A Conversation With Eliot Pattison

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2003

Edgar award-winning novelist Eliot Pattison is actually
Cover of Bone Mountain by Eliot Pattison
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pursuing his second successful career. An international lawyer by training, Joseph Eliot Pattison has spent his career advising and representing U.S. and foreign companies on international investment and trade issues. His extensive publications include over thirty articles on international topics, ranging from research published by several American universities to global policy essays published in Moscow and Tokyo. The author or editor of six books on international business strategy and legal topics. His most recent nonfiction book, Breaking Boundaries, was selected by The New York Times as one of the five best management books of the year. An extensive international traveler, he has made many trips to China and its environs. His trips to China and Tibet had a powerful effect on him: especially when he observed up close the stultifying effect that the Chinese communist government has had on the Tibetan Buddhist monks. It was one of these trips that filled him with a great need to tell the story of the many people he had met on his travels.

As he relates the story:
"Nearly twenty years ago I sat in a Tibetan Buddhist temple in China, hoping to spend a peaceful hour as the monks paid homage to a giant sandalwood Buddha. But I soon noticed that several monks kept nervously shifting their eyes toward the uniformed officers of the Public Security Bureau who were positioned conspicuously throughout the temple. I was saddened by the way the government had disturbed the serenity, but I soon realized that what was happening within those temple walls was part of a far bigger human drama. The eyes of the monks sometimes showed fear but they also showed vast determination and dedication and hope."
That incident was the original inspiration for his first fiction book, The Skull Mantra. The Skull Mantra takes place in Chinese-occupied Tibet where former Beijing police inspector Shan Tao Yun has been sentenced to a hard labor camp for offending a high party official. When a murder occurs at the camp with apparently supernatural origins, Shan is called in to help the prison officials with their investigation. And so begins Shan's journey into the heart of Tibet's politics, religion and culture. Both a detective story and a fascinating expose of Tibet, The Skull Mantra debuted to rave reviews. Kirkus Reviews said of The Skull Mantra, "Superb…[a] Breathlessly suspenseful tour of a dangerous and exotic landscape, where opposing forces, political and magical, give way to an eerie, mystical truth." The Skull Mantra also won the coveted Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

The Skull Mantra was followed by Water Touching Stone and Bone Mountain, all published by St. Martin's Minotaur. A fourth installment in the series is due in early 2004. His books are known for their fascinating insights into the culture and spirituality of China and Tibet, their complex plots and vivid characterizations, which appeal to general fiction readers as well as to die-hard mystery fans.

Eliot Pattison resides in rural Pennsylvania with his wife, three children, two horses, and two dogs on a colonial-era farm. When he's not working, you might find him spending time with his family, building stone walls on the farm, gardening, hiking or kayaking. He spoke with us about his latest book, his move from being an international attorney to a critically acclaimed novelist, and the current plight of Tibetan people.

What did you like to read when you were a boy? Was there anyone in your childhood who encouraged you to read?

I grew up on a farm where my primary adventures were slipping away into the forest or slipping away into a good book. I consumed any book I could get my hands on, including cookbooks, comics, travel books, farming books, and nearly every book in the very small library of my very small school. I had a great aunt who was a professional librarian with, believe or not, the US Army, who would send me books from her overseas postings that spoke of people and places that seemed to be from a different planet than the one I lived on. It did a lot to whet my appetite for new topics, new genres, and international travel.

How did you first get interested in the law?

What first got me interested at a young age was probably the same for thousands of other fledgling lawyers -- being exposed to lawyer and crime shows on television. But long after I realized how much those shows exaggerated the profession, I stayed interested because of the vital dynamic of issue resolution, underlying the law. For an effective lawyer, the legal profession is about communicating and simplifying issues for a diverse audience -- skills that are perhaps not so different as those needed by an effective novelist.

Please describe your law practice for us. What did you enjoy most about practicing international law?

