So, who am I?
I was one of those children who scribbled furiously in exercise books as soon as I could write, making up stories (often, for some strange reason, about owls). In a way, I’m still doing that, though the owls have flown and I’ve become better at finishing things – lots of those exercise books were a quarter full.
I did a certain amount of writing at school – an angst-ridden, unfinished teenage novel over-influenced by James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, and an actually quite funny absurdist drama I wrote in one evening – but didn’t emerge from the educational system with a burning desire to write.
Actually I didn’t emerge from the educational system with a burning desire to do anything much. I had various jobs, including an intriguing three years in the financial world (as an office junior, not a whizz-kid: I drove a second-hand Ford Escort, not a Porsche). During that time, I became interested in ideas: in philosophy, politics, psychology and history, and grew ever more determined to do some proper formal study. I applied to the LSE to be a mature student, had an interview where my ‘views’ were charmingly ripped to shreds, and was amazed to be offered a place.
I’m not sure I was a very mature student, but I did manage to get a First in Philosophy at the end of my studies. I actually stayed on, aiming to become Dr West, but this rather ran out of steam. I soon found a new passion.
While studying, I had earned money as a musician (I’m a competent drummer, largely thanks to John Taylor, my teacher). One day, one of the bands I played in was offered a gig in Hong Kong. I decided to go travelling in China after that. It was an amazing experience, and on my return, I looked around for a book that captured the essence of that experience. I couldn’t find one. So I decided to write one myself. Snap! The writing bug had bitten, and has never released its bite since.
‘Journey to the Middle Kingdom’ was the result. It was my apprenticeship as a writer. I had to unlearn a lot of what I had learnt doing academic writing – be objective, unemotional, logical – but in return for this sacrifice, I could let my love of words and language rip. It was a liberation. Early drafts were a bit shaky, but in the end it all came together and was accepted by Simon and Schuster (UK).
My apprenticeship didn’t end with the book’s acceptance (it hasn’t ended yet, of course, and never will). I had a lot to learn about ‘being an author’. I really did buy all the quality papers the day ‘Journey…’ came out, expecting reviews. I really did believe there would be ‘author tours’ and national press interviews: there was one interview with my local paper, the Royston Crow, which was carried out by my parents’ next-door neighbour.
I still wanted to write about China, and created Inspector Wang Anzhuang and, later, his wife and assistant Rosina Lin. They feature in four crime novels, the first of which was ‘Death of a Blue Lantern’. I tell the story of each of these four books in their own pages on this site, so won’t go into detail here. I hugely enjoyed working on these books – for one thing, it meant trips to China to research each one – and being a crime writer generally. Crime writing gets looked down on by some literary snobs, but there are some excellent writers working in the field. I’d rather read a lively, well-crafted crime novel than a pretentious, showy literary novel.
The series was published in Germany, Japan and America – but after four of them, I knew it was time to change tack. Bad for the ‘personal brand’, I know, but writing isn’t marketing. I was keen to write some non-fiction; at the same time an old school friend, Mike Southon, contacted me with the idea for a book on how to start a business. ’The Beermat Entrepreneur’ followed. Since then, I have largely written about business, especially small business. I apply the rules of the fiction writer to this work – use clear vivid language, be visual, think in terms of narratives and, above all, inject some humour into the proceedings. I write these books as Chris West – see the companion sitewww.chriswest.info for material on them – or as a ghost.
I am currently working on a book about British history. The older I get, the more intriguing history becomes (hell, I’ve seen some of it – a point that was made forcefully to me when my daughter borrowed my copy of Sergeant Pepper for her school history project). It’s called ‘First Class, and the ‘take’ on history is that it uses postage stamps as ways of looking at the subject.
The writer’s life is essentially a ‘portfolio’ one: you have a number of projects on the go; some are written from love, others from necessity (but always with enthusiasm: I can’t work on projects that just pay the bills but bore me silly). I also do some coaching work. The Porsche still hasn’t arrived: the second-hand Ford Escort is now a second-hand people-carrier. But I rarely sit down at the computer without feeling grateful to be able to write for a living.