logo        September 8, 2008
Maclean's, Mon 08 Sep 2008
Page: 76

With the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing just wrapping up, China has been on the minds of many, from sports fans to those with a larger interest in the changing face of global politics and economics. But China has been on the mind of David Rotenberg since 1994, when he accepted a 13-week engagement to put on a production of George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe with the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Rotenberg, artistic director of the Toronto-based Professional Actors Lab, which offers classes in acting, hasn't been back to the city since -- but the trip paid off handsomely from a creative standpoint, spurring him to write five critically acclaimed mystery novels featuring homicide detective Zhong Fong.

Just before the most recent entry, The Golden Mountain Murders, was published in 2005, Rotenberg received a lunch invitation from Penguin Canada publisher David Davidar. As Rotenberg recounted in a recent telephone interview, he thought they'd be discussing a sixth Zhong Fong novel, but the talk veered to something altogether different: "They wanted me to do for Shanghai what James Clavell had done for Hong Kong."

Three-and-a-half years and 1,100 manuscript pages later, just in time for the Beijing Games ("A wonderful bonus," said Davidar), the end result is Shanghai, an epic novel spanning thousands of years with the kind of larger-than-life characters and page-turning qualities that turned Clavell's Tai-Pan (1966) and Shogun (1975), as well as the doorstoppers of James Michener, into perennial bestsellers.

"I'd long admired David's novels and how well he writes about Shanghai and conveys this sense of place," said Davidar, explaining why Rotenberg was his choice for such a gargantuan literary task -- even though the longest of his crime novels is just over one-third the length of Shanghai's hardcover edition. But the kinds of sagas Clavell and Michener wrote have fallen out of fashion, making Shanghai "a risky proposition."

Still, Davidar immediately countered, "A good big book is also a publisher's dream. Readers want books they can take on vacation and become completely absorbed in."

Shanghai is jam-packed with story and adventure, tracing a line from a narwhal tusk carved with possible prophecies in 207 BCE to how the city of Shanghai transformed itself in the mid-1800s in light of the Opium Wars and the arrival of Western immigrants looking for great fortunes. The kernel for this mammoth timeline was Rotenberg's chance discovery of a children's book that mentioned Silas Hordoon, an Iraqi Jew who arrived in Shanghai and soon scandalized the city, first by marrying his Chinese mistress, and then when they adopted almost 40 area orphans.

The Hordoon described in Shanghai, a witness to his father Richard's crippling addiction to opium, and caught between his Jewish roots and his new home's ancient philosophies, is quite a bit different from the real-life version. "[Silas] was much more of a bad guy in reality, someone who would threaten people if they didn't pay the rent on time. But the novel needed a more sympathetic main character, and since there aren't too many details known about him or his life, I had more creative licence."

Blending creative licence and extensive research also allowed Rotenberg to tackle difficult subjects. One of the most horrifying scenes in Shanghai depicts a young girl's stoic reaction to her feet being bound, rooted in verisimilitude from consulting doctors on the precise procedure; Rotenberg also does not shy away from depicting the six-week-long massacre at Nanking.

"I hesitated to write about it for a long, long, time because it is such a large-scale human event. But then I saw a photo exhibit in London about the massacre, where I learned about 18 American missionaries who convinced the Japanese to mark a safe zone in Nanking, and found my way in. At the same time, I wanted to be careful not to portray the Japanese as outright monsters."

While waiting on further reader reactions to Shanghai, as well as additional foreign rights sales beyond Bulgaria, Australia and Russia, Rotenberg is pondering his next literary move. There's that sixth Zhong Fong novel (though the sleuth appears in a cameo role as "a special treat" for long-time fans), and a sequel set in post-Second World War Shanghai contingent on a return visit to the city for more research.

But don't be surprised if Rotenberg's next published work has nothing to do with fiction. A "who's who" of Canadian talent, including Rachel McAdams and Scott Speedman, has studied with Rotenberg over the years, at the Actors Lab and at York University, and, he reveals, "I've been asked by many of them to write about my unique acting approaches. There hasn't been a serious book on acting in years -- and the book is almost done."

2008 Rogers Media Inc.
IDnumber: 200809080035
Edition: Novel Starring A City