Debut author Daniel Nieh’s Beijing Payback is an international thriller, a meditation on grief and an action-packed coming-of-age story. College student Victor Li and his sister, Jules, are shattered by their father’s murder. But they’ve only just begun to mourn when they learn the shocking truth about their dad’s past: He wasn’t just the successful owner of three Chinese restaurants. Rather, he’d been a member of a global crime organization for decades, and he wants vengeance from beyond the grave.
We talked to Nieh about the genesis of the book, how his other careers have influenced his writing and the power of secrets.
At the very beginning of Beijing Payback, you include a Note on Language to help readers understand who’s speaking which language when, pronunciations, etc.—an extension, presumably, of your work as a Chinese-English translator. After serving as a conduit for communication among others, did sharing your own stories directly with readers seem like a natural next step for you? Via your translation work, are there things you’ve learned about yourself, about others, about communicating, that were particularly important to your writing?
Translation is great writing practice, because it requires being sensitive to idiom and turn of phrase. But the decision to write Beijing Payback in both English and Chinese stems less from my work as a translator and more from my experience as an American. In our incredibly diverse country, there are many places where another language is just as important as English, and the starting point of this book, the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, is one of them. In the same way that Junot Díaz and Cormac McCarthy have used Spanish in their novels to demonstrate the fluidity in which some Americans switch between the two, I wanted to show how Victor Li’s American family spans two languages.
Your work as a model is another way to convey messages, emotions and artistic intentions. How do you think your aptitude for such performance might inform your work as an author (not just writing, but doing readings, events, etc.)?
Being a model means facing the scrutiny of others and the insecurities of one’s self all the time. I remember when I first learned how to walk for a fashion show from one of my bookers at my agency in Beijing. In the dark hallway between half-built offices, he showed me how, throwing his head back and walking strong and straight without looking around—he was short, with long, flowing hair, and his self-chosen English name was Fab. He said there were two keys to success on the catwalk: being relaxed and being confident. As a model, failure is your friend. If you book 10% of the jobs you go to castings for, you’re doing great. Those experiences are a reason why I was able to complete a manuscript in the first place: I’m not afraid of failure, my own imperfections or the judgments of others.
“Being a model means facing the scrutiny of others and the insecurities of one’s self all the time. . . . I’m not afraid of failure, my own imperfections or the judgments of others.”
Victor Li plays basketball in college. Even though he’s not likely to make the sport a profession like his super-talented best friend Andre, he practices, plays and considers it a defining aspect of his life. What about his dedication to basketball, and the way he feels about the sport, helps him handle what happens when his life goes haywire? You’ve played basketball, too—what does the sport mean to you?
Like Victor, I was obsessed with basketball as a teenager and a young adult. I started out as an uncoordinated bench warmer, but eventually I became pretty good. The stuff people say about sports is true: You learn the value of concentration and perseverance. You achieve flow states. At a time when I didn’t know how to talk to girls or wear my pants, I could at least shut down the other team’s best scorer and then make a reverse layup on the fast break. In other words, basketball gave me my first taste of mastery, which is an incredibly engaging sensation. I later achieved mastery in the Chinese language and am working on achieving it in storytelling and prose.
Speaking of Victor’s life going haywire, the revelation that his recently murdered dad, Vincent, was not just a beloved restaurateur but also a founding member of a Chinese crime syndicate is shocking, to say the least! And a great way to kick off a series of ever-wilder adventures. Is the notion that we all have secrets something that strikes a chord with you and makes you want to explore it in fiction? Are you good at keeping secrets, or sensing when someone has one?
I’m terrible at keeping secrets! I love to converse and share with people, and to talk about people, because people are so interesting. I’m working on becoming less of a gossip. So this loquaciousness is a way in which I’m different from Victor and Vincent Li. I’m interested in the secrets that immigrant parents might try to separate from their new American lives—including their new American children. My father never speaks much about his life before he arrived in the United States on a refugee visa. Perhaps they aren’t fond memories. That’s the case with Vincent Li, who grew up in the Communist China that my father escaped. He wants to look forward, not backward. He doesn’t want his children to know what he’s done to make their lives possible.
