Van Booy's great-grandfather. The author says one of the stories in "Tales of Accidental Genius" was partly inspired by his desire to connect with his Chinese roots.

Van Booy's great-grandfather. The author says one of the stories in "Tales of Accidental Genius" was partly inspired by his desire to connect with his Chinese roots.

Best-selling author Simon Van Booy is known for his stories about relationships and human connections. His latest collection of short fiction is about acts of kindness that rise to the level of what he calls genius. His stories span generations and continents. In one tale, a divorced magician in New Jersey cheers up a nursing home. In another, a retired British bodyguard aids someone on the street. His last story is about a blind street vendor in Beijing who invents a bicycle that forever changes his family. A conversation with Van Booy about why he writes stories about unusual acts of compassion.


  • Simon Van Booy Author of six books, including the best-seller "The Illusion of Separateness" and "Love Begins in Winter," which won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from TALES OF ACCIDENTAL GENIUS by Simon Van Booy. Copyright © 2015 by Simon Van Booy. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Tales Of Accidental Genius



  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The last story in Simon Van Booy's latest collection of fiction was inspired by his Cantonese great grandfather. It's a fable set in Beijing written in stanzas in traditional Chinese style. Van Booy says it was the most difficult piece of fiction he's ever written. His new book is titled, "Tales of Accidental Genius."

  • 11:07:25

    MS. DIANE REHMSimon Van Booy joins me in the studio. I'm sure many of you are fans of his work. You can join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. How good to see you.

  • 11:07:48

    MR. SIMON VAN BOOYIt's wonderful to be here, Diane, thanks for having me.

  • 11:07:50

    REHMThank you. I'm glad to have you here again. Talk about what you mean by the title "Tales of Accidental Genius."

  • 11:08:03

    VAN BOOYWell, thanks for asking. For a long time, I've been very interested in people who we consider to be conventional geniuses, like Charles Darwin, Edward Jenner, who's the father of immunology, and Eratosthenes, who measured the circumference of the earth in 300 BC so men and women like this who've really made scientific and analogical breakthroughs. But then, I started thinking, well, I'm never going to do that.

  • 11:08:39

    VAN BOOYYou know, I'm never going to invent or design anything so what's the best I can do. And probably I decided was to maybe make a nice lunch for my daughter, you know, put something extra in there or hold the door for someone or just do some everyday act of -- some gesture that makes life better for me and for everyone else. And then, I thought that, well, this is sort of how I can become a genius, accidentally.

  • 11:09:08

    VAN BOOYAnd so the book is about how acts of genius manifest in the world through moments of spontaneous compassion and they just sort of make life better for the characters who, at the beginning of the stories, are all suffering in some way.

  • 11:09:26

    REHMAnd a perfect example is the retired British secret service officer who has grown very large, who lives by himself. He doesn't even sleep in his own bed, but rather sleeps in the front room on a kind of divan. And he is awakened night after night after night by a noisy young person outside. Tell us about that story, where it came from and a little more about both characters.

  • 11:10:18

    VAN BOOYWell, that story actually was one of my favorites to write because he lives -- the main character lives on Jermyn Street in London, which is where -- it's a concentration of men's tailors and barber shops.

  • 11:10:31

    REHMAnd that is spelled Jermyn.

  • 11:10:36

    VAN BOOYI'm very impressed. I'm very impressed.

  • 11:10:39

    REHMWhy are you so impressed?

  • 11:10:40

    VAN BOOYWell, you know, mostly it's men who are in the 80s and 90s who you see just moving along Jermyn Street, you know, for whatever they need, top hats or monogrammed pajamas or little silver devices which, when activated, make champagne less fizzy. These things are for sale on Jermyn Street.

  • 11:11:06

    REHMI see.

  • 11:11:06

    VAN BOOYAnd so I've been shopping there for a couple of years and I started to get to know people in the store, some of the tailors and some of the cobblers. And I was buying a jacket and the salesman said, well, you know best, sir, but the smaller one does make you look like a little boy. And then, another salesman came over and said, yes, yes, a little schoolboy. A little naughty schoolboy who's outgrown his jacket.

  • 11:11:36

    VAN BOOYAnd so they really wouldn't sell me the smaller jacket, even though I thought it looked -- an Italian would've said it fit perfectly, but for the British style, you know, it should be a bit bigger. Anyway, I had the fortune to stay with someone who was living on Jermyn Street in what's part of a church, the only church on that street. And one night -- this is someone who is quite old school, meaning they sleep with the windows open. They don't believe in central heating.

  • 11:12:04

    VAN BOOYThey have, you know, dogs running around, doing whatever they please. And so it's really sort of a paradise. It's a farm in the middle of London and so I was sleeping one night on the couch and I heard someone shouting down on the street and it was this character. And I thought, well, maybe I should take him a cup of tea or something, but there I thought, well, maybe he's violent. You know, what will happen?

