Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the author of How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Reform and What This Means for the Future which features discussions with over 100 Chinese Communist Party leaders. He is also the author of The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin, the first biography of a living Chinese senior leader published on the Chinese mainland and China’s best-selling book in 2005.
Why I write
I write to learn. I also enjoy the solitary struggle to construct interesting sentences that convey intended meaning.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I write lots of things every day. When in serious book mode, I write six to ten hours a day, largely at night and skewed to weekends. As I have investment banking and corporate strategy responsibilities, I try getting all the day’s business done before beginning to write – so that when I’m doing business I’m focused on business, and, ideally, when I’m writing I’m free to go without interruption for as long as possible. When I was writing the biography of former President Jiang Zemin, I was president of a large merger and acquisition firm. As such, I could not begin writing until 5pm or 6pm; every day I wrote until 11pm or midnight (eating at my desk), then worked out in a private gym for about an hour, so that, re-energized, I could write further until 3am or 4am. After five or six hours sleep, I’d begin the workday by mid-morning. I maintained this routine, which required a ‘crash’ of eight hours sleep every week or so, for almost two years.
Worst source of distraction?
Interpersonal issues in business. I take my business responsibilities very seriously but they are only distracting when people conflicts arise (which happens, of course, rather often). It was worse when I was running a company, with responsibility for hundreds of employees.
Best source of inspiration?
Striving to understand and communicate matters of importance. Also, the visionary works of contemporary thinkers – physicist Steven Weinberg; cosmologists Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Max Tegmark; philosophers Daniel Dennett, John Leslie, Colin McGinn, Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, John Searle, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Whenever I finish a writing project, especially a book, I am sure that there is nothing more I know and I believe that there is nothing more I can ever know.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Here’s a random list, alphabetized: Daniel Dennett, Alan Dershowitz, Maureen Dowd, Freeman Dyson, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Friedman, Vaclav Havel, Christopher Hitchens, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Krugman, Colin McGinn, John Polkinghorne, Richard Posner, Martin Rees, Philip Roth, John Searle, Tony Judt, Steven Weinberg, Slavoj Zizek. Unfortunately, I often miss them all.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I do not consider myself sufficiently literate in Chinese literature to pass judgment.
Best book about China?
Roderick MacFarquhar’s works on the Cultural Revolution.
I’ll do magazines: Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, New Scientist, Scientific American.
Steven Weinberg; Richard Swinburne; John Searle.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality – working my way through it, a project for the decade. Roderick MacFarquhar’s and Michael Schoenhals’ Mao’s Last Revolution.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I never look back.
Does writing change anything?
If one cannot explain something in writing, one does not understand it in reality. Writing doesn’t describe reality; it structures reality.