Barry Hughart (hew-gert) is a gifted storyteller with a penchant for all things Chinese,
good stories, and just a hint of cynicism about him. Hughart's first book, BRIDGE OF
BIRDS, won the World Fantasy Award in 1984. After BRIDGE's success, he published
just two more books, THE STORY OF THE STONE in 1988 and EIGHT SKILLED
GENTLEMEN in 1991.
I discovered BRIDGE OF BIRDS in 1984 when a friend mailed a copy to me with a
simple note attached that said: READ THIS BOOK! Since that time, I've read the book
at least two dozen times and have given away more copies of the paperback than I care to
confess. It's simply one of the best stories ever told and it's peopled with the richest
characters in fiction.
Hughart's stories are centered around a noble peasant boy, Number Ten Ox and his
venerable mentor, Master Li. The pair are almost always trying to find their way out of a
precarious predicament, usually involving bloodshed, mayhem and more than just a little
magic. Master Li introduces himself like this: "My surname is Li and my personal name is
Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character. You got a problem?" How can you NOT
love a man like that?
Classifying Hughart's books as fantasy limited their audience and might have been the
reason they didn't initially impress their publishers. Yes, their subject matter -- "an ancient
China that never was" -- could be construed as speculative, but Hughart's works are so
much more. They're storytelling at its very zenith. When you read Hughart, you can be
guaranteed tears, laughter, amazement, amusement, more tears and laughter, and
entertainment of the highest quality.
I've corresponded with the author for the past two years and have begged, pleaded, cajoled
and otherwise made a complete fool of myself trying to get him to publish more work. He
has always been unfailingly polite and gracious, but remains firm in his conviction that
there just aren't enough fans to support more adventures!
Mr. Hughart agreed to come out of hiding long enough to answer some questions about his
work. As always, he was candid, to the point, and more than just a little biased when it
comes to the wonderful world of publishing.
BB: Are you aware of the community of Master Li fans that have gathered on the
Internet? Are you surprised by their loyalty to your stories?
BH: No, I'm not surprised, because you're talking about a relatively small group already
predisposed to the product. What surprised me was that the British, who I assumed would
like the stuff, didn't give a damn, while the Germans, who I assumed would hate it, were
(and are) my best customers.
BB: I don't see us as "a relatively small group already predisposed to the product." I've
corresponded with a lot of fans over the past two years and they tell me they are not
fantasy/speculative fiction fans and wouldn't have read the books had they not been
recommended by a friend or a librarian.
Why do you think your three Master Li/Number Ten Ox stories have inspired such a
loyal following over the years?
BH: Don't know. The emotion for BRIDGE OF BIRDS I can understand because it's at
least a three handkerchief read and has an ending that puts SLEEPING BEAUTY to
shame, but overall I haven't a clue.
BB: You seem very comfortable with your subject matter. When did you become
interested in Chinese history, myth and legend?
BH: When I was in the Air Force and stationed in the Far East and forbidden to visit
Hong Kong because I had a TS clearance and who knows what Ming the Merciless might
wrest from me? I had no option but to visit the country and its civilization via libraries,
and discovered a damn fascinating subject.
BB: Is there a someone in Chinese lore who inspired Master Li's character?
BH: No, but the closest is probably Liu Ling (see chapters 16 and 20 - STORY OF THE
STONE) who was very real, but of whose life and works only anecdotal evidence remains.
BB: Master Li fans throughout the world have debated this one question: What is the
slight flaw in the wise old man's character? Are you willing to let us in on the secret?
BH: Let's see. He steals, he cheats, he lies, he drinks himself into stupors; whenever he
feels like it he murders people, and I suppose the slight flaw is that none of the above
bothers him in the least.
BB: Your fans want "More Master Li." Are you interested in publishing the remaining
four stories in your series? What if your fans mounted a campaign to encourage
publishers to support the books?
BH: I plan no further Master Li books. They're hard to pull off and time-consuming and
the return isn't so hot unless one counts flattery. I do indeed have a finished novel but it
isn't waiting for a publisher. It's been accepted by four, and it's no contradiction to assume
it will never be printed.
When a publishing company is bought out, the new regime preaches "Clean Sweep!"
and cancels all contracts except sure fire best sellers. (Harper Collins is the champ.
Within 80 days of new management they canceled over two hundred contracts, some of
which had been at least ten years in the making.) The benefit for the writer is that he not
only regains the rights, but also keeps the advance, and since that's usually all the dough he
will ever get out of it he's doing fine.
My DANCING GIRL is a minor legend now: I've sold it four times, and four times had it
kicked back to me by new owners: one Limey, one Frog, and two Krauts. You better
believe I keep a sharp eye on which publisher is likely to be swallowed up next. With any
luck, I'll go another three or four times, and champagne all around!
BB: I would like to note that The Stars Our Destination, a science fiction book store in
the Chicago area, published an omnibus edition of all three Master Li/Number Ten Ox
stories about a year ago. They sold out of the hard copies -- at $45 a pop -- right away.
(I have two.) They also sold out of the trade paperback editions in a relatively short
The publishing world has changed so much since the last Hughart book. Surely there's a
house out there willing to support more Master Li/Number Ten Ox stories. There are
about 100 of us willing to start a campaign to get Hughart a reputable, responsible,
reliable publisher and get more stories.
In fact, as I was working on this email, I had a note from Jerry Kuntz who operates a
site devoted to Master Li, complete with a maze and chapters from the original edition
of BRIDGE OF BIRDS. He's been contacted by so many Hughart fans that he's thinking
of calling him to discuss the possibility of self-publishing.
We really appreciate Mr. Hughart's cooperation with this interview. He doesn't own a
computer, so we corresponded the old-fashioned way, via the US Postal Service.
BRIDGE OF BIRDS (paperback) is available online at amazon, Barnes & Noble, and
Borders. Alas, THE STORY OF THE STONE and EIGHT SKILLED GENTLEMEN are out of print. Check the online stores at
A website devoted to Master Li and Barry Hughart can be found at:
www.rcls.org/hughart/. The site is the creation of Jerry Kuntz.
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