A Canadian freelance writer from Saskatchewan, Joe Henley has called Taipei home since graduating from journalism school in 2005. He is also a metal/punk musician and has written extensively about the music scene in Asia. His first novel, a thriller set in Taiwan called Sons of the Republic, was published in 2014 (reviewed on Bookish here). His second novel, Bu San Bu Si, a gritty look at the underground music scene in Taipei, is due out in April 2017.
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Both Sons of the Republic and Bu San Bu Si are notable for not having Westerner characters. Was this a conscious decision?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision, per se. I mean, I obviously do plan out my novels, to a certain extent, or at least have a solid idea of where I want the story to go even if I don’t have every little detail plotted. But the characters I’ve introduced in my first two novels – I wasn’t really factoring in the idea that I have to have a Western lead or even a Western supporting character just because I’m a Western writer. A Western character, in my opinion, would have felt tacked on or disingenuous to the story. I wanted everything to ring as true to life as possible, and did my best in representing those characters with whom I don’t share a racial or a cultural background as accurately and sensitively as possible by being meticulous in my research and engaged in the Taipei community, the culture, and with my friends and family here. In that sense I think I’ve treated those characters with an even greater reverence that I might have given Western characters of which I might have made more broad assumptions based on a subconscious feeling of familiarity. I wasn’t sneering at the culture or the history at all, but rather striving to treat it with the utmost respect.
What did you learn writing your first novel?
I suppose I learned how to be more patient. I’ll be honest and say that I was in a hurry when I wrote that one. I quit my job to write full-time when I began, and I was somewhat frantically trying to prove to myself, and to a certain extent others, that I was a real writer; that I could get published and that I do have the necessary skills and grit to make this happen and to tell compelling stories. But the process of getting it done, getting it published, and then having it out there in the world for people to read and review, that taught me the importance of going slowly, to take my time and have more respect both for myself and the art of writing itself.
What was the inspiration for Bu San Bu Si?
I’ve been playing in metal and punk bands in Taipei for over a decade now, and in that time I’ve gotten to know a lot of characters from the scene quite well from either being band mates with them or playing shows alongside their bands, from going to band practice with Taiwanese and attending shows with them on almost a weekly basis and getting to know promoters and fans, venue managers and owners, event staff. Everyone from top to bottom in the underground scene. Metal heads and punks in Taiwan, and even musicians in general, I’ve noticed over the years, do struggle to a certain extent to reconcile their chosen identity within a subculture that is greatly at odds with all things traditionally Taiwanese with those values that, to varying degrees, are hammered into them straight out of the womb. In a way they are pulled back and forth between the strong opposing forces of conformity, which factors greatly into life for many Taiwanese, and the rebellion of punk and metal music. I thought it would be interesting for a foreign readership to get a view of what it’s like to be an outsider in a culture that counts following the flock and being a filial son or daughter among the most stolid pillars of society.
What does Bu San Bu Si mean? Why did you choose it as a title?
It means “Not Three Not Four.” I’m not sure exactly when or how I came across it, but I likely heard it from my wife, whom I depend on quite a lot when writing about Taiwan, pestering her constantly with questions about Taiwanese cultural nuances. I chose it as a title because it has been used at times by the older generation of Taiwanese to refer to those who don’t fit the mold, so to speak, which is one of the main themes of the book.
Can you tell us something about Xiao Hei, the central character of Bu San Bu Si?
Xiao Hei, on the surface of him, probably comes across as unlikable or irredeemable. He’s a drunk. A womanizer. Lazy. Always looking for shortcuts. But he’s a product of his environment. A child of an alcoholic mother who herself comes from a broken family. In a way, he’s a victim, but one who seems to relish in that role and use it as something of a crutch. He’s also a hypocrite, which we all are to some degree or another, whether we admit it or not. He longs for the stereotypical punk street cred, which involves living fast, dying young, and leaving behind a beautifully emaciated corpse, and yet there is a very large part of him that also lusts for the more traditional version of fame and all the glorious trappings therein. There’s a lot of inner conflict and turmoil in Xiao Hei, which is what I believe makes him a compelling character.
What were the greatest challenges writing Bu San Bu Si?
