Frances Wood is noted British Sinologist and the author of several China books including Did Marco Polo go to China? (1995), The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia (2002), The Lure of China: Writers from Marco Polo to J.G. Ballard (2009), The Diamond Sutra: The Story of the World’s Earliest Dated Printed Book (2010) and a memoir of her student days during the Cultural Revolution, Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking: My Part in the Cultural Revolution (2000).
Why I write
I write to describe China to others, to try and interest them in its history and difference. It started because long ago, in the early-mid 1970s it was unusual in the UK to study Chinese and to visit China. I found that everybody I met was interested to know why I started learning Chinese (not for very noble reasons), how many other students there were, what China was like in 1971 (the first time I visited with a youth delegation)?
I continue to write because there are so many interesting aspects of Chinese history that I’d like to tell other people about. I think I’m quite lucky to work in a library. Not only do I have access to a mass of material, but I’m not expected to become a narrow academic, its important to have some vague knowledge of all aspects of Chinese civilization in order to inform selection of material for the library and help readers. So I can write a book about Treaty Ports, another about the First Emperor, then one including sections about writers as recent as the late lamented J.G.Ballard – following any subject that interests me.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
As I am employed full time by the British Library I can’t usually write every day, although at the moment I’m writing a book for British Library Publications so I can. Writing here (in the Library) is pretty hopeless with interruptions of all sorts to which I must respond so I mainly write at home and usually at weekends and during holidays. I gather masses of material, piles of photocopies and notes at work to take home for writing.
Worst source of distraction?
Myself. Everyone must be familiar with the syndrome of cup of coffee, newspaper, another cup of coffee, washing up, noticing dead leaf on house plant, remove, stare into space, wander round garden, another cup of coffee etc. Though I do think there are times when a piece of work needs to marinate inside one’s head and it would be pointless to sit down and try and write it before it is ready. What should I be doing this afternoon instead of answering your questions? Getting on with my book – but the questions are more fun.
Best source of inspiration?
A nice pile of freshly photocopied sources of reference ready to be manipulated into a chapter.
How often do get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I do think age does rather wither one’s self-confidence. I used to be capable of cruel reviews (now I’d rather refrain than attack. I also tire of the sound of my own voice and long to hear others, read other people’s books. I don’t get writer’s block apart from suffering from the delaying tactics listed above. Once I get going, I hugely enjoy the process of writing, of trying to make sense out of a vast subject like the Silk Road or make the life and times of Qin Shi huangdi intelligible to twenty first century readers. And it is very satisfying when you feel you have managed it.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I dislike columnists and have an ignorant suspicion of blogging – all seems to be part of the mobile phone culture, people having to talk all the time without allowing much thinking time, and columnists being opinionated but not necessarily informed – yeuch.
But books are different. I don’t want to miss anything good about China – nice to have Paul French energetically producing very good things – his Carl Crow biography, then the Crow diary, which I enjoyed greatly, and the book on journalists which was a nice accompaniment to my last book where I’d rather shied away from journalists. I love to see books by friends (again, eternally) on China, Cyril Cannon on Brewett Taylor, Lynn Pan on Shanghai style. Some of my favorite novelists are dead – J.G. Ballard, J.G. Farrell (I’ve only just noticed the initials) so I don’t wait impatiently for the next. Apart from China books, I mainly read thrillers but Robert Crais seems to have gone quiet, Qiu Xiaolong is very good when he’s good and very thin when he isn’t so I await his latest publications with hope and trepidation.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
Impossible question – Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time with Ann Bridge’s Peking Picnic close behind.
S.J. Perelman but also his Irish contemporary Flann O’Brien.
To be read in conjunction with the above answer. I could say favorite book overall: The Best of S.J. Perelman and favorite writer overall Flann O’Brien and I’d get them both in.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
The Brothers Karamazov.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I started off writing books for Children about China – they were OK. They seemed to lead on to longer and better things though how any editor could look at Through the Year in China and think this person could write something more substantial beats me.
Does writing change anything?
I think it enhances life which isn’t a bad thing.