Casey Walker started The Last Days in Shanghai (Dec.) in 2007, after a trip to China. “The novel is partly a record of my curiosity and rapture and rage about that place,” Walker says. “Shanghai felt like just the clamoring insistent place to explore a story about political corruption. It was basically built by Western decadence and dirty dealing.”

While writing the book, Walker was working on a doctorate in English at Princeton. He commuted there three to four days per week from Brooklyn to teach. He and his wife, writer Karen Thompson Walker, whom he met in Aimee Bender’s “permissive and magical” college workshop, shared a studio apartment, and Walker relied on Brooklyn coffee shops and noise-canceling headphones to help him focus on getting his draft onto the page. He estimates that The Last Days in Shanghai, a noir political thriller and an exploration of present-day China, took him about six years to complete—ballooning in length to 125,000 words before being edited down to around 65,000.

Walker met his agent, Henry Dunow, while he was studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “We went through three more rounds of edits before Henry sent it out,” says Walker. “And that was after I’d been working on the book, on and off, for about five years.” When his book was on submission, Walker felt especially sensitive to the pressure editors face, having witnessed it firsthand when his wife worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. “Their desks are cluttered and time is short. They have to balance their own tastes against marketing pressures. I received some pretty pained responses from editors who seemed to respond to my book, but couldn’t see how to position it.”

Rolph Blythe at Counterpoint was hooked by Walker’s novel from the first three sentences, and Walker says that Blythe “understood the book on its own terms.” Blythe describes the work as much more than a thriller, and says of the protagonist, Luke Slade: “He was a character I wanted to spend time with. As an editor, when you find that kind of character, you take notice.” Counterpoint offered Walker an advance, and Blythe set to work fine-tuning Walker’s manuscript, a process the author calls “intense.”

“The novel was roughly 85,000 words when I sold it,” Walker says. “And it’s being published at around 65,000—so we went down a weight class, but it’s a much better fighter, I hope.”