Why I Write: Peter Hessler
Monday, 18 January 2010 10:01
by JFK Miller
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled Why I Write detailing the reasons why he put pen to paper. In this, our continuing Web series, we talk to China authors about their literary habits and reading preferences, and examine Orwell's question which lies at the heart of being an author – why they write
Peter Hessler is the author of River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving, which is out now. He will be speaking at the Shanghai International Literary Festival in March. Hessler is published by HarperCollins.
Why I write
Some of it is personality and inclination, I suppose. I’ve always been a solitary person, and from the earliest years in grade school I disliked any kind of group activity, apart from sports. When I got older, I never was able to imagine myself working a regular job, in an office, with other people. I always liked the idea of being independent, and I liked the idea of creating something. Writing happened to be the way it worked out.
But there easily could have been other outlets. A lot of this depends on who encourages you at key moments in your life. When I was 16 years old, I had an excellent English teacher named Mary Racine, and she was the first person who told me I should become a writer. So I started to think seriously about it at a relatively early age. In college I had two instructors, Russell Banks and John McPhee, who also encouraged me. I probably would not have become a nonfiction writer if it weren’t for McPhee.
Nowadays, I suppose that I write because it keeps me interested in my surroundings, and I like the challenge of trying to figure things out. And I believe it’s useful to write well about an important subject. But it’s also true that I write because these teachers showed me the way.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
If I’m working on a book or a long article, I write every day. I’ll take a day off if I have to run errands or something, but I don’t take weekends off or anything. I like the writing; it doesn’t wear me out. I find reporting more demanding, and I generally prefer not to have day after day of interviews. I’ll be more careful to schedule breaks in that routine. But for writing I can work every day, and I usually do best in the mornings. I’ll write until lunch, then take a nap, and then work for another hour or two. In the afternoon I’ll go for a long run.
I try to pace myself. When I was younger I’d write for hours and hours; I wrote the first draft of River Town in less than four months. It wasn’t healthy and I found myself very depressed afterwards. Nowadays I work more slowly, and I think I enjoy it more.
Worst source of distraction?
I suppose it’s sports. I spend a lot of energy running, at least during this period that I’ve been in the States. I like being outdoors and I usually run 10 or so miles a day on mountain trails; sometimes I’ll go for 18 or 20. It’s a little excessive. But I figure I’ll be able to write for many years, whereas this is probably the last time in my life I’ll be able to run like this. Running isn’t a bad complement to writing. I never think about my work while I’m running, so it gives me a break. And there’s something about the patience that carries over. Endurance, too. On my last big China research project, where I was spending a lot of time in factory towns, the reporting was very demanding – a lot of long, hot days in factories in the southeast. It helps to be in good shape. But I also watch a fair amount of sports on TV, which is pretty just much a waste of time.
Best source of inspiration?
I keep books around that I care about, and sometimes if I’m having trouble writing I’ll read a little. I like Hemingway’s short stories, and Truman Capote, and Fitzgerald. When I re-read the opening pages of Conrad’s Nostromo, I’m impressed and inspired every time. If I’m having trouble getting started I’ll read some of the openings of Hemingway’s stories, because he was so good at that first paragraph.
How often do you get writers' block/doubt your own ability?
I generally don’t have too much trouble writing. It’s harder for me to report, because I’m shy and in the early stages of a project I have to steel myself to go out. And it’s difficult for me to make a telephone call. There’s more self doubt in those early stages, when I’m trying to figure out a project, trying to tell where it’s going. I tend to do very open-ended research. I don’t like reporting stories that are tied to the news or some specific issue; I feel like it gets too narrow too quick. I don’t want to know my conclusions before I start research. But this means that I have to go into projects without much idea of where they are going, which can be stressful. And my shyness makes it a little harder.
But once the material is in hand, the writing usually comes easily. The only time it causes stress is if I have to deal with some kind of deadline. I don’t like to have somebody demanding a story or a book at a certain time. I prefer to feel like I’m writing for my own reasons, not because somebody else expects something. I learned early on that this makes me unhappy, so I generally structure my projects so they’re more open-ended. I’ve never gotten a book contract in advance – I’ve always written the books first, and then I go to the publisher, because I don’t want even a vague sense of a schedule. I suppose it’s not very good business in the narrow sense, but it makes me happier as a writer. So much of this career is about making long-term decisions, trying to see beyond the immediate story or book that you’re working on. You need to find routines that are sustainable.
