He has written books on the ‘lost civilization’ of rural Italy, music and Catholic conspiracies in Elizabeth I’s England, Buddhism in the daily life of Asia, the secret world of China’s Forbidden City, the intricacies of corporate life in London and Hong Kong, off-the-beaten track Seoul and South Korea, and the underworld of 1980s New York.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID CLIVE PRICE BY ERIC WENG FROM WWW.UNEXPLOREDTERRITORY.NET
Q: What really floats your boat? Why did you go to the Far East and why now publish all these books about Asia business cultures, along with novels and travelogues set in Asia?
Q: What do you mean spiritual?
I don’t mean anything particularly holy (even if I have become a Buddhist on my travels). It means discovering something about the world that suggests other dimensions, like all those spirits and demons and Taoist or Shinto gods of nature in various Asian cultures.
Of course, it can be something quite banal like lighting incense for the God of Prosperity or choosing the lucky number 8 for your mobile phone and house numbers, as almost all Chinese do. But it can also be the discovery of religious rituals or simple domestic and family customs that make life seem so much richer and full of wonder.
Q: When did you first discover this about yourself?
It’s hard to say exactly when. I was a precocious schoolboy with a penchant for entertaining my classmates with ironic pop songs (Tom Jones, for example) and little skits that made the class fall about before the teacher arrived. I played Hamlet at school, fell of the stage at a school play competition and discovered my ability to be resilient by just carrying on. I recited Keats and Wordsworth to myself in my bedroom mirror or in the local woods. I loved to be independent.
Later I won a choral scholarship to Cambridge after the tutor got me completely drunk on sherry because of my nerves. The common thread in all this was a belief in my self and readiness to take on the new in order to learn. I was always in the library and I date my passion for the German, Italian and French languages from my time at school.
Q: You seem to have had everything necessary to pursue a successful career. What happened? Your career is not exactly a straight line.
Every time I have been set up with what seems a conventional career, I have taken a calculated risk and broken free to pursue something entirely different, something that is often diametrically opposed to the world in which I have been trained to excel.
When I finished my PhD on ‘Music and Patrons of the English Renaissance’ (the History Faculty at first refused the subject) I didn’t wait to receive my doctorate. I headed straight for Switzerland and my first big love affair, living in a tiny rooftop atelier in the old town of Zurich.
However, while I was there the British Academy offered me a fellowship to do postgraduate research at Bologna University for a book on the Italian Renaissance. So I continued on to Italy (my second great love) and pursued this research diligently in the archives of various north Italian cities. But after a year of being a professor, I jacked it in and went over the Apennines to search for a cheap place to live and lead a completely different kind of life.’
Q: Where did you end up?
My partner and I found an old farmhouse in an Etruscan hilltop town, perched on the side of a valley with a lovely tower for my study. To the accompaniment of sparrows in the roof eaves, I translated a book on India by the poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini and then considered what kind of book I might write myself.
I was farming wine and olives and vegetables. I had entered full scale into local country life. My own mezzadro (share cropper) was teaching me all about binding vines and pruning olive trees so I ended up writing a book about Italian rural life called The Other Italy. It’s still in print on Amazon. And then I began a novel.
Q: Why a novel? What was the inspiration?
I decided to shake up my comfortable rural existence. I went to New York for a year and lived in the most ‘edgy’ neighbourhood possible: Alphabet City, or Avenues A to Z. Nowadays it’s very gentrified but back then it was a hotbed of creativity, drugs, prostitution, gay and lesbian life, and contained a fascinating mix of blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, every race under the sun.
So I began the novel from my ringside seat on the Lower East Side – a dirt-cheap apartment on a very risqué street opposite a walled up drug den. I then finished the novel back in the soothing tranquillity of the Tuscan countryside.
Q: Do you like extremes? Is that what makes you a writer?
I’m not an extreme person in that sense. But I love a challenge. Almost instinctively I try to get right under the surface of the prevailing culture. In this sense, all the books that have followed including my recent novel Chinese Walls, about love and corruption in London and Hong Kong, as well as Phoenix Rising; A Journey Through South Korea, are attempts to get beneath the surface of other worlds (London politics, Northeast Asia, imperial Beijing, post-colonial Hong Kong).
Q: Is that what your business books are about? I see they are called the Master Key Series.
Yes, the business books and the Asia fiction/travel are two sides of the same coin. I like to dive deep, learn from the clash of cultures, try everything. That’s the methodology I teach my business clients: be patient, observe, adopt a new way of thinking. The Master Key to Asia and The Master Key to Asia offer a system for getting into these other worlds – in this case Asian business – by assimilating other cultures and being imitative.
Q: Is that also your technique as a writer?
You could say that. When researching my CUP book on Elizabethan musicians and courtiers, I was intrigued by how much they had to dissemble and hide up their Catholic sympathies. Many of them led double lives but they still managed to merge seamlessly into Elizabethan society.
They were successful because they learned how to disguise themselves. In terms of daily habits, this often meant that they had to lurk in strange places to meet fellow Catholic sympathisers. A chronicler of the time described William Byrd, the Queen’s composer, as being 'seen in lurcking sorte' in Deptford.
Q: Is this something important to you? Being a kind of spy?
Yes, I rather see myself as a 'lurker'. My novelistic technique is to hang around at street corners, go to places in a town where no one else goes, sit at the wheel of my car in a supermarket car park and watch what other people are doing. Novelists are always like that, looking over their shoulder or from a distance, merging into the background even when their immediate environment is entirely foreign to them.
That’s why I advise my business clients to become ‘Chinese’ or ‘Korean’ or ‘Indonesian’ as much as they can, to try everything local and not be put off, to get out of the expat ghetto in the cities of Asia and discover the real world beyond. The best way to do that is to be a spy.
Q: Finally, what came first for Chinese Walls or Phoenix Rising – the plot, the main character or the idea?
I usually start with a feeling inside, which evolves eventually into a starting point for a plot. The main character slips onto the stage. Then as I develop the plot and structure, I slowly start to get a feeling for what the book is about. After a few attempts at an opening chapter, it starts to flow. If it doesn’t, I put it away – perhaps for years – and work on something else.
Q: Are there any other books in your 'Unexplored Territory' trilogies that are waiting for the light of day?
The next novel in the Unexplored Territory series is called Last Train to Mandalay and is entering the final edit. The next travel book in the series, Glimpses of Snow Country: Travels in Japan, is largely written but awaits 2-3 extra chapters on particular areas of Japan’s Snow Country, such as Hokkaido, which I am visiting in the near future. I think a travel book on Japan will complement my adventures in South Korea and provide an interesting comparison of two very different cultures.
Q: What is the message you’d like to share with the world?
“Cultivate a sense of wonder”
All David Clive Price’s books are available as Amazon paperbacks and Kindles.
Author website: http://www.davidcliveprice.com/books
Author blog: http://unexploredterritory.net
Amazon Author page: http://www.amazon.com/author/davidcliveprice