  • 11:12:29

    VAN BOOYAnd then, you know, the next night, he returned and he was just talking to himself and screaming obscenities. And then, two drunk people coming home from a pub, which is common occurrence in London, of course, just sat down in the middle of the street. And, you know, a car was coming up Jermyn Street and the young man who was outside stopped his rant and just looked over at them and shouted, there's a car coming. You'd better get up and move.

  • 11:12:59

    VAN BOOYAnd I thought, well, that's quite interesting. He's destined to become a character. And the British retired secret service officer is really like many of my characters. He's someone who's just completely alone, who his life sort of bypassed him, which is why he sleeps on the couch in the front room as though the life he thought we was going to have didn't happen. So he doesn't occupy the back bedroom.

  • 11:13:24

    REHMWhy has he become so large and extremely lax in how he cares for himself? His clothing is rather ragtag and he goes outside, first off, in his pajamas.

  • 11:13:47

    VAN BOOYRight. And he wears a trench coat over his pajamas with stains on the front where he's missed the toilet. You know, to be honest, I don't think he really notices because as we get older, I feel like we sort of get used to things and it's only when other people say, oh, you really shouldn't just wear one slipper, you know, that we realize, oh, I've been wearing one slipper.

  • 11:14:06

    VAN BOOYAnd so the people who work on Jermyn Street in Floris and Paxton & Whitehead and Turnbull & Asser, they really want to make friends with him, but he's completely lonely and he goes for a walk every day in St. James' Park. And he was big to begin with. I mean, he was a giant and he was a very dangerous person, but his essence is to protect. And it's not an accident that he lives in a house connected to a church because in another life, like most of the characters in this book, he would've entered sort of a religious service, the way the Mother Teresa did, who's one of my all-time heroes.

  • 11:14:46

    REHMSo you are basically being able to write these short pieces of fiction out of some occurrence in your own life, for the most part.

  • 11:15:02

    VAN BOOYIt's sort of a nice melange, a nice blend of the things I'm interested in, the things I'm afraid of and the things that are happening to me.

  • 11:15:13

    REHMYou write about a couple in a nursing home and that couple has a very special relationship.

  • 11:15:30

    VAN BOOYThey do. They absolutely do.

  • 11:15:32

    REHMHave you had experience with watching loved ones grow older and perhaps lose some of their strength and their mental capacity?

  • 11:15:49

    VAN BOOYI have. I have. My mentor, Barbara (word?) who this book is dedicated to, she's currently at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in New Jersey, which if you don't know it, is the most wonderful place for older actors and people who were in the entertainment business. And when I go and visit Barbara there, you know, it's just a sea of charisma. You know, no matter how old someone gets, I feel like actors still always have that magnetism that allowed them to really excel in their craft.

  • 11:16:24

    VAN BOOYAnyway, Barbara is there now and she will sometimes say things to me like, you know, someone's rewritten all my books. Someone's come into my room and rewritten the words in my books 'cause she's written over 30 books herself. And I said, oh, really? She said, yeah, go to page 98. Go get this book of mine from your library and have a look. And so, you know, we'll maybe look at the different books and then, I'll say, oh, Barbara, it's the same as yours.

  • 11:16:54

    VAN BOOYAnd she says, well, they must've broken into your house, too. And so now I just really -- I suppose the general rule is just to be kind, not to let things go too far, but just try and be kind. And she said to me the other day, she said, I think I'm dying so come and visit me. And I said, all right. She said, you know, I haven't been that friendly. She said, but now I think I'm at the end. I'm gonna really make an effort.

  • 11:17:20

    VAN BOOYI said, can I bring you anything? And she said, yes, yes. She said, bring me pretzels and champagne.

  • 11:17:26

    REHMA woman after my own heart, I must say. And does she have relationships with other people in that home?

  • 11:17:38

    VAN BOOYWell, I'd like her to. There are very brave, sweet, friendly, talented people there. I mean, the piano's always going. The staff are wonderful and loving. So she's trying.

  • 11:17:50

    REHMSimon Van Booy, his new short fiction stories, "Tales of Accidental Genius." Do join us, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMWelcome back. Writer Simon Van Booy is with me, with his new collection of short stories titled "Tales of Accidental Genius." And I want to ask you, Simon -- you were on this program a couple of years ago -- you have a very interesting background...

  • 11:20:32

    VAN BOOYWell, thanks.

  • 11:20:32

    REHM...tell us a little about it.

  • 11:20:35

    VAN BOOYWell, I've moved around a lot. And I have really a multi-ethnic, you know, background that I know something about, and then there's other just periods and places of mystery. And I really -- I supposed you could say, I'm an optimist at heart. And I'm not an optimist because I've had -- so everything's gone well for me. I mean, I've been held at gunpoint. I've been in earthquakes. I've been pinned under vehicles. And so, you know, but at the end, I think Oscar Wilde said, we're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. And so I just thought, well, I supposed I'd better become one of those people who looks at the stars.

