Author's Notes: Why I would want to write about the 1930s in the first place
During World War II my Grandpa Lew fought in Italy and North Africa with the First Division of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, but the only detail of his experience that I ever heard about was that a landmine had exploded under his motorcycle, badly injuring him while killing his friend in the sidecar outright. So I was always intrigued by the countless untold adventures of my grizzled, pipe-smoking grandfather when he was a young man, and after he passed away in 1992 I became fascinated with the experiences of his generation, who'd been teenagers in the 1930s and had gone to movies and listened to records and radio and were tuned in to pop culture en masse like no group of people ever had been before. So Empress of Asia is intended as a tribute to my grandparents and the wise-asses they must have been, an idea which prodded me on through the many drafts needed to complete its writing. My Grandpa Frank is still with us, thankfully, and more of a wise-ass than ever.
How Empress of Asia came about
The seeds for the novel were planted in 1997 when Nicole and I went to the museum of the Changi prisoner-of-war camp on the east coast of Singapore. The Japanese had incarcerated 18,000 men there during World War II and it struck me that I could write a really cool historical novel set exclusively in the camp and starring a cross-section of its prisoners from all over the English-speaking world-I could explore the inner workings of that generation be they Canadians, Aussies, Brits or Americans, and to sit them all in a camp with nothing to do but think and talk seemed like a pretty good starting point. But I only had to walk as far as the museum's gift shop to learn that a novel like that had already been written: King Rat by James Clavell. And after more research at home I learned that I couldn't have any Canadian soldiers extolling all of Singapore with the virtues of apple-picking or Granville Street because Canadian infantry had only fought the Japanese at Hong Kong.
There had, however, been Canadians sailors captured in Singapore after the bombing of an evacuation ship called Empress of Asia, which had belonged to the CPR and embarked from Vancouver a year earlier. This presented me with a much broader canvas than that of my original concept, and I soon found myself writing about Harry Winslow growing up in Vernon, British Columbia, putting to sea when the packing house runs out of fruit and hauling his collection of Fats Waller records aboard the Empress early in 1941. Only twenty-five pages of the finished novel are set in Changi Jail but the fact that those scenes are so integral to the story must indicate that my initial idea was rattling around in my brain right to the end.
Grandpa Lew's Army-issue sewing kit, or "housewife," which served as the model for Byrnell's in Pelayaran Camp. Note the three-barred sergeant's stripes -- Byrnell never had those.
Aside from my initial travels in SE Asia and reading a few dozen books, my Empress research also included returning to Thailand in 2001 with another writer, Rick Maddocks, to explore the Death Railway area along the Myanmar border. It's beautiful country, up in the mountains, but at one point two dogs ran up and bit us; we had a tape recorder going just then and you can hear us trying to keep our cool all through it, "Good dog, no, no- Ow! Ow!" As a more sedentary form of research I e-mailed the Joseph Conrad Society UK in hopes of getting information on his grandchildren -- one of them might be the right age to appear in the novel, I thought, in keeping with the "what did your grandfather do?" theme running through it -- and ended up corresponding over several months with Conrad's grandson Philip, who was very generous with his time. They're also very nice at the Singapore National Archives where the staff give out coconut candy.
If that's not background enough
The novel's main characters may be fictional but I tried to make their world as real as possible, which took my research in all kinds of directions -- please follow the links above or below for a whole lot of examples. And I swear you won't hear one word about the tropical malady that I finally had treated at a walk-in clinic in Singapore.
Upon getting to the end of the novel I didn't imagine that many people would relish reading a long list of book titles when they came to the Acknowledgements, so I just thanked the authors in question and left it at that. But if you've read this far maybe you really do want to know which particular book by each of those many writers was most helpful to Empress's composition.
Noel Barber, Sinister Twilight: The Fall of Singapore, 1942; Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Pierre Berton, The Great Depression; Penguin/McClelland & Stewart, 1991.
Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates: Enter the Dragon Lady: From the 1936 Classic Newspaper Adventures Strip; Nostalgia Press, 1975.
Peter Elphick, Singapore: the Pregnable Fortress: A Study in Deception, Discord and Desertion; Coronet Books, 1995.
Raymond Horricks, Marshal Ney: The Romance and the Real; Midas Books, 1982.
C. O. Jennings, An Ocean Without Shores; Hodder & Stoughton, 1950.
Agnes Newton Keith, Three Came Home; Corgi Books, 1973.
Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictoral History, 1819-2000; Archipelago Press, 2000.
Eric Lomax, The Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness; W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Anton Lucas, Local Opposition and Underground Resistance to the Japanese in Java, 1942-1945; Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1986.
Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon; Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1985.
Gordon Sinclair, Cannibal Quest; Doubleday, 1933.
Robert D. Turner, The Pacific Empresses: An Illustrated History of Canadian Pacific's Empress Liners on the Pacific Ocean; Sono Nis Press, 1981.
Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago; Oxford University Press, 1986.
Lavinia Warner & John Sandilands, Women Beyond the Wire: A Story of Prisoners of the Japanese, 1942-1945; Joseph, 1982.