David Harris’ search for the lost city of Lijian became his book, Black Horse Odyssey (1991), which became a Discovery Channel documentary Rome in China (2005).
Why I write
The compulsions have changed, perhaps matured. I confess the early yearning to be ‘creative’ that is, to escape into the myth of the romantic but tortured figure writing masterpieces in an art deco studio; that is, a self-congratulatory craving to be rich and famous. When my first two books were received with modest praise and forgotten, I flung myself into The Great Novel. It was unpublishable rubbish. Then I went back to basics and decided to learn how to write for the readers and not for myself. Since then, the books themselves – published or rejected – have kept me going, because they open life out and change me while I am the one working on them. In a way, that makes writing a form of play, as the psychologist Erikson defined it – a means of giving the mind and the heart room to move. This serious playfulness means becoming ‘lost’ in the writing, as a dancer does in the movements: the dance is everything. For me, the story is everything, not the story-teller. Therefore, getting it right really matters and I love the sheer hard work that involves.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I try to write intensively about four hours a day. The first two hours are before and during dawn. The others are found when the busyness of life permits, as long as something is nurtured each day. Other time is spent on research, planning and the all-important reading of great books that inspire my writing.
Worst source of distraction?
Research. It can be such fun and less demanding than the rewriting a third or fourth draft.
Best source of inspiration?
The people in my books. They are driven by passion, conflict and desperation. Unless I am caught up in the passions, the work is not important to the readers or me. Why waste a year of my life working on something that doesn’t compel me? Mind you, the people in my books are not easy to work with. If I try to control them too much, they fade away. If I let them take over completely, they’ll fight to upstage each other and wreck the book.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Writers’ block is a useful and necessary warning to stop thinking logically and ‘sleep on it,’ so the subconscious can work on the problem. Writers’ block ought not be indulged and is certainly not the same as the daily moments of ‘Uh-oh, I’m stuck.’ Those little moments can usually be written through, or noted and put aside while I keep going. I doubt my ability every day. After 20 books I still stare at the page and think, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then I get to work and do it, like any musician, painter or athlete.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Anybody who copies a market trend. Worse, anybody who copies their own trend.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Jung Chang or Li Po. It’s a hard call. Jung Chang because the feelings are so intense that I must put the book aside even though I must turn the page.
Best book about China?
The one I go back to time and again is I Ching.
That depends on what’s happening in my life. I have so many enduring favorites. Hmm. Over many years, the book that intrigues, delights and always surprises me, no matter how often I read it is Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu.
Sorry, but it’s Shakespeare.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Life & Times of Michael K by J.M Coetzee. I need to immerse myself more in this man’s writing.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
How ignorant I was. I hope I never lose that sense of wonder and the strength that comes from having no idea what I’m getting into.
How did you get started writing?
A great teacher at school believed I had some talent and encouraged me to experiment with writing.
Does writing change anything?
As a writer, it changes everything. The process changes the way we feel and understand the world. It affects all relationships. As a reader, I am changed by powerful emotions and ideas that color the way I see the world.