  • 11:21:18

    VAN BOOYBecause, you know, if you do look around at what's happening in the world, without taking history into consideration, then it's quite bleak. I mean, when you read history -- a book like "The History of England" by Peter Ackroyd or anything of that quality, you realize, actually, that we are actually getting much, much, much better. We've doubled in population since about 1960, yet we haven't doubled in wars. We have more coverage of conflict, which might make it seem like there's more. But actually we're becoming kinder and nicer to each other. And maybe that's just the optimist in me talking. But that's what I truly feel.

  • 11:21:53

    VAN BOOYAnd so I naturally gravitate toward, you know, looking for the brighter side of things. So a lot of my characters are really suffering and then they sort of find a way to get over that.

  • 11:22:06

    REHMTell me about your own life in terms of your own suffering. You lost your wife…

  • 11:22:16

    VAN BOOYRight. Yeah.

  • 11:22:17 -- I don't know how long you were married or how old you were when you married. Tell us about that period of your life.

  • 11:22:28

    VAN BOOYShe passed away from a coronary dissection, which was sudden -- from, she'd inherited a genetic defect, which has something to do with one's connective tissue. And it was very sudden and, you know, I was told she didn't suffer.

  • 11:22:51

    REHMHow old was she?

  • 11:22:53

    VAN BOOYShe was in her early 40s.

  • 11:22:55

    REHMAnd you had been married for how long?

  • 11:22:58

    VAN BOOYOh, several years. We had a child, we had a three-year-old. And so that was an extremely -- how can I put it -- sobering experience. I mean, you really, when you're faced with death, like, actually the viscera of death -- not only the spiritual and emotion aspect -- it really changes your view or, sort of, you evolve very quickly into a new sort of person.

  • 11:23:27

    REHMHow so?

  • 11:23:29

    VAN BOOYWell, I suppose, you either learn to keep looking down in the gutter or you learn to look at the stars.

  • 11:23:39

    REHMAnd, of course, you had a three-year-old daughter to care for.

  • 11:23:45

    VAN BOOYRight.

  • 11:23:45

    REHMHow did you manage?

  • 11:23:48

    VAN BOOYWell, that's interesting you say that, because it was 100 percent, absolutely easy. Because I love her. And I think that -- it just felt -- I didn't wake up thinking, well, I have to be a good father today. Luckily, I just would wake up and think, oh, it's time to make breakfast. I wish I could go back to sleep but I've got a hungry little person in the next room. And it was just absolutely marvelous, you know, just being with her, just the joy of children.

  • 11:24:15

    REHMHow did you explain her mother's absence to her?

  • 11:24:20

    VAN BOOYWell, I immediately sought professional help from a psychologist. And I -- she advised that I just be blunt, be, you know, and just tell her immediately that, you know, there's no chance that she'll ever see her again. But, you know, a part of me truly believes that spiritually we're all deeply, deeply interconnected. And so where, you know, my first wife left off, my new wife has taken over.

  • 11:24:51

    VAN BOOYI think if they'd known each other, they would have been absolutely best friends. And my first wife was very much into essential oils. Now my second wife, Christina, who I hope is listening, she, you know, she's launching an essential oil company, Bunny Love. And it's -- so she's -- it's -- she was a lawyer and she's media executive. But, strangely, she just got into this, you know, aroma therapy in the last 12 months.

  • 11:25:20


  • 11:25:20

    VAN BOOYWhich was my first wife's passion. And of course my -- now I've got so many mother-in-laws, it's just, you know.

  • 11:25:25

    REHMAnd you keep in touch with all of them.

  • 11:25:30

    VAN BOOYI do. I do. And, you know, the fact is, we're all in this together. What I mean is, 100 years from now, none of us will be alive. And 500 years from now, it'll be like we all never existed. Yet, here we are now, Diane, in the studio chatting. And so we're each other's for a generation. And so we may as well just try and love each other and get along and learn to appreciate each other's cooking.

  • 11:25:56

    REHMHow old is your daughter now?

  • 11:25:59

    VAN BOOYShe's 11, going on 37.

  • 11:26:02

    REHMMost children that age are doing exactly that. Well, I'm glad for you, Simon. I know how difficult that must have been.

  • 11:26:19

    VAN BOOYI know you do, Diane.

  • 11:26:22

    REHMTell us about "The Goldfish." Because that's one of my favorite stories.

  • 11:26:31

    VAN BOOYWell, my mentor, Barbara, was -- is to blame for this story. Because I called her and said one morning, I said, I'm coming out to see you. And this is when she lived in Sag Harbor. And she said, I'm not well, don't come. And I said, okay, fine, which was normal. And then she called back a few minutes later and said, I wouldn't mind a turkey sandwich. Why don't you come out.

