Jen Lin-Liu’s debut nonfiction memoir, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, won the Best Chinese Cuisine Book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2008. She lives in Beijing.
Why I write
It’s my way of making sense of the world. It’s also incredibly cathartic. It’s also one of the things that came naturally to me when I was young, for whatever reason. I was a bit shy was a kid (I got over that at some point) so I felt like writing was my best way of communicating. In writing something down, I could overcome my insecurities – I could shape the words, I could be in control of whatever world I was creating, I could tell the stories in my own words. And I could sometimes even be witty about it.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
No, but I’ve been meaning to! Starting… tomorrow. This is one of the hardest things about being a writer – discipline. I have writer friends who write for several hours a day and who won’t go to bed at night until they’ve put words on the page. But those friends are generally fiction writers. I’ve been paid to write as a journalist for 10 years so I find it really easy to write when I have to meet a deadline, but I find it really difficult to write on my own initiative. I’ve been better at this at certain points in my life. It really depends what else is going on at a given moment, what my state of mind is, and what projects come my way. When I was writing my book, Serve the People, I was writing six days a week for six hours and feeling really happy about it. But the kind of writing I do – nonfiction – means that I also have to spend time reporting and researching so it really isn’t realistic to stick to a permanent writing schedule like that. Ideally, when I’m not intensively writing for a particular project, I’d like to get on a schedule where I am writing about an hour a day, to keep a log of whatever is happening in my life, of all the random people I come across and the food I’m eating and what’s going on personally.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet by far. It really helps to disconnect from the Internet if I want to get any writing done.
Best source of inspiration?
Random people I meet and my husband (who, I suppose, was at one point a random person I met).
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I think that is something that doesn’t go away – writers are forever insecure. It’s part of the nature of the work, especially when you publish something that goes out to the public. I have to tell myself to stop focusing on the things I haven’t achieved and simply think about all the amazing stories and people who have come my way.
Contemporary writer in any medium whom you never miss?
I love Frank Rich’s columns in The New York Times. David Sedaris never fails to make me laugh. I love Paul Theroux’s writing. I’m also a big fan of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs. I love her honesty and passion for food.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I like Mengzi (the philosopher), Ma Jian, and Ha Jin, but I wouldn’t say that I have one particular favorite Chinese writer.
Best book about China?
I have a lot of favorite books about China but recently I think one of the best books is Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls, which is about migrant factory women in southern China. Leslie, who’s a good friend of mine, spent several years tracking several young women who migrated down there and it’s a fascinating anthropological look at their lives. It is also one of the most original and eye-opening books about China that has come out in recent years.
I don’t have a favorite book. Too many to list!
You look back on the first thing you had published and think…
It was angsty, but it wasn’t bad!
Does writing change anything?
Writing can change everything.