The Barbarian Who Stayed For Tea (Author Interview)

The Barbarian Who Stayed For Tea looks like an exciting historical fiction story.  Can you tell us a little about it?

Sure. The novel takes place in Taipei in 1895. It follows James Burnaby, a down-on-his-luck, ex-barrow boy from the East End of London who is trying to make a living as a tea trader in the far-off land of Formosa (Taiwan). He is faced with numerous challenges, chief among them navigating the tricky waters of the alien world around him and the well-heeled British trading elite who still view his sudden arrival on the island ten years ago with immense suspicion.

Just as it seems his fortunes are going to take a turn for the better, the new life he has created for himself is thrown into chaos as the Sino-Japanese War lands directly on his doorstep.

The inspiration from this novel came from my great, great, grandfather who was a British merchant trader in Taiwan (Formosa) during the time the story takes place (1895). A few years back, my mother came across some old journals he had written during this time and shared them with me. Holding them in my hands and hearing first hand about his experiences and adventures was exhilarating -  both as a history buff and a writer. I knew there was a story to tell and I couldn’t wait to start researching the period more.

What can you tell us about James Burnaby?

Growing up in London, it wasn’t too difficult for me to get inside the head of James Burnaby, the main protagonist. The times may have changed but the London mentality, especially in the East End hasn’t really changed that much! He is a (mostly) likeable individual who always attempts to make the best of any situation, no matter how often life beats him down. His main strengths are his resilience and his sense of humour which sustains him during even the bleakest of times.  The use of humour as a coping mechanism is something I have often drawn on in my life.

What inspired you when writing The Barbarian Who Stayed For Tea?   

Obviously my great, great grandfather was my biggest inspiration but I was also inspired by the
fact that this was such a little known about and exciting part of history that I felt compelled to write about it. The main theme of the book – namely that people, regardless where they are from, have a tendency to consider anyone different from them “less civilised” due to a very individual and subjective criteria is as true today as it was back then.

Did anything stick out as particularly challenging when writing The Barbarian Who Stayed For Tea?

I spent seven years of my life writing this book. Many hours were spent hunched over desks in libraries and I even spent three months with a tea farmer in the Alishan mountains in order to gain a better local perspective of this period . In the end, I had so much exciting material to complement my great, great grandfather’s journal, it was a real challenge to whittle it down to the most important points.

What do you like to do when not writing?

I like spending time with my two kids – Mia-Alexandra who is 3 years old and my son Caspar who is 7 months old. They can be a handful at times but I love them to bits. Aside from that, I love travelling and trying lots of different cuisine. 

Where can readers find out more about your work?

This is the only book I’ve written so far but I have plenty of ideas for new books. At the moment though, I’m concentrating on getting the word out about my novel as much as possible! I hope to put pen to paper very soon and produce some more novels.