An Interview with Peter Hessler


A town along the Yangzi River.  Photo by Andrew Field, 1989 

Peter Hessler is a best-selling author and journalist.  He has published two books of non-fiction on China, _River Town_ and _Oracle Bones_.  He has also written feature articles on China for _the New Yorker_, _National Geographic_ and other magazines.  Last November I met Peter in Beijing while he was researching an article on my friend David Spindler and his Great Wall project.  This article was published in the May 21 2007 issue of _the New Yorker_ magazine.  After meeting Peter, I was inspired to read his book _River Town_, which recounts his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer and English teacher in Fuling in 1996-7. I found the book to be an honest, perceptive, and insightful account of what it's like to live in China as a foreigner. 

Peter's experiences in Fuling, a town in Sichuan Province on the Yangzi River, were in many ways qualitatively different to my own experiences living in Taipei, Beijing, and Shanghai on and off over the past twenty years.  Yet many of his stories resonated with my own struggles to learn Chinese language, culture, and history over the years, and to live in a land as an alien.  I'm sure that many of us "China hands" who read his book have felt the same way.  There is also a universal appeal to his narrative of the lonely traveler living in a foreign land, a story that people of all cultures can identify with and understand.  I suppose this helps to explain why his book was a runaway best-seller. 

Another factor that explains Peter's success is that he is an outstanding writer.  Peter's books and articles sail confidently between the Scylla of esoteric academic writing and the Charibdis of sensationalist journalism, offering intelligent reflections and perceptive analyses with close attention to the writer's craft.  It is no coincidence that his writing bears a distinct resemblance to that of his mentor, John McPhee. 

Peter recently consented to an online interview for Shanghai Journal.  Here in his own words are Peter's reflections on his craft:

SJ:  You are a popular writer on an esoteric subject: China.  Who is your target audience?  In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges to writing about China for this audience?

PH:  Ideally, I’d like to appeal to a number of different audiences.  I think it’s important for books to serve as an introduction to China, for readers who haven’t been there or don’t know much about the country; but I’d also like my writing to appeal to people who are familiar with China.  And finally I’d like to be read by people who simply want to read good writing.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to prioritize and balance these goals; in the end I guess my main priority is to try to produce good writing.  There’s a strong tradition of literary nonfiction in the US, but such writers generally haven’t focused on overseas subjects.  It’s a lot to juggle – learning a foreign language and culture takes a lot of attention, and writing well requires a different sort of attention.  In my own experience, I feel like each suffers – my Chinese knowledge would be better if I didn’t spent so much time on writing, and my writing would be better if I hadn’t had to focus on a foreign language and a foreign culture. But it’s a unique challenge and I’ve found it rewarding thus far.

     It’s valuable for a writer to think about his target audience, but he shouldn’t think too much about it.  When you’re writing books, you work in isolation, and you need to be comfortable with that.  The writer has to be engaged with the material; he has to have faith in what he’s doing.  He can’t worry too much about who will read it and how they will react.  It’s hard for me to communicate how isolated I was when I wrote River Town.  At that time I had published very little; I had no contract or agent or any kind of contact with the publishing industry.  I was living at home with my parents, recovering from some of the things I had picked up in the Peace Corps; once a month, I’d get my TB meds at the local public health clinic.  My motivation for writing was very personal; I wanted to record my experiences in Fuling.  I planned to send the book to publishers, but I felt like the odds were it wouldn’t be published.  Still, I wanted to record those years, for my own purposes.  I never once thought that the book would be widely read.  That’s the weird thing about writing – it’s performed in isolation, but the final product is public.

     People sometimes ask me about blogging, and how it would work for a writer, and I guess this is my one reservation.  Blogs are invaluable for communication, both in the sense of exchanges between people, and in the sense of allowing different points of view come to light.  They are a really important complement to traditional journalism, which can be conservative and hidebound.  But I worry that blogs encourage a sense of immediate readership that isn’t healthy for people who want to write books.  You have to be alone with your ideas for extended periods, and you need a type of patience that isn’t necessarily compatible with the Internet.

SJ:  What sort of responses has your book _River Town_ generated among academics?  Is this book widely used and read in universities and colleges in the USA or elsewhere?  

PH:  I don’t have so much direct contact with academics, simply because I’ve been in China for so many years.  But my sense is that the book has been well-received and has been of some value in college classes.  I’m still young enough that part of me cringes at the idea of being “required reading,” but I hope that some of the appeal of the book is that I wasn’t that far removed from college when I went to Fuling.  Students probably connect with that side of the book, being young and alone and far from home.  Obviously, academic courses rely on a lot of specialized articles and books, studies that focus on a particular issue, developing a depth that you don’t see in something like River Town.  But there’s value to a general introduction, which is how the book is often used.

     In 1999, when I first sent the book out, many publishers responded that “people just aren’t interested in a book about China.” The market was very different back then.  China wasn’t on the radar as much, and there wasn’t a lot of nonfiction coming out.  But now there’s a boom in China interest, and I feel like there are lots of quality nonfiction books on the market.  