  • 11:26:50

    REHMOh, lovely.

  • 11:26:50

    VAN BOOYSo I did drive out there. And then she said -- she was dressed and she said, well, I thought we might pop out. And I said, okay, splendid. Shall we go to the deli? She said, well, I thought we might lunch at The American Hotel. And I said, okay, fine, fine. They're known for their oysters but Barbara said that she's never eaten oysters because they seem somehow too naked to her. Anyway, so after lunch -- during lunch, I was telling her about a little problem that we were having at home. Our goldfish were alive but upside down. So I'd gone online and had a look and one website said that they might have a swim bladder disorder.

  • 11:27:29


  • 11:27:32

    VAN BOOYYeah. Another website said it was just a matter time and a bacterial infection had set in. Another website said they were merely constipated. So I went with the constipation and I dropped in organic frozen peas, which they just, upside down, literally watched float to the bottom and did nothing. And, you know, eventually, I was telling Barbara about this. And she said, I want you to go home this minute and write a story about an old man whose only friend in the world is a terminally-ill goldfish. And so I did.

  • 11:28:11

    REHMAnd you did. Now, without giving the whole story away, tell us what happens.

  • 11:28:22

    VAN BOOYWell, his goldfish is upside down. And he, first of all, goes to the aquarium. But nobody will talk to him about his pet fish, because they're worried about litigiousness or, you know, what will happen if they give the wrong advice. So, and he can't believe that no one will talk to him there. So then he goes to a vet. And when he signs in, he puts goldfish in the book. And he's waiting around. And all the other pet owners look at him solemnly because he doesn't have a pet with him, which means the worst. And anyway, eventually, the doctor comes out and says we can't help you. And so he's furious. That this is a vet, this is a pet professional. And I've got a sick pet. You know, Piper depends on me.

  • 11:29:06

    VAN BOOYAnd, anyway, he goes home and then he sees an advertisement for a pet shop, Gerald's Pet Paradise. And, eureka, he thinks. And he, so he stands up. He, you know, gets his limbs together and he goes down there. And they're just about to close up. It's a winter's afternoon. And the young assistant, Akim Okasami (sp?) is working behind the desk, he's texting. And I always hear people complaining about young people texting. But if you look at photos from the 1940s and '50s, all people are doing there is looking at their newspapers. So it's really not that different. So Akim is texting or playing a game when the main character walks in, the old man.

  • 11:29:53

    VAN BOOYAnd he insists on speaking to the manager because it's a very serious matter, a matter of life or death.

  • 11:30:00

    REHMAnd the manager happens not to be in the shop at that moment.

  • 11:30:06

    VAN BOOYRight. And the old man just dismisses the young man. They're a different generation. They're a different ethnicity. And they're completely out of touch with each other's reality. Yet, later on in the story, they connect, you know, at that most basic human level, which is to treat one another well and to be kind to one another. And they sort of form a friendship.

  • 11:30:30

    REHMWhat do you believe has happened to kindness in this world?

  • 11:30:37

    VAN BOOYOh, I think it's alive and well. I think it's thriving. I think it's absolutely -- there's no problems. I think we're all doing really well. And one way I'll prove this to any skeptical listeners, who I know are out there cars, shaking their heads, is to explain how -- we often feel bad when we hear about people in other countries who are sick or dying. I mean, the Syrian crisis in Europe, you know, provoked real outcry. Even my mother, who's an extremely private person, said, for God's sake, let them in. They can stay in the garden. I'll cook for them. You know, I'd never heard -- hear her say anything like that.

  • 11:31:17


  • 11:31:17

    VAN BOOYSo just seeing these pictures of people at the fence, you know, all they want are the normal things in life. And so the emotional outcry of that really is testament to our evolution as beings. Because I feel like when you read history, people didn't really get upset about the death of others unless they were somehow in their tribe, unless they were somehow, you know, physically or culturally connected to them. But now we feel sorry for people half way across the world that we don't even know and that we'll never meet and whose language we don't speak. And I think that's real progress.

  • 11:31:54

    REHMAnd yet we seem as though we're not able to do very much. I mean...

  • 11:32:04

    VAN BOOYHmm.

  • 11:32:04

    REHM...there's your mother saying, just bring them here. I'll feed them, do whatever. And yet you've got countries saying, shut the gates, keep them out, we don't want more.

  • 11:32:20

    VAN BOOYRight. Right. And, you know, in a way there are real, you know, issues connected with, you know, accepting hundreds of thousands or millions of people into, you know, a continent or countries. But we have people alive who can split atoms. We have people who can figure out the age of the universe. Surely we can figure out how to assimilate a few people, you know, into our culture and into our economic systems.