The biggest challenge was something we talked about earlier, which is the fact that the novel contains virtually no Western characters, save a very brief appearance by a pair of them in a scene at a bar catering partly to ex-pats. I tried to base everything the Taiwanese characters might say or do on things like conversations I’ve had with my Taiwanese band mates over the past decade plus or the things I’ve seen them go through with their own families, or in their own interpersonal relationships.
You wrote about Taiwan’s music scene in the Taipei Times music column Live Wire for several years. Though I’m not into music I used to read it just for your superb writing. What were the highlights of covering the music scene?
Well, first off, thank you for the compliment. I do miss that job after myself and the other two main music columnists got our walking papers due to cost-cutting measures, but I look back on the three years I spent with the paper fondly. I got to interview, either in person or over the phone, a lot of my heroes in the worldwide metal and punk community during those years, and even some legends working in other genres I likely never would have been able to sit down with otherwise. I got to talk to people like Rob Zombie, Herbie Hancock, Stephen O’Malley, Michael Gira—a really wide spectrum of artists whose perspectives on creativity and art have provided me with invaluable insight. I try not to dwell on the past too much, but when I think back on all the interviews I got to do and who I got to share time with, it does bring a smile to my face.
How do you feel about the current state of music in Taipei? Any venues or artists you’d like to recommend?
Taipei always seems to go through its ups and downs in terms of the scene. There are great bursts of activity and then the inevitable lulls. But on the whole it’s great, I truly do feel that way. There’s a cool creative community here and when you go out to a show at a place like Revolver or Legacy it seems like half the people there are in bands themselves. There’s a ton of artists I could recommend, but I guess I’ll keep it short and sweet. Most recently I saw the newest video by The White Eyes, a really slick production since they signed a new deal with a bigger record company. I think they’re a great band. Punk artists in the truest sense of the word who really have something to say.
Any recommendations for travelers in Taiwan looking to catch some live alternative music?
Revolver is always a safe bet. They’ve got bands on several nights a week and they book absolutely everything, with an eye toward the alternative, the extreme, and the artistic. You won’t catch any bubble gum pop acts there.
Can you tell us something about your own music?
I’ve been playing in death metal, grindcore, and punk bands in Taipei since the fall of 2006. I gravitate towards any extreme forms of expression because I believe those to be the truest reflection of reality, or the truest reflection of my interpretation of reality, so I guess that’s how I would categorize what my bands do. It’s volatile, antagonistic, immediate. Hopefully at least somewhat relevant. Anything I can scream over, I’m down for. It’s cheaper than therapy and a whole lot more fun. Well, it’s cheaper than therapy until I decide to go out on tour.
What’s it like trying to make a living as a freelance writer in Taipei? Is it mostly a matter of churning out ESL material interspersed with more interesting projects?
It’s a mix of a little bit of everything. I do churn out ESL textbooks pretty steadily. Not the most stimulating work, but it’s a living. I also write regularly for a few different travel publications, do some music journalism from time to time here and there, and do some journalistic work as well, covering stories that interest me and which I believe might do some good. Last year I went to the Philippines to cover the drug war for a while, and this year I plan to be back there again in the summer. In the past couple of years I’ve managed to break into doing some script work for television programs as well. It’s not bad here in Taipei, making a living as a freelance writer, as the cost of living is low compared to where I come from in Canada. I don’t have to stress out about money too much, and I’ve managed to weasel my way into having enough regular clients that, although I still have to hustle and pitch, I’ve got enough steady work that I don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on from month to month. But I never want to get too comfortable. I need a certain amount of chaos, conflict, and struggle to keep the fire burning.
What are your writing habits?
I try to keep it pretty disciplined. If I fall into bad habits my whole life has a way of going to shit. I do the work that pays the bills every day from nine to five. After five o’clock, I switch over to my creative projects like novels, scripts, or lyrics, and do that until I’m too burnt out to continue. Usually that lasts anywhere from two to four hours, or until I get at least a thousand words down. On a good day I might bash out a thousand in an hour or less if I’ve got a good flow going. That’s my goal for the creative stuff every day. Everything is done in my home office. I’m not a cafe kind of guy. I like my solitude and my peace and quiet when I’m writing. I don’t even have music playing in the background at home. I find I get distracted by the lyrics or the tone of the music seeps its way into what I’m doing. I try and stay off the sauce when I’m writing, too, especially during the week. If I have a few when I’m typing I tend to start thinking I’m Hunter Thompson or Bukowski or Hemingway, which I definitely am not, though not for lack of trying and failing.
