Journalist turns China experience into thriller

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm

Adam Brookes reported for the BBC from China, Indonesia and the United States for many years, and drew on his life as a foreign correspondent for Night Heron, his first novel. The China-set thriller offers a nuanced look at the "surveillance state" inspired by his own encounters on the mainland. He talks to James Kidd.

What possessed you to give up a stellar career in journalism to write - not only your first book but the first part of a trilogy?

When I started writing Night Heron, I just knew this was one of the few things I was going to see through. I am by nature quite a bone-idle person. I have to push myself quite hard to be driven.

How did writing fiction about a foreign correspondent compare to the real thing?

When I first started, I was working full time in Washington. I was finding odd scraps of time to get this thing done - on a plane or a train. Then when the manuscript started getting interest from agents, I took three months' leave to get the second half of the book done. Suddenly I was on my own, having been in this incredibly collegiate environment. Days went by when I didn't have an adult conversation. It felt very different. I found myself able to drift off into a different psychological state of being.

is predominantly set in China. To what extent was it inspired by your experiences?

I had this weird experience just before I left Beijing as the BBC's correspondent. This guy came to the bureau on a quiet Sunday afternoon [and] pulled out two secret documents. They were at a low level of classification in the Chinese system, which basically means "internal". Foreigners certainly should not have been reading them.

What did you do?

I handed them back saying: "Very interesting but I can't take those from you." He came back [later] and said: "I've got technical information relating to experimental satellite launch vehicles." I knew he was talking about very serious military secrets. What he was purporting to ask me to do was put him in touch with British intelligence.

In , such an encounter draws your hero, Philip Mangan, into a labyrinthine plot. What was the reality?

I shut the door in his face saying: "You are messing with both our lives here." Now, was he for real? Or was it Chinese counter-intelligence testing me out? It was probably the latter. I never heard from him again but the idea haunted me. I started asking: what if? I realised then that I was telling a story.

is fuelled by paranoia, which proves justified in a culture saturated with hi-tech surveillance. How accurately does this reflect your own time working in China?

This may be very hard to believe, but you do get bugged and watched in China. Particularly at periods of high political tension such as the June 4 anniversary or when there is a lot of popular protest. They want to see who the foreign press are talking to in the opposition. It does generate some free-floating paranoia and anxiety. My read is that while the [Communist] Party has pulled back, it has left in place the mechanisms of state control. If a popular movement blows up, if the internet gets too active, if you get a group of dissidents writing a charter, if you get a new religious movement challenging your authority, if you get separatists getting noisy in Tibet, it can turn on the pressure quickly and effectively. CCTV cameras are everywhere. Cellphone tracking technology is extremely well planted. There are tens of thousands of people monitoring chat rooms. They have the Great Firewall of China. They are everywhere.

Your portrayal of 21st-century China is not all sinister party plots and conspiracies. Was offering a fair and balanced portrait important to you?

It is wrong to suggest China is [still] a totalitarian country. It is not North Korea. The party has pulled back a good deal from its role in everyday life. People probably have more room to breathe now. You can say pretty much whatever you like as long as it doesn't cross … the party's four cardinal principles: fundamentally, its right to rule.

When did your relationship with China begin?

I studied Chinese at university. My father said if I was going to do a language, make it a difficult one. With Chinese you got a year in China paid for by your local educational authority. It was fantastic. When we visited in the early 1980s, it was a very difficult place to engage with, to make acquaintances. One of my strongest memories is the quest to engage with China and the Chinese, to get into the place and feel a degree of understanding and acceptance. I have always found it tough to feel anything other than an outsider. I do feel I have a point of reference to see how far China has come. There are still some cultural threads which are still China, but it's a lot easier to function there now.