Alexandra Harney is the author of The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage (2008), which examines the human and environmental cost of China’s success as the world’s factory through the stories of ordinary Chinese. A former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, Ms. Harney is currently based at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo.
Why I write
I have been writing since I was a little girl. Both of my parents are writers, and they encouraged me and my brothers to think in stories. While we waited for the bus to school, my mother used to dream up stories about people in passing cars – who they were, where they were going, why they had closed the door with their coat hanging out. I started a family newspaper when I was nine: The Harney News (with important neighborhood scoops like “Alex gets bronchitis”). Most of all, I loved to read. During the summer, my family used to visit the Eastern Shore in Virginia, where there wasn’t much to do. I would stock up on books and start reading them on the drive down. Halfway through the weekend, I’d have finished the books I brought with me, and we’d have to go out and buy new ones. My mother used to tell me I “ate” books.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I try to keep a journal, though I don’t write every day unless things are really stressful. When I started researching The China Price, a friend suggested that I write a summary of what happened every day of my research. I’ve come to love that practice, and in addition to writing down what I observed, I write down what was going on in my mind, what the weather was like, what the room smelled like. This supplements the notes and recordings I take, and, assuming I can find the time before I go to bed, is the most immediate record of my impressions. When I’m in the writing phase of a project, I write every day, all day, with breaks only for the gym and food.
Worst source of distraction?
My husband and the Internet. I love talking to my husband Colin so much that I finally had to rent a separate office. The Internet, unfortunately, is harder to avoid.
Best source of inspiration?
Can I say my husband again? For style and substance in modern journalism, I love the writing in the archives of Nieman Narrative Digest, now part of the Nieman Storyboard. John Hersey and Dave Eggers (in Zeitoun) are inspirational storytellers about real people. I also love blogs and websites like the Washington Post’s Story Lab and The Browser’s Best of the Moment, as well as Arts & Letters Daily, that aggregate good and interesting writing.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
All the time!
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Do I have to choose just one? Lionel Shriver. Howard French. Katherine Boo. Ian Buruma. Whatever these people write, I want to read.
Favorite Chinese writer?
They are all journalists. Caixin editor Hu Shuli is pretty extraordinary, and I have huge respect for what she’s doing. But over the last several years, I’ve also gotten to know journalists at the Nanfang group who are doing brave work under challenging circumstances – they always say the last thing they want is to be famous, so I won’t mention their names here.
Best book about China?
You mean besides The China Price? Just kidding. I’m still catching up with all the China books that have come out in the last few years. But Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s Will the Boat Sink the Water? really changed my understanding of rural China.
The last few years, I’ve developed a disturbing weakness for memoirs of loss. Calvin Trilling’s About Alice is beautifully written. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was so moving. Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain was a story of love and loss told through the eyes of an unusual narrator whose warm, wise company we would inevitably lose. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was perfect, especially the opening scene.
I’m in a John Updike phase right now, so this autumn, it’s Updike. But I adore Upton Sinclair, Richard Yates, Lionel Trilling.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Any of the major Russian authors.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I was interning at the FT in Tokyo in February 1998 when the bureau chief asked me to write a brief – a very short story – about a profit warning from Kirin Brewery. The next morning, all I could think about was that piece. Outside of the big international hotels, which I found too intimidating, the only place where I knew I could buy the FT in Tokyo was this one kiosk outside a subway station 45 minutes from my house. I could not have been more excited even on the ride there. I opened that pink paper on the sidewalk, saw my piece, and that was it. I was hooked.
How did you get started writing?
Over Thanksgiving lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo in 1997, six months after I had graduated from college, I was very fortunate to be introduced to the bureau chief of the FT. Paul Abrahams, who was then the bureau chief, took a big risk and hired me. At the time, though I spoke Japanese, my only experience as a journalist was as a sportswriter for the Daily Princetonian, my college paper.
Does writing change anything?
At its best, absolutely. My inspiration in writing matters has always been my father, who as a columnist in the US has prompted changes in legislation. Upton Sinclair’s gripping portrayal of the sordid conditions in meatpacking factories in Chicago in his novel The Jungle led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. At a more basic level, so many books I have read have changed the way I see the world.