“I’m interested in the secrets that immigrant parents might try to separate from their new American lives—including their new American children.”
Victor, Jules and Victor’s friends are all in their early 20s. What is it about that life stage that compelled you to choose it for Beijing Payback’s central characters?
My understanding of the world opened up when I went to college and then to China. I learned that my privileged life was just one kind of life out there, and in fact, it was only possible because, elsewhere, people were working incredibly hard for very little pay. Those years are also the heart of that second phase of the child-parent relationship, when we have stopped idolizing our parents and started resenting them. There’s a third phase as well, when we learn how to appreciate our parents for who they really are. But the second phase is fascinating because it’s the time in which we define ourselves in contrast to the people who shaped us.
The desire for revenge, or at least comeuppance, is something we all experience, some much more intensely or dramatically than others. The Li family’s experience is certainly intense and dramatic! What do you think about revenge and the way it can intersect with grief or regret? Do you think Victor’s quest was ultimately a good or bad decision? Have you ever had the urge for retribution? Do any favorite revenge-themed stories inspire you?
I think we all have some experience of those urges, but they aren’t appealing to me. I don’t believe in the concept of “just desserts.” Without spoiling anything, I will say that this story is more about empathizing with people who do bad things—even to you or your family—than about deriving satisfaction from harming them. And the stories that inspired me—such as Motherless Brooklyn and Rule of the Bone—are also stories of confused young men setting out with a certain goal, being disappointed and growing up in the process.
The action scenes are exciting and suspenseful, and Victor’s what-the-hell-is-going-on asides inject some fun, too. Was crafting the action scenes a different process for you, versus writing scenes that were more focused on dialogue, inner monologue, etc.? Did you do anything to help visualize how those scenes might look and feel?
It’s hard to know how much detail to give. “He lifted his left foot, shifted his weight, raised his right hand”—snore. I eventually realized that I hold my breath when I read action scenes. I want to skip to the bottom, to the next set of quotation marks, and see how things turn out. So when I’m writing action, I try to avoid clichés and make it so the prose is too interesting to skim over. And I put myself in Victor’s shoes—if I were in a Beijing skyscraper at age 22 and bullets were whizzing by my head, what would I be focused on? In this way, the action is also character development: We see that Victor is freaking out in a relatable way, just like we would be, but at the same time, he’s skilled and resourceful, and he never loses his sense of humor.
Victor and Jules have to grapple not only with a host of new information about their father but also with how they feel about the privileges and safety they enjoyed even as Vincent’s crime syndicate caused others so much pain. What about the notion of the past being able to upend the present intrigues you? Do you think present-day beneficiaries owe something to those who were harmed in the past?
Every part of the United States is built upon the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants, many of whom crawled over corpses just to get into the country. The peaceful suburb where Victor grows up is no exception. I chose San Dimas because it’s the setting of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which is really a story about being oblivious to history. The globalized moment we live in is a truly bizarre pastiche that only seems mundane if we’re as oblivious as Bill and Ted. We drive Japanese cars, eat Mexican produce, shave our bodies with German razors and listen to music created by the descendants of African slaves. We live on stolen land. We live within a bloody history, and it’s still unfolding, even though the bleeding mostly occurs out of sight of those who have benefited the most.
At the end of the book (no spoilers here!), it feels like, just maybe, Victor’s story hasn’t been fully told just yet. Do you indeed have plans to continue his adventures? If so, any preliminary thoughts you want to share about that—or other writerly things you’ve got coming up?
I have always envisioned Victor’s story as a three-book epic. Rather than repeating a mystery formula, these books will show his evolution. I just spent six months overseas, researching the sequel. I won’t say where, but I will say that the main language spoken there is neither Chinese nor English.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Beijing Payback.
Author photo by Steven Patenaude