Simon Fowler is a British film critic specialising in Asian cinema and the author of film compendium 101 Essential Chinese Movies. He also blogs on North Korean film.
Why I write
It’s an entirely satisfying experience to lay down onto the page a well-crafted sentence – much more so than saying something witty which seems to evaporate as soon as you’ve said it. I’ve always really liked the ‘idea’ of being a writer, long before I ever actually tried to see if anyone would actually pay me to do it.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I’m a journalist so I have to write everyday. My own stuff is a little harder to write. While working on this book, I imagine for every minute I was actually typing there were at least two or three minutes of me staring blankly out the window of my apartment before the wave of, ‘Oh shit, I really have to get some words down before going to bed’ hit me squarely in the face.
Worst source of distraction?
Letting my brain go off in wild tangents. If I’m looking up the name of a cinematographer of imdb.com, it could be over half an hour before I return to actually doing work. Once I’ve found one film of theirs that I’m interested in, I’ll click on a link which will inevitably lead me to another director or actor I’m interested in and so on and so on.
Best source of inspiration?
Without doubt watching films is my main inspiration, especially for this book as it was entirely about Chinese movies. When I see an excellent film, and I mean a really excellent film (which only happens about three times a year), I’m gripped by a sudden maniacal rush of excitement and I find words and ideas come very easily when writing about it. The last film I saw that made me do that was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. Seeing it really gave me faith that there were people in the world actually trying to make good movies, and it’s good enough to erase the memory of 100 High School Musical films.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
When I read Anthony Lane’s film reviews in The New Yorker I want to give up writing. They’re so witty, knowledgeable and insightful that I fear that I would never be able to come close to his standard. When it’s been long enough since I read some of his work then I start to stop worrying about how good he is and start stealing his ideas. I haven’t (touch wood) had bad writers’ block yet. I’m lucky that even if I think what I’m writing is rubbish, I know I can revisit it later and make it better.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Polymath and raconteur Stephen Fry is a huge hero of mine. I love his novels – although there hasn’t been one for a good few years now – but even his tweets, blogs and non-fiction are so worldly and steeped in classical quotes and references that I have to follow all of it.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I haven’t read enough Chinese books to have a favorite, but of what I have read I would say Wang Gang is up there. English: A Novel is a nice take on the Cultural Revolution, but I also loved his screenwriting on some of Feng Xiaogang’s flicks like A World Without Thieves.
Best book about China?
Richard McGregor’s The Party. Scary and fascinating.
I really want it to be something more obscure than Catcher in the Rye but that book had a huge impact on me when I was a teen – as I’m sure it did for everyone else.
Dashiell Hammett. The hard-boiled detective novel is sort of a limited genre, but Hammett’s books like Red Harvest (which inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) and The Glass Key are essential reading. His books are also so boozy, which I respect deeply.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
War and Peace. I’ll get there one day. Primarily so I can be snooty to people who haven’t read it.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I try not to read anything I’ve ever written. I’m planning on actually reading my book from beginning to end in about 30 years. Only with the benefit of that much time will I be able to enjoy it.
How did you get started writing?
I used to write preposterous short stories on an old typewriter during the school summer holidays. I have never shown these to anyone, nor will I. I interned at a movie magazine after finishing university – that’s where I really learned that it doesn’t matter how witty you are if you don’t know how to organize ideas.
Does writing change anything?
Of course. It has an enormous power to manipulate viewpoints and emotions.