The Wigtown Daily: Full Interview with Paul French

4 October 2014
Paul French is talking about his books Midnight in Peking at 6pm, and North Korea: A State of Paranoia tomorrow at 12 noon.
Midnight in Peking was a murder mystery based on a real crime. How does your new book differ?
The true story of the unsolved murder of Pamela Werner in 1937 Beijing was a story that simply obsessed me for years and I felt I had to investigate and write up. However, I bounce between researching and writing old China and considering the situation in East Asia today. Similarly North Korea is a country that had long fascinated me as being perhaps the least known and understood country on earth. When I got the chance to visit for the first time in 2002 I jumped at it and headed down from Beijing to Pyongyang. The country is unreal in many ways and I wanted to convey that in a book. Of course the leadership and the almost totally closed nature of the country fasninates but I also found North Koreans to be ordinary folk at heart and not the militarised robots we often see on TV. Form follows function I think - in Midnight in Peking I novelised the real events in order to, hopefully, hook the reader into the story and better appreciate the febrile end-of-days atmosphere of Peking in 1937 as the country slipped into total war with Japan and a young woman was horrifically killed. In North Korea: State of Paranoia I've tried to explain the "Hermit Kingdom", its leadership and its people in a documentary style to cut through the hype and the weirdness to understand what really makes the place tick. 

What changes are you seeing in East Asia?
When it comes to East Asia the overwhelming issue, the 400lb gorilla in every room, is the rise of China. I've worked and lived in Shanghai since the 1990s and had a front row seat to witness this explosive growth. It's a challenge to describe - from zero subways to a system twice the size of the London Underground, from three skyscrapers to several hundred, from 6 million people to (perhaps now) 19 million people. But all this progress, this lifting out of poverty has come at a price - the government remains in total control while the rest of East Asia is nervous of what a really strong China will mean. North Korea, which has essentially gone backwards economically and stagnated politically, is also nervous and realises that its one long-term friend in the region may not care so much anymore. 
What do you think are the most harmful Western misconceptions about China and North Korea?
I think it's sometimes hard for people on the other side of the world to see beyond the headline news in China and North Korea - big tyrannical governments, seemingly random missiles, destabilisation that may affect us in some way. We have major language and cultural barriers as well as distance while North Korea doesn't really encourage you to come and say hello! In my work I've wanted to show that whatever the political systems and events people are mostly just people who care about their families, are trying to get by, survive, fall in love, share a meal, tell a joke. The rise of China and the unpredictability of North Korea are issues we'll all have to think about, but if we start from a position of seeing people in those countries as pretty similar to us in terms of aspirations and hopes then perhaps that better helps us appreciate them?
What are you looking forward to at the festival?
For me, travelling mostly alone in East Asia and writing, life is fairly solitary. Book festivals are a great time to emerge from my own thoughts and see what other writers are up to and what other readers are reading. I tend to the reclusive and absorbed while putting books together so reminding yourself that there are people out there interested in what you do and with questions and opinions is super-refreshing and energising. I think there are myriad ways to tell stories and that the way I do it is not the only way but just one of many ways to approach and interest readers. So getting a chance to see other writers and historians talk about their work and how they approach their subjects is always educational. Festivals are also a time to discover new writers - I'm looking forward to hear Chiew-Siah Tei talk about Malaysia and Peter Ross's Danderlust sounds right up my street as a new way of talking about and reporting Scotland.