Paul French is the author of several books, including North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula (2005), Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand (2006), Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao (2009) and Midnight in Peking (2012). He also blogs at China Rhyming.
Why I write
Quite simply because I read. Sadly I have no existential creative urges or pangs of literary soul stirring but rather write the books I’d like to read but nobody else has written so I might as well do it myself. A thick streak of self-deprecation leaves me rather uncomfortable with the title ‘writer’ or ‘author’ or anything like that – I see myself as a ‘gap filler,’ plugging the gaps in my own knowledge and hopefully entertaining a few like-minded readers along the way.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Sort of. I’m a non-fiction writer so I certainly research material everyday in one way or another. I’m a Luddite and proud of it so I write copious notes and jottings in long hand (or more precisely my own illegible scrawl) in notebooks. Some will just be facts, references and memoranda while sometimes I’ll write pages and pages. Then I have to force myself to sit in front of an ugly computer and type it all up. It gets printed off and then edited and marked up by hand. It’s perhaps a lengthy process but one that clarifies the mind and your thoughts more than the speediness and false convenience of a keyboard. It also ensures brevity and conciseness while computers, by their inherent ease, are responsible for all these 700-1,000 page books being published now that could quite easily be 200-300 pages with some judicious editing. I don’t subscribe to the idea that brain dumping on a PC is constructive, it’s just clutter and, if you can’t be disciplined with the delete button, will ultimately end up being boring.
Worst source of distraction?
The need to acquire money. Very few writers make money solely from books – myself very much included. I also enjoy the business side of my life as it makes me all the more eager at some point to return to the books after the commerce is taken care of. I dream of being financially wealthy and independent and having the time to do nothing else except write, but I’m realistic enough to know that I wouldn’t actually write anything but would just end up dead in a pool of my own vomit with grotesquely large amounts of Class A drugs in my blood stream on the carpet of my Cote d’Azur villa.
Best source of inspiration?
Reading – anything and everything. Aspirant writers who don’t read are doomed from the get-go.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Never so far. I work on multiple projects so when I’m writing up one book, I’m commencing research on another while having a third milling around in the back of my mind. If I dry up on one I just switch to another and continue going back and forth until something reaches the point of being publishable. I am English so a sense of doom and depression is characteristic – doubting my ability to write anything worth reading is just one symptom among many of the English condition. You learn to live with it – like wrinkles, the weather and the inevitable collapse of the England football team.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Fiction writers mostly as they don’t feel threatening due to the fact that I have no desire whatsoever to write literature. However, I do feel there are a lot of literary tricks and skills non-fiction writers can learn from fiction authors. Alan Furst for his incredibly atmospheric series of novels set in pre-war Europe. Similarly anything by the American James Ellroy, who’s a weird bloke but writes like a demon. I also have to give a nod to John Le Carré who I read and re-read pretty much constantly. I also read vast amounts of UK crime fiction – Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Martina Cole etc. For non-fiction I like writers that cover multiple beats such as Ian Buruma. I’m currently in awe of anything by David Peace having devoured his Red Riding Quartet of Yorkshire crime stories and now marveling at his Tokyo-based trio of novels.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Eileen Chang – the passion and her internal turmoil seep of the page.
Best book about China?
Quite honestly I think it’s yet to be written.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling – I re-read it every Christmas and never get bored of it. It’s a perfect length and not one word is wasted.
I like those that churn out the series and sagas – Dickens of course since I was a kid as well as Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series and Le Carrè’s Smiley series.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
As I always cite him as a favorite author it would have to be one of the novels by Graham Greene I haven’t read. I don’t know which one exactly until I’ve read it and think I should have done that ages ago.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It was well reviewed and made some money – what more can you ask?