Ross Terrill is an academic, historian and journalist, specializing in modern Chinese history. Born in Australia, and now a naturalized American, Terrill took a PhD in political science at Harvard in 1970, where he later taught. He is the author of several books on China, including 800,000,000: The Real China (1972), Mao: A Biography (1980) and The White Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao (1984). His most recent book, The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means For The United States (2003), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Why I write
To crystallize my thoughts, to experience the delight in turning out a good sentence, to enrich readers and hear their satisfaction with my books and articles.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I am not happy if I don’t write every day. Sometimes I miss because a chapter or an essay is just finished and I am researching the next, or because I am traveling. I write only in the mornings. Best is to grow straight to the keyboard upon getting up, then my mind is clearest
Worst source of distraction?
Noise. Suddenly remembering tasks not done – the solution to this is to make lists, instead of letting stuff jump into your head as a distraction
Best source of inspiration?
Get truly inside the topic you’re writing about. Then anxiety turns into pleasure. A few sentences done nicely brings on inspiration for later sentences.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Don’t know what writer’s block means. It doesn’t exist for me. I don’t doubt my ability but I agonize over my relevance, or the relevance of what I am presenting to readers. Tastes are various, time is limited, priorities press in on people, what do they know, care, or want to know about China. How can I engage them, and not bore them, that’s what I wrestle with.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Charles McCarry, the spy and political novelist, author of Shelley’s Heart and other books about Washington. Among columnists in the USA, I never miss Charles Krauthammer, sharp, witty, well-informed.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Two recent Chinese books have pleased me. Ying Ruocheng’s autobiography Shui liu yun zai is charming, sad, amusing, informative about Chinese culture and politics. Also a literary book, Xian shun xian hua (Random Thoughts on Idle Books), recently published in Guilin, by the Chinese-American Zhu Xiao Di, which shines with a love of literature and China’s best values.
Best book about China?
Read together, Han Feizi for his basic wisdom about human nature, and Mencius for his sunnier view.
Favorite book? Writer?
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, for he gets life correct.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
A six-part series I wrote in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper a few months after my first China trip in 1964. Murdoch personally pruned my articles with a blue pencil and wrote out the payment check with a fountain pen. I am rather pleased to look back at what I said 45 years ago:
“All around the world, from Singapore to San Francisco, you can see pockets of Chinese society. But only in China can you behold the vast and formidable civilization in its power and its old and beautiful setting. Only in China do you realize what the Chinese as a race and a nation must increasingly mean in the pattern of future decades. Just as once in the past, long before the present barren era of clashing ideologies and wrenching divisions, China was the greatest power on earth, so in the future she may become so again.”
How did you get started writing?
Keeping a diary of travels my father took me on around the Australian countryside, of books I read, of my boyish reflections on God and man – that got me started. Soon vanity pushed me to publish.
Does writing change anything?
Of course it does. The Bible, the Koran changed history. Solzenyitzen said a great writer in an authoritarian country is like an alternative government. To a degree that was proved in Moscow.