Leslie T. Chang lived in China for a decade as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, specializing in stories that explored how socioeconomic change is transforming institutions and individuals. She has also written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Condé Nast Traveler.
Her first book, Factory Girls (2009), won the 2009 Asian American Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Chang spent three years charting the progress of two migrant workers, the teenage girls Min and Chunming, who worked the assembly lines in Dongguan in southern China amid the largest migration in human history which has seen some 130 million Chinese leave the country for the cities.
A graduate of Harvard University with a degree in American History and Literature, Chang has also worked as a journalist in the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. She and her husband, writer Peter Hessler, currently live in Cairo with their two daughters.
Why I write
I’ve written stories from the time I was very young. I’ve always loved arranging and rearranging words in my head, the feel and sound and the look of words on the page, and the thrill that comes when the words line up exactly right. I grew up in a pretty homogenous town outside New York City – there was only one other Asian-American in my class – and as a child I was acutely aware of being an outsider, an interloper even. I think this feeling of separateness fed my instinct as a writer.
After I moved to China, a lot of the motivation to write came from the material itself. When you witness such dramatic change in cities and villages and individual lives, the question for the writer shifts from: “Is this worth writing about?” to “How do I do this justice?” The factory world of Dongguan, to me, has the richness and intricacy to fill a dozen novels, yet outsiders know almost nothing about this place. The more time I spent there, the more I realized I was witnessing an important historical moment. I think the impulse to document this moment is shared by many China writers today.
There is a line in Orwell’s essay on “Why I Write”: “[The writer’s] subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own.” He was talking about Europe in the 1930s, but the description applies well to China today.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
When I’m working on a book or a magazine article, I write every day. I usually write for four or five hours in the morning, break for lunch, then take a couple of hours in the afternoon to rewrite and edit what I’ve written that day. By four o’clock, I’m done. That may not sound like a long workday, but after seven hours I’m exhausted. I’ve found that the work I do after that is usually counterproductive tinkering that I will change back the next day.
Worst source of distraction?
I’m pretty focused. While I’m writing, I don’t like to read anything too closely related to the topic I’m working on – I think it can instill doubts in your own material and corrupt your voice.
Best source of inspiration?
Reading good writers. When I get stuck in my writing, I’ll often take a break to read a Fitzgerald or Hemingway short story, or a few pages from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Anna Karenina. That sounds like procrastination, but it’s not. It’s helpful to study how other writers make decisions – on how to pace a scene, convey factual information, use humor, describe a person, on what they choose to mention and what they leave out. Reading good writers helps me get into the rhythm and flow of their language. Then I can find my own voice and begin again.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I love Alice Munro’s short stories and the stories of Haruki Murakami. In nonfiction, I like Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, Katherine Boo, John McPhee, and Tracy Kidder. I like the literary criticism in The New Yorker, especially Louis Menand – I read each issue very slowly and I’m usually months or years behind.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I like the works of Ha Jin and Li Yiyun, but I can’t say I have a favorite Chinese writer.
Best book about China?
My favorite book about China is Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance. I think this book about one year in the Ming Dynasty explains so much about how government in China still works today – the bureaucracy, the limits of power, the hypocrisy. Other books in this vein – accounts of a single incident that are so revealing about China as a whole – include Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers, and Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Hermit of Peking. I think Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao is a remarkable and underrated book.
There has been a real flowering of narrative nonfiction writing about China in the past decade. Moving beyond broad portraits of the country and big-picture speculation on its future, more writers are digging deep into singular worlds and individual lives that tell us so much about contemporary China. Among them are Ian Johnson, Michael Meyer, John Pomfret, and Rob Gifford, and I have to mention my husband, Peter Hessler.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote seems to me the perfect book. I also love The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s short stories, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Tolstoy’s novels.
Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
I skipped most of the classic texts of Chinese history courses – Spence’s The Search for Modern China, Joseph Needham, John Fairbank – and now it feels too late to read them. I haven’t read most of the classic Chinese novels, and there are huge gaps in my reading of Western literature as well. I haven’t read the Bible, Paradise Lost, The Faerie Queen, most English literature before the 19th century, Remembrance of Things Past, or Ulysses.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
“What were they thinking?” I wrote art reviews for a newspaper on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts – something I am not qualified to do now and certainly was not as a 19-year-old summer intern. I was witheringly critical of every art exhibit I attended. A few years later, I was hired by the Wall Street Journal and wrote regular articles on what stocks to buy. My father, until then an avid Journal reader, told me he would never trust the paper’s financial advice again.
But you have to start somewhere. Those early jobs are where I learned how to get information, how to think, and how to write. I poured my heart into every one of those stories, in a way I could never do again.