Alan Paul is the author of Big In China (2011), a memoir about raising three American children in Beijing and forming Woodie Alan, an award-winning blues band with three Chinese musicians, and the upcoming One Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band.
Why I write
It’s just what I’ve always done. Thank God I’m pretty good at it because it’s all I’ve ever done. I don’t think I could stop at this point. I thnk of everything in terms of stories and how I would write them. That’s how I process everything I see, hear, read, observe, think about. It’s just what I do.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours? Or do you work to a daily word count? What time of day do you write?
I certainly try to write every day, and as many hours as possible. I do not work to a daily word count and I do not keep regular hours. That’s why I’m a writer! If I wanted to keep regular hours, I’d go work in an office.
I run our day-to-day household, with three kids, a dog and a very hard-working wife with an hour-each-way commute. I also coach two travel soccer teams and am the leader of a band that performs a couple of times a month. Sometimes all of this interferes with my hours spent writing. When I am away from a keyboard, I write in my head, and often work out intricate passages that way. Also, the richness of day-to-day life, while taking away from time spent writing, also provides endless material and perspective.
Making up for some of the busy days, I also often write quite late at night when everyone’s asleep, usually sipping geen tea or tequila.
Where do you work? Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
Mostly in my home office. I have a nice long, narrow room on the third floor with three big windows overlooking the park in my backyard. I crank up the music and watch kids play – often my own kids, which is nice. I’m also fond of peaceful snowy days.
Unfortunately, this room – indeed my whole house – was under construction while I wrote Big in China and I wrote that all over the place, since I was essentially homeless. I did a lot of work in cafes, including the one at my gym, and in libraries. At that time, noise-canceling headphones were my best friend. I also gained a renwed appreciation for the value of libraries. A lot of people do a lot of things there.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet, of course. The same machine on which I write is a portal to all my favorite distractions. I know many readers recommend not working on an Internet-connected machine and I do sometimes turn Wi-Fi off. I should probably do so more often.
Truly, my biggest distractions are my kids and life in general, but I can’t describe them as “worst” in any way, and they are also my greatest sources of inspiration.
Best source of inspiration?
The richness of life and the fact that I am constantly meeting or learning about people whose stories I want to tell.
Music in many forms is what actually inspires the flow of my words. Most played artists include: John Coltrane, Jimmy Reed, Miles Davis, the Allman Brothers Band, Woodie Alan Band, Cannonball Adderley, Cleanhead Vinson, Billie Holiday, Ali Farka Toure, Little Feat, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Wynton Kelly, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Albert King, Sonny Rollins, The Band, the Grateful Dead, Count Basie, Leon Russell, Ben Webster, Fenton Robinson, Peter Tosh, Mozart, Stevie Wonder, Tiny Grimes, Little Milton, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Ahmad Jamal, Nina Simone, Shelby Lynne, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Billy Price, Jimmie Vaughan, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt and Fela.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I never really doubt my ability any more. I certainly have gone through these stages, but I know believe I can write myself out of whatever corner I paint myself into. Writer’s block is not a problem per se – my issue is not generally being unable to write, but being able to really figure out what I want to say. When I can’t think of what to write, I usually just start writing and see where I go. Sometimes I start totally off topic.
I consider the life I lead to be a luxury and a blessing and I have always been aware that if I don’t produce and meet deadlines and be reliable, it will all crumble and I will have to get a job. That’s a strong incentive.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Russell Banks, George Pelecanos, Walter Mosely, Philip Roth – novelists; Andrew Sullivan – blogger. It feels weird to put him on the same line as those above, but I really do check The Dish voraciously.
Best book about China?
Doubtlessly something written in Chinese that I have not read.
In terms of Western writers, I really like Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, China Airborne by James Fallows, The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer, Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux, One Billion Customers by Jim McGregor, Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy, Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret and Brave Dragons by Jim Yardley. I like all of them for different reasons and in different ways, but taken together I think any reader will gain a lot of insight info contemporary China. Full disclosure: I know many of the authors at least a little and the Jims, Yardley and McGregor, are good friends, but I’m not just log rolling. I also really like the not-yet widely available Unsavory Elements, a collection I contributed to, along with Matthew Polly. Peter Hessler, Meyer, Levy, Susan Conley and many others.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I feel very under-read in terms of Chinese literature – you can add that to the list above. I am about to start reading Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum and look forward to immersing myself in 1930s China. I really liked Ha Jin’s Waiting: A Novel and The Bridegroom: Stories and Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, which is quite difficult but quite brilliant.
Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey; The Human Stain – Philip Roth; Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner; Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison; Deep Blues – Robert Palmer; The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones – Stanley Booth.
No one person. The writers listed in the answers above certainly rank high, but there isn’t one who I could single out as being tremendously influential above all others. Robert Palmer was always my favorite writer about music and he really inspired me by combining rigor and passion – he wrote about music very seriously without being overly academic or losing sight of the fact that the goal of music is to move listeners, and the goal of writing is to move readers even while you inform them.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Oh my goodness, there are too many to list. To start with, everything by Tolstoy and Charles Dickens. To end with, Keith Richards’ Life.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
To take that literally, I’d have to go back to high school. I would look at it, cringe a little and think, “Not bad for being 15.” I’m rather amazed by how early I knew this was what I wanted to do. I consider that a gift, though I haven’t always felt that way. At times, I’ve wondered if I just took the path of least resistance. My brother is a great writer and certainly had as much natural talent as me, and he is a neonatologist. He has saved thousands of babies’ lives and can still spin a great yarn. It’s healthy for me to think about it this way, because it pushes me to be more ambitious in everything I do rather than leaning back on knowing I can do something okay off the top of my head. Okay is never good enough.
How did you get started writing?
My high school, Taylor Allderdice in Pittsburgh, PA, had very strong creative writing and journalism programs and a great, independent student newspaper. We covered the school in a pretty real way and my junior year I won a national writing award for a piece profiling a cocaine dealer. It did not endear me to the administration, but hooked me on journalism. When I got to the University of Michigan and started working at the Michigan Daily, I was way ahead of the game. Thanks Mrs. Tharp!
Does writing change anything?
Of course it does. It changes minds all the time, which is the start of any lasting change.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
One Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band, which will be out with St. Martin’s in March, 2014, coinciding with the band’s 45th anniversary. It is a very significant expansion of a self-published ebook I wrote last spring. It is a ton of work and a ton of fun. I aim to make it the definitive history of a great band with a very complicated history, replete with death and murder, as well as lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. My real focus is on the music, but with these guys, it’s all tied together in some very complex ways.