SJ:  In _River Town_ you narrate the experience of being a "laowai" ("foreigner") in China.  This was in 1996-7 when you lived in the town of Fuling on the Yangzi River.  Given your subsequent experience of living in Beijing for several years, how do look back on your time in Fuling?  

PH:  Those were wonderful years.  They were often very difficult, and it was very emotional. People who live in that situation understand the incredible range of feelings you go through – joy and frustration and anger, often within the same hour.  It was wearing and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it indefinitely.  But there was never a time in Fuling when I wanted to leave, and I always believed that what I was doing was worthwhile.  Life isn’t always like that and I’m grateful for that time.  I grew up a lot, because of the pressure and the isolation.  I think I was technically a pretty good writer by the time I arrived, but there wasn’t much depth to what I wrote.  Somehow, the experience in Fuling changed that.  Those years were inspiring but they were also deeply humbling, and that combination changed me as a person and as a writer.

     Life in Fuling was challenging, but it was also very simple. We had no Internet, and there weren’t many social outlets for two foreigners in a place like that.  I was very focused on teaching, learning Chinese, writing, and exploring the city.  That was my entire life.  The isolation and peacefulness is the part that is hardest to remember now.  There are times when River Town, the book, feels like interference in my memories.  Not in the literal sense; I believe that the book is very accurate as to what it felt like to live in Fuling.  Over the years, I’ve realized there are some mistakes in the book, and I feel like I’m a better writer now, technically.  But I’ve never second-guessed the basic feeling of the book.  It’s very accurate as to how the place felt to me, what life was like.  

     Still, this description of an intensely personal time has become very public.  I’m asked to talk about it, and comment on it, and anybody with fifteen bucks can read about it.  Sometimes it feels like a private moment that has been packaged for public use.  Of course, I did the packaging; there’s nobody to blame but myself.  And I don’t regret the book for a moment.  But it reminds me that with writing, you start with something intensely private, and then you put it out there, and after that you are no longer really in control.  It’s a type of irony:  I first wrote River Town as a way of preserving my memories, but as time passes the book’s impact makes those memories seem more remote, as if they belong to another person, a character in somebody else’s story.

     Imagine what it’s like for people who are written about! Adam Meier has always been incredibly generous and understanding with the book, and the way it made part of his life public.  The people in Fuling have been positive; they seem proud of the book. I’m grateful to all of these people, but I sometimes feel guilty.

SJ:  Your second book, _Oracle Bones_ covers even more esoteric topics relating to China.  Why oracle bones?  Do you see this book catering to a more "academic" audience, a "China hand" audience, or is it still a "general interest" book?

PH:  I guess it’s the same instinct, in that I’m writing about things that engage me, and having faith that they also engage a broader audience.  I’m working on a three-book series, each of which has a slightly different focus and structure. River Town is about geography, or a sense of place; and Oracle Bones is about history, or a sense of time; and my current book is about economics, or development.  This wasn’t something that I planned from the beginning, of course, but I began to conceptualize it after River Town came out and I started working on another book.  I didn’t want to write the same book twice, which I think is a bad move for a writer.  Still, I felt like China is such a rich and important subject, and it continued to challenge and engage me.  So I wanted to find a way to continue writing about China without being repetitive.  

     Mostly, I’ve tried to choose projects that teach me something as a writer.  Structure is important to this learning process.  I wanted the structure of River Town to reflect a sense of place, so the book moves somewhat slowly, settling periodically on set-piece descriptions of the landscape.  Oracle Bones is supposed to reflect the nature of time and memory – the way that memory is layered, and the way that our perception of time shifts between the linear (the book’s sustained narratives) and the vertical (the “artifacts,” essay-like sections that examine certain topics).  The book moves in fits and starts; sometimes a story is repeated; and the sense of narrative is often punctuated by memory.  I became interested in oracle bones because they reflect so many issues of interpretation and writing.  A scholar of the bones is trying to piece them together, often in a very physical way, and as a writer I’m doing the same thing.  And the bones make us think about memory, how it’s recorded and how it’s interpreted.

    This next book is about development, and the structure is simpler.  Each section has a clear drive, some trajectory that moves things inexorably forward.  I want to capture that sense of motion that we all feel living in China.

     There are links between the books, and each has some significant section that is personal – a friendship or something that reflects my personal relationship with “China.” But each book will have a different feel, especially in the structure and the pace.  Oracle Bones was probably the most ambitious, structurally, and it’s a slower read than River Town.  I know that some readers were disappointed with that.  The next one will have its own framework, and my hope is that the books will function together, as a kind of set, covering the decade from ’96 to ’06.  And I hope they prepare me for whatever projects are in the future.  As a young writer, the main thing is to continue learning.

SJ:  Some people have noticed a resemblance between your work and that of John McPhee, considered one of the great non-fiction writers in America today.  Care to comment on this?