  • 11:32:50

    REHMHave you been watching our political system and listening to some of the rhetoric that's come out of that?

  • 11:33:02

    VAN BOOYI have, Diane. You know, I'm an American now. Salute the eagle, Diane, I'm legal.

  • 11:33:06

    REHMI'm glad.

  • 11:33:08

    VAN BOOYYeah, so, and I never thought I'd become an American. But I really became moved to go ahead and get my citizenship because I love living here. And we've -- as a nation, we've made such progress. You know, if there's something we don't like here, eventually we just get together and say, okay, enough is enough. You know, we want these rights for these people or for ourselves, you know. And so I wanted to be a part of that. And I think that watching all the politicians, you know, give their speeches and chat, it really -- we haven't changed that much in some ways.

  • 11:33:47

    VAN BOOYYou know, it's amusing -- and it's amusing and frightening and exciting and worrying and...

  • 11:33:54

    REHMAll of that.

  • 11:33:54

    VAN BOOYYeah, so it's really like entertainment, which I suppose is why it's on TV.

  • 11:33:59

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have some callers who'd like to join our conversation.

  • 11:34:07

    VAN BOOYOh. Marvelous.

  • 11:34:10

    REHMLet's go to Amy, who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:34:16

    VAN BOOYHi, Amy.

  • 11:34:17

    AMYHi, Simon, and hi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:34:20


  • 11:34:21

    AMYI loved "The Illusion of Separateness." And actually my car just drove itself to the Politics & Prose parking lot where I'm going to go in and buy this book. But, recently, my son...

  • 11:34:33

    VAN BOOYThanks, Amy. You got the check, then.

  • 11:34:35

    AMYYeah. Right. I did. My son borrowed my signed copy of "The Illusion of Separateness," and then his car was broken into. And all that was in his car was a backpack filled with books and it was stolen.

  • 11:34:50

    VAN BOOYHmm.

  • 11:34:52

    AMYAnd, are you going to be anywhere signing books?

  • 11:34:56

    VAN BOOYI will be at Politics & Prose on May 2 of next year.

  • 11:35:00

    AMYMay 2 of next year. Okay, I guess I'll have to be patient.

  • 11:35:03

    VAN BOOYIf I -- I'll see if I'll -- I'll have a look for some other books and a backpack. I'm sorry about your son's losing his...

  • 11:35:12

    AMYIt was my copy. He was -- I had said to him, make sure nothing happens to this.

  • 11:35:16

    REHMOh, dear.

  • 11:35:17


  • 11:35:18

    REHMThere you go.

  • 11:35:19

    AMYBut anyways, I just wanted to tell you how much I loved that book and I'm looking forward to this one.

  • 11:35:24

    VAN BOOYOh, thanks. Thanks so much.

  • 11:35:25

    REHMI'm glad you called, Amy. Thank you. And let's go now to Panama City, Fla. Bruce, you're on the air.

  • 11:35:35

    BRUCEHi. Good morning to your guest and you, Diane.

  • 11:35:37

    VAN BOOYHi, Bruce.

  • 11:35:38

    BRUCEI just wanted to ask a quick question. When you were writing these stories, did you remember O. Henry in your mind? And it seems like a lot of the stories are things that children would enjoy reading, although some of them sound very serious. Are you gearing it towards younger people as well?

  • 11:35:54

    VAN BOOYBruce, that's a really good question, because I love reading children's books. And even now I'm reading a book about an introduction to geometry. Because it's the only book about geometry I actually understand. One with big letters and pictures. And I feel like, if -- well, I think that writing for children is probably one of the great frontiers of literature. Because, you know, children will inherit our society. And so I'd be honored if younger people would read my work. And I supposed in some ways I can't -- I don't really decide how I write. It just sort of comes out like that in a strange way. So, but, yeah, thanks. Thanks, Bruce.

  • 11:36:34

    REHMI think I can say to you, Bruce, that reading "Tales of Accidental Genius," I felt, coming at it, that the language was so accessible and the ideas themselves so accessible. I think a young person would truly enjoy and learn from these "Tales of Accidental Genius." So I personally would answer, yes. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your questions, comments. Send us an email, give us a phone call, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, "Tales of Accidental Genius" is a volume of stories written by Simon Van Booy. And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. In just a moment Simon's going to read for us, but first, I want to take this call from Ed in Traverse City, Mich.

  • 11:40:34

    VAN BOOYOh, good.

  • 11:40:34

    REHMEd, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:37

    EDGood afternoon, Diane and Simon.

  • 11:40:39

    VAN BOOYHi, Ed.

  • 11:40:40

    EDA moment ago you spoke about kindness in the world. And I spent a lot of in North Africa and Egypt, in particular, and in Iraq in the military. And I think that we need to kind of acknowledge that there is kindness in the world. I was in the Muslim world. I've got to confess, I was treated with utter kindness, given food off of these people's plates, invited into their home and treated so well, and I think that in America we have this disconnect that people believe that all Muslims are terrorists.

