It actually feels strange to do the math, but I've been living with Under Heaven for over seven years now. Makes it harder, and more complex, to have it finally being published, no longer just 'mine' but out there in the world.
In 2003, around when I was finishing my tour for Last Light of the Sun, I started doing some reading about the Silk Road. I thought there might be a book for me in this, I saw it as a way of sneaking up on China, so to speak. I could use outsider characters to enter an eastern setting, to serve as 'windows' for the reader.
So I made the decision to explore this for my next book, and then my wife and I made another decision: we decided that it was a good year for us to live abroad again, with our sons, back in the south of France where we'd been before on writing trips, but not for a decade.
We sorted out (not always easily) the arrangements, and flew overseas. I took a suitcase of books (excess luggage, big time) about the Silk Road and about the countries along the way—in various periods. I didn't know just what I was going to do, but it would focus on this.
Or so I thought. When we arrived back in Aix en Provence in the late summer of 2004 I was, almost immediately, overwhelmed by the sensory richness of the place, the history, even the changes in ten years. I was hijacked, kidnapped, abducted. The intensity of my response to where we were immediately started taking shape as a novel. I fought it for awhile. But if I've learned anything over the years, it is that you can't fight a book that wants to be written. Or at least—I can't. What emerged from that year abroad was Ysabel, generously rewarded with a World Fantasy Award.
What followed, as I began preparing myself in 2007 for what to do next, was a return to the 'eastern book'. But something had changed. After those intervening years I somehow found myself more urgently moving towards China itself—treated with my own 'quarter turn' towards the fantastic, as one reviewer has described what I do.
The novel which became Under Heaven, was no longer a Silk Road book. Now, as I read and made notes and corresponded with scholars around the world, the new book was going to be inspired by and anchored in the glittering, glorious, sophisticated, violently dangerous Tang Dynasty of the 8th century. One of the absolute high points of civilization—anywhere.
Theirs was a world where the capital city, Changan, held two million people at a time when London and Paris were market towns of fifteen to twenty thousand. The imperial court received pearls and aromatic woods from the south, amber from the farthest north, music (and musicians) from the west beyond the deserts, and they believed the islands of the eastern coast were home to immortals and that fox-women could steal men's souls at night. They feared tigers, with cause. Courtiers and courtesans mixed with soldiers and poets, astrologers and holy men, all circling the emperor, the 'Son of Heaven'.
As always, I use the fantastic as a way of being up-front about the idea that there is a space between the novel I write (the novel you read) and the real people and time and place. There are gifted writers who try (often brilliantly) to erase this space. I celebrate it, I value it, I find it artistically and ethically empowering. And then, as the book appears, my hope—always—is that readers find both power and pleasure, and perhaps something as seductive as music heard late at night, in the experience of Under Heaven.