S.J. Rozan, a Crime Novelist with a Penchant for Chinatown Mysteries

S.J. Rozan has set nine of her mystery novels in Chinatown. "Family Business" is her latest. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 18, 2022

The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street recently celebrated the December release of Family Business with a talk by its author S.J. Rozan. Those who could find a seat squeezed together on couches or sat on folding chairs. Others stood, lining the sides of the room. Most were die-hard fans of Rozan's Lydia Chin and Bill Smith private eye series. The kind of fans who lament on-line that they will have to wait a year for Rozan's next book. 

In this 14th book in the series, Lydia, who shares a Chinatown apartment with her mother, and Bill, a Tribecan living on Laight Street, are on the trail of the murderer of the new head of a Chinatown crime syndicate. Not surprising for a Downtown who-done-it, there's a real estate developer (in this case, hoping to tear down a slew of buildings on Bayard Street), a hold-out owner and a group of passionate preservationists. And this being Chinatown, there's also a lot of mouth-watering stops along the way: dumplings at Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers, buns at Tai Pan Bakery on Canal, steaming bowls of ngau lam mein (braised beef noodles) made by Lydia's mother (who appears in all of the nine books in the series that take place in Chinatown), as well as endless cups of tea. 

In an interview, Rozan, who easily lapses into the quick, clipped delivery of her private eyes, spoke about the Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series, and getting into the writing business late in life. 

From a young age, Rozan had wanted to be a writer. But she decided in college that "wanting" to be a writer didn't mean she could be one. Instead, she got a degree in architecture. But after working for many years in what she describes as "a really good job" she realized she wasn't happy. 

"It clearly wasn't the job, it was the career," she said. "As soon as I admitted that to myself this little voice in the back of my head said, 'Well, you were going to write a book. Wasn't that the plan? Let's try it.'" 

She was only a few pages into her first novel when Rozan had a revelation. "I discovered that writing was the most thrilling and fulfilling experience I'd ever had." She was almost 40 years old. 

She started out with private eye Bill as the main character. "He is the iconic white male private eye who knows that the world is unsalvageable and there's nothing he can do about it except maybe save one person here and there."

But in those days, publishers wanted books with private eyes who had sidekicks.

"I figured I should have a sidekick whose perspective would be different from Bill Smith," she recalled, "So I said, let me go for a whole other culture." 

Rozan had been a Chinese culture buff from a young age, and also had many Chinese-American friends. "If there was any chance of me convincingly creating a character who was not white, I figured it would be a Chinese-American." 

Rozan, who has won numerous awards for mystery writing, including the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, and Nero, says that although it's now a "fraught situation to write about a culture that's not yours," maybe Lydia is "grandfathered in" because she has been writing about her for so many years. 

"In the beginning," she said, "I would run my books by a Chinese-American friend but I don't anymore. For all I know there are Chinese-Americans and other Asian readers out there who read half the book and throw it against the wall. At any moment I could get an angry letter from someone. I haven't yet."

Unlike many fiction writers, Rozan doesn't write an outline before she starts a book. 

"Everything comes out of your subconscious and the writers who outline can access stuff in their subconscious further back than me, and can see what's there before it starts to come out," she said. But how, she asked rhetorically, could she know what her characters would be up to until they got up to it? 

"I have to wait and see. Sometimes my characters do things that I hadn't anticipated, sometimes they refuse to do things that I thought they were going to do, and then I can say, ‘Oh, I see what you were getting at. Well, let's either put an obstacle in your way or let's help you out.’"

Rozan starts her day with an early morning walk around her Greenwich Village neighborhood ("otherwise I feel like I just rolled over into the living room"), then writes until 1 o'clock in the afternoon. 

"Then, it's like when you have a sponge and you squeeze it out and at a certain point you can keep squeezing but you're not going to get anything else. I can tell when that moment is—when I keep staring at the words and I can't write anymore." 

Sometimes she comes back to it, sometimes not. During much of the pandemic, she was very productive, she said. "When I would get a second wind at 4:30 in the afternoon, where was I going to go? So I would often go back to writing."

Whatever book she is working on, Rozan said that at some point she begins to look forward to writing the last page. All writers must feel the same, she said. 

"You can't wait to finish the damn book and then after four days of doing all those other things you said you wanted to do, you say, "Can't I go back now, and write another book?"