  • 11:41:17

    VAN BOOYRight.

  • 11:41:17

    EDAnd I just wanted to get out there that they really aren't.

  • 11:41:21

    VAN BOOYYeah.

  • 11:41:21

    EDThey just are not terrorists. And there is kindness in the world.

  • 11:41:24

    VAN BOOYCan I thank you for your service? Because yesterday was Veteran's Day, and, you know, reading about, you know, reading some of the things online, I really, really -- I salute you. Ed, thank you.

  • 11:41:35

    REHMThank you so much for calling, Ed...

  • 11:41:38

    VAN BOOYYeah, thanks, Ed.

  • 11:41:38

    REHM...with that reminder. And now, Simon, there is a story written in poetry, actually, that you've written. It's titled "Golden Helper II." Talk about the background.

  • 11:41:58

    VAN BOOYWell, I wanted to explore my Chinese ancestry. I had a great-grandfather who sailed from China and landed in Jamaica where he met my great-grandmother, who was the child of a servant and a French colonial lawyer. And then they had 14 children. One of whom was my grandmother.

  • 11:42:20


  • 11:42:20

    VAN BOOYAnd then my mother was born, and then my grandmother left Jamaica and went rural Ireland. And so my mother was raised in Ireland. And then my mother moved to Wales where she met my father who has Dutch and Jewish ancestry. And so it's really a mix.

  • 11:42:39

    REHMOh, I should say.

  • 11:42:40

    VAN BOOYYou should try my cooking.

  • 11:42:43

    REHMI'd love to.

  • 11:42:45

    VAN BOOYAnd so I wanted to really -- I really, really searched for my -- any distance relatives in China. And then of course DNA tells us that we're all...

  • 11:42:55


  • 11:42:56

    VAN BOOYYeah, and also mathematics, because if you multiply the amount of grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and then do it for everybody, you get a number that's far higher than the number of people who lived at that time, so we must be connected.

  • 11:43:08


  • 11:43:10

    VAN BOOYAnd anyway, so I went to China and I started learning Chinese. And I started exploring all facets of the culture. And it was just wonderful. It was a cultural immersion. And then it was what I needed to do in order to write about China.

  • 11:43:27

    REHMHow long did you stay there?

  • 11:43:30

    VAN BOOYJust a few weeks at a time. And I thought, you know, this is dangerous because there are westerners who've been living there for years and they don't dare write about it, and here I am, you know, falling off a plane, literally just, you know, you know, walking around the alleys, petting dogs, chatting to people, and I'm going to try and write about Chinese culture. And I thought, well, you know, I can always give it to Chinese people to read, and if they, like, throw the book at me or spit on me, I'll know I didn't get it right. So when I told Chinese people what I was doing, they just looked at me with sort of pity and, you know, a little bit of joy.

  • 11:44:07

    REHMAnd this story is about?

  • 11:44:11

    VAN BOOYIt's about a man who becomes a billionaire overnight. He lives in a Beijing alley hutong community. And his blind father who is a genius of engineering invents a machine that allows you to not have to peddle on your bicycle. And actually someone invented it, because I see delivery guys going -- flying by without peddling.

  • 11:44:34

    REHMExactly. In fact, there was a piece in the newspaper about exactly that.

  • 11:44:42

    VAN BOOYI mean, really this was invented after I started writing this. And I thought this is likely going to be very good or very bad for the story. And it took a few years to work on, and I wanted to combine my interest in Chinese literature, you know, the (unintelligible), and also "Hello Kitty" bobble heads and the Chinese obsession with Western material of good. But also Chinese martial arts and Chinese philosophy and Chinese dancing and the parks and playing -- you know, old people playing Frisbee. It's just the most wonderful, wonderful place.

  • 11:45:18

    REHMSo read for us.

  • 11:45:20

    VAN BOOYOkay. "For a long time Golden Helper II was just a lump of metal welded to the frame of a crooked tricycle used to ferry small mountains of bok choy, and occasionally celery, to a street corner in Beijing opposite Chanel where blind Mr. Fun (sp?) and his wife had their vegetable business. The idea for Golden Helper II had appeared Mr. Fun's head one night at the kitchen table searching for a home in the world like fire or the wheel. Mr. Fun folded pieces of newspaper to help him remember. Couldn't draw his ideas, for the same reason he sold vegetables and didn't work as an engineer, which was his dream."

  • 11:45:58

    VAN BOOY"Mr. Fun put the pieces of folded newspaper away in a drawer that wouldn't close because of New Year's cards, coins, a set of teeth, old keys, plastic toys, souvenirs and a whistle. Mr. Fun's life in small pieces. Most of his inventions never became anything more than folded newspaper, but Golden Helper II was special. And Mr. Fun knew exactly where this bundle of copper, steel and rippling chains could be welded onto the frame of the fun family tricycle."

