Click logo above to see more about Barckmann's fiction

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Origin Story of Farewell the Dragon



Farewell the Dragon is one of the backstories of the SwiftPad Series. The first novel in the series is set some 30 years before the rise of SwiftPadFarewell the Dragon is not about the alt-history of  the most pervasive and powerful social media conglomerate in the world.  But this novel does introduce a recurring and  important character in the SwiftPad Trilogy. Nathan Schuette, the narrator of Farewell the Dragon is a drunken semi-lothario and sometime writer and his influence on the future of our alt-history will be pervasive.  This is the origin story of how the novel Farewell the Dragon came to be.

How I came to Xian China in the mid-80s, and my real life experiences there, I have told elsewhere -  

But to actually write Farewell the Dragon required some gentle prodding. it  took a friend to push me over the edge and really do it -  to really follow my teenage dreams and really be a writer. 

Three months after arriving in China, I met Jim Barry at a party/banquet  in downtown Xian.  We both were hitting the pre-dinner drinks more than the other foreign teachers, and experts who had been invited by the City of Xian, and I told Jim I liked to write and was thinking about a novel about China. Instead of nodding, and politely changing the subject as most would do when I was jabbering about my unfulfilled ambitions, Jim convinced me that night that I had to do it, that I had to take it seriously, that I had to start writing that “novel”. I doubt I would have done it if I hadn’t had that conversation. But Jim had an affect on me, or maybe it was the Chinese
baijiu, the white lightning made of sorghum and other secret ingredients that filled me with a purpose that had been missing up to that point.  Jim and I are still good friends, 35 years later, and he will always be one of my favorite people in the world, even when we (frequently) disagree.   
The banquet was put on for foreign teachers by the local government, probably because the national government told them to put it in the budget.   Banquets honoring foreign guests are ancient traditions in the Middle Kingdom. Compared to Beijing, Xian is a relative backwater, if a city of 12 million, (in 1985, only 1.5 million) can be considered such.  But Xian, the ancient city of Chang’An, the Tang dynasty capital, had older traditions than the “new” capital of Beijing and was more hospitable in some ways. 
Jim was from Philly, and because I grew up in South Jersey, we immediately hit it off. In the mid-80s China had to be the most interesting place in the world, because it was changing so fast. It had only been 6 or 7 years away since the end of the Cultural Revolution.   For Chinese people, just being in the same room with foreigners was an astonishing experience. It made us (mostly white foreigners from North America, Oceania and Europe) into celebrities, gawked at wherever we went, listened to raptly even when the listeners didn’t know English, always stared at in every public moment of our lives.  In our alcoholic glow both Jim and I saw that we saw things much the same way; that we were first hand witnesses to the mutual rediscovery of two wildly different cultures and that it was a Big Story.  While ordinary Chinese were still discouraged from getting too close to us, still, there was much that we saw, much that could not be hidden from us.  From that perspective we both understood we were in on the beginning of a new chapter of history. 
Jim was a real journalist, and there was much to report. When told by a student about the meat cleaver murder of a Muslim by a Han Chinese at a nearby market, Jim  went to work the way any western journalist would. Not taking no for an answer, he pushed the limits of information freedom, and probably prodded the Chinese authorities to come to decisions that still stand about just how much information they would allow out. Jim’s time as an English teacher came to an end.  
Jim’s stories about the subsequent demonstrations by the large Xian Muslim population against the failure of local police to follow up and make an arrest for the murder fueled the public anger. The demonstrations in front of the ancient Xian Mosque became exponentially bigger with each story Jim filed, first with Reuters, then VOA and the other news services.  Chinese still listened to VOA on the radio in much the way portrayed in 1950’s American newsreels, secretly away from the ears of the local communist neighborhood committee ladies who kept an eye on people. 
Finally, in order to end the daily radio reports from coming into the homes of the local Muslims, Jim and his wife were escorted out of China.  
He “willed” me his contacts with Reuters in Beijing, but the only story I filed was spiked. It reported the accidental deaths of nearly thirty people, whose bodies I witnessed being brought to the medical school where I taught.  The local police  denied it ever happened. A couple of months later, I was discovered to be the source of the report, and was given the choice of staying in China and promising to not report anymore or being deported. I chose to stay. I was not a real reporter, but thanks to Jim’s prodding I was still determined to write the China novel.
Jim himself went on to bigger things, reporting on some of the most compelling stories of our lifetime: The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, and an encounter with Osama himself, and later interviewing John Gotti at the height of his power. He produced highly praised documentaries about the Philly mob (A&E’s Mobfathers and others) and has won numerous awards for reporting and producing. 
I finally returned to the US two years later, and became a computer systems technologist. My wife Mary and I suddenly had a newborn son, and I was in a new phase of life. But I didn’t forget China.  Over the next fifteen years, I continued to hone the story I started in Xian, finally in 2005 “self-publishing” (actually “vanity publishing” as my amateurish queries to literary agents and publishers went unanswered) Farewell the Dragon.     
I have republished it twice, once for an editorial upgrade, (with critical help from the brilliant literary editor Linda Franklin), and once to finally end my dependence on “vanity publishers”.  I founded  “Barckwords Publishing” and am putting out all my long fiction (three, soon four novels) with IngramSpark as a distributor.
Farewell the Dragon (FTD)is a first person account of a fictional murder investigation in Beijing.  But because the narrator and main character of FTD shows up and plays a big part in “The SwiftPad Trilogy” an alt-history our current time, it might be required reading for those who want to know the complete backstory of the SwiftPad Series. So stay tuned.