Interview with Kirk Kjeldsen, author of 'Tomorrow City'

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Kirk Kjeldsen, assistant professor in the Cinema Department of the VCU School of the Arts, has published his first novel, “Tomorrow City,” a bullet-paced crime story set in New York City and Shanghai.

Kjeldsen lives most of the year in Shanghai, while teaching writing workshops and other cinema classes online and during extended visits to Richmond. He’s also an active screenwriter who has worked extensively in film and television, and he has been a staff and freelance reporter for a number of newspapers and magazines.

“Tomorrow City,” which is being published by Hong Kong-based publisher Typhoon Media, has received advanced praise from such crime authors as Elwood Reid, Lou Berney, James Thompson and Tom Epperson.

How soon after first experiencing Shanghai did you know you wanted to set a story there? What about the city appeals to you as a storyteller?

I actually started the novel about five years ago, while in Germany. I originally set it there, but only got about 50 pages into it. It didn’t feel right, so I put it aside and eventually forgot about it. Six months after moving to Shanghai, I picked it up again and reset it there, and within a few months, I had a draft. It just made sense, being a story about a character trying to reinvent himself. No other city in the world has reinvented itself more over the past generation, and it keeps reinventing itself as it goes forward, as do its people. It’s an amazing place, full of complexity and contradictions. There aren’t many other places in the world where people are living under corrugated steel roof shacks with no plumbing or electricity on the same block as people who drive $400,000 Lamborghinis.

Your protagonist, Brendan, is an expatriate in Shanghai. Did any of your experiences adapting to the culture there make their way into the protagonist's experiences?

Of course. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to rules about writing, but for me, I usually write about what I know, and I know what it’s like to be a “laowai” in Shanghai. Most of Brendan’s everyday experiences draw from my own. There have also been so many other interesting experiences that didn’t make it into the novel. Shanghai’s a fascinating and inspiring place to be.

Can you explain the origin of the title?

There’s a building in Shanghai’s former French Concession (where I live, and where the story takes place) called Tomorrow Square. The area around it is sometimes referred to as Tomorrow City. Like a lot of things in China, it’s a bit of a sham, not much more than a group of generic buildings surrounding a small park. None of the Shanghai guidebooks even mention it, and it doesn’t have the history or allure of Beijing’s Forbidden City or Hong Kong’s Walled City or even Shanghai’s Bund, but that’s the point. The protagonist, who’s trying to start over, can hide there in plain sight and still do decent business; it’s not so remote that he can’t make a living, but it’s not so touristy that he might risk getting spotted, either.

You've written in a number of formats, including screenplays, plays, essays and journalism. This is your first novel. What prompted you to write this story in this form?

I actually wrote a novel when I was 20, while studying abroad. It was a train wreck, though a great learning experience, and I never got past the first draft. I tried again seven or eight years later, but it wasn’t the right story or the right time, and I got caught up with other writing work and put it aside. After selling a few scripts that didn’t get made, an early version of the idea for “Tomorrow City” came to me, but it’s not the broad, high-concept kind of story that typically gets bought as a spec script. It’s the kind of story that I didn’t even bother bringing up to my screenwriting partner or agent or manager at the time, because I knew they wouldn’t be interested. Even when Hollywood makes films like “Drive” or “The American,” they’re based on books or other mediums. I also really wanted to write something that would be a finished piece and not just a blueprint for something else. Writers write. Why limit yourself to one medium? Certain superficial or stylistic things change based on the medium you’re writing in, but the elements of narrative and storytelling and character apply to them all. Most of the writers I admire work in multiple mediums, anyway; Cormac McCarthy recently sold a screenplay (“The Counselor”) at the age of 78, after already winning every major fiction award. He’s written plays as well, and he even copy-edits scientific work. If you want to be a writer, write. Write in as many mediums as you can. Give yourself the most opportunities you can. Take risks, and enjoy it.

The book moves fast. Did your experience in screenwriting influence the structure and storytelling involved in this book?

