The Library will be closed on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, in observance of Juneteenth.

Interview With an Author: John Shen Yen Nee & SJ Rozan

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Authors John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan and their novel, The Murder of Mr. Ma
Photo: Lia Chang

John Shen Yen Nee is a half-Chinese, half Scottish American media executive, producer and entrepreneur who was born in Knoxville, grew up in San Diego and is now based in Los Angeles, with a penchant for very long run-on sentences. He has served as president of WildStorm Productions, senior vice president of DC Comics, publisher of Marvel Comics, CEO of Cryptozoic Entertainment, and cofounder of CCG Labs.

SJ Rozan is the best-selling author of twenty novels and over eighty short stories, and editor of three anthologies. Her multiple awards include the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, Macavity, Japanese Maltese Falcon, and the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s served on the national boards of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and as president of Private Eye Writers of America. She was born in the Bronx and lives in Manhattan.

Their first collaboration is The Murder of Mr. Ma and they recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Murder of Mr. Ma?

JSYN: The history of modern China—how China got to where it is today—isn't well understood in the West. I wanted to write a series of books that would tell the history of modern China through crime stories and kung fu.
SJR: When John told me what he wanted to do, I thought, Well, why not? I like history, China, crime stories, and kung fu. Let's try it.

At the end of the novel, you explain that both Judge Dee and Lao She are based on real people (even though they lived centuries apart). What inspired you to bring these characters together, across time, to work as an investigative team?

JSYN: Judge Dee Ren Jie was a Tang Dynasty (609-906 CE) jurist made famous by Robert Van Gulik, who first translated stories about him into English. He's often called the Sherlock Holmes of China, but since he lived about 1,400 years before Holmes, we might consider Holmes the Dee of England. Lao She, a novelist and essayist very famous in China, was actually in England in 1924, teaching at the University of London. That's right around the time the history of modern China can be said to begin, so it was a perfect starting point.

Are any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals (beyond Bertram Russell and Ezra Pound)?

SJR: No, though we did play with such golden age mystery tropes as the patronizing not-too-bright military man and the entitled titled aristocrat. (More actual historical personages populate the second book in the series, coming next year.)

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters, scenes, or stories that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

JSYN: The Judge Dee novels contain more explicit punishments for crimes than are acceptable today. I had some of them in, trying to be true to the spirit of the original, but SJ took them out.
SJR: As I worked on the book per John's outline, in a couple of places, I found myself having to call and ask him, "How come they were able to do this?" or "What was the outcome of that?" Sometimes, he hadn't thought it through, and that was fine; I found an answer that actually strengthened the story. Other times, he had the answer; he just hadn't included it. Also, I'm more soft-hearted than John is. He was willing to kill, jail, and otherwise dispense with people I thought might deserve more forgiving treatment. Since I was the actual writer, I got my way on that. Some of those characters really need to thank me. But the basic story never changed.

What drew you to set the novel in post-WWI London? How familiar with this time were you prior to writing The Murder of Mr. Ma? Did you have to do a bit of research?

JSYN: As I said above, Lao She was actually there. That made it the perfect starting point for this series. I was familiar with the era as it was in China, but SJ did the research to make 1924 London real.
SJR: I'd read my golden age, and also my Laurie King, but the granular details were unfamiliar to me. The plot wasn't dependent on granular details, but for the book to be believable, they had to be right. That meant a lot of research and luckily, I love research. I read books written at the time, books written now but set at the time, I perused photo albums of London and of England in general in the twenties, I watched old silent films and newsreels, studied old maps, and—prompted by Laurie King—searched out old guide books and mail-order catalogs. Many, many buildings and places that existed then are gone or changed now, but I wanted to include as many as possible places, like St. George's and Bloomsbury, that can still be visited.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

JSYN: I keep unearthing things and people I want us to use. The connections of the British banking system to the Chinese military; the Chinese Labour Corps in WWI in France. Mostly, SJ tells me to stop already.
SJR: Actually, we did use the Chinese Labour Corps—I'd never heard of it, and it was a major force in the war. When I tell John to stop, it's because he keeps trying to put things we can use in later books, but cool as they are, they have no relevance in this one. In 1924 things we consider modern—e.g. the automobile, the telephone—co-existed with what they eventually replaced: barrows and horse carts, the street-child "telegraph." Modernism in all the arts was still new but not enraging people as it had earlier. I was reminded many times of William Gibson's assertion that "The future is already here—it's just not evenly distributed." That was as true in 1924 as it is today.

There definitely seem to be some parallels between Judge Dee and Lao She and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Do you have a favorite of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories?

JSYN: The Hound of the Baskervilles.
SJR: The Red-Headed League. I read it when I was 11 when I first discovered Sherlock, and I thought it was amazing that the odd thing that was going on was not actually the crime. I've since realized that's a set-up lots of writers use—I've used it myself—but at the time, it delighted me, and I have a fondness for that story because of that delight.

Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes pastiche, television, or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to single out a bad one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

JSYN: I really like the Benedict Cumberbatch series. That made me think that if they can time-jump Holmes to modern-day London, we can time-jump Dee to 1924.
SJR: For my money Jeremy Brett is the best Sherlock Holmes ever, and that series can't be beat. As far as bad ones, I know I've seen some rotten movies, but I think I must have suppressed them for being so bad because I can't remember.

What was it like to co-write The Murder of Mr. Ma? How did you approach and share the writing? What was that like? Would you consider collaborating on another project together? Are there other authors with whom you would like to co-write a book?

JSYN: SJ is my ideal co-writer. She caught on to what I wanted to do right away and made the characters live. I have about a hundred other projects I'd like to work with her on.
SJR: John came to me with the idea for the project, and the outline already finished. My job was to actually write the book, to make the characters, the place, the time live and breathe. I'd send him chapters periodically, especially at the beginning, to make sure the tone and the characters as they were emerging were what he'd envisioned. We've already written book 2 in this series using that same method, and we'd both like this series to go on as long as possible.

Were there any surprises (pleasant or otherwise) for you during the writing of the novel that came from how you collaborated?

JSYN: I was a little surprised by how perfectly SJ captured the voice of Lao She from the start.
SJR: John is somewhat less, er, deadline-oriented than I am. That's been one of the "otherwises." Also, he tends to have ideas late in the process that are, more often than not, really good ones. That can mean a lot of re-writing. Every time he calls me and says, "I have an idea," my first thought is, "Oh no..." But it's always worth it.

The Murder of Mr. Ma would make a marvelous film or series. If you were able to cast the production of The Murder of Mr. Ma, who would your dream cast be?

JSYN: When the time is right...
SJR: Oh, boy. Okay, Simu Liu as Dee. Sammo Hung as Hoong. That's as far as I can go, but John has the whole thing cast in his mind. He's just playing it close to the vest.

The ending of the book seems to indicate that readers will be able to join Judge Dee and Lao She as they investigate another mystery. Is The Murder of Mr. Ma the beginning of a new series? If so, what are your plans for the series? Do you have an idea at this time how long the series will be and how many books will be necessary to tell the story you want to tell?

JSYN: How many books we write will depend on how much interest there is from readers in these characters and this history. So far, it's been encouraging.
SJR: The next book is done, and John's developing the plot for the one after that. The series will go on as long as we can keep going!

John, as a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

JSYN: Take the time you need to try and find a great agent. This business is very hard to negotiate on your own, and I came from comics, an adjacent business. Josh Getzler and SJ have both been in book publishing for a long time and understand how things work.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

JSYN: The Father Goose Treasury of Poetry. Don't @me.
SJR: Percival Everett, The Trees. What a knockout!

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

JSYN: Alex Segura, Robert Van Gulik, Cixin Liu, William Thackery, Arthur Conan Doyle.
SJR: Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, John leCarre, Lisa See, Raymond Chandler.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

JSYN: The Father Goose Treasury of Poetry. Like I said, don't @me.
SJR: Howard Pyle's Robin Hood.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

JSYN: No, though I probably should have hidden some.
SJR: My parents were pretty liberal with our reading, but I wasn't allowed to read Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books, of which they had a complete collection. They thought they were too racy. Of course, I stole them one by one from the shelves and read them all.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

SJR: No. Why bother?

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

JSYN: Only comics. I'll buy comics for great art.
SJR: Victoria Finlay, Color. Absolutely worth it. Great book.

Is there a book that changed your life?

JSYN: SJ Rozan, China Trade. I read that and then asked her to join me in this collaboration.
SJR: Many, but cumulatively.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

JSYN: Can I say SJ Rozan again? All her books.
SJR: Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. Brilliant and oddly thrilling, considering it's a non-fiction account of what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from the planet.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

JSYN: No. There's too much else to do.
SJR: All of JRR Tolkien.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

JSYN: Alex Segura, Secret Identity. It is the perfect combo of narrative and graphic novels.
SJR: The Three-Body Problem on Netflix. True enough to the book by Cixin Liu that you can see the book's machinery creaking (which I didn't see while reading the book) but beautifully done.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

JSYN: I'd like to go back and talk to Sun Yat Sen. He had a real vision for China.
SJR: At this point, because of these books, I'd love to spend a day in 1924 London.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

JSYN: I so dislike the spotlight that I'm always hoping no one will ask me any questions at all.
SJR: I've been in the writing business for 30 years. I'm surprised every now and then by a question I've never heard before, but there's no such thing as a question I want to be asked that I haven't been.

What are you working on now?

JSYN: The outline for the 3rd book in the Dee/Lao series.
SJR: Rewrites on the 2nd book in the Dee/Lao series, and also the next book in my Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. And a short story, and...

Book cover of The murder of Mr. Ma
The Murder of Mr. Ma
Nee, John Shen Yen, Rozan, SJ