Matthew Polly is the bestselling author of American Shaolin and Tapped Out. He spent two years studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, and became the first American to be accepted as a Shaolin disciple. A Princeton University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, his writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Esquire, Slate, The Nation and numerous other publications.
He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Why I write
Because I’m an introverted praise-whore.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I start writing when the guilt builds up to the point that I can no longer justify procrastinating.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I have a home office filled with books by better writers than me. I like the sense of competition over centuries.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Worst distraction: bad TV cop dramas. Inspiration: my credit card bills.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
Daily. Watch bad TV cop dramas.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
Frequently. Each new project is a new start. To get over it, I reread something I wrote previously to remember that I can actually write.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
When I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a teenager.
How did you get started writing?
In grad school. I was 23. I wanted to be a screenwriter, because I loved movies. Then I figured out that screenwriters, with one or two exceptions, don’t control their own work. Magazine and book-writing don’t pay as well, but I don’t get rewritten by 13 other guys—half of whom are illiterate producers.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Not half-bad for a beginner. I love everything I’ve ever written, even the early stuff that is unpublishable. I know writers who can’t stand their early work, but to me that would be like not loving your children.
Does writing change anything?
Of course it does. It always changes you as a writer. Whether it changes anyone else depends on what you’ve written and who reads it. As for the world, unless you wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, probably not.
Contemporary writer you always read?
P.J. O’Rourke — America’s best political satirist. My goal when I started was to be the Poor Man’s P.J. O’Rourke: more liberal and less funny. I think I’ve managed to clear that low bar.
Favorite China book?
Just between you and me… Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing. She perfectly captured the expat life in Beijing in the ‘90s, and she did so in a stylish and amusing way. But I am contractually obligated to say that it is Tom Carter’s anthology, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, available now on Amazon.
Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. Graphic novels in the late ’80s and early ’90s were doing things that modern literary fiction hasn’t been able to touch. I like work that takes popular genres and reinvents them.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
James Joyce’s Ulysses. I love Dubliners and Portrait, but you need a decoder ring to read Ulysses. I’ve started it frequently then simply given up in frustration. In general, I don’t believe reading should be difficult. If you’ve written something that an intelligent, college-educated reader can’t understand, then you’ve done something wrong.
What are you working on and when is it out?
I am writing a biography of Bruce Lee for Penguin Books. It should be out in 18 months or so, depending on how fast I get through the fifth season of Castle.
Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013