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Eliot Pattison

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (July 2004)

Eliot Pattison received critical acclaim for his 1999 debut on the mystery scene with The Skull Mantra. This thriller has been compared to greats like Gorky Park and Smilla's Sense of Snow, and shares some of the aspects that make Tony Hillerman's Navajo series so popular - that is, exotic locations and characters attuned to the spiritual world. Eliot Pattison is an international lawyer, who penned many business and legal titles, before writing this series starring 'the last honest man in Beijing', Inspector Shan Tao Yun.

Shan's honesty sentenced him to a work camp in Tibet, where lamas Lokesh and Gendun rescued him from despair and continue to help him find 'the god within'. Unofficially freed during the course of The Skull Mantra, Shan and his otherworldly associates have been involved to date in three more adventures, all highlighting repression in the region, along with murder, mayhem and karma storms. Though details are often disturbing, I find the series inspiring for the author's (and his characters') ability to shine hope and compassion into the darkest places.

Q: You write with passion about the fate of Tibetans. What originally drew you to their plight?

A: During twenty-plus years of globetrotting, as I came to know many people and peoples, I gradually realized that none were more heroic or quietly inspiring than the Tibetans. I first glimpsed this when visiting Tibetan temples within China and witnessing the police repression of their monks. My impressions deepened not only as I learned more about the adversity the Tibetans have endured but also as I further traveled around the world and began see that the lessons of the Tibetan experience had implications throughout the planet.

Q: Have you personally met Tibetan monks, and were any truly as otherworldly as Lokesh, or as saintly as Gendun?

A: Not only monks I have known but many Tibetans generally are as spiritually driven as Lokesh, who plays a soulful, avuncular Doctor Watson to Inspector Shan's Sherlock in my books. Like Lokesh, Gendun is an amalgam of Tibetan lamas. Because they do represent so many real life Tibetans I feel honored to breathe life in these characters. Maybe we all need reminding that that there are still saintly figures afoot in the world.

Q: Are you a Buddhist? Why do you think there is so much Western interest in Buddhism today?

A: I was baptized Presbyterian, raised as a Methodist and married a Catholic, but through the years I have also been exposed to many Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus. All these faiths have influenced me, though I must admit that in recent years I have spent much time listening to or reading Buddhists. I don’t think there is a simple explanation for why there is a surge of interest in Buddhism in the West today. Certainly there is a lot of spiritual searching going on in our society, and certainly there is a meaningful message for everyone in Buddhist teaching. I also believe the institutions that once were the source of spiritual and intellectual fulfillment in the West have become so inflexible and/or politicized that they have been rendered meaningless for many of their traditional constituencies. For more than a few I think it’s not about faith or philosophy but about the stark, poetic beauty of certain Buddhist teachings. And for some it is simply exotic and a convenient way to rebel against a traditional upbringing. One thing that has intrigued me has been the widely different reactions readers have to my books—some, for example, find the books pessimistic and sad, others find them joyful and uplifting. Faith, like so much else, is in the eye of the beholder.

Q: You always include Westerners in your novels (though they don’t always survive them). Why do you do so?

A: Underlying the murders, thefts, and other crimes in my books is very much an effort to explain the East to the West. My American and European characters, while driving the plots, also help to drive this explanation since not only must crimes be explained to them but also a series of cultural mysteries. In my last book, Beautiful Ghosts, for example, Shan cannot understand the theft of Tibetan artwork until he perceives that the cultures of the Tibetan and Western criminals provide very different motives for stealing the paintings.

Q: You portray Chinese characters in your mysteries with compassion, from Inspector Shan himself to many of those torn between their roles in Tibet and their humanity. Do you have many Chinese friends?

A: I have had many Chinese friends, and I have a vast respect for the Chinese people and their culture. I have far less respect for their government, which has forced so many good people to do so many bad things in the name of political duty. Oppression takes a terrible toll not only the oppressed but on the oppressors as well.

Q: I understand that your Internet website has been censored in China. Before this happened, do you know if many people accessed your site in that country; did you receive much mail from China or from Chinese around the world?

A: I have had messages from overseas Chinese about how they never realized what was happening in Tibet until they read my books. I seldom hear from anyone within China itself. Those who might be inclined to contact me also know the lengths to which their government will go to monitor dissent and communication with those who criticize that government. Censorship in China is something all of us should worry about—repressing the free speech of over a billion energetic, increasingly well-educated people only heightens the political tension within the country. If the situation in China explodes it will have a profound effect on the entire globe.

Q: How have Tibetan ex-pats reacted to the Inspector Shan series?

A: Many have thanked me for writing the series. I have had some Tibetans ask by email if I am a Tibetan writing under an American name.

Q: Have you met the Dalai Lama? Do you know if he has read your books, and if so, has he commented to you on them?

A: I have not had the honor of meeting the Dalai Lama and don’t know if he has read any of my books. I do know the books are actively circulated in Dharmsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile.

Q: Your descriptions of surroundings are always lyrical; have you traveled in Tibet or anywhere else in the Himalayas?

A: I have traveled in the region, north and south of the Himalayas, and also in many regions that share many of its features, like the Andes. The physical, natural world is important to me and my characters; I do what I can to keep my readers connected to it.

Q: I appreciated the fact that Beautiful Ghosts returned to Lhadrung Valley. Will we see more episodes there and will you continue to rehabilitate Colonel Tan?

A: The scope of my characters and plots allows for a broad range of venues but Lhadrung Valley is their anchor and it will not disappear. For Colonel Tan, the enduring symbol of the Chinese government, rehabilitation is a defeat; he will not be enlightened easily.

Q: I was surprised to see Shan travel outside of Tibet in Beautiful Ghosts, and enjoyed his reactions. Will he have other opportunities to do this?

A: I certainly will be exploring other ways to take Shan out of Tibet, figuratively and literally. This allows me to tap a broader audience but also is a great device for having my characters comment on life “down in the world” of the 21st century.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the next Inspector Shan book (I certainly hope there will be one)? Do you have plans for other series?

A: It's difficult to find the time to launch another series. If I had a clone I'd put him to work writing a suspense series set in colonial America, examining the way the early, disenfranchised people of that era found justice without the help of governments or laws—sort of The Skull Mantra meets The Last of the Mohicans. In future Shan offerings, there are many aspects of Tibetan history and politics I would like to explore, such as the remarkable connections between early Tibetan and American Navajo culture and ideology, the secret campaigns carried on by Western intelligence services against the Chinese occupation in the 1960's, and the juxtapostion of wealthy Western mountain climbers and the impoverished region around Mount Everest.
Joseph Eliot Pattison lives in rural Pennsylvania, USA, with his wife, three children, two horses and two dogs. Find out more about the author, about his novels, and about Tibet, by visiting
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