I agreed to read Jonathan Kos-Read’s debut novel, The Eunuch, because it is set in early twelfth-century China, a period when a Manchurian people known as the Jurchen had established control over the northern portion of the once-unified empire. This setting appealed to me because, in language and culture, the Jurchen had links to the Mongols—and therefore to the Tatars who form such an important element of my Russian novels. (The Mongols also conquered the Jurchen, who returned four hundred years later as China’s last dynasty, the Qing.)
I discovered only later (and I know, this says a lot about me) that Jonathan Kos-Read spent much of his career as an actor in Chinese film and television. But now he has turned to fiction, and I am delighted to share his answers to my questions. He has a lot of interesting points to make, so be sure to read right through to the end. Then go buy the book!
You appear all over the Internet because of your acting career and your long residence in Beijing. What made you decide to write a novel?
First, as an actor of course I’m expected to write screenplays. And of course, I did. I wrote two of them. Poured my heart into them. Sweated blood over them. And in the end three people read them: a producer, my best friend, and my mom. A screenplay isn’t the finished product. It’s the “instruction manual” for the finished product, which is the actual movie. So even if you write Citizen Kane, only a hundred people are ever going to read it. And they will hate or love the actors and the director, not you. You the writer are just a random unknown throwaway in the credits. Let’s be honest, how many names of authors of instruction manuals do you know? So after having written those two screenplays, I swore never again to write another “instruction manual.” I would only write the final product.
Second, again as an actor, most of your acting life consists of doing it in bad screenplays. I mean, maybe you’re lucky and you do Shakespeare your whole life or you constantly work with Martin Scorsese. But for the rest of us, our entire working life consists of getting handed a script, reading it, sighing, and thinking “again?” And I don’t mean just bad. I mean literally like don’t rise even to the level of basic competence. Are literally not even stories. That’s true everywhere—Hollywood, Bollywood, Chinawood, everywhere. And it’s mostly because you have writers writing under intense, brutal time pressure. And then they must give these hastily constructed—basically not finished—stories to their bosses, producers, who (almost always) know nothing about storytelling. And who not only know nothing but in fact think knowing nothing is fine because they know the money side of the business—the distribution, the financing, etc. So they then take these already bad, unfinished stories and make them worse. I’ve been a professional actor for twenty years. I’ve acted in almost two hundred films. I guarantee you this is true.
After that process has occurred—the one that has produced a piece of garbage of a screenplay—us actors get handed the result. And if you want to be a successful actor or even work regularly—you must take these awful scripts and try to find some sort of contorted logic to fill in all the logical gaps, all the unrealistic (un-human) behavior of the characters, or even just the parts that are so boring you don’t think you can read another page—and then make the acting work, or you must rewrite them and hope nobody notices or the director agrees to it. And that process teaches you a lot about writing. So in my head I have this vast compendium, not figuratively but in fact literally, of almost every mistake a storyteller can make. And so I decided I was going to write a story that threaded the very very narrow path that avoided every single one of those mistakes, and at the end, just by virtue of avoiding them, it might actually be interesting. It was like a test of myself and whether I was wrong about what constituted a story, what was interesting, what was structure, and just how to construct something that would get people to read the next sentence, turn the next page, and then be satisfied when they read the last word. It would be a check on my deep cynicism and the creative heart that had died inside me from being an actor all these years. Reading great books and watching great movies taught me a lot. But acting for twenty years in bad ones taught me more.
Finally, I’ve always loved reading, and inside every reader is a writer. So I dreamed one day people would be reading the novel I wrote.
And out of China’s long history, what drew you to the twelfth-century Jurchen (Jin) Dynasty for your setting?
I grew up in the ’80s in the US during the height of the cold war. Mutually Assured Destruction. We used to do “nuclear attack” drills at school, where we would avoid windows and hide under our desks. So I was always drawn to stories about that time period. But I was more drawn to the ones about the natural outgrowth of Mutually Assured Destruction—the spies, the silent wars, the complicated plots, the “wilderness of mirrors” that James Angleton described.
The Jin Dynasty was a period like that. There were two enormously powerful empires, arguably the two most powerful in the world at the time, the Jin in the North and the Southern Song in the south, and there was a clear border on the Huai and Yangzi Rivers. They were so powerful that a war between them really would have been mutually assured destruction. So the sparse records we have from the time—more from the Southern Song, a lot less from the Jin—hint at this same existence of plots and double plots and intrigues and spies, that same wilderness of mirrors. So I thought what a great time and place for a murder mystery. With that constant intrigue and tension, nationalism, racial politics, and spying as the backdrop for the investigation. Not the main plot necessarily, but the dark dangerous water through which the detective would swim.
Your title refers most explicitly to Enchenkei Gett, your protagonist and main point-of-view character (although there are interesting resonances to the title that we won’t explore here). Tell us who Gett is and what makes him the ideal focus of your story.
Gett is a eunuch. And when I was designing the plot and the mystery and the solution, I kept coming back to the idea that the main character should be a eunuch. I wasn’t sure why at first, but as I plotted more, I realized it was because the murder at the center of the book is about sex, lust, betrayal, and superstitions and philosophies about sex that Chinese people had (and still have). So I was attracted to the idea of a protagonist who had to navigate those waters blind. He has no intrinsic understanding of lust or sex. No gut feeling for it. He must rely on pure intellect. For him, solving a mystery about sex, being a eunuch is a great disadvantage, or should be, but it would also give him a unique and dispassionate entry into the motivations of all the characters. Eunuchs were relatively rare in the Jin. But I liked the idea so much that I went through with it. And his backstory as a castrated spy who emerged from the dark intrigues of the Jin/Song cold war allowed me an interesting way to insert him into the Jin court—and insert him in a way that emerged naturally from the environment of the world and the time.
