Jonathan Fenby CBE is a British writer, journalist and analyst. He edited the Observer from 1993 to 1995 and the South China Morning Post from 1995 to 1999. He is the co-founder and managing director of the China team of Trusted Sources research service.
Mr. Fenby is the author of several critically acclaimed several books on China, including Dealing with the Dragon: A Year in the New Hong Kong (2001), Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost (2005), The Seventy Wonders of China (2007), Dragon Throne: China’s Emperors from the Qin to the Manchu (2008), China: The Longest Journey 1850-1949 (2008), The Penguin History of Modern China (2009) and Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today (2012).
Why I write
Because I like doing so. As Fats Waller said, how nice it is being paid for doing what you enjoy.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I try to but have a regular day job at a research company (working on China) so that sometimes takes up all my time. I do most writing in 12-hour bursts at weekends.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
Getting up early and watching the dawn come up from my desk. The right jazz record played at the right moment.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Never had block, but constantly doubt my ability.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Elmore Leonard (novelist), Martin Wolf and Martin Lukes [the creation of columnist Lucy Kellaway] in the FT (columnists), Michael Pettis (blogger).
Favorite Chinese writer (living or dead)?
Lu Xun (dead), Yan Lianke (living).
Best book about China?
Too many to mention, I fear. Dream of the Red Chamber for imperial China. Lu Xun for early 20th century. Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China has to be in any list. I also find the books by foreigners Hallet Abend and Graham Peck on China under the Nationalists fascinating. Richard Baum’s Burying Mao is a tremendous account of the end of the Mao era and I find The Tiananmen Papers very illuminating.
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.
I really cannot choose and there are too many great books I have never got round to reading.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Proust (only ever got to around page 128).
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I was eight at the time – why did I waste so much time? It was a story full of wrong spellings about a boy called John and a girl called Mary which I pecked out on my parents’ typewriter and they sent it to a magazine and it was published and I got a check.
Does writing change anything?
It can change perceptions, I think.