In Nieh’s first novel, Beijing Payback (Ecco, July), California college basketball star Victor Li discovers his father’s apparently random murder is linked to a crime syndicate in China.
How did you come up with the idea for Beijing Payback?
There were two ideas that the novel sprang from: one aesthetic and one dramatic. The aesthetic idea is the distinctive language of sports—basketball in this case—which I think has the qualities of poetry. The dramatic idea is a letter to the future with instructions in it. This eventually took shape as the letter that the father writes to the son, for the son to read in the case of the father’s death. In this way, the father steers Victor through the story, even though he’s dead on page one: a microcosm of the way that the past exerts a subtle but inevitable gravitational pull on the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Do you consider yourself a genre writer?
No more so than I consider myself a literary writer, a writer of Chinese and Jewish heritage, a relatively lanky human male with 10 fingers and 10 toes. Beijing Payback is a crime thriller, for sure. I’m interested in playing with boundaries. I love stories with moral dilemmas, like Gone Baby Gone, and surprises, like Fight Club. Hong Kong cinema is a big source of inspiration for me, particularly the films of Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To. I’m planning to write two more books featuring Victor Li, but I don’t want to repeat a formula with him. I’d like to see him evolve.
In addition to writing, you’re a model and a translator. How did that happen?
I became a model while I was living in Beijing and working as a freelance translator and interpreter. I had heard that the biracial look was popular in Asia, so I sent some snapshots to some agencies, and within weeks I was in magazines, fashion shows, TV commercials. Modeling offers a lot of adventures. No two jobs are the same, and some are really bizarre and interesting.
Does any of this relate to your writing?
What’s great about translation and interpreting is that I get to dip my toes into different realms for a couple of days or weeks at a time. I get behind the scenes in all kinds of situations, and I control the flow of information despite being a fly on the wall, so there’s a lot of potential there for a dramatic story.
With the Chinese movie market in mind, did you do any self-censoring?
I did not self-censor, which means that the crooked Chinese officials in the story may end up preventing me from getting a movie deal.