From the author:
I feel as if I have come late to the writing game. 'Night Heron' is my first novel. I did try writing fiction when I was in my late twenties, but I hated what I had written and I threw it away. I did not understand then that the feelings I was experiencing - the feeling of disappointment in the outcome of my efforts, the feeling that the images in my head had utterly failed to find expression on the page - are a natural part of the writing process. But perhaps I really gave up because I knew that I had no story that I wanted or needed to tell.
That story was to come my way many years later, when I lived in China. I was the Beijing Correspondent of BBC News, and our little bureau attracted a lot of attention in its way. The Chinese authorities distrusted us and took our reporting as evidence of our fervent hostility to China. They monitored our coverage closely, and at times they monitored our movements and contacts, too. But for some Chinese people, the BBC and other foreign media offered a platform and a voice that they were denied in their own country. People sometimes came to the bureau to offer information, or simply to air their grievances. So I took it as nothing out of the ordinary when, as I sat alone at my desk one weekend, I heard a knock at the door.
There stood an elderly Chinese man wearing a flat cap and a stolid expression. He carried a briefcase of black plastic. I opened the door and asked how I could help. He said he needed to speak to a BBC reporter on a matter of importance. I asked the man in, I made tea, we sat, and he introduced himself as an academic in the engineering department of a prestigious university. He drew from the briefcase two documents, which he offered me.
I hesitated. The cover pages were marked 'neibu', or 'internal'. These were documents for circulation among Communist Party officials. They were not for public consumption, and certainly not for foreign journalists. The elderly man insisted I take them. I leafed through them, puzzling my way in the Chinese. Both were interesting, but not very newsworthy. I thanked the man and handed the documents back to him. That's the rule in China: it may be worth risking a look at sensitive documents, but don't keep them.
Disappointed, the man said he had much more to show me. I told him I appreciated the gesture, but he shouldn't take any risks. And with that he left.
He was persistent. He telephoned me, and two weeks later he was back, tapping lightly at the bureau's door. He had more 'neibu' documents, and this time, a demand: if I would not accept his documents, then I must introduce him to the British Embassy. To the 'right people', he said, meaning, I assumed, the officers of the UK Secret Intelligence Service who inhabited the SIS station in some inner recess of the Embassy building. Not that I knew who they were.
I told him that he was making a mistake. I was a journalist. I had nothing to do with 'the right people'. I asked him to leave.
"You don't understand," he said. "I have important information. I have data on experimental launch vehicles. Satellite launches. On re-entry technology. I want to give it to your government."
The alarm bells were clanging now. Launch vehicles? Re-entry technology? He was using terms associated with ballistic missiles, the weapons that can carry nuclear warheads. Even I knew that. My elderly visitor purported to be offering Chinese military secrets of the highest order. I told him to leave, and escorted him to the door.
Was he really trying to pass secrets to Her Majesty's Government? Probably not. I suspected that someone in China's security apparatus was just testing me, dangling secrets to see if I would take them, to see if I were really not a journalist, but a wily intelligence officer working under cover. This happens to journalists from time to time. It's a crude and insulting practice, and surely would not smoke out a professional. Still, security services do it. I'd experienced it before, in Indonesia, where a nasty little spook from military intelligence used to call late at night pretending to be an East Timorese insurgent, offering secret meetings and bogus information. I knew perfectly well who he was, and would tell him to get lost in colorful language.
I did not hear from the elderly man again. But the episode nagged at me. I found myself thinking about him, wondering about his circumstances, and asking not the journalist's question, but the novelist's: what if? What if he had been real? What if he were making a genuine, and appallingly dangerous, attempt to contact British intelligence? I found myself teasing out the possibility of him, painting him with character and motive, transforming him into a sharp-eyed, rotund, calculating figure whom we know as 'Peanut', who seeks to make his own treacherous bid to spy for the British, and who must survive the choices that he makes. Other characters turned up. A restless, dissatisfied journalist named Mangan. A driven, brittle young intelligence officer named Trish Patterson. The characters started to interact.
For a long time, they lived in disorderly clouds of scene and atmosphere drifting about my mind. A few notes on paper, nothing more. Then I got stuck in Costa Rica. I was waiting for a visa, and San Jose was grey with rain. With not much else to do, I took my laptop and sat in the covered pavement café of the Gran Hotel, ordered coffee, and began. Over three days, I wrote the first six or seven pages of what was to become 'Night Heron'. Those words are long since lost in rewrite, but the sense of them is still there, as Peanut stumbles across the desert in the chill night. As I wrote, all the old discontents reasserted themselves. But one thing was different. I started to feel as if the story was there waiting to be found, and that the telling of it, for better or worse, was inevitable.