St. Louis Author Ridley Pearson On Poaching, Publishing And His New Book 'The Red Room' | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Author Ridley Pearson On Poaching, Publishing And His New Book 'The Red Room'

Jun 16, 2014

St. Louisan and best-selling author Ridley Pearson.
Credit Sarah Crowder / courtesy photo

St. Louis author Ridley Pearson is no stranger to the New York Times Bestseller List. But in writing his books (of which there are many) he aspires to more than popularity.

“I try to always put a social issue under my novels without getting on a soap box so that when you end my novel there’s also something you want to go Google or go learn about,” said Pearson. By introducing his readers to social issues such as poaching or the illegal art trade, he hopes he inspires his readers to get involved, talk to their senators or donate money to a good cause.

Pearson is especially passionate about poaching at the moment. He’s writing a new novel on the topic set to be published next year.

“One (elephant is killed by a poacher) every four hours. (The elephant population) went from five million nine years ago to 150,000 this year,” said Pearson. “I just got back from interviewing 20 conservationists (in Africa), and they will tell stories about elephants going back to bones two years old and weeping openly as they smell those bones. They are sophisticated, emotional beings and we’re killing them for their teeth.”

The third book in Pearson’s Risk Agent Series, “The Red Room” comes out in e-book and hardcover tomorrow. Set in Istanbul, Turkey, his protagonists John Knox and Grace Chu enter the world of the illegal art trade and in the process encounter an Iranian nuclear physicist who has become a target of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Pearson based “The Red Room” on real-life research into the illegal art trade and the disappearances of scientists working with Iran’s nuclear program.

“There are some 12 different scientists who have either gone missing or are known to have been executed,” said Pearson. “There has never been a connection to the Mossad. That’s all alleged. But that’s fascinating ground for a novelist.”

During his research into the illicit art world, Pearson was surprised to discover how big a business it was to sell stolen art.

“Maybe I’m naïve on this, but I never would have placed stolen art and the commerce of stolen art, in terms of dollar value, second only to drugs. I would have put prostitution and gambling, and a million things in there before I put stolen art. But it’s in the billions every year,” said Pearson.

Despite the high financial cost, very few pieces of stolen art are tracked down, he added, because law enforcement agencies don’t devote much time to tracking down the thieves.

“It’s viewed as a white collar, victimless crime, and there are plenty of victim crimes that require…their energy and attention and budgets,” said Pearson, citing the conviction rate at less than five percent.

John Knox and Grace Chu

Originally, Pearson wrote Grace Chu as a secondary character, the Watson to John Knox’s Sherlock. But Pearson’s editor liked the character of Grace so much that she encouraged Pearson to make her an equal protagonist.

Because books generally have a single protagonist, Pearson found it challenging to balance his writing in order to highlight both characters equally.

“You just don’t do that. There’s always a hero, and I said, well I don’t know if any book has ever been written that way,” said Pearson. “So we went through, and still go through, multiple, multiple drafts in these books to balance …the emotional significance to the reader of John Knox, who’s kind of this crude but sensitive guy, and Grace Chu, who’s a very intelligent but somewhat emotionless woman.”

Pearson based the character of Grace Chu on the women who enrolled in his creative writing classes in Shanghai. In reading their memoirs, he reached an understanding of their sometimes conflicted motivations.

“All of this I brought to Grace Chu, because Grace is this woman caught between the old China and the new China,” said Pearson. “She’s connected to her family but they would have wanted to see a more traditional relationship than she got involved in, so she ends up in Hong Kong, which nationalists really look down upon, and she’s in China working as a private contractor in forensics accounting for a big risk taking private security firm, which is where she meets John Knox.”

The Changing World of Publishing

Just as in music and journalism, the publishing industry has been disrupted by digital technology. In 2013, the Department of Justice accused the five major publishing houses of colluding with each other and Apple on the price of e-books. Now, a contract dispute over e-book prices has Amazon and the Hachette publishing company at odds with each other. Because Hachette has refused Amazon’s price breakdown, Amazon has removed the ability to preorder Hachette books from its website, and is selling Hachette books at full price.

“I’m sure it isn’t technically, but idealistically it’s almost freedom of the press to me,” said Pearson of the Amazon/Hachette conflict. “You can’t allow a giant, almost a monopoly in that regard, to say we’re not going to do this unless you do it our way. But I guess that’s free market.”

He views the negotiations between Apple and the publishing companies last year as the first attempt to help give authors a fairer share of royalty sales.  

“We now get less (royalties for an e-book) than (for) a paperback book. And they are sold at the same time as the hardcover,” said Pearson. “So tomorrow, ‘The Red Room’ goes on sale, and over 45 percent of my sales will be e-books. But I will be paid at a rate as if it were a paperback book, which means the publisher and I lose about 66 percent of that 45 percent of our pay. So my pay every year has gone down.”

Related Event

Ridley Pearson Discussion and Signing
Tuesday June 17, 2014
7:00 p.m.
Barnes and Noble, Fenton Commons, 721 Gravois Road
For more information, call 636-326-4619 or visit the Barnes and Noble website.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.