PH:  I studied under John McPhee at Princeton, where he teaches a course in nonfiction writing.  Before taking his course, I wrote fiction, and I intended to get a PhD in English and find a life in academia.  McPhee’s class taught me that nonfiction writing could be artful; I began to realize all the tools that are at the disposal of somebody writing nonfiction.  Still, I expected to teach English and write fiction, and I went to graduate school in English literature at Oxford.  Over the course of two years I became steadily disillusioned with literature, or at least with the way it’s studied in academia, and I began to realize that I needed to do something else.  It was a painful process because I didn’t like the alternative of journalism; I had never liked newspaper or newsmagazine writing.  I applied to the Peace Corps without a clear sense of where that decision would take me.  But I had a vague sense that it would be good for me as a writer, and better for me as a person.  I can remember talking with McPhee about it.  He was very encouraging; he thought it was a good idea, even if there wasn’t a tangible goal.  He recognized the value of experience.  Now I realize that this is how education is supposed to work:  I was fortunate to have great teachers at great schools, but then I stepped away from that world and entered a place where I had to put ideas to work.  It didn’t matter to people in Fuling that I had gone to Princeton and Oxford. They laughed at me because I had hair on my arms and couldn’t get the tones right.

     It was a hard decision.  I didn’t grow up privileged; my family didn’t have much money and I went to the normal public high school in Columbia, Missouri. But I attended Princeton and Oxford on scholarships, and the more time you spend in those places, the more compelled you feel to follow a certain track.  But writing does not follow career tracks; it’s not like law or business.  Writing is very personal and you have to find your own path.  After Oxford I felt a lot of pressure to stay within that elite world, to do something respected and comfortable and immediately rewarding.  In retrospect, I realize how important it was to avoid that, and McPhee seemed to sense that as well.  His encouragement helped.  It also helped that my parents were very supportive of my joining the Peace Corps.

     In Fuling I was assigned to teach English literature, which was wonderful after my years of disillusionment.  I had felt a little guilty to leave it behind, but in Fuling I realized that a love for books will always stay with you, and I could see that it could be transferred to my students.  That put me at peace with my decision.

     I’m still in close touch with McPhee and visit him about once a year.  And I often ask him for advice about writing.  My path is quite different, living in China, and I’m a different writer. To be honest, he has an attention to words and rhythms and structure that I’ll never have.  There are certain writers like that, people whose attention to language leaves me in awe.  Hemingway is another, as is Nabokov.  McPhee should be better known than he is; but if he were better known he probably wouldn’t have written thirty books.  He’s in his mid-seventies and still doing demanding reporting and writing.

SJ: Obviously the work you do is reaching a broad audience in America and shaping their perspectives on China.  In your opinion, what are the greatest sources of misunderstanding that Americans have about China today?

PH:  I guess the greatest source of misunderstanding is the fact that Americans rarely go to China.  They rarely go anywhere, and they rarely study another language. This isolation makes it very hard for Americans to understand the rest of the world, and we live in a period when we are painfully aware of the consequences.

     In a more specific vein, I think there is a tendency to politicize everything that is happening in China.  Analysts like to blame the Communist Party for everything, when often there are deeper cultural and social reasons for the way people act. Also, I think that the American press generally portrays China as a darker place than it really is. There are complicated reasons for this; it’s not a matter of prejudice or propaganda, but rather a tradition of journalism.  A good journalist is supposed to expose injustice.  But this approach can be a problem for a foreigner working in China, because the American readers don’t have enough context to put the injustice in perspective. They need to get a better sense of what daily life is like.

     I feel like I’m somewhere between journalism and academic work, and I guess I feel closer to the way an academic looks at things. Journalism often frustrates me. It’s a very product-oriented: editors want the story, and they want it fast.  They care about the product, not the process.  A journalist will decide he’s going to do a story about bride-selling, so he pays a Chinese fixer to find people who have been sold, and then he interviews the people – and of course the final result is a story about bride-selling. The trajectory of the thing is outlined from day one.  Academia has many flaws – it can be remote and slow-moving – but at least people care deeply about methodology.  They structure projects carefully and they try to protect against prejudice or predestination.

     Of course, a journalist has limited time, and limited resources.  This is the root of all problems, and it’s something that really hampers the field.  But I think there are ways to develop good methodology within these frameworks.  I recently finished a project for National Geographic where I followed the development of a factory, visiting periodically over the course of a year. I didn’t choose a successful factory, or a bad factory where workers are getting their hands chopped off; I simply chose a small factory that was in the early stages and then I watched things unfold.  The story followed its own course.  It made me feel helpless at times, because I had no idea where it was going (the factory almost folded at one point); but in the end it made for a richer experience.  Of course, I was lucky to have editors who understood the project and agreed to support it.  I don’t expect to spend that much time on every story, but I try to think hard about how I’m doing research and whether there’s a better way.  

     Of course, it’s easier to make these decisions if you’re coordinating magazine stories and books.  The Geographic story probably took too much time for a single project, but I’ll be able to use some of the research in my next book, so it’s worthwhile.  Books give a writer much more freedom.  It’s quite telling that in the past ten years we’ve seen a real change in the type of China books that are coming out, many of them by journalists, whereas most news coverage seems to be stuck in the same ruts.  The narrow structures of traditional journalism have not been flexible enough to cope with what’s happening in China.  But the books have more freedom and they’ve done a better job of reflecting this country.