Rob Gifford is a British radio correspondent and journalist, and the author of China Road, a cross-country odyssey along Route 312, from its start in Shanghai to its end on the border with Kazakhstan. From 1999 to 2005, he was Beijing correspondent of National Public Radio. He is now NPR’s London bureau chief.
Why I write
Because otherwise my head would burst open. I have a lot of thoughts buzzing around in my head all the time, and it’s important just to write them down. Many of them will never see the light of day in an article or book, but some of them will. And writing is just a natural thing to do anyway. I love words, and I love stringing words together to make sentences, and I love learning and I love teaching and I love reading and it all comes together in writing.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I do write every day but what I write is news, so I rarely brush shoulders with metaphors during daylight hours. I wish I could say that when night falls, I fine-tune my latest masterpiece in a maelstrom of sharpened adjectives. Frankly, though, it’s more likely to be dinner, bedtime stories for the kids, and feet up in front of the telly.
Worst source of distraction?
Rolling news, small children, and the packets of salt-and-vinegar potato chips that call gently to me from the kitchen closet.
Best source of inspiration?
Reading, travel and Mother Nature.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I don’t have a huge amount of self-doubt. That isn’t to say that I’m over-confident. I simply am what I am. I know I’m not Joseph Conrad, but I know that, with a following wind, I can sometimes string a sentence together in an acceptable way. So I just do it to the best of my ability, and let it be what it is. As for writer’s block, for me, it’s all about structure. Once I have the structure of what I want to write, it usually flows pretty well. I don’t believe in slapping down the first thing that comes into my head on the computer screen and hoping somehow it might gestate into something readable. In my high school English Lit exams, back in the late 19th century, I would always spend half of the allocated time writing the essay plan to get it absolutely right, and once that was done, the writing would flow much better.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I always gravitate towards Garrison Keillor in the IHT, because I love his gentle, layered way of thinking, and his writing makes me smile. Maureen Dowd makes me smile too. Increasingly I want writing to make me smile, and am less willing to wade through reams of Worthy But Dull copy. There is a film reviewer in The Spectator here in London called Deborah Ross, whose writing is slightly mad but often makes me laugh out loud, and I find I turn to her pieces every week. And I always enjoy reading The New Yorker (especially the cartoons).
As for books, people always seem shocked when I say this, but I don’t really read fiction. What’s the point of reading about stuff that never happened? (Just kidding. Not.) I occasionally read short stories, especially indulgent colonial collections by writers like Kipling or Maugham, and I love poetry. But otherwise I read travel books, history and biography: for example Simon Schama, David Landes, Ian Buruma, Niall Ferguson, Mark Noll and Alister McGrath
Favorite Chinese writer?
I have to confess, I have read very few Chinese writers, beyond the usual suspects, so all I can say is yes, I do like Tang poetry, and yes, I do like Lu Xun. Hmmm. That’s a slightly embarrassing answer, and I probably need to do something about it.
Best book about China?
I love An Embassy to China by Lord Macartney from 1793. I love The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. I love The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable. I like Simon Leys’ books. I love Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century by A.J. Broomhall. But actual best book about China?? I may have to go for W.J.F.Jenner’s epic work The Tyranny of History, which rips China open and exposes its guts to the pitiless glare of a burning Anglo-Saxon sun.
If you’re forcing me to choose one book that means the most to me, I would for deeply personal reasons say Adam Bede by George Eliot. But I can’t say I feel that strongly about one particular novel or biography. If, as on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, I were stuck on a chunk of ocean rock with just the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, that would be fine by me.
Way too difficult a question. Possibly Mr. Shakespeare, for the sheer poetry of the language. Otherwise, perhaps the poet George Herbert. Or John Donne.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
The list is too long. Name a great work of fiction, and you can be sure I haven’t read it. If I were going to jump on the Trans-Siberian Express again tomorrow, I would probably pack Anna Karenina or Nostromo.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It was a travel piece for my college newspaper about my journey from Beijing to London on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1988. I remember a friend saying to me “It was a lot more interesting than I was expecting,” and I remember thinking what a compliment that was.
Does writing change anything?
It absolutely has the power to dramatically change things, but I’m not sure that it does very often, especially if it includes split infinitives like that one.