Sure. My journalism background influences my writing as well. That first novel I wrote while studying abroad was an enthusiastic but misguided attempt to emulate James Joyce or Jack Kerouac, but I had no idea what structure or the elements of narrative were. After being introduced to these things by Frank Daniel at (the University of Southern California, where Kjeldsen received an M.F.A. in screenwriting), and honing them through years of working as a screenwriter and journalist, my style got leaner and more economical, as well as more motivated and structured. Today, I prefer writers like McCarthy and Kem Nunn and Daniel Woodrell, who don’t waste words, and I try to write that way as well.

Brendan is wrapped up with a group of criminals and struggling to end his association with them. What interested you about that world and about the dynamics of that type of group?

I grew up reading and watching everything I could get my hands on, and one area that really spoke to me was crime—writers like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett and Graham Greene, and films like “Rififi,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Bob le Flambeur.” There’s an immediacy to crime; on the surface, it’s all about people wanting something badly and having difficulty getting it, and characters are usually driven by necessity. The stakes are clear and high. But at the end of the day, the stories are never really about the actual crimes but rather the characters that are trying to pull them off or prevent them. Crime as a genre is a great arena for the exploration of human behavior.

What appealed to you about the story of Brendan, this guy who so badly wants to put his past behind him that he travels to the other side of the world to try to pull it off?

Anyone who knows me would probably say there’s a lot of me in Brendan, or there’s a lot of Brendan in me. I wasn’t incarcerated at Rikers, and I didn’t participate in any armed robberies, but other aspects of his character and story are drawn from personal experience. I moved around a lot growing up – I was born in Mount Clemens, Michigan, while my father was stationed at Selfridge AFB, and we moved a few weeks later and then another dozen or so more times before I finished high school. I kept moving around as a young man and trying to start again and put my own past behind me wherever I went. Writers write about what they consciously and unconsciously know and have experienced and believe in; it’s the area of writing that Aristotle called ‘thought,’ or Lajos Egri called ‘premise,’ or others have called ‘theme’ or ‘POV.’ I’m not running, and don’t have anything to hide today, but I can empathize with and understand a character like Brendan, and I think a lot of people can. To me, the most interesting characters are not good people trying to do good things but complicated people with good and bad qualities who are caught up in dilemmas where there are no easy ways out, like Malik in the film “A Prophet” or Walter White in the television show “Breaking Bad.” These situations reveal true character, and what people are really made of, and are the stories that appeal to me.

The story is built around two elaborately conceived heists and their aftermaths. How did you go about constructing the heists themselves? Did you find that fun or tricky?

Both. I did a lot of research; my journalism background was helpful in this regard. I asked people who work or worked in law enforcement for advice on what was plausible or not. People are usually receptive when you ask them politely to share their experience. I talked to a guy I know who spent time at Rikers for armed robbery, like Brendan did. I also did some Internet research – and I’m probably flagged somewhere now for doing so, especially living in China – but nothing beats firsthand, old-fashioned research and talking to people.

What're you working on now? Do you see yourself writing about Shanghai again?

I recently finished a draft of another novel set in a near future where China and the United States have traded places, about an impoverished 14-year old American boy who emigrates from the U.S. to China to search for work and for his missing mother. It’s very different from “Tomorrow City;” it’s more of a picaresque, coming-of-age story, but it’s an ambitious piece and will probably take some more time to get it to where it needs to be. I’m working on another crime thriller as well, but it’s about a completely different set of characters and a completely different story and world than “Tomorrow City.” I also recently wrote a script for a director whose work I admire, and I have another script that a producer is involved with.

At this point in my life, I’m most interested in working and living where I want to on projects that I can’t say no to. I’m also “working” with my wife on raising a three-year old daughter and a baby son in a foreign country. They’re by far the most rewarding and challenging “projects” I’ve ever had. All the aspects of my life today seem to reinforce each other, unlike the protagonist of “Tomorrow City:” being a writer makes me a better teacher, being a teacher makes me a better writer, being a father makes me a better writer and teacher. I have a very full life, and I’m grateful for it.


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