Linda Jakobson is the East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute. Before moving to Sydney in 2011 she lived and worked in China for 20 years and published six books about China and East Asian society. A Mandarin speaker, she has published extensively on China’s foreign and security policy, the Taiwan Strait, China’s energy security, and climate change and science & technology polices.
Prior to joining the Lowy Institute, Jakobson served as Director of the China and Global Security Programme and Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). From 1998 to 2009 she worked for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Jakobson was a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1990. The Finnish edition of her book A Million Truths: A Decade in China (M. Evans, New York, 1998) won the Finnish Government Publication Award. Her SIPRI Policy Paper, “New Foreign Policy Actors in China” (co-authored with Dean Knox), was awarded an Albie in 2010 by Foreign Policy magazine in the United States.
Your first China book was the memoir, A Million Truths. What was the background to it?
In ’87 I went to China for the first time. I lived there a year; March 1987 to March 1988. I wrote my first book in Finnish, it was an award winner, but the [English] translation was never completed due to the events of Tiananmen; I stopped the translation into English. The name of the book was The Crumbling Wall: One Year as a Chinese. So my first year I spent very much in a Chinese family with Chinese, keeping far away from foreigners in Jinan [in Shangdong Province in eastern China].
I went back in ’88 and back in ’89 and back in ’91 and then back in ’92 as a correspondent. So I spent 10 years between ’87 and ’97 in different jobs in Jinan and Beijing. I then returned to China, if Hong Kong is considered China, in 2000 so there was a two-year gap when I wasn’t in China. A Million Truths portrays the years between ’87 and ’97 when I was a teacher, a commissioned researcher and correspondent.
Why did you stop the English translation of your first book?
Because I felt it portrayed a time and an atmosphere that no longer existed. But I was very encouraged to write a new book so I pitched it to my Finnish publisher and then pitched it to an American publisher.
Why do you write? More specifically why do you write about China?
I write about China because China is what I feel I know a little bit about, and I want to share my knowledge. And I like to write. But more importantly I think there’s a lot of room to deepen one’s perceptions and one’s understanding of China. And certainly to get a more nuanced view of China it’s good to hear lots of different approaches and lots of different perceptions. And so I am offering one such perception.
Yes, indeed. Who do you read on China?
I try and read Wang Jisi, dean of the school of international studies at Peking University, who publishes both in Chinese and English. I like to read anything that Jonathan Spence has written; I think I have read all his books. Also Minxin Pei, a Chinese-born American citizen, who is the author of several books.
Having been a correspondent yourself, which of the foreign correspondents in China do you rate?
Oh dear. I think the Guardian’s Tania Branigan; I like her stuff. Also Geoff Dyer of the FT [Financial Times].
Do you have a favourite book on China?
The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. It’s written as if it’s a story, it’s written as if it’s a novel. It’s an absolutely fascinating recount of what happened not only of politics, which is what I usually look at, but in society, in the economy. It captures your attention. And is so rich in detail.
Where do you find the time to write?
This is my biggest challenge. To write books, one needs space and time and in recent years I haven’t found that again. So the books I’ve published in the last 10 years have been more or less commissioned books, like Innovation with Chinese Characteristics. I really enjoyed writing that book because I learned so much about science and technology, which I knew nothing about. But it was a commissioned book, it wasn’t me in China, it wasn’t a personal assessment. And I’ve written chapters for books, all of them I’ve enjoyed writing, but they’re not personal books. It is really a challenge if you work in a think tank which expects you to produce reports and columns, where do you find the time to write a book?
Commissioned books I’ve written partly on work time, but the two real books I’ve written about China, I’ve taken approximately a year’s leave of absence. With the help of grants and scholarships, I’ve been able to take off nine to 12 months to work full time on the book.
With A Million Truths, how long did it take to write that?
I was on leave of absence for 10 months and I did research for about four very intensively in Jinan, I went back to my roots, and I wrote for about six.
The writing, what habits did you keep?
I would usually write between noon and two in the morning with a break at six o’clock for dinner and a long walk on the beach. I wrote A Million Truths in Sanya on Hainan Island, six months I was there.
That’s an incredibly long writing stretch…
Yes, but with a two-and-a-half hour break in between.
Did you work to a daily word count?
Yes. Three to four pages per day.
You are the most industrious writer interviewed for this series yet…
I don’t always get to those three to four pages.
What is your best source of inspiration and worst source of distraction from writing?
Inspiration; just having the freedom and space to write, I suppose. Distraction; when I wrote those books there was no email, so a letter or a fax that distracted me with some news on the personal front that was troubling.
How often do you get writer’s block and how do you overcome it?
With A Million Truths, probably once a week. The best thing is to stop and go out and walk on the beach and then return with a clear mind. You need to absolutely get away from the computer.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
I think all writers doubt there ability at some point in the process of a book.
What is next for you book-wise?
I’m sure I’ve still got one more book about China in me.
A personal memoir?
Yes. I hope so. At some point I hope to be able to do that.
Posted: Tuesday, August 20, 2013