Matthew Harrison tells Matt Fleming that office workers make for great central characters
We talk a lot about the ‘book charts’ in Hong Kong. These lists, compiled by city stores, show who’s hot in the literary scene and give us a guide as to what other readers are picking up. So, if you’re one for popularity, plump for Matthew Harrison’s Benjamin Bunce this month as it’s been lying on top of some of the charts over the past few weeks.
It’s only Harrison’s second novel, in fact, charting the rises and falls of Hong Kong bachelor and PR manager Bunce, who ‘wrestles with casinos, caged men and female impersonation’ as he deals with a dominating boss and, well, himself. It’s all very Hong Kong, features Macau and the Mainland, and is laugh out loud – probably why it’s quickly rocketed up those charts.
Harrison, a financial researcher of British origin, has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. He says he’s happy to juggle job, family and successful sideline as novelist, with a collection of romantic tales, Queen’s Road Central and Other Stories, and his first novel, Jessica’s Choice, behind him. Bunce is his first foray into a male-centric novel, as he tells us.
Benjamin Bunce shot straight to the top of the book charts. How does that feel?
Of course it feels great! But the most meaningful thing is when someone reads your book and says ‘that’s my life’. If you can touch someone like that – even one person – it makes it all worthwhile.
Is Bunce an accurate portrayal of an office worker in Hong Kong?
I tried to be accurate in the details, which I drew from many sources. People sometimes go out of their way to tell me the crazy things that happen in their company. But, of course, Bunce goes beyond accuracy. It’s a kind of surreal vision of the office world where management is more arbitrary, colleagues are more scheming and Benjamin himself is more timid than would be the case in real life.
How did you come up with the idea for Bunce?
Well, there’s no shortage of arbitrary management and office politics here – although Hong Kong is no worse than a lot of places in that respect. What is special here is the quirkiness of the Hong Kong Chinese company – the way management changes its mind almost in mid-sentence, the way the company jumps from one business to another at the drop of a hat. I was looking for a way to express that quirkiness. I just needed the right vehicle. And then the image of Benjamin came to my mind – a shy, retiring bachelor, bullied by management and by the ladies too, who, in his PR role, would have a good perspective on the corporation and who, in the end, would have the strength to actually stand up for himself.
Is our literary scene on the up?
Positive things are happening but it is still a way to go. Mainland Chinese writers are making a big impact on the world scene, but somehow Hong Kong hasn’t joined in. Perhaps we are still short on community identity here. People here tend to look at China or the West for models, in writing as well as other things. Hong Kong is still a bit of a transit station where real things don’t seem to happen. We are all just passing through. But I’m a believer in Hong Kong – and think there is potential. It will just take time.
What next for the literary career of Matthew Harrison?
I’d like to give Benjamin another outing but if he settles down with one of the ladies he meets he won’t have time for more adventures. Maybe a prequel? Or maybe something completely different…
Benjamin Bunce is published by Phaeton Limited, priced $78.