The Big Idea: Daniel Fox

To wrap up this Week O’ Big Ideas, here’s Daniel Fox with Dragon in Chains. They say travel broadens the mind, but for Fox it did rather more than that: It gave him an idea and an inspiration to write about the place to which he’d traveled, one that in this case has paid off with no less than a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Where many Western authors try and fail to capture the nuances of Chinese culture and mythology, this melodious tale quietly succeeds”). But just as no journey is a straight line, so was Fox’s literary journey full of turns and twists. Here he is with a map of his travel.


Like so many good things, it came entirely out of the blue, and not strictly to me: an invitation for a Newcastle writer to spend time on a residency in Taipei.

It was very short notice, though, and just before Christmas. Most writers in Newcastle have families or jobs or other commitments, and weren’t free to just drop everything and go.

Me, I just dropped everything and went.

To be honest, I only took it because I didn’t want to be the kind of person who turns such chances down. I never was much of a traveler, except in my head where it doesn’t count; going halfway round the world on my own was too big a step to be comfortable. Especially not knowing what waited, what was expected of me. A residency might mean anything…

In this instance, it was like no residency I’d ever heard of. I was collected at the airport by charming young people with uncertain English and absolute attitudes. And cameras. They preserved my image for the record, then swept me away to a leather-lined limousine. They’d take me to my hotel, they said, but only to deposit my bags; I was due at a press conference instantly. I protested – all I wanted was a shower and a bed; I was grimy and exhausted, I’d been awake for thirty-six hours and stood no chance of making sense to the press, even if I’d known what I was there for – but they were insistent.

My hotel turned out to be the Ritz, which made me blink even harder than the limousine had; this is not normal fare for itinerant writers. The press conference was in a restaurant, and once we’d squeezed past the journos and the photographers and the TV cameras, I found myself at a table with a dozen other writers from all over the world, from Guatemala and Canada and Korea.

It wasn’t really a residency at all, it was a symposium. Or not even that, more a PR opportunity. For Taiwan, not for us. Its global position is so peculiar – functionally a separate state, legally still a province of China, diplomatically unrecognized except by a stubborn handful – it’s always looking for sidelong ways to improve international relations. All they wanted from us was a couple of public appearances, endless photo ops for internal consumption, and finally that we should go away and write nice things about Taipei. In return, they kept us in luxury, ferried us everywhere, paid for everything and gave us pocket-money on the side.

I had – surprise! – a wonderful time. The far east has been a fixation, almost a fetish all my life (I blame my mother: who was born in Rangoon, grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, talked about it just enough to feed a boy’s fevered imagination); now I was playing in the real thing, and finding it utterly unlike anything I’d imagined. Or indeed anything my mother had described, with seventy-odd years between her experience and mine.

But I was also very aware that I was seeing a heavily filtered version, isolated by money and ignorance, by privilege and adept PR. I needed to go back: which I did a few months later, sleeping on my interpreter’s floor and meeting the city again through her contacts and my own wanderings. I walked everywhere, I deliberately walked myself off the map. I’ve never felt more alien or more lost, in a city where I couldn’t even read the maps.

I ached to write about it, but I wasn’t at all ready. I nearly stayed; there was a house for rent, twenty minutes outside the city, in the mountains, overlooking the rice paddies on one side and the ocean on the other. Six months rent, two grand. I did so nearly stay. But I have cats…

Home again, I started Mandarin lessons and a book collection. I knew already what I wanted to do: I wanted to write about Taiwan since the arrival of Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT, after they were driven from the mainland. Partly it was that classic image of the tiny island bristling at the vast mainland, bristling with weapons; partly it was the experience of the native Taiwanese, invaded by a vast northern army and living under military dictatorship. Marry those two together, and there’s a novel. But I’m a fantasist, I have small interest in mimetic fiction. I wanted to recast the story into feudal China first – an emperor in flight, the dynasty at hazard – and then into imagination, put magic in jade and a dragon in the strait.

It was six years before I was ready to start writing. And then, of course, the characters claim the story and take it in unexpected directions; so no, there is no one-to-one mapping between the actual events – or, indeed, the country – and the novel. There was never meant to be. I couldn’t pretend to represent the complexities of another culture after a few years’ distant study, and I wasn’t interested in reproducing the history under a cloak. Again, that distaste for the mimetic – I’d always rather make stuff up. So I took no notes and let the research slide largely out of my head, just to work with the traces that lingered.

It’s about impressions, not descriptions. Tolkien famously denied any allegorical significance to The Lord of the Rings, which was perhaps disingenuous; it would be equally disingenuous in me to assert any particular allegorical significance to Dragon in Chains. Any book belongs at the last to itself, and needs to subsist alone and unsupported. But the roots of this one lie absolutely in those trips, that history and my own susceptibility. All fiction is autobiography; we give ourselves away on every page.


