think of Detective Sam Spade. Or Mike Hammer. Then put him in a beautiful location with fascinating history and culture and give him a soul that’s open to change. Author Eric D. Goodman takes this combination and stirs it up with a mystery that hinges on clever hidden clues and long-held secrets. The result is The Color of Jadeite, a noir novel that’s packed with fast action, riveting characters, and a sense of purpose.
When an unknown collector sends retired investigator Clive Allan along with Asian beauty Wei Wei to China to search for the lost jadeite tablet of Emperor Xuande of the Ming dynasty, the elements of the novel begin to swirl like a kaleidoscope. Today Goodman gives us some insight into how he created this colorful story.
SW. This is a fascinating novel, not only because of the many beautiful locations you describe, but also because of the Chinese history you include. Is all of the history accurate or did you take liberties at times? Which part of the historic research did you enjoy most? Which surprised you the most?
EDG. Most of the Chinese history featured in the book is accurate. I took some liberties where there were gaps. For example, the jadeite tablet everyone is after in this book is fictitious, but Emperor Xuande of the Ming dynasty was a poet and lover of art, and he reportedly loved one of the concubines he kept in a palace of unusual beauties. But the jadeite tablet itself and the more recent history about the collector who hid it and left clues for a worthy collector to find it was all fictional. The fiction is an extension of the history.
The most enjoyable part of the research, for me, was the field research: visiting the amazing places in the novel. I guess the thing that surprised me the most was learning about Emperor Xuande. The more I read about him and his reign, the more fascinating I found him. At one point, I had even considered including a few chapters set in his time, centered on him, but decided that would slow down the story.
SW. How did you decide exactly how much history to include to make it interesting but not get bogged down in facts?
EDG. I think it was an intuitive choice—and for some readers it may be too much history, for others, not enough. The important factors for me were whether the history being shared added to or enriched the story, and whether it seemed to naturally take place as part of the dialogue. There were plenty of interesting facts that I was tempted to include and did in earlier drafts, but it sounded contrived, so diced them away. I think the amount of history included, mostly through conversations, just felt natural and added some more depth to the story.
SW. I was also intrigued by the Chinese culture in the novel, like the cricket contests and the priceless silk embroidery. How did you learn about these? Was it challenging to work them into the plot so seamlessly?
EDG. Most of these cultural details were easy to weave into the scenes of the novel because they were based on first-hand experiences. While exploring China, we visited a silk embroidery center where we took a tour and learned about the craft and viewed artifacts, old and new. In Beijing’s Hutong, we really did have lunch in a courtyard apartment home and were hosted by a former cricket master who showed off his retired champions. Of course, there is more fiction than fact in Jadeite, but many of these types of details come right out of reality—only we weren’t being chased by villains and weren’t racing after a priceless artifact.
SW. Each scene in the novel is filled with information and action. Do you have a favorite scene? If so, which one?
EDG. It would be hard to pinpoint one single scene as a favorite, but I think the ones that most interested me were the passages centered on revealing dialogue. It may sound funny to say, and most of the reviews Jadeite has received focus on the page-turning action and plotting of the thriller, but I think the most thrilling scenes are ones in which two or more of the characters are having a conversation and something new is revealed, learned, or figured out—and that can change everything for a character or a reader.
Having said that, and not revealing any secrets, a few of my favorite moments are scenes when Wei Wei is revealing more about her past and her relationship with the jadeite tablet. In particular, there’s a scene toward the end I really like, as they think their adventure is over but learn that it’s not.
SW. One thing I noticed when I started reading Jadeite was that the tone was perfect. It put me immediately in the worlds of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. I think the key to that tone is your main character, Clive Allan. What characteristics did you give Clive to make him so suited to this role?
EDG. I think the use of first-person narrative helped there, and I was inspired after reading some detective novels and watching some noir movies. At the risk of making Clive a caricature, in the vein of the Bob Hoskins character in Roger Rabbit, I wanted to start him off as a modern-day version of the dry, witty, gumshoe detective. I started there as who he was, but the story really goes into a more Indiana Jones-Robert Langdon direction as it progresses. Starting Clive off as deadpan allowed me to more easily show his growing excitement for both the jadeite tablet and his new partner, Wei Wei.
Some of Clive’s characteristics? He is quick-witted, sarcastic, likes to crack jokes, use puns, and quote literary works, and he’s more motivated by the purpose than the prize—putting meaning above money. Somewhat unexpected characteristics for a new thriller: he’s a retired government investigator, a vegetarian, and a loner.
SW. All of the characters are distinctive and interesting. Which one was the most difficult to create?
