Kerry Brown is a writer, lecturer and consultant on China. A former diplomat, Dr. Brown has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Index on Censorship, and is the author of several China books, including Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Chinese Investment Flows in the Reform Period (2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (2009).
Why I write
To disseminate ideas and contribute to public discussions. And more personally because writing is a great way of forcing yourself to organize ideas, to put them in a social form where they can be scrutinized, criticized, and have some kind of impact.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Very sporadic. So I write quite intensively when there is a deadline. For my last book, I wrote almost eight hours a day over a 10-day period. I don’t have set times to write, but wish I could become better disciplined, and have times each day when I could just concentrate on writing.
Worst source of distraction?
Family, and the Internet – if you need to check a fact and Google, before long I find I have disappeared off on another track and am looking at a totally different subject.
Best source of inspiration?
The writing of others – from centuries ago right up to today. I have been reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s novels lately. He wrote no more than a few sentences a day, and you can feel that almost every word he wrote was carefully balanced, considered, and thought out. Someone described his writing style as almost like a miner trying to extract precious minerals from a very difficult seam and needing to scrape and dig and polish everything he extracted. But then he came to writing when he was in his late 30s, after years of contemplation while serving as a sailor. A lesson to us all!
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I stopped writing almost completely from the ages of 25 to 35, apart from work I had to produce professionally as a diplomat. I was overwhelmed by the influence of a tutor at Cambridge when I was doing English there, which made me feel incapable of producing anything worthwhile, even a shopping list! Joining the Foreign Office in 1998 only compounded that, because I was managed for the first few months by a man who was incapable of taking anything you gave him without wholly, and unnecessarily, rewriting it. After that combination, it was only the discipline of needing to write a PhD thesis which brought me back to writing more. In the last five years, I have done more and more. To anyone who wants to write, I would say that you have to spend a long time overcoming the pernicious influence of others. No other way, alas.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
There are too many really. I like Iain Sinclair’s work, especially if it is about London, and sense of place. Recently I have read a massive History of Christianity, which was a very well organized narrative which covered basically the whole of Western civilization from the time of Christ to today. Writers who can synthesize this amount of material and show a mastery and command over it are always impressive. Writing in English about China is much, much patchier. I liked Christopher New’s trilogy about China from the 1970s and 1980s, but I don’t think yet that any non-Chinese writer, or Chinese writer writing in English, has really done justice, at least in fictional form, to the immense epic of Chinese history in the last century. From contemporary English fiction, the ‘Red Riding Trilogy’ by David Peace, and his work on the Miner’s Strike in 1984 were hugely impressive.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I liked the short, compressed pieces of the Tianjin writer Sun Li, from the 1950s to the 1980s, although few of them have been translated. Yang Jiang’s Gan Xiao Liu Ji (A Cadre Life in Six Chapters) was profoundly moving, about her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. I also liked the excellent translation of her husband, the late Qiang Zhongshu’s Wei Cheng (Fortress Besieged). I think Qian’s book is one of the very few written in China since the 1930s that displays a strong sense of irony.
Best book about China?
Rem Koolhas, the architect, in his 2001 collection, Great Leap Forward, about the public spaces of modern China. A wonderful verbal, and visual, approach to the organized chaos that is the contemporary PRC.
Impossible to say, but somewhere between Shusako Endo’s Silence (about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan, which I am amazed was never made into a film), Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, which is so economical and perfectly planned, James Joyce’s Ulysses’ for its modernist inventiveness, any of the late works of Samuel Beckett (perhaps Company from 1980), and St Augustine’s Confessions, a work from the late fourth century that is still startlingly contemporary.
A combination of Dickens, Wordsworth, Beckett, and Conrad, and T.S. Eliot, whose poetry I have just been rereading, and re-overwhelmed by.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Burton’s 16th century Anatomy of Melancholy, which I have tried to read about 10 times, and never got beyond the first 50 pages.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It is literally from another world. I didn’t come to studying China till I was 25, and so anything up to then that I was interested in tended to be about theology or philosophy, wholly uninformed by Eastern history or philosophy, and firmly rooted in the European perspective.
Does writing change anything?
I find it at least helps me work out, or need to work out, how to think about things systematically and logically. However crazy, when you write and put your ideas in front of a public, however small it might be, then you are at the very least having the guts to lay yourself open and state what you think about something. People who have strong ideas about issues, and yet hold back from doing this are, in my opinion, guilty of a kind of moral cowardice.