The book opens with a murdered concubine, soon identified as Diao Ju. As with all murder mysteries, the fundamental questions of who killed her and why are the central focus of the book. But what can you share about her that sets up your story?
My answer to this question may seem strange to you, and you most likely will disagree or even take offense. But hear me out. And I’m willing to discuss it (and be wrong), as long as someone has read the book. My background, even though I’m an actor, is in Molecular Biology. That is what I studied in university, and I worked in a molecular evolution lab for almost two years as an intern. From an evolutionary standpoint, wars in ancient times, even among prehumans and apes, were always fought by males for access to resources or women. The thing that people may find offensive is my opinion: I think this is still true. And I think it was also true in 1153 when the book takes place. There are layers and layers of complexity accreted over the reasons that countries go to war. But I have lived in many countries. And the number one most common passionate, deep emotion felt by men, always repeated with no exceptions in any country, is: You outsiders cannot have access to our women. For the most part we live in civilized societies, and it doesn’t lead to violence. But the threat of it is always there. Always just under the surface.
Diao Ju was a curious, secretly well-read nineteen-year-old girl from a small place who crossed that line—Chinese to Jurchen, to the emperor—because she wanted to see all that the world had to offer. She saw that the world was a big, fascinating, interesting place. She had read enough about it to know it was bigger than the world she knew. And she was gutsy and ruthless enough to reach out and grab her opportunity to live that bigger, more fascinating life—outside her village, outside her culture, outside her race. And even more rare, she was smart and driven enough to succeed in that larger, more competitive world. That, always and everywhere, is a dangerous choice to make. Because eventually a man pushes back and says, “No, you can’t have our women.”
Gett has to navigate a complex web of relationships linking government bureaus and the officials who run them. Even the documents he studies often don’t mean what they say, and part of the fun is watching him interpret hidden messages. How would you characterize what today we might call his work environment?
Haha. How would I characterize it? I would characterize it as a normal working environment for anyone who has ever worked at or near the top of a zero-sum, high-reward organization. There are only a few spots at the top. And everyone who occupies one of those spots is very very smart and very very ruthless. And only the very smartest and most ruthless can remain in those spots. That is true in palaces, hedge funds, the White House, everywhere there is great power. I suspected it was true from reading a lot of history. But I confirmed it working in show business. At the real top—where I have been a very few times (and both didn’t like and was not sufficiently smart or ruthless to stay in it)—it really is this same kind of zero-sum coded game where even the most basic things like figuring out what people mean, what they don’t mean, what they might potentially mean in the future become crushingly difficult. Wouldn’t want to live there, but I like writing about it. And I think it’s the kind of environment that makes for great stories.
You portray a deep, underlying tension between the Han Chinese and their Jurchen rulers, who consider themselves racially superior. How does that play out in the early stages of this case?
Having lived in two foreign countries for all my adult life, I’m fascinated by how people who look different, speak different languages, and have different cultural assumptions—or (and this is important) assume they do—how these people view each other. Almost invariably it makes life more difficult. It makes every argument, every question, every interaction potentially about the difference and more dangerously about which culture, race, language is dominant. To live in a world like that, to navigate it successfully is hard. But it’s the only world I know. So the simple answer is it makes Gett’s job harder—not only does he have to figure out what happened, he must do it in a way that either manipulates those prejudices if they are helpful or massage his way around them with great difficulty if they impede him.
One of Gett’s frenemies, for lack of a more historically appropriate word, is an Italian known as Sulo. How did he get there, and what does the presence of a Westerner add to the novel?
Haha. Frenemy. That’s really true. He got there because Italians got everywhere. Simple as that. And people in power, especially emperors, love to use outsiders for their security—they’re less likely to betray because they have nowhere to go. They’re hated outsiders. There is no soft landing for them. If he dies, they die. So there is an alignment of incentives. It’s the same principle the Ottomans used when they made janissaries—Christian soldiers captured young and brought up to be the elite bodyguards and fighting units of the Byzantine emperor. It’s the same principle the Chinese examinations were based on—bring talented common people into government who have no support structure, who owe everything to the emperor. So Sulo the Italian can stay in his job because what you incent, you get. The emperor trusts him.
I think Sulo adds three important things to the story.
First, this kind of person has always existed. I’m one of them. There are a lot now, but in the history of the world, if you look closely, there were never none. And that’s something that gets lost in a lot of historical narratives. I wanted to rectify that.
Second, because he’s an outsider, albeit for a different reason, he and Gett can be frenemies. Because ultimately everybody needs a friend. For a story to be interesting, your characters can’t trust everyone, but they also can’t trust no one. That’s boring. There must be people who sit on the edge. Characters with whom the interactions, plans, confidences are necessary, sometimes both practically and emotionally, but risky.
Third, if this ever gets adapted into a movie, I know who they’re casting to play Sulo. I’m not so stupid as to not give myself a character in the adaptation of my own book.
Are you planning to write another novel? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Yes, I am. I don’t want to say too much more. But Gett has been exiled far into the north where a huge battle between the Jin and the Mongols occurs. A hundred thousand soldiers are slaughtered in a day … but one of them is murdered.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Jonathan Kos-Read grew up in Los Angeles. He studied acting in high school, then molecular biology in university. For the last twenty-five years, he has worked in the Chinese entertainment industry in Beijing. He now lives in Barcelona with his wife and two daughters. The Eunuch is his first novel.
Images: Map of Jin/Song China © Yu Ninjie; Jin (Jurchen) Dynasty jade hair ornament in the Shanghai Museum © Rolfmüller, both CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.