My feeling is that writing shouldn’t feel like work. It requires enormous attention, of course, but it shouldn’t be a grind. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m cranking out 1,500 words a day like an assembly-line worker. It should be engaging, even to the writer. If I’m going well, I’m entertaining myself while I’m writing. Sometimes a section will take an unexpected direction, or I’ll come up with some turn of phrase that I didn’t anticipate, and these moments are enjoyable; it feels like it’s coming from outside of myself. If it’s not going well, I’ll just find something else to do for a while. It’s not worth torturing yourself; I always want to make sure that writing remains enjoyable, because otherwise it’ll lose that spark. For the same reason, I don’t publish that much. I prefer to take a lot of time with a small number of projects that I care about.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I suppose that The New Yorker is the magazine I read the closest. It’s not because I write for them, but more because it’s one of the few places where you can find long stories that are structured and written in interesting ways. One thing you notice is that most of the people who write very well are generalists. They are attracted to projects by narrative, character, voice, as opposed to being attracted to some specific topic. It’s a little sobering for somebody who has written a lot about China, and it’s probably one of the main reasons I left. A writer needs to learn how to respond to different subjects if he wants to improve.
I was taught by John McPhee, and I read his work very carefully; I’ve also spent a lot of time talking with him about it. Of contemporary writers, I like Susan Orlean’s voice – very natural and decent, good-hearted toward her subjects, with a great sense of humor. Nick Paumgartner also has an excellent, comfortable voice. I always read Larissa Macfarquhar’s pieces very carefully. I think she’s doing some of the most interesting things with structure that you find in the magazine. Katherine Boo is a very perceptive reporter and somebody who spends enough time with her subjects to really know them. David Grann has a very strong sense of narrative; he picks stories that unfold in lively ways. There are many others, but these ones come to mind, perhaps because they are younger. I also think the magazine’s critics are first-rate, although that’s a different type of writing.
I also admire writers who observe communities carefully, the way that Tracy Kidder does in Among Schoolchildren.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I’m not really qualified to answer this, in the deep cultural sense, in terms of bringing some real historical perspective to it. I wish I read Chinese well enough to appreciate the ancient poetry, which I sense is the strongest part of the literary tradition. And I never studied Chinese culture, language, or literature in college or grad school, so my reading has been sporadic. I admire what Ha Jin has done – he’s created a strong, distinct voice, making art out of some troubled times. I’ve read Li Yiyun’s first story collection and I liked that.
I have of course spent a lot of time in contemporary China, as well as in Chinese schools, and I think it’s a very difficult culture for a writer. It’s hard for Chinese to write about what’s happening nowadays, especially in fiction. Many of the best fiction writers are exiles, and they’ve had that status for a while, so they can’t write about the past decade with much accuracy. And the writers who are currently working in China are limited in many ways. There is of course the political issue, censorship of various forms, and this issue tends to get the most attention. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the main problem. There are a lot of cultural elements that also make it hard for Chinese writers. For one thing, educated Chinese traditionally look down on the farmers and the working class, and they don’t have much interest in that world. They tend to be engaged much more by ideas than they are by individuals and stories. I think this is one reason why we see so many allegories in Chinese contemporary fiction, and it often makes for very heavy and boring reading. Why aren’t the Chinese novelists spending time with migrants, with factory workers, with entrepreneurs, and bringing their stories to life? That’s where the energy is nowadays in Chinese society. You would expect that today’s climate would result in a kind of naturalism, the type of writing that developed in the West during the 19th century. But it hasn’t happened, and I think one factor is the gap between educated Chinese and the rest of society.
Mostly, though, if you spend time in a Chinese school you wonder how any writer could come out of that system. As a kid growing up in America, I really hated school. I hated the structure; I hated the group activities; I hated the stupid worksheets with set questions. I liked learning, but I had a strong independent streak and I wanted to have more control over what I was doing. And I didn’t see any point in working with other kids. If you’re creating something, you want to do it alone. My mother still has report cards from the second grade that say “Peter refuses to work with a group, even a group of two.” Fortunately, a few of my teachers were somewhat accommodating, although it wasn’t until high school that they really allowed me to do my own thing. The point is, the American education system had enough flexibility that I was able to survive. There was a lot of anger and frustration along the way, but eventually I found open-minded teachers and they pointed me in the right direction.
