'Mr Chen's Emporium': An Aladdin’s Cave

Items  from Emporium 

 

As someone who loves to shop, I’ve always been fascinated by the word ‘emporium’. An emporium isn’t just an ordinary shop – it’s storehouse of possibilities, a veritable Aladdin’s cave filled with treasures. That’s why I was thrilled when I first saw the finished cover of ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, featuring the building itself, a mix of Oriental and European, with its cast-iron dragon brackets, Chinese-red doors and classical urns perched on the traditional Victorian-style parapet. Through the open doorway I could glimpse an array of wondrous wares, vases, plates, jars, figurines and silks, all highlighted in gold. It was exactly as I’d pictured it.

 

The notion of an emporium gave me my male protagonist – the shop’s owner, a man who would be articulate, dignified, entrepreneurial and, of course, handsome. Someone with echoes of the revered historical figure, Quong Tart, who, among his many achievements, ran the famous tearooms in the Queen Victoria Market Building. I tried many different names before I actually decided on ‘Charles Chen’. Instantly a picture of him formed in my imagination, dressed in a brightly coloured silk waistcoat, embroidered with dragonflies. I have to confess that I fell in love with him right from the start. As the French say, it was a coup de foudre.

 

Once I had the metaphor about the ‘Aladdin’s cave’, I just knew I had to weave Aladdin into the storyline in some way or another. I wasn’t interested in the familiar character from modern-day books and films. No, I wanted the original Aladdin from Antoine Galland’s eighteenth-century French fairytale, part of his Mille et une nuits translated into English as The Arabian Nights or A Thousand and One Nights. (Nobody knows for sure whether the Aladdin story actually had Arabic origins, as was the case with the other tales in the collection, or if it was invented by Galland himself.)

 

When I found the old French text on the internet, I scrolled down the first page, expecting to be put off by the archaic language. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that it was both charming and remarkably easy to read. (Thank goodness for those three years of French I did at uni.) I wasn’t sure how I would thread the eighteenth-century Aladdin into my own story, and I certainly didn’t want the fairytale allusions to seem contrived, so I just started writing and let Aladdin himself lead the way. Sometimes there are parallels between Aladdin and Charles; at other times their lives take very different directions. But no more details here – I don’t want to spoil it for you!

 

Deborah O’Brien
September 2012

 

 


 

 


fbook icon 60Old-fashioned Heroes

 

Gregory Peck - Image courtesy of Wikipedia - Public Domain


In these days of dark and deeply flawed protagonists, you don’t find too many old-fashioned heroes in fiction any more. I’m not necessarily referring to dashing swashbucklers or ruggedly handsome cowboys, although my concept of a hero can certainly encompass a good-looking one.

   What I’m thinking of is an upholder of justice, a thoroughly decent person, someone you know will stand up and be counted, even though it might involve some sacrifice along the way. You’ll notice that I’ve used the word ‘person’. By heroes, I also mean heroines, but for now I’ll focus on the heroic male protagonist.

My favourite fictional hero is Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Anyone who’s seen the movie will no doubt visualise him as Gregory Peck, tall, square-jawed and gentle, yet assertive when he needs to be. Atticus is a man of great compassion, not afraid to show his vulnerability, particularly when it comes to his love for his children.

Another favourite of mine (who just happens to be a cowboy) is Tom Booker from Nicholas Evans’ novel, ‘The Horse Whisperer’. He’s kind, intuitive and manly – the perfect ‘metrosexual’, except that he lives in far-flung Montana, not the city. The character of Tom Booker is now so enmeshed in my mind with Robert Redford’s performance in the film that I’m a little biased about this one. But I remember thinking Tom Booker was the kind of hero I’d like to see more often in books.

In my own small way, I’ve tried to create an old-fashioned hero in the person of Charles Chen. I wanted him to be a man of strong convictions without being self-righteous. I fell in love with him at the same time Amy did. I’m not sure that it was a wise thing for an author to do. Feeling that way probably clouded my judgment about him. Then again, I couldn’t help myself! I’ll be interested to hear what readers think of Charles. Let me know your thoughts.

Deborah O'Brien

September, 2012

 


fbook icon 60Happy Endings?

  

I have a love-hate relationship with happy endings. Whenever I watch a movie, I’ll be secretly hoping that the leads will fall in love and live happily ever after. Yet when the happy ending finally comes, I’ll condemn it as a cliché and an easy way out.

