Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award: Why I wrote The Shoe King of Shanghai

Jonathan Tel is one of six shortlisted author's for the world's richest prize for a single short story. He reveals what inspired his work

April 04, 2014
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I've been asked to write this because a story of mine, The Shoe King of Shanghai, is shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Award—£30,000 to the winner. (Yes, writers do write in order to make money—among other motives.)

This story is the opening chapter of a book I'm writing, set in contemporary Beijing, a series of short stories that fit together to make a kind of novel. Its working title is Scratching the Head of Chairman Mao. (If you want to know if a Chinese banknote is fake, scratch the hair on Mao's portrait, and feel the texture.) Thematic connections and a mystery hold it all together. Money is what makes the plot tick. There's a billionaire banker who dies at the beginning of the book. We go backwards and forwards in time to meet people linked to him by various degrees of separation: rich and poor, honest and corrupt, young and old, Beijing natives and those who've migrated from elsewhere in China; even a few foreigners get a look in. The novelist John Updike used to urge his editor, “Get it all in!” and I think of that as my motto: I'm trying to get the whole of China into one book.

Why I am writing about China? Why not? To be honest, I don't quite understand why every fiction writer in the world doesn't seek to write about China.

Part of the fun of creating the book is doing the research. I crave to know the lives of everyone in China. Yes, I do want to know how the executive next to me in business class swung the deal; yes I do want to know what the old woman at the bus stop had for breakfast. And I sit in libraries and go online to research Chinese linguistics and anthropology and accounting procedures and the legal system and folktales and magic. I used to be a scientist; I just enjoy knowing stuff. Then I put my notes aside, and dream my way inside the heads of my characters; fiction does what journalism can't.

Back to The Shoe King. The central character is a shoe thief. He's a migrant worker originally from Sichuan. In the opening scene, at the funeral of the billionaire banker people take their shoes off out of respect, and he steals a pair. We follow him around Beijing. In flashbacks and flashforwards we see him as a shepherd in his native village, and as a construction worker on a Beijing skyscraper. What initially inspired it was a small article in a Chinese newspaper about shoe theft; I wondered who the culprit might be.

The problem with writing the story was how to fit everything in. I wanted to include the kind of shoes a migrant would wear on a construction site, a shoe-related ancient Beijing legend, a shoe pun that works only in Sichuan dialect and to portray the politicians and gansters the shoe thief encounters at the funeral (some of whom re-appear in other stories later in the book).

What kind of voice would enable me to do this? I considered using a stream of consciousness technique (as famously done by Woolf and Joyce) which has the virtue of getting inside the hero's head; the catch is that you're stuck there, and can't get inside anybody else's head. Or I could write it in a third-person ominiscient voice, but then you lose the intimacy. The solution was to find a completely new way of writing fiction: a stream of consciousness which magically jumps from person to person, from our hero to a politician to an old woman. At times I bring the reader inside the consciousness of a pair of shoes, and of a lump of granite. Once I'd invented this technique, the story pretty much wrote itself.

So now what? I have to wait patiently until tonight, when the winner will be announced. Biased as I am, I feel my own story is a work of genius and deserves to win; no doubt the others on the shortlist love their babies too.