Richard McGregor is deputy news editor for the Financial Times. Prior to that he was the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, and before that its Shanghai correspondent. His latest book is the critically acclaimed The Party: The Secret Life of China’s Communist Leaders.
Why I write
The crude answer to that is that it is my job. But long before any of that, I always loved newspapers. I used to get a thrill out of them when I was young and grabbed them off my father as soon as he walked in the door when he came home. (I am old enough to remember afternoon newspapers.) I loved the way they used to dramatize events. I am not sure exactly when I decided to be a journalist but I was always headed in that direction for as long as I can remember. I am basically a very curious person, which makes journalism the perfect profession for me.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I don’t write every day anymore because I have an editing job. With the book, I tried to establish a strict routine – to be at my desk early in the morning, the earlier the better, but usually from 8.30am after corralling the kids off to school, and stick at it on and off until 4pm or so, interrupted by going for a walk, a coffee or a swim when I hit a roadblock. I would try to get a set number of words done a day to make sure I met my deadline.
Worst source of distraction?
Without a doubt, the Internet. There is always one more article to read or another email to check. I think the ‘net has made all of our brains a little haywire. I deliberately wrote my book on a computer which didn’t connect to the Internet. Not only was that more secure but also meant I could not drift off into an abyss of web surfing, which is fatal to time management and concentrated thinking.
Best source of inspiration?
All manner of writing and writers. Lots of my colleagues/competitors in China over the years have done great work in China that I have really admired. That spurs me on. I lived in Japan at a time of great ferment in the ’90s – that anchored me in trying to come to grips with the complexity of Asian societies, without losing sense of your own values. You need a mixture of sturdiness and humility to get on in Asia. Also, my formative years as a journalist were largely spent in Canberra in Australia, and that schooled me into how to think politically. Without that kind of skill – understanding the political structures of institutions – a journalist is lost in China.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Journalists shouldn’t ever have writers’ block. It is alien to the profession. We are not writing fiction, after all. To get myself thinking clearly, which is the much bigger issue, the best way was to go for a walk, or a swim, or even just sit in the armchair in the office and read something different. As to doubting one’s ability, anyone who isn’t occasionally struck by self-doubt is deluding themselves, especially in daily journalism when your performance is directly measured against that of your peers every day. Or, if you work for a financial wire service, every five seconds…
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I am not sure that I doggedly follow anyone. I read or alternatively scan, as one does on the Internet, lots of papers every day – the FT, the WSJ, the NYT – with a predominant focus on China. I look at the Australian papers because I am always keen to keep up with things from home. Generally, I cherry pick all sorts of stuff here and there, kind of like a big Chinese meal, with lots of courses.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I think the Propaganda Department has neutered much modern Chinese writing, but bearing that in mind, I like Lu Xun, Wang Shuo and He Qinglian.
Best book about China?
That’s another hard one but I guess there are a few books that really made a big impression on me and which always stand up on a re-reading. Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys, and The Angel and the Octopus, a collection by essays by the same author. God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan Spence was great. As for recent books by journalists, there are lots of good ones, but Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret really swept me along.
An impossible question. Thirty years ago, it might have been Papillon or The Dice Man, but life moves on. The last great book I read was The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, about the death in custody of an Aboriginal man on Palm Island in north Queensland.
Another impossible question. If measured by books read and re-read, it might be John le Carré, but I think he misses the Cold War.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Too many to mention here.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Baby steps, but at least I was taking them.
How did you get started writing?
Basically, by hanging around news organizations and trying to get stories published. My big breaks were getting to cover sports like greyhound racing and trotting – harness-racing to Americans, I think – for the local Australian wire service; and covering local councils for small newspapers which could not afford to send reporters of their own.
Does writing change anything?
Always and never.