Deborah Fallows is the author of A Mother’s Work and Dreaming in Chinese, a memoir of her three years in China with husband James Fallows. She is a Harvard graduate with a PhD in Linguistics and lives in Washington, DC.
Why I write
Writing about being an author is an odd exercise for me because I don’t think of myself as a writer. I don’t approach my life, either everyday life or overall life, with the question ‘How will I write about this?’ I usually start writing something for the same reason: when I have some experience or issue that I’m trying to work out in my own mind. Then sometimes it becomes something to share with others.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Well, I definitely write mundane things daily, emails or to-do lists. But I only write when I am working on a piece or a book, and then I write as much of the day, every day as I can, until I have finished.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
Oh, this is easy! I get my best inspiration from being out on the streets with people, watching and listening to everyday life. It is easy to do this with a constant sense of wonder when I’m in an exotic or even simply different place like China, or France, or New York City. I grew up in the Midwest of America, where there is a sameness and predictability to life (which is great for growing up!). That time has always and forever compelled me to get out and look closely at the rest of the world.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I always doubt my own ability. That is part of growing up Catholic in the Midwest! I get writers’ block when I haven’t figured out what I want to say. The first I’ll never get over. The second I get over when I sort out my thoughts.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
My husband! Once Jim [columnist and author James Fallows] started blogging, I realize that his blog substitutes for some of what we used to talk about at the dinner table. In a way, his blog has (at least partly!) replaced me as an outlet! So, I read his blog to make sure I’m not missing anything or to keep track of what’s on his mind when one of us is traveling.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I have a number of favorites: Nien Cheng, Ha Jin, Chao Yuen Ren, Xinran…
Best book about China?
There are two. The first is Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng, which was an early introduction for me to China. The second is Chinese Days by Angela Terzani, who lived in China with her husband, journalist Tiziano Terzani, in the 1980s.
The American Heritage Dictionary. No kidding. I am a linguist by training, and I especially like and trust the etymologies that this dictionary includes in its entries.
It depends what you mean by that question – as a writer or as a person. I’m taking the easy way out: My husband.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
… that I was really lucky. I was trying to sort through the balance between raising two small boys and maintaining my professional life. The editors at The Washington Monthly not only encouraged me to write about this, but helped me think it through and edited it. It was my first experience writing for publication, and it was invaluable.
Does writing change anything?
Writing changes everything. We can go back in time; we can understand things we’ll never see firsthand; we can live for moments inside other people’s lives; we can hear stories from people we’ll never meet; I could go on and on…