Stella Dong is the author of several historical books on China, notably Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949, Peking: Heart of the Celestial Empire and Sun Yat-sen: The Man Who Changed China.
Born in Seattle, she worked for several magazines before her first book. She has a regular column on American-Asian cultural affairs in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and has also written for The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Why I write
I’m unsure myself. Frankly, I’d rather be a batik exporter from Bali, or work with Burmese refugees in north Thailand or challenge human rights abuses in a certain unnamed country. But words come easier than numbers, so business is out. And at this point in my life. I’m stuck in phrases, sentences and finding adjectives that say what I want to say. So I’m a writer.
Do you write every day?
Only when I hear the voices… the voice of the landlord asking for the rent, or the voice of Con Ed saying they’re going to shut down my electricity. Actually when the pressure’s on, I’m glued to the computer for a couple of days in a row. I get out of my chair only to sleep, make tea and forage for food in the refrigerator.
Worst source of distraction?
To paraphrase President Roosevelt, the only thing that distracts me is distraction itself. When I’m sitting down to write, there’s nothing my mind doesn’t turn to. The cookie crumbs and water rings on my desk. The front page of the New York Post (“Fiery Crash Kills Family on Way to Church”) flung on the floor atop an equally distracting mess of books, cat toys and clothes. The thought that I haven’t done any yoga all day, and really need to do three minutes of downward-facing dog pose. Or I’ve forgotten to return a call or there’s something I need from the post office/library/store before it closes. And on it goes. Is it possible to live one’s entire life as an extended exercise in avoiding doing what one is supposed to be doing? My favorite shrink, dear chain-smoking Dr. Lubin, was so right when she warned me about “the unconscious being more devious than you can ever imagine.”
Best source of inspiration?
A good night’s sleep. Also, watching a bunch of dogs running in circles and getting frisky with one another at the East Village dog run.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Writers’ block? That’s where I live. On Writers’ Block. I’m not sure about ‘doubt’ but if I didn’t question my own ability at times, I wouldn’t be a writer. I think it was Laurence Olivier who said he always got stage-fright before he went on. But he did pretty well.
Contemporary writers in any medium who you never miss?
The best thing about printed and digital media is that I don’t have to read anything right away. That’s why my apartment is turning into a junior version of the Collyer brothers’ townhouse, jammed with publications which I’ll get around to sooner or later. I’m planning on going through my Shakespeare First Folio, but it’s under a big pile of New Yorkers, so I’ll put it off to another day. (Don’t know about the Collyer brothers? Read E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Homer and Langley).
Favorite Chinese writer?
Living: Yiyun Li. Dead: Zhang Ailing
Best book about China?
Marina Warner’s Dragon Empress: The Life and Times of Tzu-hsi. Also well worth reading are any of Robert Fortune’s accounts of his travels in Asia. A 19th-century botanist who traveled through China collecting specimens for British horticulture societies, Fortune’s observations are sharp, witty and idiosyncratic.
Impossible to answer. It’s like being asked to choose among one’s favorite children. I do admit to possessing not one, but three copies of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus though (one of them personally signed!). Do with that information what you will.
Ditto. We can start with Aesop and go onto Zoroaster. And almost everything in between.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Lots of books, but I hardly feel guilty. I’ve read lots of books, but I hardly feel innocent!
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
That would be an opinion piece in my junior high school newspaper complaining about how sexist it was for girls to be required to take a home economics courses, and boys’ carpentry and ‘industrial arts.’ I thought it was a pretty good piece and sent it off to the superintendent of the Seattle public schools. Next thing I knew, I got to leave school an hour earlier than all the other kids because the superintendent had personally exempted me from having to take a cooking class. Had I been smarter I would have demanded that he let me take ‘shop’ with the boys. How often have I wished I knew how to handle a chainsaw.
Does writing change anything?
Yes, absolutely. See above.