  • 11:46:26

    VAN BOOY"Mr. Fun's ideas often came in the evening when Mrs. Fun and little Wang were at home watching television, bellies full, eyes closing. At night he sometimes stood over their beds. Sometimes stood there in the darkness, his heart like a kite on currents of breath. It would be like when they were dead he thought, except he would be dead too. No more fun."

  • 11:46:54

    VAN BOOY"By the time their son turned 16, nothing seemed like it would ever change, which usually means it's about it. One morning Mrs. Fun put on a Sunday dress and a silk scarf because she had to go out. Mr. Fun gave her money to pay their neighbor, Hoi (sp?), who sometimes drove them places. But Mrs. Fun saved it and took the bus. When she got to the hospital, she told the doctor she'd be uncomfortable for some time. The pain had been coming and going as though it couldn't make up its mind."

  • 11:47:22

    VAN BOOY"She got back late with the smell of the chemicals on her. When she saw her husband and son at the kitchen table with no bowls, Mrs. Fun started to cry and rushed to the sink, but her husband stood and said firmly, put down that wok. A few days later she went back for the results. Other people were waiting noisily outside the room, but the doctor gave Mrs. Fun time to digest the news. As she waited for the bus home, her bag got heavy and she fell headfirst into the street. Road sweepers dropped their brushes, then helped get her a seat when the bus came."

  • 11:47:57

    VAN BOOY"On the journey Mrs. Fun realized it was time for action and started making a long list to record for her husband on the family cassette player. She imagined the sounds of her voice in the machine years after the real one had gone silent. Here are some of the things on Mrs. Fun's list. When our son acts badly, make a joke so he's not embarrassed to admit he was wrong. Although little Wang is big now, put your arms around him once a day. Make him eat until bursting. Reassure him I'm watching, except when he wants to be alone. And thank you, Mr. Fun, for asking me to be your bride in Tiantum (sp?) Park. The blue flowers you gave me I've kept alive all these years."

  • 11:48:43

    VAN BOOY"One of evening Mrs. Fun asked her husband and son to lie with her on the old spring bed. When they woke the next day she was gone. It rained then, but after that it was clear and bright with a half-moon drifting."

  • 11:49:02

    REHMSo beautiful.

  • 11:49:04


  • 11:49:05

    REHMJust beautiful.

  • 11:49:06

    VAN BOOYIt's really the characters who do that. You know, I just try and think about how they feel and then they really do the rest.

  • 11:49:14

    REHMThere is a portion here where you include the Chinese text.

  • 11:49:20

    VAN BOOYYeah, yeah, I found actually an orphanage in Beijing where there are blind children or vision impaired children. And I contacted them and had one of the residents actually translate some of the English into Chinese so the book could actually have some real life. You know, it's about a blind genius. So why not find a blind genius in China now and work with them? And so they translated some of the text. Lee Chen (sp?) of Bethel Orphanage in Beijing. And so I'll read one of the lines in Chinese. And you're listening is Chinese, please forgive me.

  • 11:49:57

    VAN BOOY(speaks foreign language)

  • 11:50:03

    REHMPlease keep going.

  • 11:50:05

    VAN BOOYIf I keep going, it's going to get a lot worse.

  • 11:50:08


  • 11:50:08

    VAN BOOYI may not be allowed into China ever again. But working with this young lady in China was really, really -- well, we did everything of email and Skype.

  • 11:50:20

    REHMHow long did it take you to really allow the language to become part of you?

  • 11:50:32

    VAN BOOYIt's still happening. I mean, I've been learning for a couple of years, but now I know enough to know that I'm very far away from speaking it properly. And of course there are so many dialects in China too, that if I go five miles this way or five miles that way, I'm in trouble. But some of the translations that I put into the English, for instance, the Chinese word for wine is (speaks foreign language) which literally means grape alcohol. And so in the story when Uncle Ping (sp?), one of the characters, collapses in a restaurant with a heart attack, the waitress look over and say, ah, too much grape alcohol.

  • 11:51:08

    REHMAll right. We have some callers. Let's go to Kay in Rayford, N.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:51:19

    KAYGood morning to both of you. I'm really enjoying this. Thank you so much. That was a beautiful story.

  • 11:51:23

    VAN BOOYGood morning, Kay.

  • 11:51:24

    KAYI wanted to comment on the kindness comment. I moved here to North Carolina five years ago. And this is the deep south, and I'm very, very white, but I will tell you that everywhere that I've gone, because I walk on a cane and I am older, that I have been treated so kindly, and mostly by young black men. And I didn't see any prejudice there. They're very kind. They're very courteous. I was walking across the parking lot to get in the store, and I was on my cane, and there was another young man driving one of those little go-cart electric wheelchairs back to the store, and another young man -- young black man was walking out of the store, and he said, hey, stop, stop, turn around. Give that to that lady. She needs it. And I said...