Dragon in Chains: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from Dragon in Chains here. Visit Daniel Fox’s LiveJournal here.

21 Comments on “The Big Idea: Daniel Fox”

  1. John:

    Hate to play typo Nazi, but sentence two reads:
    “They save travel broadens the mind, ” and I believe you meant “They say travel broadens the mind, “.

    Also, heading to Amazon to buy this book. Darn your Big Ideas series. I’ve had cheaper drug habits.

  2. Mr. Fox –
    You just sold another copy of your book! Sounds absolutely great. I’ll pick it up from Borderlands after work tonight.

  3. Rats. My local public library doesn’t have this one on order yet. Well, my recommendation to buy is now in the system, and if that doesn’t work . . . you know, Mr. Scalzi, this Big Idea thing of yours is getting expensive.

  4. This is the greatest, most freeing quote I have ever read.

    So I took no notes and let the research slide largely out of my head, just to work with the traces that lingered.

    If I can remember that I just might be able to write that story that won’t let me sleep nights.

    Also, totally buying this book!

    I have bought more books from these Big Ideas than any review or book article in the last 10 years.

  5. This book sounds great. I’ll be checking it out, too.

    Side note: Big Idea has reignited my passion for reading sf/f in a way that surprises and delights me. I had more or less stopped reading those genres after becoming bored with/mad at them sometime back in the 90’s. Now I am once again enjoying being an “avid reader”. I think it might have something to do with each of these books (so far) being a worthwhile read. Thanks John!

  6. Question: John, do you read all of the Big Idea books to see if they are something you would personally recommend, or is this just an outlet that you open up to other authors? If you don’t read them, how does a book end up in Big Ideas? Do writers approach you about them?

    I apologize if this has been asked a million times before. I looked for a Big Idea FAQ and even the original Big Idea post, but your archives are so vast, that I eventually gave up. Pardon me if my internet-fu is not up to snuff.

  7. Before I moved to Taiwan, someone told me, “I’ve never felt so totally lost as I did there, or minded it less.” They meant, because the people here are so welcoming, and it’s true. I ought to see if I can find a copy of this, then take it to work and see what my Taiwanese colleagues think.

  8. I just found this listed as “pending” on the catalog with 9 copies going to 9 branches in the county. I’m on the waiting list at my branch.

    I’ve been interested in fantasy books based on an Asian setting ever since Barry Hughart set loose an old Chinese scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Daniel Abraham’s Long Price series is also highly recommended for those who wish to go beyond Euro-medieval tropes. Of course you will end up jonesing for the last book in the series but that one is done and has a publication date, unlike um, you know that guy that John mentioned a few threads ago, the one we’re not supposed to harass, that one that makes my blood boil…I WANT THAT DWARF RIDING A DRAGON RIGHT NOW MARTIN. What? OK, I’ll keep it down.

  9. Wow, these Big Ideas are so good! I’m scared of one a day, because I can’t read a book a day, and so far I’ve wanted to read every one of these (and only two or three were books I had discovered first).

  10. This is going on my precipitously growing TBR list. Scalzi, you’re a dangerous man.

    For more non-Eurocentric fantasy, I recommend The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson. It’s got a lyrical style much like Daniel Fox’s, and is a twist on a Japanese fairy tale.

  11. I understand using a pseudonym to get the big bookstores to order books, but why keep it in interviews?

    It’s a bit disingenuous at the best when it is common knowledge that Daniel Fox stands for the excellent UK author Chaz Brenchley, who wrote some superb fantasy in Outremer and Selling Waters by the River that people may want to check out if they like Dragon in Chains

  12. I’d be careful about tossing the word “disingenuous” around, there. For one thing, the author didn’t make the decision to have the feature under the Daniel Fox name, I did. And the reason I did that was to make sure there was no confusion for people when they were looking for either the book or the author name under which the book was published.

  13. I understand using a pseudonym to get the big bookstores to order books, but why keep it in interviews?

    You think you’ve answered your own question there? Don’t recall Agatha Christie ever giving an interview as Mrs Max Mallowan — despite her divorce and later re-marriage not only being genuine “common knowledge” but a great honking scandal.

  14. I apologies for using the word disingenuous. However, not mentioning anywhere, even in a coda that the name Daniel Fox is a pseudonym of a veteran British author just does not sound right, especially that this fact is quite well known as a cursory Google check will show.

    If a fiction author wants to use a pseudonym is not my business, since fiction is fiction so to speak, but on the other hand I would take with a grain of salt anything presented as “fact” by said author in that case.

    In autobiographical reminiscences on the other hand, truthfulness is essential as all the recent so called autobiographies that turned out to be invented at least in part show

  15. I think you’re thinking about this one too much, liviu. My choice to present the Big Idea under the name the book was published under doesn’t imply an attempt to hide anything. Nor is this the first author under a pseudonym to present a Big Idea. It’s not a big deal.