Unrelenting Stress: Jonathan Kos-Read on The Eunuch

WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK

In mainland China ‘Cao Cao’, by which the actor Jonathan Kos-Read is known, is almost a household name. This is because of his roles in over one hundred Chinese films. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, usually plays the part of the foreign love interest or villain and has described himself as the “token white guy.” With such a high profile in the film industry, writing a historical novel about a period of Chinese history that he was passionate about must have been a challenge.

However, he believes that his career in films helped him to write his debut novel The Eunuch (Earnshaw Books, 2022), because, he says, “I spent 20 years as an actor, desperately banging my head against bad scripts. There probably isn’t a better way to learn writing than this. It’s like what Sherlock Holmes said: ‘When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ Same with writing, sort of. Avoid every possible mistake.”

Kos-Read’s interest in street photography may also have impacted his writing, and he describes how he doesn’t think that “one has influenced the other, really. It’s more that I have thought a lot about what makes a story. And that shows up in my photography, in my writing, and in my social media.”

Have the crime and thriller novels that he’s read influenced his style of writing? Two of his favourite novelists are John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith, but he thinks he was “influenced less by their style, than by the way they construct characters,” he continues. “Both create compelling, driven people whose deep motivations come from weakness and fear. That accords with what I see in the world. We like to think people follow their dreams. But most people are just running from their fears. Le Carré and Cruz Smith seem to understand that and so created two of the most famous detectives and spies in both genres – George Smiley and Arkady Renko.”

While studying drama, acting and molecular biology at New York University he also began to learn Mandarin Chinese. He continued to perfect his language skills in China while teaching English and acknowledges that becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese undoubtedly helped him to identify with Chinese culture more closely: “Speaking more than one language allows you to see the complexity of other cultures. Speaking Chinese specifically allowed me to feel comfortable writing a Chinese ‘mindset’. But, in The Eunuch, Chinese isn’t the main language being spoken. Most characters speak in Manchu since the Jin dynasty was Manchurian. That fact is central to the mystery of the novel.”

His debut novel opens in the winter of 1153, when one of the seventeen-year-old emperor’s concubines is murdered. The nineteen-year-old concubine Diao Ju is discovered in an antechamber with the doors locked at either end, and so begins what appears at first glance to be an impossible-to-solve mystery. The eunuch Gett is ordered by the emperor, who initially appears to be the prime suspect, to investigate and to prove his innocence, despite the fact that the emperor could not be prosecuted even if he had killed Diao Ju. Being placed in charge of the investigation is clearly a poisoned chalice that Gett would prefer not to have to drink from.

Kos-Read’s choice of Gett as a pivotal character was not simply because it allowed Gett to communicate more freely with the concubines in the emperor’s harem, but “probably because the idea of a sexless person investigating the murder of a woman whose power and position come from sex felt interesting. He would have to build up his understanding of the case from first principles instead of innate human knowledge.”

Kos-Read’s stage name, Cao Cao, is well-known to many Chinese people, as it is the  name of the penultimate chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty  (c.25–220 AD). However, it was his fascination with history of the Jin (c. 1115–1234) and the Song dynasties (c. 960–1279) that resulted in him immersing himself in the period of constant conflict and war which he used as his novel’s setting.

Kos-Read “grew up in America in the 1980s,” he says. “When you’re a kid of course a lot of what you’re doing is just figuring out how the world works. And that process for me, happened during the Cold War. Two huge countries. Mutually assured destruction. They couldn’t fight openly, so all their conflict was in the shadows, or like JJ Angleton said, in a “wilderness of mirrors”. It’s such a great backdrop for stories! Secrecy! Massive penalties for failure! The conflict between the Jin and the southern Song dynasties was one of the biggest, longest cold wars in Chinese history. Arguably the two most powerful kingdoms in the world faced off across the Yangtze and Huai rivers for even longer than the American and Soviet Cold War. And if you read the history of the period, they went through the same shadowy wars of espionage. They even had the same debates about the ‘Destruction of the World’ if they were ever to fall into the cataclysm of a full-blown war. This unrelenting stress is the driver for everything that happens in the novel.”

Kos-Read’s varied achievements include being one of those chosen to carry the Olympic torch on the way to the stadium during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and also being a successful male model. When asked whether the concubines of the period might be similar to the supermodels of today, whose bodies and faces may sometimes be compared to beautiful ornaments like Ming vases, and whether he thought that they were simply sex slaves or were sometimes chosen as intelligent companions for their wit and intelligence, he answered with a perfect cliff-hanger reply: “That’s a question addressed in the book. In fact, it’s a core part of the mystery. So, I won’t spoil it.”

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate University Fellow and ‘a creative enabler’. She is a prize-winning short story writer who facilitates creative writing workshops. She edits HNR‘s New Voices column.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 101 (August 2022)


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