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Thriller set in Chengdu, China (“the city where the sun never shines”)

8th November 2015

Half the World Away by Cath Staincliffe, thriller set in Chengdu, China.

Every parent’s nightmare…..IMG_2235

Lorelei (Lori) heads off to South East Asia for a backpacking adventure – and ends up in China. It’s not hard for her mother Jo and stepfather Nick to keep in touch in the era of the internet, she regularly blogs about her travels and experiences, so everyone can follow her journey. A familiar family scenario.

But soon the posts dry up, causing a ripple of concern initially but, hey, these young folk get distracted and involved in what they are doing. It’s normal. But as days turn into a couple of weeks, the anxiety rises and Jo turns from Nick to Tom, Lori’s biological father. This of course adds strain to the floundering relationship between Jo and Nick…

river viewing tower 10-1Together, Tom and Jo decide they must set out for Chengdu (pronounced Chungdu) in Sizuan Province, China, where Lori had settled for a stint of teaching. So they head off from Manchester on KLM and pop up in hugely unfamiliar territory, where the sights, sounds and smells compound their unease. They have solid support and advice from Missing Overseas but the input on the ground is not effusive or really that engaged. Our man in Chengdu, the consul Peter Dunne, is there to help the parents though the formalities and it is clear that the the local police force doesn’t want to see the image of their city tarnished by anything murky or untoward. Resolve and perseverance, really, are the only qualities that are carrying Tom and Jo along, and the whole process feels frustratingly slow. The investigation crawls and this is palpable, the parents largely have to fall back on their own resources to get to the bottom of what has been going on; their daughter is clearly now a missing person.

hot pot 2-1It is quite sobering to realise that people go missing abroad sufficiently often for charities to be established in order to help locate them and support families and friends back home. Cath talked to the Lucie Blackman Trust (formerly Missing Abroad) when she was researching the book. It is however all too clear that the wheels of bureaucracy run excruciatingly slowly in real life – and in the story Jo and Tom clearly have to push as hard as they can to find out the fate of their missing daughter.

Green Ram Temple-1Chengdu provides a superb, hot and chili soaked backdrop to the heart stopping search for Lori, and clearly Cath renders it as a vibrant and at times oppressive place – the people mill as the parents endeavour to crack through the wall of foreign-ness with which they are confronted… feeding carp with baby bottles, or discovering that 20% of the world’s computers are made there, or bike riders wearing their jackets back to front….

A gripping read.

And we were curious to know how Cath came to choose her subject matter and setting and find out a little more about her writing. Over to the author…. enjoy!

Tina for the TripFiction Team

TF: In recent times, there have been several cases of people going missing abroad, each has captured the attention of the home audience in very different ways. What made you decide to choose this as the subject for Half the World Away?

CS: A number of things came together and resulted in that decision. My recent novels examine situations where an ordinary family are plunged into a nightmare; stories that could happen to anyone – so I knew this book would share that premise. After 21 titles all set in Manchester, my publishers were keen to see me spread my wings so I was looking for a new setting. And my oldest son lives in China. I could imagine how horrendous it would be if one day he just ‘vanished’.

TF: You have brought together several strands as part of the patchwork family, and how pressures can crack open relationships, also evident in your other work. Your interest in human relationships is very evident. Is this something that has always been with you?

CS: I think so. For me stories are about characters more than anything else. That’s what fascinates me most. How people relate to each other or cope with challenges. Also I’m adopted so perhaps that has influenced my interest in relationships and how they contribute to our identity and sense of self.

plaque 2TF: As you know, TripFiction’s remit is to find and collate books that really transport the reader to a given location. For Half the World Away, you chose Chengdu in China, which figures very strongly in the book. How did you decide on that particular country and city for the plot? And how did you go about researching?

CS: My son lives in Chengdu so it seemed obvious to set it there and to go and stay with him to do the research. He helped me a great deal with questions I had about the city and living there as a foreigner and Chinese life. I carried notebooks to document everything I saw and heard, I also recorded soundscapes and took lots of photographs. It was invaluable. And all the while I thought about what it would be like to be there as a mother desperately searching for her missing daughter.

TF: You have written both books and TV series and more. What are the aspects of your professional writing life that you most enjoy?

35 storey blocks 10CS: Writing itself – the process of getting a story down on paper never fails to give me a buzz. It can be hard but I always find it rewarding. I just love making stuff up, acting out adventures in my head. My favourite writing is prose which is very much me on my own with my idea rather than screenwriting which is much more collaborative. I also get a lot of pleasure from meeting readers and talking about books.

TF: What are you working on at the moment and will location form an important backdrop?

CS: I think location is always important in a story, I love to read about different settings and environments. The thriller I’m writing at the moment, The Silence Between Breaths, is set in the UK on a train, so it is an enclosed and very claustrophobic environment.

TF: What books do you have on your current TBR pile? And what have you read this year that has given you particular pleasure?

CS: My TBR pile is enormous but includes A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, South of Darkness by John Marsden, The Quality Of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and The Fever by Megan Abbott.

This year I’ve read and really enjoyed dozens of book including The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey, Vixen by Rosie Garland, How To Be Both by Ali Smith, All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber, Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Eyrie by Tim Winton and The Cartel by Don Winslow.

TF: Any travel trips for China that you would like to share?

CS: Always take toilet paper out with you. Everywhere.

river 10Learn a few phrases of Mandarin, people will be in stitches hearing you mangle the language but they appreciate the effort.

An English-Chinese Dictionary app on your phone can be really helpful when people haven’t got a clue what you are on about – you can show them the translation.

Expect people, especially children, to try out their English on you at every opportunity, shouting ‘Good morning’ and ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you’ in the street and make sure to respond. Smiles all round.

Try the street food in the little cafes away from the tourist areas – pick those with pictures on the walls so you can point to them and you’ve a chance of ordering something you recognise. Embrace the Sichuan pepper.

And, as Lori says in her blog in Half The World Away: Don’t drink the water. Or use it to brush your teeth, or wash your salad. Ever!

(The photos of Chengdu are the author’s own)

You can follow Cath on Twitter and via her website.

Come and connect with the Team at TripFiction via social media: TwitterFacebook and Pinterest and when we have some interesting photos we can sometimes be found over on Instagram too. And for more books set in China, click here.

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