EDG. In some ways, I think Wei Wei was the most difficult because there were a lot of secrets in her past that I needed to figure out how to reveal for the best effect, and how to withhold or reveal things for maximum impact on the reader. Salvador is a character who started out difficult but he evolved naturally. Mark was a less significant character, but I had to make his rigid boy-scout outlook on laws and rules believable. Even more challenging than creating any of them was keeping them distinct and unique after creating them. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap, when you have multiple side characters, to have some who are hard to tell apart. But I think the characters in Jadeite are distinct—you can (hopefully) tell one from another simply by how they speak.
SW. What was your writing process for this novel and how was it different from the processes you used for your previous novels?
EDG. As far as a schedule, it was very much the same: I write in long spurts and when I’m in the mode, I’m living in it, reading books and watching movies and documentaries that keep with the theme or somehow contribute to the novel.
But being an action thriller instead of a literary novel, this book required a lot more plotting ahead of time—an outline and a “beat sheet” to get the characters and plot points from one place to another at the right pace. This was especially true because I had multiple things to keep track of: the clues leading to their prize, interactions with the villains, the drama unfolding between each of the characters, the revelations both Clive and to a greater extent Wei Wei had to share, and the locations I wanted to take them to.
Usually, when writing a novel, although I know where I’m headed, I feel my way through. With drama or literary fiction, I think there’s more room to let your characters take you where they want, often to unexpected places. But with a thriller that involves multiple places and characters, I felt the need to map everything out ahead of time. That said, there was still room for surprising dialogue and character traits to evolve unexpectedly.
I would do it again, and probably will, but I’ll have to admit as much fun as this novel was to write, and hopefully to read, I think I prefer the more initiative “feel your way through” method of discovering a novel while writing it.
SW. I don’t want to give anything away, but the ending of this novel is terrific with many surprises. Did you know from the beginning that that was how it would end, or did you realize that was what would happen as you were writing?
EDG. Good question. There were aspects of the ending that I knew from the beginning, and other things that evolved. It’s hard to say exactly which are which without giving away the end. But I would say the biggest aspects of the final chapters were planned from the beginning and smaller details and aspects sort of grew out of those bigger things, enriching and improving the overall ending.
SW. Your previous novels have offered strong thematic messages. Is it possible for a detective story to have a thematic message? If so, what is this novel’s message?
EDG. Sure, I think a detective novel, mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, or just about any genre can have a message if crafted carefully into the writing process. Some people may read Jadeite and just take away a nice adventure story or thrilling quest adventure, and that’s fine because that’s the main point of a novel like this: the surface story. But I tried to fold in some themes and messages through the characters. From little things like Clive’s early “rule” that ex-investigators and ex-cons shouldn’t mix socially melting as his relationship with Salvador evolved and the question of whether a thing of value should be seen by all or only those “worthy” of finding it, to larger things. Besides the challenge of plotting out and seeing through an adventure thriller, one of my main motivations of this book was to share with readers these exciting places I visited and the interesting culture and history in which they exist.
I don’t think I thought of it this way when I was writing the book, but it occurs to me now that this isn’t that different from the motivation for all of the books and stories I’ve written: the desire to share moments and emotions that everyone can relate to, in an attempt to promote understanding and compassion. Some of the best comments from readers, for me, are when people say they can relate or they understood or felt like I was writing about them in a particular scene. Bringing people together, at the heart, is an important part of fiction writing.
SW. Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world?
EDG. We live in a too-fast-paced world. I’m as guilty as the next person of getting trapped into the loop of jumping from checking email and social media to working on a novel to submitting some travel stories. Even when relaxing, movies and binge-worthy television shows seem to have taken over.
Unwinding with a good book is a deeper way to relax. You slow down and have time to live with and relate to the characters and situations. To think that many people in the world don’t have time to read books is sad to me. And I get it, because there are moments—weeks sometimes—when I feel I’m too busy to sit down with a book. But anyone who takes the time to read long fiction will get a lot out of it, as long as they’re reading books that speak to them.
I think you can learn a lot more, at a deeper level, from good fiction than you can from nonfiction. Not dates or facts, but emotional truths. And whether I’m writing dialogue-heavy literary fiction or action-driven genre, I would love for readers to find truth for themselves in my fiction.
SW. What are you writing now?
EDG. I just finished a short novel called Wrecks and Ruins. It’s an anti-love story of sorts that corrects itself. The protagonist is a middle-aged man who believes that romantic love is like the cycle of a cicada: a few months of excited buzz—romance, lust, excitement—followed by a monotonous silence that can’t live up to the promise at the start. Because of this worldview, he has lived most of his life as a bachelor.
This novel stands alone, but finds its beginnings in “Cicadas,” a short story I wrote about a younger version of this character in 2004. That story was published in New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers and was featured on Baltimore’s NPR station, 88.9 FM, WYPR. Next year’s reemergence of the cicadas would make the perfect heralds for the book, so I’m hoping it will be published in 2021.
But until then, I’ll be thinking about what other kind of adventure I can throw Clive Allan into. If the reception is good for The Color of Jadeite, I hope to revisit his universe again in the next few years.