Two people are important in Adam Williams' life, or to be more exact, why he chose to write and how he wrote it.
He said he was lucky to be taught as a schoolboy by George Shipway (1908-82), one of the most successful historical novelists of his time, and that his teacher was writing in the tradition of Alfred Duggan (1903-64), whom Adam considers the master in this regard. It is from this teacher that he made up his mind that "if I was to write a book, it would be in the historical fiction genre."
Even more important for his writing of historical novels are his connections with China, which are soaked in blood and have become a complex inner world. Even before talking to him and listening to his fluent Chinese, one can find traces of these connections - from traditional Chinese paintings to one depicting the battle between the Boxers and allied forces in Langfang, a place between Beijing and Tianjin.
Everything about China, including food and getting things done in business, speaks of his obsession with this old Eastern culture. Writing about it is the only way for him to relieve himself of this obsession.
He is the fourth generation of his family to be living and working in China. Born in Hong Kong, 1953, he is the third generation of his family to be born in this country.
His great grandfather was a medical missionary, who established his practice in a small village near Changchun, Jilin province (which was part of Manchuria in the 1890s). Adam's great grandfather, Dr David Dickson Muir, narrowly escaped with his life when Boxers attacked his mission in 1900.
Dr Muir led an adventurous life. In 1905, he was the only doctor on the Port Author Front during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), treating both armies. He won a medal from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government for his work in plague cities. He established the Mukden Medical Mission in 1902, one of China's first schools of Western surgery. He was appointed chief medical officer of the Kailuan Mining Administration in Tianjin when he retired in 1919.
Another grandfather, Leonard Newmarch, came to this country also in the late 1800s to build one of China's earliest railways, which stretched from Beijing to Shenyang (called Mukden at the time). His son married Dr David Dickon Muir's daughter, who gave birth to Williams' mother.
These two women, his grandmother and his mother, were important to him. He recalled: "My mother taught me the same nursery rhymes she had learned as a child in Tientsin (Tianjin). These had been taught by her Manchu amah, daughter of a Bannerman, who had looked after her since she was an infant. And when I was naughty I was scared into good behavior by threats that the various '20s warlords who had scared my mother in her childhood would come and get me."
Both women told Williams stories about growing up during turbulent times in China. His grandmother told him about her parents and their adventures with the Boxers and about life in northern China during the civil war - when their train once has to steam through a battlefield and she was evacuated on a British gunboat.
His godmother, his mother's best friend from Tianjin, also told him stories. He still remembers how scared he was when she told him about a walk she took along the beach near Beidaihe, where she saw the dismembered heads of 20 pirates that had just been executed.
"China was ever present in my life and it has always had a resonance and a romance, as well as being - if I were being truly honest with myself - a little scary," Williams says.
Having worked as a businessman in the country for nearly 30 years, Williams, who is now chief representative of Jardine Matheson Group in China, has been involved in all sorts of negotiations between foreigners and Chinese. For instance, there was a culture clash when the Western way of doing things came up against Chinese pragmatism. His obsession with these differences drove him to the idea of writing historical books about the country.
Williams says he remembers once when he was walking along the Great Wall outside Beijing. It was a hot day and his companions were far ahead of him. To take his mind off the never-ending ramps of crumbling steps, he recalled a conversation with the journalist and novelist, Humphrey Hawksley, the night before. They had been watching a TV-drama of Conrad's Nostromo and had rather drunkenly decided that what gave a novel power and drama was moral choice.
"As I climbed the steps, a vivid picture formed in my mind: Two men were escaping something terrible. It was night and they were on one of those railway hand-pull carts. They hated each other and thus represented two opposing moral poles. The one was an idealist, the other a pragmatist - but in order to survive they had to work together," Williams was quoted as telling an audience when delivering a speech about how he decided to write his first historical novel about China.
As he pondered the image, his mind turned to the Boxers, about whom his grandfather told him a lot. Over the years he read more about the period. He thought the Boxer Rebellion would be a perfect setting for a moral struggle between good and evil, idealism and pragmatism. He decided to base one of the characters on his own great grandfather. He thought he could make him an idealistic Christian and have as his foil a worldly-wise Chinese Mandarin, not a bad man, but whose every action is governed by the dictates of expediency.
All these ideas materialized in his first novel, The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure. An adventure romance set against the historical background of the Boxer uprising in 1900, the story begins with a philosophical debate between a local and a foreign medical missionary, Dr Airton. They are discussing the nature of Western imperialism. On the one hand it was opening up China to modernity, and on the other hand it was disturbing a feudal way of life that has existed for millennia. The doctor is an idealistic Christian. The Chinese man is a pragmatic administrator who has learned to view what is right or wrong through the prism of expediency.
In his second novel, The Emperor's Bones, Williams takes his two protagonists through the events of Chinese history, from the warlord battles of the early part of the 1920s, to the setting up of the first United Front between the KMT and the CCP, through the Northern Expedition to the assassination of the northern warlord, Chang Tso-lin. Through the adventures of two young women, Williams portrays a fascinating epoch that ends in the all too real invasion of China by Japan and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Dragon's Tail, the last of his trilogy is a spy thriller set against major events such as the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), that took place after the founding of New China in 1949. As the cynical machinations of two opposing spy services spin their deadly webs, two lovers find themselves faced with a terrible choice. Either way it involves betrayal and sacrifice - of their countries or their humanity.
(China Daily March 11, 2008)