Jonathan Watts is a journalist and author. He is presently the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent and the paper’s former China correspondent. He is the author of When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It (2010), which looks at China’s impact on climate change.
Why I write
It’s the best excuse I know for exploring new mental territory.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Several hours a day for the newspaper or the website, which is to writing what jogging is to running. Writing a book was more intense so I took seven months off. Initially, I thought (dithered?) a lot more than I wrote. Once my ideas were more fully formed, I rushed to bulk up the content with 8-to-15 hour-a-day marathons. Finally, I rewrote, polished and cut the length by almost half in tighter, shorter sessions.
Worst source of distraction?
Nature. When I started the book, I secluded myself in a couple of country hideaways, where I thought I would be able to concentrate on writing. But the beautiful scenery was a bigger distraction than family, friends and work. I spent much of the time jogging, cycling, staring out the window and even gardening. It was great for thinking, but not for productivity. I ended up writing most of the book in an old factory, where the only view was of concrete walls.
Best source of inspiration?
Travel, altitude, books, conversation, late night beers and early morning coffees. One of the unexpected pleasures of working in China is the steady drip, drip, drip of ideas that accumulate in the mind during long road trips. In the mountains, when the brain is also starved of oxygen, this sometimes swells to a flood of unusual, “blimey, where-did-that-come-from” type of thoughts.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
All the time. I still can’t quite believe I have managed to make a living from writing for 17 years.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
The British journalist Andrew Marr. Although I rarely listened to BBC Radio Four while I lived in the UK, I have recently become addicted to its Start the Week podcast. Marr hosts a brilliant range of guests and he marshals the erudite conversation with an enviably deft touch.
Favorite Chinese writer (living or dead)?
Lu Xun (dead), Yan Lianke (living).
Best book about China?
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
Can’t do this without adding an ‘s’. Then the list includes: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, The Red and the Black by Stendhal.
Another ‘s’ please and another partial answer: the authors of the books above, plus George Orwell, Kenzaburo Oe, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I got about halfway, but made the mistake of taking it on a family holiday. If I ever try again, it will be as a hermit, though even then, I’m not sure I’ll get any further.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Why did it take a week to write 400 words – and a turgid 400 words at that?
How did you get started writing?
I first tried to scribble for a living when I was 26 years old. A freelancer with no particular experience, qualification or name, I promised myself that I would not give up trying to secure a commission until I had been rejected 50 times. Fortunately, after a couple of months and a dozen or so failures, I got a piece published in a free magazine for commuters on the London Underground.
Does writing change anything?
Definitely. Yet the more radical the subject, the more conservative the outcome. By putting the extremities of experience into words, we map new psychological territory. There is nothing quite as conservative as trying to understand. It’s futile, but fun.