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Bookworm Festival Pulse: advice from Paul French to writers

Paul French Workshop 

Writers trickle quietly into Mesh, a low-lit, boxy lounge-bar with black and green leather sofas and walls of windows that look out onto the mid-afternoon in Sanlitun’s shopping district. They have come for a writing workshop with acclaimed, true-crime writer Paul French, a lanky British man with thick-framed black glasses and neatly trimmed hair, wearing a journalist’s button-down blue shirt and jeans. He starts off by saying “anyone taking this workshop probably has an idea for a book,” then rocks back and forth on heeled, brown leather shoes beside a projector and a screen. He goes over the basics, like the appeal of writing across genres, and the importance of research, then digs into of the kinds of nuanced historical details that breathe life into a place, and set him apart as a literary non-fiction writer. 

French’s chosen historical time period is 1930s and 1940s Shanghai. He tells us that white men living in Shanghai at the time would have drank a “Stengah,” which was a half whiskey half coke, and that they would have drank it in “Frenchtown,” which is what the French Concession was called at the time. He talks about the importance of smells, including that in the 1930s Shanghai smelled of “peanut oil and camphor,” and that Beijing used to smell of stinky tofu and the exhaust from city buses, but now it’s just dry air and a cleaned-up sort of “nothing.” He also talks about getting a sense of a character’s life by collecting the “ephemera” they might have found in their pockets at the end of the day, or stuffed into their mailboxes, like bus tickets, phone books, and shopping catalogues with advertisements the remind us of fashion and the squeaky wheels of tram cars with badly oiled brakes . . . as he speaks we can begin to feel ourselves the presence of a not-so-distant past rising up around us, with people shouting out for tuk tuks and passing cash into the hands of street vendors.

By the time he is finished, it is clear that writing true-crime is a thing French does with a passion for the historical period, an obsessive intrigue for his subjects, and dedication to the literary merit of his writing. His most highly acclaimed novel, Midnight in Peking, is being turned into a movie, and The Serpent, which comprises a series of murders along the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia is being turned into an audible series. As the talk wraps up, he is swarmed with writers who have questions about the projects they’re working on, and French patiently gives each person their time.

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Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

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