Ruiyan Xu was born in Shanghai and moved to the United States at the age of 10. Her debut novel, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, about love and language set in modern Shanghai, was published in 2011.
Why I write
It helps me see the world better, really. I write to remember and imagine, to focus in on the details and try to take in the big picture. Writing pushes me to be more thoughtful and feel more deeply, to empathize with other people and tell new stories. It also forces me to be more honest: not in terms of facts (I do write fiction, after all), but in terms of how it feels to be alive.
Why I write, though, is different than why I publish. I could write in my journal everyday, and that’s a very different thing than trying to write a book that other people will read. I publish so that I’ll keep working on a book or a piece, shaping it and polishing it and making it better each step of the way. I publish because I get to work with wonderful editors who give me amazing insights and make my work better than I could make it on my own. And I publish because on occasion, I’ve had the experience of reading a book that gives me solace and pleasure and hope and makes me feel less alone in the world. It’s rather breathtaking to imagine (or hope) that something I’ve written might make someone else feel that way.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Alas, I have a day job and definitely don’t write every day. I’m lucky enough to have one day a week to devote to writing, and I have also attended a number of writer’s colonies where I can write everyday, and where I’ve been incredibly productive.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet. Recently I’ve been using the rather ironically-named software Freedom to disable my networking abilities. It’s been really useful…
Best source of inspiration?
Memories and histories, staring into space on the subway, listening to other people’s conversations, and reading.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
All the time. The process of writing is always an exercise in failure. I keep trying, but I’m not sure that I’m even failing better each time.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Michael Ondaatje, David Mitchell, Anne Carson, Marilynne Robinson, Ahdaf Soueif.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Cao Xueqin (Dream of the Red Chamber). I deeply regret that I can no longer read Chinese, as I know that classical and contemporary Chinese literature is so rich, and there are extraordinary books out there that I haven’t read. There’s also far too few translations of Chinese novels.
Best book about China?
Dream of the Red Chamber was my favorite when I was a child – I remember watching the serialized television show of it in Shanghai, and then reading the book itself and skipping all the parts I found boring (aka the parts that didn’t involve the young people). When I read the book again as an adult (unfortunately, I can only read the English translation of it), it blew me away with its sophistication and expansiveness. It’s woefully under-read by most of the world, and really is a masterpiece, a kind of Chinese Middlemarch (I say that just to have an easy point of comparison for those who haven’t read it).
So hard to pick just one, but The Rings of Saturn, Portrait of a Lady, Gilead, Middlemarch, In the Skin of a Lion, Plainwater and the aforementioned Dream of the Red Chamber all came to mind.
Again, such impossible questions! Here are some writers that I’ve been enjoying lately: Sarah Waters, George Orwell, Colm Toibin, Thomas Bernhard.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
I really will get around to Proust one of these days, and look forward to it.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I have a kind of amnesia about things I write and publish. I find it really hard back to look at them, and I always find them embarrassing, so I just choose to forget about them.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve written things – stories, essays, letters – since I was a child. Reading books was always an escape, and writing was a way of telling stories. At some point in college I decided I wanted to work at being a writer. It’s been difficult, humbling, exhilarating, and sometimes rewarding.
Does writing change anything?
I don’t think writing, or most forms of art, enacts any kind of actual change in the material conditions of anyone’s lives. But reading and writing can expand our worlds and allow us to recognize ourselves in others, and very occasionally, make us think twice.