The Backstory: FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA
About 6 years ago, an ex-boyfriend said to me, “I heard one guy stole tea from China, you should look into that…”
It turns out that “one guy” was Victorian Plant Hunter, Robert Fortune. He not only stole tea from China, he fought off pirates while he was doing it. He traveled dressed in Chinese clothing – it was cultural transvestitism. He succeeded at the single greatest act of industrial espionage in the history of the world. How could I not write a book about that?
For the next 3 years or so, I traveled back and forth to London, to China and India, to research the greatest corporate theft in the history of mankind.
I had some experience in all places: I’d lived in Hong Kong for a few years right out of college. It was the place I went broke while backpacking, so I stayed and hung out a shingle as a journalist. I was a native English speaker with a fancy degree, somehow people believed me when I called myself a writer. After 2 years of filing stories on the British Handover to China, I had the credentials to convince editors in New York that I was a total expert, an old China Hand. This was in no way true, but that hardly mattered.
In India, I’d been a wayward backpacker for six months after leaving Hong Kong, filing a few stories here and there, meeting a few correspondents along the way, collecting rare books for an eccentric bazillionaire. I loved India – still do – I love it madly. To my editors on FATTIC, I made the claim that I was an India Expert, and they were ready to believe me when I held forth on India under the Raj, though such a place had not existed in 60 years.
I had spent time as an undergraduate in Britain so returning to London’s British Library was a kind of homecoming – this time, the research I was doing *mattered*. It wasn’t about exams. I would get to the library the minute it opened, and in the evening move from reading room to reading room as each one shut down for the night. I wouldn’t eat, because that would mean precious time away from the original documents.
I remember clearly the moment I discovered what I think of as the Act II pinnacle – when Fortune’s tea seeds meet East India Company bureaucrats. At that moment, the British Library was the center of the universe. It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever known as a writer.
Over time, it was apparent that it wasn’t enough to just have a tasty subject, I needed a finely honed narrative, a ticking clock, a page turner. My agent and I went through draft after draft of the outline to make sure there was always tension, always a sense that everything – all the tea in China – was on the line. Who knew that gardening, flowers and Victorian travel were actually about crises of international security and the commercial fate of nations?
Researching in China, I lucked into the greatest translator any author has ever had, a former Chinese official who took a gentleman’s interest in the story. This man knew every imaginable thing about China and Chinese history, where the country was going today and what threads of the past were knitted to this point. I tried to absorb everything. I read non-stop. I spent months asking stupid questions waiting for him to gently correct my ignorance. For All the Tea in China could not have happened without his extraordinary generosity.
So the backstory boils down to a few pedestrian things: a good ex-boyfriend, some travel luck, going broke at the right time, a great agent, an equally marvelous translator, an OCD approach to research, 3 solid years in pyjamas trying to make bad sentences better, a desire to make a good story into a page-turner, and a senseless dedication to the impossible.
I think I did ok.
Sarah Rose – Mumbai, India, August 2010