Ian Johnson won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Falun Gong for the Wall Street Journal. His 2005 book, Wild Grass, recounts the stories of three ordinary Chinese – a young architecture student, a bereaved daughter and a peasant legal clerk – and the struggles they faced in the pursuit of their legal rights.
Why I write
I like to figure out things. Writing is a way for me to synthesize what I’ve learned and put it down on paper in a way that helps me make sense of the world. I also like the creative aspect; finding new ways and techniques to engage readers and convey information. Rewriting is probably my favorite part of the process – turning something that’s OK and serviceable into something that shines.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
If you’re referring to serious writing and not newspaper scribbling or answering emails, then I write mainly during the writing phase of a book. During this period, which can last about a year, I try to write for about three hours a days. I do take some days off, but try to write at least five or six days a week. It’s the only way to keep up momentum. But too much writing – for me it’s more than three or four hours a day – is usually unproductive. But of course, I spend hours each day on correspondence and other things, but I’m not sure if that’s really writing or just hacking out ideas and communicating them with other people.
Worst source of distraction?
Little stuff. I’m anal retentive and like to distract myself by clearing out my email inbox or cleaning the refrigerator.
Best source of inspiration?
Listening to classical music and figuring out how the composer structured his or her ideas. Bach is great for that because he has so many ideas but never gives up on the structure. I’m not talented enough to go wild and let it all hang out, so I need structure. Bach’s structure is often so intricate that it becomes part of the creative process too – the structure is the message. I find that inspiring and often try to layer in bits of structure that readers might not see but which I think make the finished piece better.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Whenever I pitch a book or piece.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I can’t say there’s anyone I never miss, especially not columnists or bloggers (who write too often to be consistently good). Obviously writers like John McPhee are giants and I like to read almost all of what they do – even if I’m not interested in the topic (which is increasingly the case for me with McPhee). From a technical point of view their craftsmanship is so stunning that you’d be a fool not to read it from beginning to end. I also like the short story writer Alice Munro because she’s also a great technician. She’s great also at taking what appears to be dull subjects and turning them into fascinating/terrifying material.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Cao Xueqin. I think most contemporary Chinese authors or artists benefit from the China hype – they’d be nobodies if they lived in, say, Canada or Australia. There’s a lot of ‘for China’ in how we look at Chinese authors or art nowadays. For China, it’s great. But the corollary is that if it weren’t from China, we wouldn’t pay it much attention. How else do you explain a grotesquely uneven and limited author like Gao Xingjian getting the Nobel? Or all the money paid for mediocre authors to be published in the West? I think even Lu Xun is overrated. Most people who tout him do so because it ‘says something about China’ or ‘you can’t understand Chinese culture without reading Lu Xun,’ which is all true and thus interesting from a sociological point of view, but if you really just read his works as artistic creations, they’re OK but limited. Also, he didn’t really publish that much to be a truly great author; it’s about the equivalent of one novel. That’s a pretty slim oeuvre for someone who’s touted as the most important Chinese author of the 20th century.
Best book about China?
Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys. It’s about another era (the Cultural Revolution) and is relentlessly bleak (how could it not be?), but Leys is relentlessly honest and wickedly sarcastic, even though it meant sacrificing his access to China.
I also greatly enjoyed The Taoist Body by the Dutch sinologist Kristofer Schipper. Taoism (Daoism) is China’s only indigenous religion but we have little idea about how it’s really practiced. Schipper, besides being an amazing scholar who compiled the first western-language compendium to The Taoist Canon (a collection of several thousand Taoist scriptures, from Laozi and Zhuangzi to ritual prayers), is also an ordained Taoist priest himself. He gives a straight-ahead account of what it’s like for priests in his lineage to do their stuff. It’s first-rate ethnography and an eye-opener, especially if you are like I was when I read it and thought that Taoism wasn’t a real religion – that it’s a ‘philosophy’ or something that dopey potheads read. It changed how I looked at Chinese religion and thus how I looked at China.
I’ve spent 15 minutes thinking about this but honestly can’t come up with one book that stands out so far ahead of all others that I’d say it’s my favorite. OK, here’s one I’d reread, The Erasers, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first novel. It’s a highly structured (see the pattern…) novel about a detective walking around a town. The technique is unnerving and too many of these Nouveau Roman novels can drive you up the wall, but it’s also highly effective in conveying ennui and building suspense. Robbe-Grillet also helped write Last Year at Marienbad, which is a film version of this technique. You either love it or hate it.
What the fuck? I’m supposed to spend all day on this questionnaire? Well, hmm, another 15 minutes gone… how about Alain Robbe-Grillet? Cao Xueqin? No, I guess that’s cheating. Certainly not Lu Xun, yak. I guess Henry Fielding is a cop out, but I’d love to read a ribald, hilarious, picaresque novel about China like Joseph Andrews. Why is everything about China so heavy and dull? When we get books with picaresque potential, like Ma Jian’sRed Dust or Gao’s Soul Mountain they end up being relentlessly serious. It’s like China’s too important to be funny. That’s one reason I like Peter Hessler’s writings; he makes a point of finding the humor in China – and there’s a lot of it. Another author I like a lot is Thomas Mann, who despite the heavy stuff like The Magic Mountain also wrote very funny books, like Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. Wouldn’t that be a great novel for China – which is loaded with guanxi peddlers.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
Wild Swans. By the time that came out I’d already read a lot of scar literature and just couldn’t bring myself to read another dreary book about someone’s predictable nightmare in the Cultural Revolution. Daddy worked for the KMT or was a landlord or whatever and then we were all screwed. It’s all true and all tragic but I really wasn’t sure what the lesson was. If you’re in the KMT, go to Taiwan? It’s the same with Shanghai Baby and all the other crap that comes out of China written for westerners. I feel like I ought to read that just to know what’s out there, but I can’t bring myself to commit the time to trash.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I was a college journalist. Boring crap.
Does writing change anything?
It can contribute to an overall trend or Zeitgeist. Works rarely jump out and change policy but as part of an overall trend in society, yes, they can contribute. Generally, the less overtly topical they are the more they contribute. The more directly topical they are, the shorter the shelf-life and thus the weaker the impact. That’s why journalist stuff rarely has an impact; it’s dated after a few years.