Born in Concession-era Shanghai to Jewish Russian parents who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, Liliane Willens was a ‘stateless’ girl in the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Stateless in Shanghai (2009) recounts her life and trials in a China collapsing under the weight of foreign invaders and civil war.
Why I write
I enjoy it very much and take every opportunity to write.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Nearly every day depending whether I am writing an article or describing in emails to friends about something unusual which I have just seen or read about. I spend at least two hours a day writing something.
Worst source of distraction?
Spending time on the phone trying to get a live person to speak to in order to correct billing errors or to get information from the local authorities.
Best source of inspiration?
Unusual stories in the newspaper (which I read daily) which make me want to comment or lead me to write about the subject.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Carolyn See, a reviewer of books in The Washington Post.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Nien Cheng, author of Life and Death in Shanghai (1986) whom I knew quite well. We used to have tea together in her home. I visited her in the hospital two weeks before she died and despite being very sick, she told me that she was very pleased that my book Stateless in Shanghai was being printed in China. Ms. Cheng wrote the blurb on the back cover of this book.
Best book about China?
The Soong Dynasty (1986) by Sterling Seagrave.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos.
Voltaire – a very witty author especially in his attacks against injustice prevailing in France during the 18th century.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
My doctoral thesis published as a book: Voltaire’s Comic Theater – Composition, Conflict and Critics (1975), The Voltaire Foundation, Banbury, Oxfordshire. I think of all the work (sweat and tears) that went into it. It was a scholarly publication and in retrospect I think it was very dull.
Does writing change anything?
Yes, it puts me always in a good mood, despite the fact that it is a lonely endeavor. However, I become so engrossed in writing that I soon forget my surroundings.