Linda Jaivin’s books on China include the non-fiction The Monkey and the Dragon and New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, an anthology of translations co-edited with Geremie Barmé. Her latest book, A Most Immoral Woman, fictionalizes the stormy real-life love affair between war correspondent ‘Morrison of China’ and Mae Ruth Perkins at the turn of last century.
Why I write
Because I believe I have something to say. Because it makes me happy (see penultimate answer).
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I try to write every day and succeed most days. Ideally I write (and edit and do research for my writing) between six and eight hours a day. It’s hard to find the right balance. Sometimes, thanks to other demands on my time, I will only write for one or two hours. I try to make them the most focused one or two hours of the day. On other days I may write for 10 hours or so.
Worst source of distraction?
Journalists asking me questions like ‘why I write.’ Ha. I did have to stop and think about that for a while. I drafted a few responses, erased them and came up with another which might be the final one you’ve just read and might not. Life is full of distractions; discipline involves eliminating as many as possible. I have a love/hate relationship with e-mail and the telephone. I’m naturally a very social person but to write I require solitude. When I go into my ‘cave’ I like to turn off the phone and quit out of email. Sometimes I remove myself from normal life altogether by checking into a hotel for a few days or, best of all, going to a writers or artists’ retreat where there is limited contact with the outside world.
Best source of inspiration?
Books and life, in equal measure. Art. Music. Passion.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I never get writers’ block. But I am always wondering how I’ve got to where I am (eight published books, countless essays, stories etc) – has it been all a big bluff?
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I am in love with the Belgian novelist Amelie Nothomb, whom I read (slowly) in the original French.
Favorite Chinese writer?
This is too hard. Qian Zhongshu and Shen Congwen and Zhou Zuoren and Lu Xun; Wang Shuo during his first ten years of writing. Han Shaogong. Mo Yan.
Best book about China?
Again, too hard. Best book by a foreigner or a Chinese? If the first, maybe Jonathan Spence’s Emperor of China, though anything by Spence would do. I’m also a great fan of the work of (my ex-husband) Geremie Barmé. Best book about China by a Chinese (well, Manchu really) would have to be Dream of the Red Chamber.
Extremely hard to say. It depends on my mood. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Ovid’s Metamorphases. Petronius’s Satyricon. My complete collection of the works of Shakespeare. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past . Also, the whole of Dream of the Red Chamber in the Chinese original. Despite loving what I’ve read, I’ve only read it in parts.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
That was fun.
Does writing change anything?
Good writing (noun) makes people think and inspires them to dream. It encourages empathy and therefore compassion. All of this changes things. Good writing (verb) makes me happy. I think the adjective ‘good’ is important: pure graphomania makes no significant changes to either readers or writers.