American Tess Johnston has authored and published 25 books on Shanghai, including 10 volumes on Western architecture and the expatriate experience in old China, and a memoir of her time in the US diplomatic service, Permanently Temporary – From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century. She has lived in Shanghai since 1981.
Why I write
Vanity, I guess. I always think I know something that a lot of people don’t – like about the Westerners in old China, for instance – and that I think they will want to (or should?) know.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
No, just when I have a deadline, or a hot idea, or am in the midst of writing a book or an article. Hey, just answering my e-mails every morning before I do anything else makes me do a great deal more writing than I’m really interested in doing!
Worst source of distraction?
What isn’t? (So may I make that sourceS, plural?) The ayi, visitors, telephone calls, attacks of hunger for snacks, desire to get out for fresh air – and then the TV (I keep CNN on, low volume, almost all day, lest I miss something).
Best source of inspiration?
A beautiful old building going to seed, or a beautiful old book that promises, and delivers, much.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
The former, never. The latter, only when I had just read through the first draft of my memoir.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Right now, it’s Malcolm Gladwell, but this too shall pass.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I don’t read Chinese, so it’s Lin Yutang. He’s from another era, but he never ceases to charm on things Chinese.
Best book about China?
An old one, The Years That Were Fat, by George Kates. Marvelously evocative.
Almost impossible to answer; there are simply too many. Lately it was Noel Coward’s Pomp and Circumstance, his only novel and hilarious – and right on!
Harry A. Franck, a travel writer from the 1920-30s, long dead and much missed.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
Have you got half an hour or so? OK, probably either a Harry Potter, or maybe one of Dan’s Brown’s, epics, just to see what it is that grabbed those millions of readers. (But I’d really rather not.)
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Wow, if I hadn’t written that book, then I would like to read the same book, but written by someone else. (It was A Last Look – Western Architecture in Old Shanghai, with those gorgeous photographs by Deke Erh.)
Does writing change anything?
Of course some writing does, but nothing that I write will ever change anything.