In Chinese education, though, the group mentality tends to be relentless. Most writers are individuals, but that instinct usually gets to be broken in a Chinese classroom. And when they teach writing, it’s not through an emphasis on voice, perspective, narrative, character. Instead, they have the kids copy poetic phrases over and over. They are taught to spout off set opinions instead of coming up with anything unexpected. And they do a lot of handwriting. Lots and lots of handwriting. It’s incredibly deadening. In the village outside of Beijing where I have a home, I was once helping a neighbor kid with his homework, and his assignment was: “Write an essay about your lamp.” He wrote “My lamp is very bright,” and then he got stuck. Well, that’s another bright kid who probably won’t be writing novels in 20 years. Or if he does, it’ll be a 600-page allegory about a lightbulb.
I’ve always believed this cultural issue is more significant than political censorship. Look at Taiwan – where are the great novels about Taiwan? It’s an amazing place: you have a class of elites who lost a terrible war, fled to exile on a strange island, brutalized the natives, built toy factories, went abroad to study, developed a repressive regime and then opened it up, and eventually lost their ruling status. There’s no Communist Party to censor writers. Where’s the epic that captures this half-century? Why hasn’t this environment produced a Tolstoy or a Conrad? It’s because writers do not develop simply because they live in interesting times. The environment does not create a writer, sui generis. People need to be educated to write, and they need to be educated to think as writers. Traditional Chinese education tends to focus on other skills and values.
Personally, I’m more engaged by Chinese film. I think that during the past two decades that medium has produced more work of quality than any other Chinese art. It makes sense – the Communist system established a lot of well-funded film schools, and regardless of politics those places teach important technical skills. And film is something of a collaborative art, so it might be more compatible with what people learn in the Chinese education system. It’s also easier to understand film in translation, so Chinese film students can educate themselves by watching foreign movies. They learn the technical stuff in the state-run schools, and they figure out the more creative skills on their own.
Best book about China?
Can’t really say. It depends on what you’re looking for. But the point is that you can find it, especially with regard to contemporary China. There are lots of good books out there. In particular, I think the contemporary nonfiction about China is of a high level. You have a number of people who speak the language, have lived there for years, and also know how to write. And the society is much more open than it’s been for decades, so material is easier to come by. I don’t think a lot of people realize this yet, but it’s a special moment. Traditionally it’s been rare for good nonfiction writers to write deeply about a developing world society. In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of attention paid to the 'New Journalism' in America, and in general you can say that nonfiction writing has been a vibrant field in the States for three decades. There have a number of nonfiction writers who really do have the technical skills of a novelist. But traditionally these people have focused almost entirely on the States. Maybe they would write something about Europe, but they wouldn’t touch the developing world. You had travel books, but nothing that was really focused on individuals and communities in places like Asia or Africa. You couldn’t even get a first-rate American writer to spend real time in Mexico! But nowadays people are in China for years and years. And there’s a readership for this stuff – Americans are willing to sit down with a book about China.
Favorite book? Favorite writer?
Can’t say there’s one book, or even one writer. I mentioned some of the ones I really like, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Capote and Conrad. John McPhee is the one who showed me the potential of nonfiction. I also enjoy writers with wonderful, natural-sounding, but distinctive voices – Paul Theroux, Joan Didion. I read Nabokov’s Lolita and Speak, Memory over and over. I’ll often pick up Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and read a few pages, to remind myself that this is supposed to be enjoyable. I like some non-literary books like Ted Williams’ autobiography, because he has such a classic voice – individualistic, stubborn, and proud. I read a lot of Dickens in college and grad school. I appreciate his sense of humor, same as I do with Mark Twain. Humor tends to be undervalued, in part because it’s hard to define and difficult to teach. And critics will generally look down on humor for all the obvious reasons. But sometimes being funny is the best way to approach a serious subject.
The book you should have read but haven't?
I’ve tried to read Midnight’s Children twice and have quit both times. I don’t feel any guilt about it, though. Sometimes you don’t connect with a book, and that doesn’t mean it’s not a great book, or that you’re not a good reader. So much comes down to taste.
With reading, I’m more inclined to feel relief than guilt. I feel fortunate that I never read one word written by Ayn Rand. I’m grateful that I haven’t cracked a book by Nietzsche. While more thoughtful teenagers were reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I was wearing a red vest and working the concessions stand at a movie theatre in mid-Missouri that showed Top Gun four times a day for an entire summer. What an experience! I’m also relieved that I haven’t read any experimental poetry of the modern period. I avoided anything by Susan Sontag. One Paul Auster novel was more than enough. I did On the Road with Kerouac, and that was it. When that annoying over-serious child character in Jude the Obscure finally hung himself, I said “Great!” and never read another Hardy novel. It makes me happy to think of all the books I’ve missed.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think...
