Fuchsia Dunlop is a cook and food-writer specialising in Chinese cuisine. She is the author of Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, an account of her adventures in exploring Chinese food culture; and two critically-acclaimed Chinese cookery books, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and Sichuan Cookery (published in the US as Land of Plenty).
Why I write
Partly, it just happens. I’ve written for as long as I can remember: stories, poems, journals and recipes. But I never thought I’d become a professional writer because when I was younger I found writing essays so hellishly difficult. It wasn’t until my twenties that I overcame my dread of writing and learnt how to come up with the goods and meet deadlines. Now I’m motivated partly by pleasure and emotion, partly by deadlines, and partly by the desire to communicate understanding of the world’s most amazing cuisine. I love the challenge of trying to turn suspicion and disgust (e.g. of Chinese omnivorousness) into respect and admiration! And a food-writer could not wish for a richer or more interesting topic for exploration, particularly as so little has been written about Chinese culinary culture in English. In general, though, I’d say that writing feels like a kind of compulsion rather than a choice. And as someone with an inclination to write, I feel tremendously gifted to have been in China during this extraordinary and stirring period.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
No, I don’t. I go through phases of writing regularly, and then I get busy and distracted by other things. But for me the best routine is to start writing early, stay completely focused until lunchtime, for four hours or so, and then do something completely different in the afternoon and evening. A really good morning’s work, for me, is a good day’s work. When a deadline approaches, however, I can write almost around the clock for as long as it takes: painful, but productive.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet, definitely. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that before I was online most of the time I found no shortage of other distractions, so I can’t blame technology.
Best source of inspiration?
Talking to people, eating a really wonderful meal, going to an art exhibition, traveling in China. When I get stuck with my writing, I find the best course of action is to abandon my computer and do something for fun, which often rekindles the fire. A glimpse of beauty, in art or poetry or food, or an interesting conversation, usually gets me going. I also like working in cafes, alone but with people and noise all around me, which always aids my concentration.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I don’t often get writer’s block; I’ve learned to be professional about writing, and just to get it done when I have to. But I had one major crisis while writing my last book, and thought I would be unable to finish it. I just couldn’t find the right voice, and spent months working and reworking the first few chapters without making any real progress. I was so miserable that I considered abandoning the book – and it was at this point, when I realized the world would not end if I didn’t finish it, that I relaxed, played around with it, and got over the block.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Annie Proulx. I find her use of words mesmerizing.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Cao Xueqin – Dream of Red Mansions captivated me for several months, it was like getting lost in another word. Lu Wenfu for The Gourmet, a very clever novella about politics and food; Yuan Mei, for his witty observations about food and cookery; and Qian Zhongzhu for the brilliant and often hilarious Fortress Besieged. I’m also gripped by Eileen Chang’s intense, Van Gogh-like language, and Li Yiyun’s incredibly restrained and poignant short stories.
Best book about China?
Peter Hessler’s River Town is the best account I’ve read of what it’s like (or what it was like) living in China as a foreigner. Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao gives a chilling glimpse of the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. And Dream of Red Mansions is incredibly illuminating in terms of traditional Chinese culture and society.
Dream of Red Mansions, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Age of Innocence, Hamlet (if that counts!)…? So difficult to choose!
Shakespeare, who is in a class of his own. Annie Proulx, for her short stories and novellas. On food, M.F.K. Fisher.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
Ulysses. I am still embarrassed to hold a degree in English literature without having finished this book. I have read parts of it, but never to the end!