Jonathan Campbell lived on many sides of Beijing’s local-music-scene stage between 2000 and 2010. His first book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, was published by Earnshaw Books in 2011.
Why I write
I know that part of what motivates me to write is the concern that someone else would do it before me, and do it worse than I know I can. Certainly that’s been the case for as long as I’ve been following/involved in/etc-ing the Chinese rock scene, but I do feel like it goes back further than that. So a bit of ego with a healthy dose of having something interesting and important to say.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
There isn’t really any set method to my writing. At this point, I write when I can, which is after work, or during lunch breaks, or in order to put off other things that I’d rather not be doing. I wish that it was my day job, like it was in the last few months of wrapping up Red Rock, and then, like back then, I’d sit at my desk from pretty much 9-5 or something like it. With the occasional stupid-late-night session just because it was still coming out of me. One thing I found writing Red Rock was that I needed to vomit out as much as possible regardless of word count, and chop it in the editing process. I also learned that I need to be a better chopper, and get more choppers involved, but the point there is that I write until I’m done.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
Red Rock was written in a variety of locales. My home office in Beijing, my home office in Toronto, cafes across Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Toronto. I do enjoy writing at cafes, but I prefer writing at home, where I can crank the music – writing about Chinese rock I listened to a lot of bebop and post-rock in addition to the music in question. Also, at home, in the various locales that ‘home’ has been for the past few years, I write under the gaze of the note a good friend got me that says “Jon, Rock On” signed by John Paul Jones. Working under that definitely fuels my work.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Since I’ve written mainly nonfiction, the Internet has been a boon and a curse. Especially on the subject of yaogun, where you can look for hours to try and figure out when an album was released and come up with a dozen reasonable answers. So time certainly got sucked from the process, not to mention my life, because of it. But at the same time, the ability to find info that’s not always a mess has been a lifesaver, especially since I wound up on the other side of the planet from my subject for the last portion of the writing of Red Rock. Email, as well, combined with the fact that I was working on promoting gigs/tours for much of the Red Rock writing process, and continue to have other things going has been a big distraction.
Listening to music I’ve found to be a great source of inspiration. I do think that reading others’ work is a really important part of getting inspired, both in positive and negative ways: In terms of writing about yaogun, I found that what inspired me was the large amount of sub-par work on the subject, fueling the desire to get the story out there. Of course, reading George Saunders inspires me in a very different way.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
I don’t feel like I often get writers’ block, and not because I have some kind of crazy talent or anything. Working in nonfiction, it seems to me that this happens less. But if I ever hit a wall, that was the time to either put down the section and pick up another one, or else break for lunch, or, since I’ve been in Canada, walk the dog. Or skip over to other work: for as long as I’ve been writing I had other work to do. So to go back a question, email has been a huge distraction, but sometimes, I need a distraction.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
I spent a lot of time as a freelancer – and still do it – and the life of begging people to consider publishing my work takes its toll for sure. I try and maintain the philosophy that they just don’t realize how good I am, but it’s a challenge to keep that up among not simply rejection but the exponentially-more-evil silence that comprises a good portion of the freelance life.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I think it was in high school, with the journalism class I was able to take a year early. That set me on the path to high school and university journalism. And it snowballed very quickly in Beijing, when I realized that there was just enough connectivity for me to be able to reach out and email editors around the world, but not enough connectivity for folks back home to be getting enough info about China. The proof that I still believe it was that as my work as promoter got busier and busier, I actually found it physically difficult when people asked what I did for a living for me to say anything other than ‘writer’.
How did you get started writing?
From high-school journalism class, it was an easy step to high-school newspaper writing, and a natural progression onto my university newspaper. And then, upon arrival in Beijing, I was able to join up with a very young that’s Beijing; honing my chops there was an essential part of gaining the confidence to start asking regional and international outlets to consider my work.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I wrote what I thought was a great article about a ‘trend’ of high schoolers playing bingo for my school paper. I know that my friends and I (who comprised most of the ‘trend’) dug the piece, and I know that I had fun putting it together. It evokes feelings not as uncomfortable as, say, going through early journal entries, but not exactly what I’d call pride. I think, actually, looking back at earlier writing, it’s not necessarily the earliest stuff that’s the most uncomfortable to read. My writing evolution hasn’t gone in a straight line, exactly. So for me, looking back is instructional, even way back.
Does writing change anything?
Absolutely. For sure my writing has changed the way I see things. So the process of writing Red Rock, for example, I gained a whole new appreciation for and understanding of not just yaogun and the adventures of the Chinese who discovered rock and created something of their own, but of rock and roll generally. It really tweaked my own worldview, and the hope is that readers also have their perspective tweaked. I do think writing can do that – the question of whether my own writing has done that isn’t something I can answer. But I sure hope it does.
Contemporary writer you always read?
That’s a tough one. But you knew that. For now, it’s George Saunders. This will, has, and does, change.
Favorite China book?
I’ve really enjoyed the China books from the ’50s-’70s I’ve stumbled on in used bookstores, like Two Innocents in Red China, by the then-soon-to-be-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and journalist Hacques Hebert; or I Saw Red China by Australian reporter Lisa Hobbs; and the Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao by Yao Ming-Le.
This is a moving target. But lately, The Instructions by Adam Levin.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
There are a lot of ‘Classics’ that I want to have read, but every time I go to pick them up I get that ‘not now’ feeling. And the realisation, with a previous question, that I haven’t read enough Chinese authors, has lead to the realisation that there are a bunch of Chinese authors on that list.
What are you working on and when is it out?
Still riding the wave of being in Unsavory Elements, and helping to spread word on that. It was a great exercise to trim that particular piece down to what it became. Looking forward to seeing if we can’t get some buzz for it here in North America.
I’m working on a couple of things, but not at the point where they’re ready to be talked about yet. I’m worried about the jinx more than anything. There is a piece that’s supposed to be coming out imminently on ChinaFile that I also don’t want to jinx, but let’s just say it involves the amazing Yibin, Sichuan-based musician Baishui.
Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013