Most of my legal career has been spent advising on international investment projects and other cross-border issues. That work provided a great platform for me not only to globetrot but to immerse myself in a number of cultures. I've worn out several passports, eaten, as the Chinese say, everything with four legs except the table, and gotten to know heroes, fools, villains, saints and scholars on six continents.

After having published several serious nonfiction books, what prompted you to turn your hand to writing fiction?

By the time I finished my fourth book on law and public policy issues, I was feeling less and less fulfilled as a writer. I had dozens of ideas and experiences floating around in my head that could never be used in such books, and fiction was the obvious way to put them to work. Once I decided to venture down that path, my fascination with the forgotten peoples of China quickly drove me to set my books in that part of the planet.

What kind of research did you do for your first novel, Skull Mantra? What struck you most about visiting Tibet?

Cover of The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison
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I didn't decide to write a mystery set in Tibet and then began research. Instead, after so many years of experience in Asia, most of my research in that sense was done. After seeing so much of the world, Tibet struck me as the most different place on the planet. I mean that in a very fundamental, essential sense. Traditional Tibet didn't just have different forms of religion, medicine, politics, and art, it had different concepts of religion, medicine, politics and art, concepts that very much deserved to be presented on a broader global stage. I take great satisfaction in the comments I receive from Tibetans and Tibetan experts that my novels have captured the essence of the Tibetan experience in a far more compelling way than many of the drier historical and firsthand accounts. Fiction can convey the truth far better than nonfiction.

One fact that you illustrate in your books is the great diversity of people, culture and religions over the expanse of land that is modern China. How have your travels in China affected your outlook on life and/or your beliefs?

Traveling in the lands that comprise modern China, especially those areas removed from the industrial influence of the eastern part of the country, is sobering, exciting, depressing, invigorating, infuriating, and inspiring. Because of the violent politics that has roiled those lands during the past century almost anywhere you can find stories of great heroism, of sacrifice, of tremendous virtue preserved against impossible odds. Those experiences have given me great respect for those suffering people, and underscored for me the vital importance of practicing tolerance in everything we do. Of direct relevance to my writing is the way my experience in the East has shown me how beauty, and justice, is in the eye of the beholder. Even after twenty plus years of traveling there I am still fascinated by many aspects of Chinese, Tibetan, and Silk Road culture. For me nothing more poignantly captures how little the human condition has changed thru the ages (and how universal our experiences are) than reading the poets of the Tang dynasty, who wrote haiku-like descriptions of life a thousand years ago.

What led up to the publication of your first novel?

The Skull Mantra was rejected by probably twenty publishers and fifteen agents before I found an agent, Natasha Kern, who really understood the book and how to sell it. Soon afterward I had a contract with St. Martin's, a few months later it was published, and a few months after that it won the Edgar for Best First Novel.

I'd like to talk about the novel's main protagonist, former Beijing Inspector Shan Tao Yun. Shan is a fascinating character, who himself is on a journey, both physical and spiritual, throughout the books. How did you create the character of Shan?

Shan is an amalgam of many people I have met in China,
"My books are not just about Tibet, they are also about how the world we have created can work against the preservation of culture, religion, and fundamental human values."
people who have endured quietly, preserving traditions, family, and integrity despite tremendous pressures to abandon them. These include, for example, professors sent to prison for possessing Western literature, living out the remainder of their lives reading poetry in tiny tenements, officials whose careers were ruined because they declined to be directed by the Communist Party, herders who were forced into factory jobs then eventually found ways (often illegally) to return to their pastures, and monks who endured long after being told by the government they could no longer be monks. People often ask why the main character in my Tibetan series is a Chinese. As an outsider, Shan has reason to learn about Tibet, so I can educate the reader through Shan. And I also wanted to emphasize how many members of repressive governments can be tragic, though less obvious, victims of that repression.

Shan's spiritual mentor in the books is Lokesh, a Tibetan Buddhist lama. How did you create the character of Lokesh? What was the greatest challenge in creating him?

