Andrew Field is a professor of Chinese history and presently the academic director for CIEE’s “China in a Global Context” Study Abroad Program at East China Normal University, Shanghai. He is the author of Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954 (2011).
Why I write
As a China scholar I write books and articles in order to elucidate subjects that I’m interested in and that I think have the potential to make people better understand China. But more generally I write to get my point across, whether that be in an e-mail to friends and family, a blog entry (I used to keep a blog about my life in China but stopped after a while, maybe I’ll get back into it someday), a recommendation letter for a friend or student (been writing a lot of those lately), or the script for a film I’ve been making on the indie rock scene in China today.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I can’t say that my writing schedule is completely consistent. Sometimes when involved with a project I write intensively for many hours a day, but several weeks may go by before I become involved in another major writing project. Also, these projects go in stages. A lot of the process of writing is editing what you’ve already written. And that takes time as well.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet can be a huge time waster if one isn’t careful and focused. And since we write these days on our computers and use the Internet to research what we’re writing, it’s easy to fall into that well of distractions.
Best source of inspiration?
Reading books written by great writers, of whatever genre.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I have great confidence in my ability as a writer. I am somewhat less confident about my skills as an efficient organizer of writing projects, but I am working on improving those skills.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Since I first discovered him about 12 years ago, I have read most if not all of T.C. Boyle’s works of fiction. He is one writer who I find incredibly inspirational. Not only is he a deeply intelligent writer, but he has a great sense of humor and his books are very hard to put down. He also writes books in my favorite genre, historical fiction, though many of his stories are contemporary as well.
Favorite Chinese writer?
That is a very tough question for a China scholar. Over the years I have devoured the works of many of China’s greatest writers. There are so many wonderful writers, not one sticks out as “the best.” If I was forced to choose however, I might go with Du Fu, the Tang poet. His poetry is probably the most thoughtful, intelligent, observant, and insightful of all the Chinese poets, and he ranks among the best poets that humanity has ever produced. Su Shi, the Song poet and official, is also up there in my estimation.
Best book about China?
For years now I have used Jonathan Spence’s book The Search for Modern China for my courses in modern Chinese history. I think that probably qualifies as the most comprehensive and authoritative, and certainly the most well written book on the epic story of China’s entry into the modern world. If I were to choose one book on China as a whole, I would choose Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization, perhaps the most comprehensive and intelligent book on China written in the English language.
Another very tough question. I used to be enamored with Thomas Pynchon and have read all of his books, except for his latest which I haven’t got round to yet. Gravity’s Rainbow was my favorite and I read it at least four times, and I also read a lot of lit crit studies of that book and some of his others. I love his very particular writing style and his overflowing imagination. I was on my fifth read of GR a few years ago when I realized that I should be reading other things instead. But I may attempt another read someday.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
I’ve always wanted to read Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain but can never seem to get past the first 200 pages. Someday I’ll climb that mountain.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Off to a good start! Does writing change anything? Writing changes minds, and that’s something.