Jeff Wasserstrom is a professor in Chinese history at University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (2008) and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010). He is a contributor to many academic periodicals as well as mainstream media publications such as Time and Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and online at The New York Times and Huffington Post.
Why I write
For a lot of reasons. Because I have to in order to meet a work-related obligation: there’s often a committee report due, an Editorial Foreword that’s needed for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, a letter of recommendation that has to be sent in, and so on. Sometimes, I write because I feel there’s something that needs to be said about China, either to shed light on a new subject or counteract what I see as a misleading approach to it in a news story or opinion piece. Occasionally, I write for money (getting paid for a review or commentary is still enough of a novelty to get me excited when I see the check). And sometimes, I even write for fun.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
No. I spend some time at a keyboard just about every day, but there are days when all I am doing is responding to emails or pulling together materials for a classroom lecture. As for what I think of as real ‘writing,’ one week, I’ll do none, then the next I’ll spend 30 hours on a project. It varies widely.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
Reading, conversation, travel.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Luckily, I don’t often grapple with writer’s block. Unluckily, I often worry that what I’m writing isn’t flowing as well as it should.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Pankaj Mishra. There are other people I try to read whenever they publish something new. In the China field, for example, I try to keep up with Geremie Barmé (not easy, given how prolific he is!), and I’ve never been disappointed by anything Evan Osnos has done for The New Yorker. I always learn something new (about the world or just about language) from book reviews by Perry Anderson, and the same goes for those of Pico Iyer. But Pankaj still stands out. I loved his first novel, The Romantics, and all the short pieces of his I’ve seen on topics ranging from contemporary Chinese writers to 19th-century European novelists, from U.S. policy toward Pakistan to the allure of Western popular music when he was growing up in India. He’s the one person for whom I’ve set up a ‘Google Alert’ account, so that I’d get an automatic email telling me whenever he had something new come out. (I ended up doing away with that, incidentally, as I kept getting messages about other Pankaj Mishras, who were mentioned in news stories about disaster relief, had written about cricket and so on — turns out, he just doesn’t have a very unusual name.)
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
An impossible question to answer, but here are some of the best things I’ve read recently (which is another way of saying the ones I wish I’d written): Peter Hessler’s Country Driving (I devoured an advance copy recently on a flight to and from Germany — it’s the best thing he’s done so far, which is saying a lot); Lynn Pan’s Shanghai Style (a beautiful book without a wasted word or image in it); Henrietta Harrison’s The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942 (provides a fresh look at some of the major shifts in modern Chinese history, seen through the eyes of a compulsive keeper of journals); and Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family (the work of a leading historian of China at the top of her game who takes stylistic risks that pay off). By the wish-I’d-written-that criterion, Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang might be my all-time top China book; I loved it when I was assigned to read it in the first Chinese history course I ever took, and I’ve always looked for excuses to assign it to my classes (and never regretted putting it on a syllabus).
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, one of the only things I re-read occasionally (too many new things to read). Recent books unrelated to China that have bowled me over include Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land and Rory Stewart’s The Place in Between… bold works that blur the lines between genres and will change the way I write.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
The Gulag Archipelago.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I’m amazed that it still gets cited. It’s a study of resistance to the ‘one-child family’ policy. I wrote at the end of my first year in graduate school. I sent it to the journal Modern China, and they accepted it right away. Then it started getting cited and it was even excerpted and used in a reader on demography that was assigned to introductory classes. Needless to say, it left me with totally unrealistic expectations about how my publishing career would work from that point on. I would have plenty of essays I quite liked get rejected, or almost equally as distressingly, appear, but then be completely ignored.