Nicole Mones is the author of three novels: Lost in Translation, A Cup of Light and The Last Chinese Chef, which was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. Her books are in print in 18 languages.
Why I write
Because I can’t restrain myself; it’s like breathing. In my younger years I was always the idiot writing on the train, in the coffee shop, on the back of a cocktail napkin at the party.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I have written almost every day since high school. For a long time I kept it to myself and earned money in other ways, like trading textiles with China. I wrote my first complete novel in between diaper changes, soccer practices and business obligations. When it was successful, I closed my business and began writing six hours a day, six days a week, usually when my kids were in school or otherwise busy. Having kids focused me, actually. I still can’t figure out how I wasted so much time before they came along. Now there is no waiting for a special moment, no ‘saving,’ just daily effort. I find when one draws from the well, it fills from the bottom.
Worst source of distraction?
There are the obvious culprits – family, dishes that need washing and the ever-alluring e-mail – but to me the most disruptive thing is simply living in a world separate from the one under construction. It’s a challenge to step back and forth. It always helps to go away for short, intense bursts of writing, even if I’m shivering in a rented garage.
Best source of inspiration?
Without fail, it is the unexpected connection or glimmer of possibility that arises while reading a newspaper article, coming across an intriguing passage in a book, hearing something in a conversation, listening to a lecture. I get this excited feeling: now there’s a story…
How often do you get writer’s block / doubt your own ability?
I can always write, which may be to my detriment, since undoing a bad passage is worse than having postponed it. Doubt is different; I feel it all the time, every day. Yet doubt makes me work hard. It reminds me how far there is to go.
Contemporary writer in any medium you never miss?
Every week I grab The New Yorker from the mail pile and rush to the contents in hopes of an essay on China by Peter Hessler, Evan Osnos, or Pankaj Mishra.
Favorite Chinese writer?
In the ’80s, it was Lynn Pan. I had begun doing business in Shanghai in 1977, and the city, monochromatic and tamped down, eluded me. Then In Search of Old Shanghai appeared, and I carried it all over town. Tea stains, creased pages, margin notes, underlinings… I literally wore that book out. Right now I am reading her Shanghai Style, which is wonderful. But in this decade Eileen Chang is my favorite. By locating characters simultaneously in tradition and modernity she goes beyond portraying the contradictions of her time and place to embodying them on the page. It’s like finding a book on jazz that reads like a brilliant improvisation, masterly yet free. Few writers can do it.
Best book about China?
A sentimental favorite, I know, but The Years that Were Fat by George Kates.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.
Borges. I have savored every word.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
I could not finish Swann’s Way, and was never able to finish a Thomas Pynchon novel after The Crying of Lot 49, either.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It could have been better, but it could never have been more emotionally frank. I wrote Lost in Translation (not connected with the 2002 film of the same title) with the door locked, thinking no one would ever read it. Wrong.
Does writing change anything?
Of course; it becomes part of the discourse. I think it changes the writer, too, at least in the case of fiction. To write fiction you live other lives; your characters struggle and reach resolution. You are altered. Sometimes you even realize (usually when you are done with a novel) that you had a personal reason for creating it. I find it interesting that Eileen Chang spent so many years revising Lust, Caution. Considering her own youthful and humiliating relationship with Japanese collaborator Hu Lancheng, her endless sculpting of this story may have had its personal reasons.