Do you remember the film, ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’? In the last few minutes of that movie, I was thrilled to see the dashing Richard Gere carry Debra Winger out of the factory and off to happy-ever-after-land, yet I also cringed at what seemed like a facile and stereotypical denouement. What does that make me? A sugar-coated cynic? Probably.

I blame it on fairytales. As a child, I would sigh dreamily at the happy endings, even though part of me (the nascent cynic) would also wonder why things, which had gone so badly all through the story, suddenly came right at the very last moment. Worse still, the ending invariably resulted in the demise or banishment of the most intriguing character – the villainous queen, the evil sorcerer or the wicked witch.

I find it hard to write happy endings, but I don’t want to write something dark or devastating either. So I find myself hinting at things, not tying up all the threads, leaving room for the reader to make their own judgments on what might happen to the characters in the future. You would expect readers to be cranky with me for doing that, but generally they’re not. Why are they so charitable? I think it’s because we all recognise that life is predicated on unknowns. None of us can foresee how things will play out. We wait. We hope. We fantasise. But we never know for sure. And they’re the type of endings that I like to write.

Deborah O'Brien

September, 2012

 

 


Why Is a Book Like a TARDIS?

 

 

‘Why is a book like a TARDIS?’ my husband asked me one day as we sat in our local café, drinking coffee. From a man who’s never been a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, it was a very odd question.

At first I thought it must have been a riddle he’d heard somewhere. While I was pondering the source of the question, he proceeded to answer it for me:

‘Because it’s bigger on the inside than the outside.’

Being both a writer and a ‘Doctor Who’ aficionado, I was delighted with the aptness of the metaphor. Just like the Doctor’s blue police box, a small paperback book can offer huge possibilities. It's only a matter of stepping inside. But what I like best about the TARDIS imagery is the concept of the Author as Time Lord, possessing the power to transport his or her ‘companions’ to strange and exotic worlds. Not only that, the Time Lord … sorry, Author can shift the reader back and forth between time periods with a blank line, a little icon, a change of font or the words ‘now’ or ‘then’. I do it all the time!

And speaking of ‘Doctor Who’, do you have a favourite Doctor? Mine is Tom Baker. I also like the current incarnation, Matt Smith, for his youthful exuberance and quirky charm. Let’s hope he has a long incumbency, but when his time is up, who do you think would make a good successor? I’ve always fancied Alan Rickman. His golden syrup voice would be perfect. Any other suitable candidates? 

Deborah O’Brien

September, 2012

 


fbook icon 60An Emporium by Any Other Name …
What’s in a Title?

front mr chen web thumb

Some years ago, when I began writing MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM, which is partly set in the Gold-Rush era and partly in the present day, I considered calling it Days of Gold, a phrase from the classic Henry Lawson poem, ‘The Roaring Days’. I’ve always loved literary references in titles. I think it’s because they impart a certain gravitas, not to mention a dash of magic. There are endless examples, of course, but among the best are Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past, an allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 30’, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (quoting Gray) and the recent Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger referencing Blake).

Even now, whenever I start up my laptop, I can’t help smiling at the file named ‘Days of Gold.doc’, which I’ve never bothered to delete. For a few weeks it served as the working title of my novel, until a quick search of the net revealed a couple of existing books with the same name. Damn! I really wanted something unique. Then it struck me that the centrepiece of my story wasn’t the Gold Rush at all. The real star was Charles Chen’s emporium, an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, whose presence would run right through the narrative as a potent force in the lives of the two female protagonists.

Much later, when I happened to mention the early title to my agent, she said that although it was worthy enough, it wouldn’t have grabbed her attention. And, of course, she was right. If my book had remained as ‘Days of Gold’, I might still be looking for an agent, not to mention a publisher!

Speaking of titles, here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order. By the way, not only are the titles wonderful, so are the books themselves. You’ll notice there are two from Mr Dickens, that doyen of memorable titles.

War and Peace

Atonement

Where the Wild Things Are

The Slap

Sons and Lovers

The Book Thief

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

A Tale of Two Cities

Gossip from the Forest

Wuthering Heights

Great Expectations

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Do you have your own favourites? Let us know. 

Deborah O'Brien

August, 2012