After meeting Mai Jia for the first time in 2002, I wrote this description of him in my diary: “Buzzed hair, glasses. A young writer of few words. He’s not self-aggrandizing, but his unmatched confidence leaves a very strong impression.”

And now, 12 years later, Mai is still a very humble person—even though he’s climbed to the very top of the literary world. In March 2014, the English translation of Mai’s novel Decoded was published in the United States, the U.K., and elsewhere.

Mai’s writing process seems to run in six-year cycles. After starting to write in 1986, it took him six years to find his place. In 1992, he began to write Decoded, which didn’t come out until 2002. As a television series based on the book grew in popularity, Mai became somewhat nonplussed by his celebrity. Six years later, in 2008, In the Dark won the Mao Dun prize for literature. After another six years, Decoded and In the Dark were launched on the world stage. I sat down with Mai to find out how things have changed since he started writing all those years ago.

Your work really grew in popularity following Decoded, In the Dark, and The Message—but before this you had written many more “literary” works. What prompted you to turn to spy fiction?

A: I grew up in the countryside. When I started to write in 1986, I wrote literary works about topics like the countryside and the land, but no one read any of them. It’s said that being poor changes your thinking— authors always hope to have more readers. Later I began to sift through things again, and I discovered I actually had a pretty unique life, so I turned to what people call espionage novels and started to write Decoded.

Decoded took 10 years to get published. What happened during that time?

I started Decoded right before I graduated from the Army Art Academy. The topic was very hard to grasp. First, no one had written about it before, and second, there were a lot of things to consider: how to keep military secrets, and how to toe the party line without crossing it. It was difficult. When the book finally came out in 2002, I had received 17 rejections over a period of 11 years. One reason was that my technique was underdeveloped; a second was that the topic was sensitive; a third was that I myself spent a lot of time fumbling around. I could draw on others’ experience when I was writing about different topics, but writing espionage fiction I had to rely entirely on myself. Decoded was my whetting stone. My will, technique, and ability were all rigorously tested. All this is to say: Decoded isn’t just my first work, it’s also my most treasured. The first two rejections were a huge shock. I almost had a breakdown: I packed a bag and got on a train. I had no idea where I was going to go. My attitude was one of complete self-exile. Walking and walking, I suddenly realized: I had to find a topic I liked. After that, even when I was making changes midway, adding content, or getting rejected, I was relatively calm. Decoded was a life-changing book.

When you were stuck, were there any people or books that influenced you and helped you realize what you needed to do?

Shifting from rural topics to espionage was partly inspired by books. Most people think spy novels are a form of popular literature that is unrelated to pure literature. One day, I was reading novels written by Borges and Poe, and I was inspired. Even though they both wrote detective stories—with characters including horse thieves and intelligence officers—no one in the literary world would dare to look down on them. So what you write isn’t important; what matters is how you write. So I decided to try writing spy novels.

So who discovered Decoded? And how was it published?

I gave it to Dangdai’s editors Hong

Qingbo and Zhou Changyi. They liked it, and Dangdai released it first. The draft of the book was passed on to Li Shidong at China Youth Press. According to him, the day he got the draft, the weather was fantastic. As he passed a riverbank on his way home, he decided he’d read the first few pages. He didn’t expect he’d end up reading the whole thing in one sitting. That night, Li called me and said it was well written, so I didn’t make any more changes. Writing does take some encouragement. I got more attention through Decoded, my confidence increased, and my writing process became more relaxed.

In the Dark won the Mao Dun Literary Prize. It was criticized by quite a few people who say that you can’t tell stories. However, I think that your prose is quite ambitious.

My general theory is this: people who say my work does not have literary qualities haven’t read them—and I don’t mean that in a boastful way. The media has labeled me the father of the [Chinese] spy novel. That kind of praise causes people to rebel in a way, saying my work is just popular fiction. If they were to read my novels, I think they’d change their minds. I don’t think my novels are the best out there, but they are literature. Even after being adapted into television series, they still retain literary qualities.

Going back to that comment about being the father of the Chinese spy novel... Does it bother you that critics call you that?

If it were possible, I would deny it. These kinds of labels are like brand names—they’re meant to increase your popularity. The Economist just wrote a report about me saying that Decoded is a “great Chinese novel,” that it was the best Chinese novel in 35 years. It read, “Mai has been labeled the ‘Dan Brown of China’ because both have sold millions of books, but there the comparison ends. This novel has the expansive sweep of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism; like Peter Carey, he plunges fully into a new world... It is an absolute joy to read.” Maybe he really liked the book, but it’s also possible he doesn’t understand Chinese literature. I’ve just run into an admirer, that’s all. His words might influence a few people, but they won’t influence me. The novel won’t be any better as a result of his review, and it won’t be any worse if a bad review comes out. There’s one issue a writer must face: after your book is published, some people will hold you in high esteem and others will belittle you. Don’t feel proud or ashamed because of it. Any book is the writer’s before it’s finished, but once it’s done, it’s not.

In 2011, when Knifepoint came out, I heard you had stopped writing—is that true?

I stopped writing spy novels. I had written espionage books for many years. My stores of emotion and material were almost empty. If I had kept writing, I would have repeated myself. There are enough spy dramas on television; the genre has been done to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to challenge myself before I got too old.

Translated by Hallie Treadway

Click here to return to the main feature.