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How this writer and translator tapped into the ‘language of sports’ for his thriller

Our August 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Daniel Nieh’s “Beijing Payback.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

As a Chinese-English language translator, writer Daniel Nieh is well accustomed to thinking in two different languages and straddling the customs and cultures of both East and West. While living in Beijing in 2009, he was inspired to write a page from the perspective of a Chinese-American football player who also spoke a different kind of language.

“Sports has its own language that can be poetic,” Nieh told the PBS NewsHour.

In writing that character who would eventually become the protagonist of his debut novel, “Beijing Payback,” the author said that he imagined someone who “lived within that poetic language of sports. He understood the rules and nuances of that world. Maybe it was the only language in which he felt fluent.”

In “Beijing Payback,” basketball player Victor Li receives a letter after his father’s death revealing his involvement in a vast crime syndicate. The character of Li, along with the idea of using a “final testament as plot device,” fueled Nieh to write his book, he said.

Nieh shares more on his daily writing routine and sources of inspiration below.

What is your daily writing routine?

I had no routine during the writing of “Beijing Payback” because I was doing a lot of translation and interpreting at the time. I’d be on the road for two weeks, touring the country with a Chinese delegation of museum directors or volleyball coaches, then I’d come home and write for three weeks, and then I’d spend a month translating an auction catalog.

After [publisher] Ecco gave me a book deal for “Beijing Payback,” I stopped traveling for interpreting. Now I follow a regimen. I like to wake up early and go on a walk. Then I make a cup of coffee, take it to my desk, and stare for a minute at my special sheet of paper. The paper is like a pep talk to myself. I redo it once a season, add some things and take some out. There are quotations in different languages, exhortations and reassurances, arrayed around the page all higgledy-piggledy. Then I write. Maybe halfway through I’ll eat some almonds standing up in the kitchen.

I take a full hour to eat lunch and read some nonfiction during this time. After lunch, I look at my email and the internet. I try to do that just once a day. Then I revise or work on translations. I follow this routine six days a week. If I’m feeling really drowsy, I take a nap, but never in bed.

What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

A book I think everyone should read is “The Fire Next Time.” It’s very sad because the book was published in 1963. It’s ‘next time’ right now, and our country is burning in the fire. It’s painful. I believe this pain is the cathartic reckoning that the United States must experience. But it’s also beautiful. James Baldwin wrote electric prose. His words make me feel that I am alive, and life is important, and reading is especially important.

What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

When I was 17, I discovered the “Chuang Tzu,” a Chinese text from the fifth century BC that reshaped the way I saw the world. In China, this text is considered one of the two foundational texts of Taoist philosophy, the other being the “Tao Te Ching” (attributed to Lao Tzu). The verses of the “Tao Te Ching” are pithy, aphoristic and very quotable, so that may explain why it’s so much more popular.

The “Chuang Tzu” addresses similar themes from different angles: outlandish parables, rambling jokes, snippets of cryptic dialogue. The magic of these strange stories is as hard to articulate as the ineffable Tao itself. I read every translation I could find before eventually learning enough Classical Chinese to approach the original. Victor Mair’s version is authoritative, but Burton Watson’s is also great. In his introduction, Watson calls it “one of the fiercest and most dazzling assaults ever made not only upon man’s conventional system of values, but upon his conventional concepts of time, space, reality and causation as well.” It’s true.

What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

A writer friend once said to me, “Don’t be afraid of the deep water. That’s where you need to go.” Kafka said, “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside of us.” Sometimes there’s this temptation, as a writer, to hide behind erudition and artifice. To be clever and aloof. Writing like that can be fun, but novels must be personal to be profound. They must be painful to be poignant. And the writer derives the most benefit if she is, in fact, swinging that axe into that internal frozen sea, and facing that which lies deep within, that which is terrible and marvelous.

Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?

There were two moments, both in 2009. I was living in Beijing at the time. Something–I can’t recall what–triggered in my head the idea of a final testament as a plot device. Instructions from a murdered person, like a scavenger hunt. A letter to the future. That idea stuck in my head.

The second was about sports. Sports has its own language that can be poetic. The first inkling of the book was a page I wrote that year from the perspective of a Chinese-American football player. He played free safety. His life was football. He lived within that poetic language of sports. He understood the rules and nuances of that world. Maybe it was the only language in which he felt fluent.

That voice became Victor Li, although later I changed the sport to basketball. I wanted to create a male Chinese-American protagonist who was an athlete. The language and the character felt alive to me. So I combined that with the ‘letter to the future,’ and that was the genesis of the book, which I didn’t start writing until years later.

Wait, it’s over?! Every time I think about people reading the book, I think, oh, I wish they had the latest version, which only exists in my head. I want to change 17 words that will make all the difference for them. I think many writers feel this way.

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