Lokesh shares the characteristics of many Tibetans generally -- deeply committed to Buddhism, selfless, humble, compassionate, and always able to smile and keep moving forward no matter what obstacles can be seen on the path ahead. The greatest challenge with Lokesh is keeping him rooted in the oldest traditions of Tibet -- which though arcane are important plotdrivers in my books -- while still keeping him coherent and connected to the reader. A lot of literature on Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism turns readers off by being too esoteric, too caught up in the precise breathing method for meditation or the linguistic derivation of Tibetan pronunciations. I am always aware that first I must keep Lokesh interesting as a person or he will never succeed in my second goal of using him to explain Tibet.

I'd like to talk about your latest novel, Bone Mountain, in which former Beijing investigator Shan sets out on a journey to restore a Tibetan spiritual artifact to its place deep in the mountains where foreigners are busy drilling for oil. What was your inspiration for this book?

My books are not just about Tibet, they are also about how the world we have created can work against the preservation of culture, religion, and fundamental human values. Underlying Water Touching Stone is a theme of how politics can subvert science and culture, in the context of Silk Road archaeology. Bone Mountain seeks to show the conflict between the preservation of a vital, important culture and our insatiable appetite for natural resources. Obviously my books also seek to set Tibetan issues generally on a broader stage. In Bone Mountain I particularly sought to explore the vital connection for many Tibetans between their land and their religion, and even between their land and their health.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the book is the descriptions of the medicine lamas. Are there still medicine lamas in Tibet? How much of their knowledge still exists today?

Medicine lamas still exist in Tibet today, though far fewer
Cover of Water Touching Stone by Eliot Pattison
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than two generations ago. The country medical institutions were annihilated by the Chinese army in the initial occupation, and entire medical libraries and medical colleges were lost forever. But there was enough traditional interest among Chinese in Tibetan medicine to assure it would survive in some form, and there is still an industry that produces Tibetan medicine. Tibetan doctors still visit the West, amazing their American and European counterparts with their uncanny ability to diagnose ailments without any invasive techniques.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Bone Mountain?

The greatest challenge in writing all my Shan books is that of translating issues, themes, and characters rooted in a very unusual, almost alien (to the West), culture for a broad Western audience. It is a constant juggling act to be true to such material while still keeping it general enough to appeal to readers who are just looking for a good read. I think few writers who go down this culture-bridging path are able to do this well, but I happen to believe that good writing does not merely entertain, it also must teach and provoke the reader, and those goals make it worth the effort.

I'd like to talk about the actual creative process. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

Like most writers, I have a lot of things to juggle in my life. A good writing "day" for me is to sit down between 9 and 10 pm and write uninterrupted for three hours -- something I try to do seven days a week. On rare "great" days I have the chance to sit for a block of five or six hours. With respect to the physical process, I write all first drafts in long hand, using my collection of fountain pens. I am not infrequently accused of being a technophobe. I use computers to process my writing of course, but I have yet to find anything that the computer can add to the creative process. Computers are great tools, but they will never substitute for great thinking and innovative writing.

When you start a new book, do you use outlines for the plot? Or is the process a more organic one, that evolves as you write?

You'd be hard pressed to find a writer whose process is more organic. I never use plot outlines, and if I did I wouldn't stick to them.

When you begin a new book or series, how much of the plot do you know in advance? Do you use outlines or character biographies?

For me, good writing starts with good characters. To my mind there are far too many authors who think plot is everything -- and their work shows it. Writers that sacrifice characters for plot do produce some good escapist books, but not the kind of books you think about for days or weeks after putting them down -- and that's what I'm trying to do. At this point I know my main characters so well they write some scenes for me. I have biographies in my head for Shan and Lokesh, my two primary recurring characters, that include many details that never appear on the printed page.

