Q&A: Peter Gregoire - The Devil You Know

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The local author chats to us about his new political thriller The Devil You Know, parts of which take place in Hong Kong in 2017, shortly before the ever-controversial Chief Executive elections.

Peter Gregoire, the local author who previously brought us political thriller Article 109, which won the Proverse Prize and soared to the top of the Dymock's best-sellers list, is back with a bang. This time, we're in Hong Kong in the year 2017 – just as the weighty Chief Executive election is due to commence. Played out against the background of the current tense political atmosphere, and with references to the Umbrella Revolution, Gregoire's book has landed just at the perfect moment for all those contemplating what really is in store for our city in the next two years…

Hi Peter! Thanks so much for speaking with us. What was the impetus behind writing this story?
My first novel, Article 109, was a thriller based in Hong Kong and as soon as I had finished it, I was itching to write a sequel. Hong Kong really provides the perfect setting for a thriller. Of course, as a fiction writer you are looking to develop a tense storyline. In Hong Kong, you have ready-made tension with what is going on at the moment. Even for the most non-partisan observer, it's fascinating. For writers, Hong Kong is the gift that keeps on giving!

Tell us more about this tension.
The tension I am talking about, has been emerging in Hong Kong since the early 1990s. By that time a large section of the population here were locally born (as opposed to first generation immigrants) who clearly felt like they were Hongkongers and had a distinct Hong Kong identity. Living in one the purest capitalist societies in the world, this generation was brought up on the western capitalist diet of individual decision-making and individual rights and responsibility. This cultivated an atavistic yearning for democracy, a yearning which has strengthened and become more vocal with ensuing generations. You can trace its development from the July 2003 March, through the National Education protests, to the Umbrella Movement.

Compare that to what is happening in the rest of China. Although China is changing, and changing fast, it is very much a collectivist culture based on five millennia of Confucian civilization that puts stability, security, discipline and control above all else. (The Communist Party deliberately positions itself as the inheritor of this Confucian mantle). Yes, China is adopting capitalism but certainly, the aim is not to do so at the expense of stability, security and control, which are principles that remain paramount.

The one-country-two-systems formula aimed to reconcile these two very different positions. However, there was always going to be a clash at where the exact point of the cross-over between the two lies. That clash – the point of cross-over – is the method of election for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. And it's happening right here, right now and has yet to be solved. Hence, the tension. Hence, the fascination.

Are there any particular messages you wanted to express through this story?
No, not at all. The Devil You Know is a fictional thriller aimed primarily at providing readers with an entertaining and gripping read and, secondly, showing off how fascinating Hong Kong is.

That said, without letting it dominate the story, I do (through the characters' eyes) explore the real impetus for true democracy in Hong Kong and why it goes beyond just statements of high principle. In many ways Hong Kong, whilst a great place to live, remains one of the unfairest places in the world (and is an enigma, because of this). There is definitely a need for better governance to try and address those evident inequities which the current system institutionalises. The sheer frustration with the current system, which perpetuates (and enlarges) those inequities, is in my view what we are seeing manifest in the Umbrella Movement.

In the story, Hong Kong has grown dramatically worse by 2017 and is now in a 'malaise'. Is this based on your personal expectation of what will actually happen in the next two years?
I wouldn't say that's my expectation, but it is certainly one way things may go. That said, that may be how I portray Hong Kong at the start of the book. But just read it and see how it ends. You may be surprised.

In regards to what my real expectation is, I do believe there is one thing to be optimistic about. No matter what side of the political debate you are on, one cannot help but be impressed by the creativity, knowledge, entrepreneurialism, articulateness and civic passion of the students who participated in the Umbrella Movement. If I was a CEO of a company, I would be fighting to offer these guys jobs as soon as they graduate! If that's what our next generation has to offer, there's certainly cause to be optimistic.

The book has come out at the perfect moment. How did you write so fast since the democracy protests?
You think I wrote this all since the Umbrella Movement? You have to be kidding! I spent the better part of eighteen months researching and writing this book. Bear in mind it's about the next Chief Executive election in 2017. The parameters for how that is going to be conducted with the nominating committee pre-vetting candidates, is laid down in Article 45 of the Basic Law. It's been the cause of huge debate for the last two years, long before the Umbrella Movement erupted.

I always believed a clash was inevitable, though. (Not that you had to be a fortune teller to predict that!) So I had the plot, which centres around the nominating committee's choice of candidate, written by the first half of last year. Indeed when the NPCSC's decision in August 2014 came out, I thought: "oh my god, it's coming true". Then the Umbrella Movement exploded in October. Factoring in the particular context of the Umbrella Movement, into later drafts was a natural progression of the story development, and it has given the plot some additional sharp edges to it.

What are you planning for the future? Any more political thrillers? If so, what topics will you focus on next time?  
To be honest, writing The Devil You Know has been an exhausting and exhilarating process (I have a demanding day job, so it's taken a lot of weekends and late nights out of me). But I tell you what, I'm beginning to feel that itch again! I haven't finished with Scott Lee, just yet. And Scott Lee hasn't finished with Hong Kong. So watch this space.

Interview by Bonnie Chiang

The Devil You Know is available in local book shops, on amazon (including the Kindle version) and from Chinese University Press. Find out more at proversepublishing.com.

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