Scott D. Seligman is the author of Dealing With the Chinese (1989), Chinese Business Etiquette (1999), The Cultural Revolution Cookbook (2011; co-authored with Sasha Gong), Three Tough Chinamen (2012) and The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (2013). Wong (1847-1898), who coined the term “Chinese American”, was the chief proponent of the fight for civil rights of that constituency.
Why I write
Remember Gene Kelly’s ‘Gotta Dance’ number in the movie, Singin’ in the Rain? I think ‘Gotta Write’ is a reasonable description of this compulsion I feel. Expressing myself through the written word is a way of life for me, and has been since I learned the alphabet. Since I took early retirement, I’ve been able to focus my energy on books and articles, but I seldom go a day without doing some sort of writing, even if it’s just answering email.
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?
I write most days, and when I’m knee deep in a project, all days. I’m most productive in the morning, but if I’m on a roll, neither the time of day nor the day of the week matters much. Writing sessions are punctuated by the imperative of four dog walks a day, an occasional meal and, often, a midday nap.
Where do you work? Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I’m fortunate to have a cheerful, sunny study, where I work on a desktop computer, surrounded by my books. No laptop for me. My desk is a former dining room table with lots of room for clutter. And I’ve managed to hook up three monitors to the computer, an arrangement that permits me to view a scanned document and attend to incoming emails even as I am composing something.
Worst source of distraction?
That’s a slam dunk: the Internet. It’s a peerless research tool, but a diabolical siren that can lead me far afield from my original topic.
Best source of inspiration?
Most of my recent work has required historical research, and without a doubt it’s old newspapers that have provided me with most of my material and inspiration. Neither of my two most recent books would have been possible 20 years ago, before scanning, digitization and optical character recognition made keyword searches possible for a growing number of out-of-copyright publications. I can now search effortlessly, in the comfort of my study, for information that would have required months of searching at a microfilm reader in the library.
Talking with others about my research often helps clear the cobwebs. But dog walks are also great for opening my mind to random thoughts, inspiration and new approaches. Sometimes, if I fall in love with a new idea or even a particular phrase and am afraid it won’t survive the trip home, I reach for the iPhone, dictate it to Siri and email it to myself. Then it’s there to greet me when I get back to the computer, and I can decide at my leisure if it’s a brilliant insight or a dead end.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
Before I’ve committed to a project, I can spend days on end second-guessing myself and heading off in unproductive directions. But once I’ve settled on a topic, I’m usually a pretty steady writer. I sometimes debate an angle or an approach with myself, but I am fortunate in that I virtually never suffer from the inability to express myself. I’m the son of an English teacher, and I come from a family in which correcting one another’s grammar was a blood sport.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
That would be Tom Friedman. He’s a columnist who never wastes your time. I find I am always the better for having read what he has to say about the issues of the day.
Probably Devil in the White City. I would give a lot to be able to write a page turner like that.
Erik Larsen, for the same reason as above.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Paul French’s Midnight in Peking. I wish I had a nickel for every friend who has told me how much I’ll love it when I finally get around to reading it.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
…what I’d do differently if I were writing it today.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing for my entire career, but little of my work ever bore my name before a few years ago. As a corporate public relations professional, I wrote countless white papers, news releases, reports, essays, brochures and speeches – nearly always anonymously. Retirement has brought the leisure and the freedom to follow my nose and write what I please, and to take both credit and responsibility for my own work. I take great joy in this.
Does writing change anything?
Certainly. It informs. It challenges. Sometimes it even changes minds.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
I’ve put out three books in the last year and a half, but the backlog is more or less exhausted, and so the pace will slow down for a while. The last two books were biographies of 19th-century Chinese Americans, and the next one may well continue in a similar vein. Right now I’m doing research on tong wars in New York’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century, but I’m not yet sure exactly what the focus of the final product will be.
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013.