A thousand words an hour!! Geez, you’re not going to make any friends among your fellow writers with an output like that. I find the sauce – in moderation – helps my writing, but I’m with you completely on cafes. One of the biggest surprises with these Author Interviews has been learning how many writers enjoy working in cafes.
Yeah, that’s something I definitely don’t get. I’m not a total misanthrope but I can’t relate at all to wanting to be surrounded by other people while you’re doing something as personal as writing. It’s a bit too much like taking a shit with the door open so others can look in and see how your bowel movement is going. I’ve done some weird stuff in public in my time, but I draw the line at writing and taking a dump.
How long have you been writing?
Ever since I was a kid. I was the kid in grade school who, when the teacher asked us to write a short story on a single page, cranked out ten pages, or did extra credit reports just to get some more writing done. It’s followed me through my whole life. I couldn’t do anything else.
Do you enjoy living in Taipei? In theory at least, a writer can work remotely from anywhere he chooses, so have you ever considered moving somewhere cheaper and with fewer distractions such as the boondocks of Chiayi County?
I do really enjoy living in Taipei. I’m on a back alley right at the base of Elephant Mountain in the Xinyi District, which means I’m about a twenty-minute walk from the 101 building or a five-minute walk out my front door to the mountain trails if I want to forget about the city for a while. I’ve entertained thoughts of possibly living elsewhere. I’d love to live in New York, one day, if I could ever afford it. I spent some time in Naxos, Greece, with my wife, a couple of years ago and I could see living there for a while, pulling a Leonard Cohen for a few years. I could also see living in the Taiwanese countryside one day, perhaps. It’d be nice to have a plot of land far enough away from it all where I could do questionable things beyond the gaze of prying eyes. But for now, I’m a city rat. If I moved too far away from the scene, I think I’d lose it, honestly.
Who are your favorite authors?
I like authors in whom I can identify some inescapable demon or internal conflict or turmoil in their voice. Bukowski was a crotchety, dirty old man—off-putting in more ways than one but in his voice I hear a lot of heartbreak and more pain than I can fathom. I think he really wanted to be seen as kind, and loving, more than anything, and worthy of being loved. Hunter Thompson was disgusted with the death of the American dream and yet I can sense that although he was immensely pissed off, he was also deeply saddened by this. And I like anyone who takes risks with their work and tries to do something different. Michael Turner is one of those, I believe. And I’m drawn to anyone who provides a sense of comfort with uncomfortable emotions or sensations. Haruki Murakami, in my opinion, is incomparable in that regard.
What are some of your favorite novels?
Post Office, for its bleak interpretation of working life whether you’re from Taipei or Toronto which, I feel, was ahead of its time. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which introduced me to danger and fearlessness in literature. Last Exit to Brooklyn, which taught me that there are ways to represent character in such a clear manner that introducing the speaker becomes entirely superfluous. I could go on and on, but I guess three is a nice, round number. Bukowski, HST, Selby. You could do worse than that for a trifecta.
Any recommendations for books related to music in Asia?
Check out Banana Punk Rawk Trails by Marco Ferrarese, an Italian punk musician and writer who, like me, is one of the token foreigners in the Asian metal and punk scene. In this one he writes about touring through Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo, and his various experiences in playing in a Malaysian punk band.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m simultaneously working on a couple of new novels, one about migrant workers struggling to survive within the corrupt system governing them in Taiwan, and the other about a former hockey enforcer working for the Montreal mob. I’ve also got two newly completed manuscripts I’m attempting to get published. One is about South Korean bank robbers who flee over the border into North Korea after their heist as part of their escape plan. The other is about a 14-year-old small-town Saskatchewan girl who attempts to convince the world that humans should stop reproducing by founding something called the Barren Earth Society. On top of that I’ve recently written three episodes for a web series following an American female punk singer who comes to Taipei to live with her straight-laced ex-pat brother which I’m hoping to have filmed later this year, and because I had so much fun writing those I banged out 25 pages of a spec script over this past weekend which over the next few weeks I’m hoping to get up to feature-length. Keepin’ busy. Idle hands make for unpaid bills and bad hangovers.
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Bu San Bu Si is available from Camphor Press, Amazon.com, and various other online retailers.