Chris Taylor is a writer based in Bangkok and Southwest China. He wrote, co-wrote and updated Lonely Planet guides to Seoul, Tokyo, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among other Asian destinations. He was coordinating author of the China, Japan and Southeast Asia: on a shoestring guides, and has contributed Asia-related material to other guidebook publishers. He has written for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Salon, Time, the South China Morning Post, The Age, and The Sydney Morning Herald and Salon.com. Harvest Season, published by Earnshaw Books in 2010, is his first novel.
Why I write
Well, I think like any other writer, I do it for the money – not that there’s much money in it; it’s just that, unless I went back to cleaning bars or any of the other itinerant ways I made a living as a young man, it’s the only way I know how to make a living. I think even if you do occasionally produce a labor of love, you still want it to bring in some money – perhaps even more so than the workaday stuff that hopefully pays the rent.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Usually, yes. But the time I spend writing daily really depends on how engaged I am with a project. At the height of my productivity on this recent novel, I was putting in eight hours a day. I probably spent three-four hours a day on the rewriting and editing over a one-year period. I would have put in more but I was constrained by a full-time job.
Worst source of distraction?
Life. Who wants to be hunched over a computer screen when your friends are at the pub or going on a cycling trip in rural Yunnan?
Best source of inspiration?
I’m tempted to say life again, but that sounds contrived, pretentious, doesn’t it? But, all the same, it’s the truth insofar as I don’t subscribe to the creative writing class, ‘just make it all up’ school. My favorite writers are all at their best very meticulously describing a milieu, a scene, a point in time. Occasionally I find inspiration in music, but generally I write in silence. As for those rare moments of eureka inspiration – long train and bus trips, when you have no choice but to sit and let your mind stand easy, and sometimes on the second beer of the evening.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Anthony Burgess once said he didn’t believe in writer’s block, and I tend to agree with him. Procrastination I understand, though – afternoons spent surfing the Internet, writing chatty emails, cooking pasta; doing anything other than what you know you should be doing. I find the best way out of that rut is to simply write anything. Fixing a mess is easier than staring at an empty page – or Word document these days. Doubt is another thing altogether. You can’t really allow yourself to succumb to it. Take Fitzgerald – and he’s not the only one; just one of the more notable of many – drinking himself into an early grave, convinced The Great Gatsby was a failure. Writing is performative. It’s not a good idea to do it if you’re prone to stage fright. A lot of the more adventurous writers – let’s take Faulkner as an example – claimed to have ignored reviews and critics, and that’s the probably the best way to be if you want to summon up the courage to write stuff you personally care about.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I’m quite a fan of Anthony Lane in The New Yorker – I never miss his movie reviews. My favorite fiction writers are all dead. I used to read everything by Martin Amis, but he lost me with Night Train and Yellow Dog, and I haven’t read anything by him in a long time.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
Hmm, at the risk of seeing ungenerous, I have to be frank and say I don’t have one. I’d be really hard pressed to come up with a single book I would recommend to anyone about this sprawling mess of a country. I appreciated the way Tim Clissold brought humor to the subject in Mr China – everyone tends to be far too earnest in print about the ‘China question.’ I’d recommend Perry Link’s Evening Chats in Beijing and Wild Grass by Ian Johnson. Colin Thubron’s Lyrical Behind the Wall probably deserves a place on any list of worthwhile China books – it seldom gets one.
It’s not really a fair question, but I re-read The Quiet American by Greene at least once every two years, so it’s the obvious first choice. But it’s still one of many I compulsively re-read – Heart of Darkness, Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Orwell’s 1984 to name just a few. Most contemporary fiction bores me.
Graham Greene. It’s not just the writing – it’s the entire “Greeneland” project – all those lost souls, straining to connect and yielding to temptation with the best of intentions on the margins of collapsing colonialism, and “with no direction home”.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
With some embarrassment (don’t tell anyone), Moby Dick. I think everyone is forgiven for – like me – not having made it past page two of Finnegan’s Wake.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
How on Earth did I get away with that?
How did you get started writing?
I was amusing my parents with stories from pretty much as soon as I could read, and as a boy I never doubted that’s what I would be doing when I grew up. It just turned out to be much harder than I thought – that and productivity is not my forte.
Does writing change anything?
Of course it does. I’m not sure you should expect your own writing to change anything, but you should be aware that there’s a possibility it could. A simple example: I spent many years writing popular guidebooks in Asia, and you had to be careful how you wrote about places, because what you wrote could bring all kinds of change. I had the same problem writing Harvest Season – if you’re going to write a drug novel set in China, you want to disguise anything that is based on actual events.