  • 11:52:03

    VAN BOOYThat's lovely.

  • 11:52:03, baby, that's all right, I don't need it, but thank you for thinking of me. It's stuff like that. There is an innate goodness in people. And we need to -- we just need to be aware of it. I think there's still more good in the world than there is the other.

  • 11:52:16

    VAN BOOYThat's a lovely comment. That's a lovely comment. I think when someone reads a lot and becomes quite intellectual, there's a tendency to sort of -- to blend it with cynicism. But, you know, because once you read and learn about things, you know, it's a bit more tricky. It's like being on thin ice to make these sort of grand observations about kindness. But really I feel like it's okay.

  • 11:52:42

    REHMIt's okay. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Flagstaff, Ariz. John, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:53

    JOHNWell, thank you very much. First of all, Diane, I listen to your show almost every day. You do a great, great job. So that's number one.

  • 11:53:01

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:53:02

    JOHNHere's number two. The message that you convey in your books is -- I can't think of a better time because when you look around -- I mean, just the -- our planet is just becoming one community, you know, and...

  • 11:53:21

    VAN BOOYIt's true.

  • 11:53:21

    JOHN...the stuff that's going on in Ukraine and Israel and Palestine and Nigeria, I mean, my God, it's enough to -- well, and the United States, you know, the shootings that we have, the police shootings that we have and the confusion and the pain, it's all there, you know. Let's see. For me to hear you say that the kindness is there, I mean, my gosh, I think you're right, because...

  • 11:53:52

    VAN BOOYOh, thanks, John.

  • 11:53:52

    JOHN...what it takes is an effort to look for the kindness, look for the good. So...

  • 11:53:59

    REHMI'm glad you called. Thank you, John.

  • 11:54:03

    VAN BOOYThat's an excellent comment. You know, I think it's easy to forget too that when people cause problems, you know, they're problems to us, but to the people doing it, it's a solution. It's probably some sort of solution to pain they had in the past. I was reading a nursing journal once, because this is what you do when you spend hours at the library just sort of loafing around. And this article suggested that bullies are suffering more than their victims in one way. I mean, people who hurt others are not innocent, absolutely not. But the article suggested that bullies are the first victims, and the suicide rate among bullies was higher than that of their victims.

  • 11:54:40

    VAN BOOYWhen I was looking for a martial arts instructor years ago, I found it very hard to find someone I thought I could really train with for a long time. And then I found this (unintelligible) Jewish man called David Caplan in New York City who's fluent in Cantonese. He teaches mostly in China Town, and he has a long beard, which goes down to his stomach. And he knows all the people in China Town, you know, all the octogenarians. And he trains everyone from people in wheelchairs to people who want really to learn like, you know, the fighting aspects.

  • 11:55:12

    VAN BOOYAnd he said to -- I said -- when I was interviewing him -- we were interviewing each other, I said, what would you do if someone called you a name? And he said, oh, I feel sorry for them. And then I said, what would you do if someone attacked you? And he said, oh, I'd run away. I knew this was the teacher for me.

  • 11:55:28

    REHMWhy did you feel the desire or indeed the need to learn martial arts?

  • 11:55:36

    VAN BOOYWell, on the surface it's something that, you know, makes you feel more confident if you ever get attacked, but the truth is, the chance of getting attacked is so low. I mean, I think Carl Jung said the greatest battle we're going to face is going to be with ourselves. And so really, you know, people are learning, like, martial arts or things like that, they may not have to use it, hopefully they won't, because the more you learn, the more you realize, you know, how fragile, you know, life is. But I think, Diane, in 50 years it'll help me get out of the bath.

  • 11:56:09

    REHMOr you can switch to a shower.

  • 11:56:16

    VAN BOOYOr, yes, that's right, or I can attack the soap if I ever need to.

  • 11:56:19

    REHMIndeed. But are you continuing with the study of martial arts?

  • 11:56:25

    VAN BOOYI am. And I think it's very good for young people, especially young people -- especially in an age where a lot of schools won't let children out at recess if it goes -- if it's what they perceive is too cold. Children don't really feel the cold. Their minds are ravaged by the need to play.

  • 11:56:42

    REHMIndeed. And there should be more opportunity for those children to play. Simon Van Booy, I'm so glad you were here to...

  • 11:56:55

    VAN BOOYOh, thank you.

  • 11:56:55 about your new book of stories...

  • 11:57:00

    VAN BOOYThanks, Diane.

  • 11:57:00

    REHM..."Tales of Accidental Genius."

  • 11:57:03

    VAN BOOYOh, it's a great pleasure.

  • 11:57:05

    REHMThank you. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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