THE IDEA FOR FORMOSA STRAITS, THE story of skeletons in Mao Tse Tung's closet, came to Anthony Hyde almost 25 years ago in an otherwise deserted restaurant of high booths and mediocre food in Ottawa, where he lives with his wife and cat. "Two men came in and sat well away from me, but I could hear them perfectly," says Hyde, 49. "It was obvious after a few minutes that one guy was an official from the U.S. embassy, and he was talking about an attempted coup against Mao. Nothing had been in the papers yet. Either I was hearing a couple of madmen or I was hearing some real secrets. I didn't want to reveal myself, so I stayed there until they left and kept working at the story in my mind."
The novel bespeaks a great familiarity with China. Did you do a lot of research there?
No. I usually go to the places I write about and spend time there. But the Far East is so turbulent, you end up being overwhelmed by the surfaces of things. I wanted to write the book out of the characters and out of history.
You fashion a pretty unsavory past for Madame Mao. Do you think the book would be banned in Beijing?
I think it would be a marvelous behind-the-cover read, but officially people would be a little nervous. I've raked up too many old coals, pointed to too many loose ends about Madame Mao and the whole regime.
Does that make you worry about being in that part of the world now?
Not really. The crowds in China are always so big, you can get lost in them.