This novel began when one of its characters, The Tattooed Monk, paid me a visit in a waking dream. As you can see from the jacket of my book which reproduces that encounter, he had his back to me when he came calling for the first time. He showed me his tattooes but his face was hidden. The way he looked from the back told me a lot about who he was—a master warrior, an oracle, a wise man, modeled on the martial art heroes I admired when my family and I sat around on Sunday evenings watching kung fu movies like IRON MONKEY and THE T’AI CHI MASTER and HERO. He was a figure of power but vulnerable as well. I had to ask myself when this strange scene floated into my brain: who or what is responsible for the end of the world atmosphere here? And the answer to that question led to other questions that needed answers and directed me into my story.

When the German edition of SIGN OF THE QIN came in the mail, I was surprised by the jacket because the Tattooed Monk wasn’t there. It took me a moment to realize the logic of using a portrait of the lead character, the Starlord. Of course, it made perfect sense, but not to me because it was the Tattooed Monk who had been guiding me through. He was my Merlin. He was the key to all the rest.

He was also a mystery. As you live with your characters, you get to know them. There are times, like living with people in real life, when they offer up a lot of information about themselves and you have moments of insight and revelation. There are other times when they remain opaque. Gradually, I figured out that the Tattooed Monk had once had a family but had lost his wife and young child in a fire set by bandits long ago. He had lost his way and become a thief and an outlaw but had been taken in by a holy order of hermetic monks. What is pictured on the jacket is a volcanic eruption that destroyed those monks and their temple. So at the start of the novel, the Tattooed Monk has once again survived a catastrophe that has wiped out all that he loved. It is uncertain whether he will ever allow himself to love again, but why was he not destroyed with the rest? The answer, I realized, was that he was an immortal, destined to take on multiple mortal lives through time. He was heartily sick of his immortality yet he could not die because that would mean victory to his nemesis, Yamu, Lord of the Dead.

You wouldn’t think that the Lord of the Dead would be so much fun to write but he was great fun because I felt free to make him as nasty as I liked. I had never written a really evil character before. Writing Yamu’s voice was a turning point for me because when I heard him speak, I suddenly knew I could actually write this book.

At the time I began SIGN OF THE QIN, Yamu, Lord of the Dead was no abstraction. I live in New York City and I wrote the Prologue describing the Tattooed Monk’s trial by fire soon after 9/11 when smoke was still in the air. We had all been made acutely aware of the basic struggle to survive with some degree of honor in a world that has the technology to self-destruct and so I think there sprung up a desire in me to tell a heartening story, one that features a vastly destructive force but also a hero that could, by calling upon what’s best in himself, lead the earth away from the brink of disaster.

The hero I found, or who found me, was the Starlord, a hotheaded prince born with the birthmark sign of the outlaw and blessed (or cursed depending on your point of view) with two guardians who hate one another and are always quarrelling—the Tattooed Monk and Monkey.

For the character of Monkey, I had a model in Chinese legend—the Monkey King. My trickster who had lived 98 lives and had only one more reincarnation left to prove himself worthy of immortality was based on a traditional folk character very familiar to young people in the East but not as much in the West.

Monkey in SIGN OF THE QIN differs from the classic version found in the four volume JOURNEY TO THE WEST because he’s capable of love—of caring for a child (the Starlord) like a parent. In the process, he learns to weep and also to put someone else’s needs ahead of his own. Monkey is a clown and a con-artist, living moment to moment mostly by his wits but also, he’s a hero who will eventually, by the end, be worthy of immortality. His heroism resides in his ability to love a child and protect that child at all costs.

I gave Monkey a more generous heart than his ancestor, the Monkey King, though I tried to keep him as funny, outrageous and adventurous as the original. It’s one of the miraculously enjoyable aspects of reading and writing fiction that characters born hundreds, no thousands of years ago, are still being reborn to new stories, their lives retold in new ways.

A word about the women characters in SIGN OF THE QIN: many of them are mothers, like myself.  Silver Lotus is a mother tragically deprived of watching her son grow up. She has to make peace with the knowledge that due to the urgency of his mission, his childhood has been stolen from him. “Who can be a man without a childhood?” she asks.

Another mother in the book is Mother Gu who married a dragon of the North Sea and gave birth to the twin rebel leaders of the Outlaws of Moonshadow Marsh. I like to think that if I’ve lived other lives, one of them was as a woman warrior. I have a very good time writing battle scenes and my favorites feature warrior women. I was drawn to studying t’ai chi just about the time I started writing SIGN OF THE QIN. I also took lessons in one of the sword forms I mention in my book. Although I live in New York City, part of me is Mother Gu, living in a ramshackle fishing hut on the edge of an ancient marsh, listening to the sound of sea birds.

I think the art of writing character in fiction has something in common with shapeshifting.  We are all shapeshifters of sorts. We all have many identities, many selves and we speak in many voices. My readers tell me they are intrigued by the fact that the demon dog Puk in SIGN OF THE QIN is a shapeshifter and has memories of what it was like to be a jellyfish. I believe we all have memories of other lives, or if not memories than imaginative reconstructions that serve to give us a sense of history, a sense of evolution. We are, from the moment we’re conceived and begin life in the womb, shapeshifters. Growing is shapeshifting. And so as I write in the voices of my fictional characters, I shift shapes and grow. Often I experience growing pains and the process is slow. Sometimes, I surprise myself and am catapulted into some new level of understanding.

The Starlord in SIGN OF THE QIN is given the gift of a changing bag, a magician’s prop, referred to as the Many Faces of Hung Wu. He’s not the only character who wears many faces. As I got to know my characters, there were times they needed to wear masks and then be unmasked again as the story moved forward. A disguise in fiction is often not a disguise at all but just another face of many faces a character must wear on a journey of self-discovery.

“We are here until we are somewhere else,” says the Tattooed Monk. And while we’re here, we each travel from our point of departure and we each try our best to call upon the powers we need to live our lives well. Perhaps the art of building and shaping and revealing memorable characters in fiction is not so different or separate from the art of building and discovering our own character as we live our lives. We all take multiple leaps of faith every day just to keep our feet on the ground. And in each leap of faith, we reinvent ourselves. Or again, to quote the Tattooed Monk, “It is a miracle to walk on water and to fly through the sky, but the real miracle is to walk on earth.” —LGB

Go to the next book