By the time I start writing a book I have all my key characters for the book clearly in mind, a broad concept of the ending (in terms of character resolution), and a few key scenes that I want to integrate. For Bone Mountain, for example, very early on I knew I wanted a scene with an American cowboy riding a yak, rodeo-style. It was only later that I figured out how to work it into the plot.

How has being an attorney affected your fiction writing?

Writing as a lawyer and writing as a novelist involves opposite sides of the brain, and I do like to use both sides. Writing keeps me energized, and keeps me disciplined. Both of those aspects help me as a lawyer. My legal experience keeps me thinking about justice and especially about justice in a cross-cultural context, themes that very much are at work in my books.

What reaction (if any) have you had from the government of China about your books? I assume they are not sold in China?

I've seen no official reaction to my books in China. Unofficially, I have been told more than once that people cannot access my website from China -- and it's a matter of record that the Chinese government has been active in blocking sites that contain politically unacceptable material. I've also been told there is something of a black market for my books in Tibet. I have even had one report that my books, in English, were being sold in a state-owned store in Beijing. I would love to see my books more widely read in China -- while they are unabashedly against the Chinese government, I have great respect for the Chinese people, many of whom have suffered almost as much as the Tibetans during the past fifty years.

Has the issue of Tibet gotten lost because of the current preoccupation of the west with fighting terrorism? Is there any hope on the horizon for Tibet, given the recent, peaceful change in China's leadership?

Certainly the issues of Tibet have not been helped by the focus on terrorism. It has allowed the Chinese government to paint certain free Tibetan leaders inside China as "terrorists". The government has executed at least one Tibetan monk on the grounds that he was such a terrorist. I think there is indeed hope for Tibet, long term, but the Tibetan issues are inextricably linked to the Dalai Lama, who has done such a wonderful job of keeping the exiled community united and in elevating those issues to a broader world stage. The Chinese government has announced more than once that when he dies they will not permit a new reincarnation to be recognized.

As an observer of China and its policies, what are your thoughts on China's handling of the SARS crisis?

There has been a tremendous gloss on Chinese matters in
"[M]y major irritation in life is the way the entertainment and media industries have dumbed down entertainment, reading, and even intellectual debate in this country. They seem committed to shortening our attention spans, lowering the education level of programming, and eliminating literary content from all they do."
recent years. The government has been very successful at building a global public image of an economic powerhouse that is rapidly raising its standard of living, etc. Behind the scenes there is still terrible repression, no democratic process, and a huge propaganda machine. The SARS crisis has opened an important crack in the veneer of modern China to let the rest of the world see some of that reality. A very positive aspect, however, has been the outbreak of free speech among senior officials, showing some dissension in top ranks for the first time in years.

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

I don't know if this qualifies as a pet peeve, but my major irritation in life is the way the entertainment and media industries have dumbed down entertainment, reading, and even intellectual debate in this country. They seem committed to shortening our attention spans, lowering the education level of programming, and eliminating literary content from all they do. It's troublesome for writers, of course, but also very discouraging for the future of our children. There are only about eight million people in this country who regularly buy books (a far lower percentage than, for example, in England), and the number is declining. We need to ask ourselves why, and what it says about our society.

When you're not working, what are your favorite ways to relax and have fun?

I live with my family on a colonial era farm in Pennsylvania -- most of our "relaxation" is spent right there, building stone walls, enjoying nature, tending gardens, maintaining our small but expanding menagerie. As the weather gets hotter we'll be heading north for some kayaking and hiking.

What projects are you working on now?

Currently I am wrapping up the fourth Shan novel, due out early next year, and giving some serious thought to a new series.

Could you give us a sneak peek into the next book?

In Book Four, Shan joins with an investigator from Beijing and an FBI agent to try to understand the strange links between art thefts in Beijing and Seattle and a murder in Tibet. I explore in some detail the remarkable world of traditional Tibetan art, which many Tibetans believe to be animated by deities and, in response to a number of readers who have asked to see Shan in his former environment, Shan takes a brief, stressful, visit to Beijing.
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