James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States, and once worked as President Carter’s chief speechwriter.
Fallows was formerly based in Shanghai and Beijing as The Atlantic’s China correspondent. Postcards from Tomorrow Square, a collection of his articles for The Atlantic during that tenure, was published in 2009. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in 2012. He is the husband of Deborah Fallows.
Why I write
To me, the actual writing – in the sense of sitting at a keyboard and trying to figure out what to say – is the least enjoyable part of the process. I accept it as part of an overall bargain I feel very lucky to be able to accept. That bargain includes being able to find out about topics that deeply interest me; having license to ask people to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences with me; having both the opportunity and the obligation to see how (I think) the evidence fits together; then being able to explain what I think matters to an intelligent audience. As an overall life bargain, I can’t imagine anything better! The problem is, it involves what my friends have called mock-portentously “the lonely agony of the writer’s den.” That is, sitting there and trying explain exactly what I think I’ve found.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
It’s a rare day when I’m not writing something. Taking notes; sending messages; writing down thoughts; or ‘real’ writing, on an article or a book. The truth is that I have a hard time thinking seriously about a topic unless I’m using my fingers to type out my thoughts. The hours per day vary widely. If I’m on a death-march deadline for a long article, it might be 12 or 15 hours a day. I would say a normal minimum is an hour or two.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet: blessing and curse.
Best source of inspiration?
When I was in China, it was the simple act of walking out the door each day and seeing what I came across. Or, to be more exact about it, getting on a bus, a train, or an airplane and seeing what turned up on the other end. Back ‘home’ – which I should define as Washington D.C., where I’ve lived for about half of the past 30 years – it would be talking with friends I admire and trust and sharing “what do you think about this?” impressions.
How often do get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Doubt: don’t leave home with out it! Writer’s block: not so much. One of the few benefits of having spent so many decades making my living through writing is knowing, just through high-frequency repetition, that I will eventually figure out a way to get to the end of an article or book. But to return to the ‘doubt’ theme, I think of the writing life as being essentially similar to competitive sports, or musical or dramatic performance. In contrast to sports or theater, anything you write physically exists beyond the moment of creation. But it is similar in involving the real-time requirement to perform again and again. That repeated challenge is actually something I enjoy.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Annoyingly enough, I’m going to boycott this next run of questions! I have learned from experience about the dangers of offense-by-omission! Moreover, it’s like asking “favorite day of my life” or “friend I like most.” I sort of resist the very concept!
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
Oh, this of course is just impossible! I’ll answer a different question by listing a book – really a series – I remember more clearly than most others, 30 years after reading it: The ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ series of novels by Anthony Powell.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Jane Austen. And I mean, any of it.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I won’t count high school football score reports I did (for $1 each) as a teenaged stringer for the Los Angeles Times. The first ‘real’ writing I did was a story for the college newspaper about a fire that burned down the Harvard economics department. About that one I think: hey, reporting is exciting! The first book I did, right out of college, was a muckraking expose for a project run by Ralph Nader. That made me think that reporting and writing were fun too.
Does writing change anything?
Ah, the endless “compared with what?” question. Compared with an asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out half the animal species, no. But compared with many other spheres of human activity, it can. The effect is a combination of wholesale and retail – or strategic and tactical, if you prefer. The potential personal-scale, individual effect is to change the way individual people think about the world, their possibilities, their lives. The broad-scale effect – again, potentially – is to change the way societies understand the world around them and make decisions about it. To think of it from the other perspective: if there were no writing, people would be in utter ignorance about parts of the world and situations of life they had not seen for themselves.