In 1946, George Orwell articulated the reasons why he put pen to paper in an essay entitled Why I Write.
In this Web series, authors talk about their literary habits and reading preferences,
and examine Orwell's question that lies at the heart of being an author—why they write.

Michael Meyer

The Last Days of Old Beijing


Michael Meyer is an American travel writer and the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, which won the 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award for non-fiction, and the forthcoming In Manchuria. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Time and The Atlantic.


He is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and also teaches at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center. Originally from Minnesota, he has lived in Beijing since 1998.


Why I write
I have something to say, or a hole to fill on a shelf that will hopefully last into the next century, as the books from a century past still entertain and inform me. Writing is also fun, especially the research, which feels like compensated play. “We’ll pay you to go find out everything you can about this topic that interests you.” If there’s a better job, I haven’t seen it.


Do you write every day? If so, how many hours? Or do you work to a daily word count? What time of day do you write?
In theory, I write every day – emails, comments on student papers, research notes. The page-creation comes in concentrated bursts, starting early in the day – before dawn – and lasting for up to 12 hours. I write quickly once all the notes are assembled, like puzzle pieces on the desk and taped to the walls. After I’ve found the structure for an article, or chapter, or book, the typing feels like I’m describing the finished puzzle image, which I see clearly in my mind, even if it’s weeks away from others’ seeing it, too. I follow the same rules as most writers, I think, which are Hemingway’s First and Second Laws: Start with the truest sentence, and end your session knowing where you’ll begin the next day.


Where do you work? Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I love hotels. I wrote the first draft of The Last Days of Old Beijing in a London hotel room over six weeks. My entire life, I had read about these pre-WWII writers living and working from hotels, and man, they were onto something. I was in an extended stay place in Kensington, off Gloucester and Cromwell roads, next to Kensington Park and the Victoria and Albert Museum. There were fresh croissants and a serve-yourself-espresso machine downstairs, with a thick stack of London newspapers each morning, and – most importantly – no Internet access in the room. After the maid left at nine, my day would begin, broken by a walk around the park or the free museum, whose ground floor held artifacts from the Qing Dynasty, which was a connection to Beijing. At six, I would walk to Sainsbury’s, get groceries and cook dinner in the room, sip some Scotch and fall asleep to bad ITV programming, letting my subconscious untangle the next day’s work.


It’s funny – since you asked this, I checked-off where I did most of my work over the last two years around In Manchuria, and the answer is: Home Inn. Home Inn Qiqiha’er. Home Inn Harbin. Home Inn Changchun and Jilin. Home Inn Tonghua. Home Inn Shenyang. Home Inn Dandong. Home Inn Dalian. In the Manchukuo era, Japanese used to make their version of the Grand Tour, visiting Yamato (Peace) Hotels in most of these cities (many of which, such as the Liaoning Hotel, have been restored). I’ve been doing the discount, or koumen’r, version of it. Pink-and-yellow walls, faux-IKEA furniture, green floors, clothes line in the shower, muted CCTV5, boxes of takeout dumplings…


I have a big utility table at home, where I’m writing this now, on a patio surrounded by windows on three sides. My ideal desk would be a covered plywood sheet on sawhorses. Room to spread notes.


Worst source of distraction?
My students, which is how it should be, and why universities have summer, winter and spring breaks.


Best source of inspiration?
Finding stuff out, and knowing that a reader will find it out through the page on which I’m working.


How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Never block; with nonfiction, there are always sources to type up, or notes to parse, or a bibliography to add to, or a photo to caption, or a map to create. There’s always something to do – I think of it like a stage production, where the writer is the director, actor, costumer, grip, orchestra conductor and usher. You’re creating a theater of fact. That sounds like it should be in caps: A Theater of Fact. [Cue trumpet blast. Audience applauds.]


Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I’ve realized that teaching writing is really teaching students to read – how to read, if not what to read. That’s the best part of the job: spending a chunk of each week immersed in classic writing, and also work by contemporaries who are visiting campus (today: Ian McEwan; next month, Anne Fadiman). Outside of class and my own research – and the work of my friends, several of whom have been interviewed for this site – I read a lot of author interviews (and listen to those with comedians, via Marc Maron’s WTF podcast). On the Internet, I read a lot of travel and sports writing. The Financial Times’ weekend section (including Tyler Brule’s funny jetset column) is great, as is Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback on Sports Illustrated’s site. Grantland has a fantastic hockey writer named Katie Baker, who also does a monthly scorecard of the New York Times’ wedding announcements. I’m an Oakland A’s fan, so I check the San Francisco Chronicle’s sports page regularly for Susan Slusser’s work. I read everything by The New York Times’ “This Land” reporter Dan Barry, and also the Atlantic’s James Fallows – he’s the answer to Kingsley Amis’ dictum that any proper writer should be able to write anything, from an Easter-day sermon to a sheep-dip handout. He should teach.


Paul Theroux should, too. People don’t take him seriously, I think, but his path to becoming and being a writer, his humor, his characterizations of people and description of movement, keeping us turning the page, pushing onward, are instructive. My students love Sir Vida’s Shadow, his memoir of his mentorship under, and falling out with, V.S. Naipaul. Also the start of The Great Railway Bazaar, whose second paragraph begins: “Then Asia was out the window…”


Favourite book?
Lolita, followed by Nabokov’s second attempt at memoir, Speak, Memory. The first half of Down and Out in Paris and London. A Moveable Feast. For my current project, I keep re-reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Where I Was From, by Joan Didion. When working on the Beijing book, I was in a Winesburg, Ohio loop, then Istanbul. My favorite book to teach is To Kill a Mockingbird – they really need to remake that film. Kids connect to the community, not the trial. Outside of Jane Jacobs, it’s the best argument for sensible town planning.


Favourite writer?
John Steinbeck (dead); Adam Hochschild (living).


The book you should have read but haven’t?
I save certain books for situations in which I’ll be marooned. I read War and Peace while bed-ridden with the flu in a Barcelona hostel. All the Dickens novels came via Xinhua bookstores in places such as Ningxia, Guangxi and Tibet. I’m saving Lonesome Dove for an unexpected overnight stay at an airport (it’s usually on the shelf of the terminal bookshop) and Anna Karenina for a long train ride, as it took six days from Beijing to Moscow to finally read Journey to the West.


You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I think publishing your work is like launching a boat you made. Every now and then you’ll be standing on shore, and your boat will putter past, and someone will say, “Hey, nice boat!” or, “What a crap boat!” but as long as it floats, you know you’ve done your job. On to the next boat.


How did you get started writing?
My high school journalism teacher couldn’t stand having me in class, but he couldn’t prohibit my enrollment. Instead of writing for the school paper, he had me write for the community one – the kind of weekly that has the fishing report and recounts the DUI arrests. I was 16, and hooked.


Does writing change anything?
In America, it changes your tax status to self-employed, with all the schedules and expense accounting – along with a ridiculously high tax rate – that goes with it. But yes, writing changes things, just as talking and singing and painting and dancing changes things. It’s communicating ideas, some of which will alter our understanding of our lives or community or society. Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Hamilton & James Madison & John Jay, Mary Wollstonecraft, Alex Haley, Randy Shilts…


What are you working on now and when is it out?
I just this weekend finished the page proofs of the Chinese translation of The Last Days of Old Beijing, which is being published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Mainland China versions. I like the Chinese title better: 再会,老北京 (colloquially: “See You Again, Old Beijing”). It comes out at the end of April, and I’ll be doing a month-long tour for it. My second book, In Manchuria (东北游记), detailing the time I spent traveling around and living on a rice farm in China’s northeast, comes out this winter.


Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

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Posted on: March 26th, 2013 by JFK Miller No Comments