It took me a long time to start publishing. I never wrote for my high school newspaper, and in college I never published a word in any undergraduate paper or journal. I was off in my own world, doing my schoolwork, writing fiction, and training for the track team. I didn’t have much interest in journalism, because I didn’t realize the different forms and possibilities. The popular conception of journalism – what gets glorified in movies and books, and by prizes like the Pulitzer – emphasizes breaking stories, and reporters who are fast and aggressive. There’s a tendency to glorify exposes and muckraking, which never appealed to me. I prefer to move more slowly, and I knew I wouldn’t gain any pleasure from the competitive side of journalism. I could never get inspired by the thought of getting a story before somebody else.
There is of course much, much more to journalism than I understood at first. But it can be hard to see that from the outside. It wasn’t until my junior year in college, when I took John McPhee’s writing class, that I realized there were other types of journalism in newspapers and magazines. There were ways to emphasize writing, and long-term research. And I realized there was some value to looking at something familiar with a new perspective. Those were all things that naturally appealed to me.
The summer after taking that course, I started doing a little bit of freelancing, in part to earn money. The first story I did was about Mormon missionaries in East Moline, Illinois. I lived with them for a few days, dressed up in the white shirt and blue pants, and I went door-to-door with them, trying to get converts.
I don’t know if the writing was very good, but the project set the right tone for what I might do. I was always interested in stepping into a different world and trying to understand it. That summer I also had a job working as an ethnographer for the Kellogg Foundation, where I wrote a long report about Sikeston, a small town in the Missouri Bootheel. That project had a big impact on the way I later saw Fuling – it taught me that you should recognize the complexity of a small place, and try to take enough time to understand the nuances.
Does writing change anything?
To be honest, I don’t care, not in the strictest sense. I’ve never been a political person; I tend to get bored when people talk about policy and big-picture things. I suppose that my time in the Peace Corps made me more realistic about a person’s impact, and more cynical about a certain type of idealism.
But Americans are attached to this idea, especially with regard to the developing world. You look at the books that sell well in the States, the best-selling books about poor places, and they tend to be about a foreigner who is trying to save people. You have Three Cups of Tea or Mountains Beyond Mountains. Individually these books can be great, and they tell important stories, but it concerns me a little that this approach tends to dominate the bestseller readership with regard to the developing world. The other main option is books about atrocities – child soldiers, or sex slaves, or things like that.
I wonder about the impact of these books, and I wonder about the vision they promote of the developing world. Americans seem to read these books and conclude: Thank God I was born in the good old U.S. of A. instead of in some crazy country like this. Or they think, We really need to fix these places. They conclude that if you’re going to live overseas, you need to be either a saint or insane. There’s no sense of normal life in a developing country – no sense that you might live in one of these places and have an enjoyable life, and make friends you respect and like. Obviously, there are some countries where it’s just not possible to live a normal life, because things are so troubled – but these places tend to dominate our perception of the world; they are represented disproportionately.
As a result there’s no real connection with the people, not in terms of understanding them and being able to put yourself in their shoes. These books don’t come out of a deep anthropological instinct. The basic interest is more along the lines of changing the world than understanding the world. But this has always been the classic American weakness beyond its borders. People want to get involved, and they want to change the world, but they don’t want to be patient. And they aren’t inclined to grant others the dignity of figuring out their own path.
One thing I liked about being in China was that I couldn’t over-estimate my significance, either as a teacher or as a writer. When I arrived with the Peace Corps, the country was clearly going its own way, and that’s still the case. Foreigners have some impact, but they aren’t guiding the country, and it’s not a playground for NGOs like so many parts of the world. The state-level stuff is of questionable value. When a head of state like Obama goes to Beijing, he’s performing certain rituals that are part of big-picture politics, but he’s not making a lot of earth-shattering decisions that will change China. In a sense, he has a lot less leeway than a migrant going to Dongguan looking for a factory job. So as a writer you’re best off sticking with that migrant or somebody like him; you should try to understand Chinese people. You try to figure out their stories and their motivations, and you try to write in an artful way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. Good writing should enlighten and entertain, and it should have some quality of art. But it doesn’t have to change policy or raise funds for a cause. Plenty of other people are trying to change the world, often in heavy-handed ways that do as much harm as good.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
My new book, Country Driving, will come out in February. Right now I’m working on some magazine stories here in southwestern Colorado. And I want to run at least one good marathon in 2010.