Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Arthur Rosenfeld, Author of "The Crocodile and the Crane"

As a devotee of Chinese martial arts and Chinese culture in general, I've been familiar with martial arts stories since the days of David Carradine's TV Show Kung Fu. What I didn't know until I began to read so-called martial arts stories in novel form is that most of the great literary works of China fit into this category, works ranging back a thousand years or more.

The literary form is called wuxia in China, and its most famous modern exponent, Louis Cha, has sold one billion books in Asia. Amazingly, very few people have tried to transplant the category to American shores, mostly because it's tough to get the details right and to make relevant the themes of loyalty, tradition, martial prowess, perseverance, suffering and so on. Standing at the vanishingly rare intersection of literary novelist and martial arts teacher, I decided to give it a go. My latest novels The Cutting Season and The The Crocodile and the Crane, along with the upcoming Quiet Teacher are the result.

I've never worked as hard on a book as I did on The Crocodile and the Crane. I started researching the story back in 1999, when I spent a couple of weeks pounding the pavement in Hong Kong, because my main characters are a pair of Taoist immortals--a brother and sister who were taught energy exercises by their father when they were kids and basically stopped aging as a result of the practice--live in that amazing city. I got blisters on my feet for my trouble, dodged a typhoon and a case of SARS (!) but ended up with the verisimilitude I needed, a sense of the pace of China, along with its enormous, pulsing population, its resources, and its problems.

I also had a chance to wrestle with the fact that the China I'm in love with, the China I portray through 3000 years of historical flashbacks, is long gone. It saddened me to learn that kung fu, which I think of as a path to self-cultivation and self-realization too, has been relegated to the role boxing has for our urban community, namely a way out of what young kids think of as a penurious and backward life. They train to become Jet Li, to get a pretty Western girlfriend and a townhouse and a BMW, not because they think the secrets of life will be revealed. Sad, because monks are on the make now, and so juxtaposing the China that was with the China that is was a daunting task.

When I came back with the story, I had to do inside the novel exactly what I was trying to do in the real world, namely make Chinese medicine and philosophy relevant in a technical world. I used the device of introducing the immortals to an American teacher/writer, and also brought the full force of Western medical technology to bear on that which would most command it--the end of the world. I've had a keen sense of conservation since childhood, even minored in zoology at Yale and went on to study the same at the University of California Santa Barbara, so I enjoyed coming up with a biological basis for the extinction of the human race, something fresh and interesting that no other writer had done. That done, I put my plague up against the principles of Chinese philosophy. What comes out of this wild mix is first and foremost a page-turning story, but also a pretty fresh world view, although not all rosy, a warning knell and an entertainment at the same time.

Please visit Arthur Rosenfeld's website.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Backstory.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Leslie Schnur's Reads
A Backstory author picks books that inspire her.
Kristy Kiernan's Reads
More books by an author we featured on Backstory.
Renee Rosen's Picks
- 1 Comment
What books grab a novelist? Read on...