Tom Carter spent two years backpacking 55,000 kilometers across all 33 Chinese provinces, and was named “one of China’s foremost explorers” by The World of Chinese magazine. His first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, has been hailed as “the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author.” He is also the editor of Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), an anthology about foreign expats in China.
Tom Carter was born and raised in San Francisco but has lived in China since 2004. He divides his time between Shanghai and a rural farming village in the Jiangsu countryside.
Why I write
I write, but I’m not a writer. Writing for me is a painfully slow process; I agonize over every word, re-working them to perfection before I can move on. It sometimes takes me days to craft a single passage; it’s quite a sight to see me suffering over a sentence. And yet I have this passion for books, for reading, for words and for crafting prose. It’s like some sadistic love affair with a cruel, taunting muse.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
On those rare days that I do commit myself to writing, it’s usually an all-day all-night affair where I work myself up into a trance and hate to be bothered. I must start the day off with, and occasionally break for, a few chapters of classic literature; I am inspired by the poetic prose of classic literature, less so by contemporary writers. And there must always be background music – only wordless ambient music such as classical chamber, old-school jazz, electronica, or world music with lyrics that I don’t understand (Jpop, Cpop, Indian, etc.) – or I’d go insane from having to listen to my thought process.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space?
Here’s some Hong Kong folklore for you: the selection process for all the photos that appear in CHINA: Portrait of a People took place while I was holed up in a squalid, closet-sized room at the Chungking Mansions, the notorious immigrant ghetto of Kowloon, for a month back in the summer of 2007. The Mansions were literally the only place in Hong Kong I could afford to stay at.
My present writing spaces, where I edited Unsavory Elements and have started writing other yet-to-be-completed books, are divided between Shanghai and a rural village in Jiangsu province. My Shanghai apartment is blessed with a view of the city’s sparkling skyline, including the Pearl Tower; I have my writing table facing out the window overlooking it all. In Jiangsu, my writing space looks out onto farm fields and traditional countryside homes. This scenery, however, has not been entirely conducive to writing, as there is a lake just out yonder that I love to go swimming in during sweltering summer days such as this.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
For me they are one and the same: my wanderlust; fantasizing about going back out on the road to explore new places, which I basically had been doing for nearly a decade, including across all of China and all of India, which resulted in me being the most creative that I’ve ever been in my lifetime. A part of me wants to grab my pack and get back out there, go on new adventures or just drift aimlessly, and yet another part of me feels I ought to stay seated here to write about the adventures I’ve already had.
How often do you get writers’ block?
All the bloody time. I am extremely prone to anxiety and insecurity about my writing, and find myself constantly gnashing my teeth or pounding the table with my fist. And it’s not for a lack of inspiration or ideas, but rather in not being able to fluidly express those ideas into words; my thought process tends to resemble the 2nd Ring Road in Beijing at rush hour. Sometimes this congestion lasts just a few hours and other times it has lasted months and years.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
I wouldn’t say I doubt my ability as a writer so much as I doubt getting published. The gloomy prospects of finding an agent and publisher for my quirky projects, and the spirit-killing chore of having to promote my own books – a major downside to being an independent author – are probably contributing factors to my disenchantment. I imagine the sense of security of having Big Publishing behind you, marketing your book and handling all your publicity and reviews while you focus on the creative process, makes all the difference when it comes to finding motivation to write.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve had a book in my hands for as far back I can remember, but I never had an inclination to write. I was always more fascinated by the visual arts like drawing and photography. Everything I wrote in high school was notoriously bad; I constantly received Fs, and I didn’t even know how to properly use a thesaurus. But all that failure in my formative years challenged me to become a better writer. I didn’t start writing for myself, however, until I began backpacking abroad in the year 2000. Being on the road, reading book after book during all those endless bus rides or while slung up in some hostel hammock, really brought out my creativity. I even rented an apartment in Zihuatanejo Mexico for two months so that I could write my memoirs – the first “book” I ever wrote – which I’m sure if I reread today I would shake my head and sigh at.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
…it should have been bigger. I’m talking about my first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, which I wish was physically bigger, and which I wish had received a bigger release. Many reviewers complained that the 15.2 x 15.2 cm cube size did not do the photos justice. I am inclined to agree with them, but at the time it was not economically viable for my boutique publisher in Hong Kong to print 640-pages and 888-color photos into a massive hard-bound coffee-table book. We also struggled to get the book reviewed in the Western mass media; there was no competing for page space with Big Publishing. But it has gone on to become the top-selling Asian travel photography book on Amazon, out-selling all those big, glossy coffee-table books about China, so what I am counting on is licensing the foreign rights to a publisher who will design it in a bigger format. We’ll see…
Favorite Chinese writer?
I will draw sneers and derision for admitting this, but I adore ’90s-era wildchild writers like Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby) and Mian Mian (Candy). Their stories of drugs and decadence, which were eventually banned and branded “spiritual pollution” by the Chinese government, were an ominous forecast of the excess and amorality that haunts today’s China. Proof of my sincerity: Mian Mian wrote the epilogue to CHINA: Portrait of a People, and another one of my favorite Chinese writers, Anchee Min, wrote the forward. To have my photos literally bookended by these two powerful voices remains a surreal honor for me.
Favorite China book?
The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, decidedly history’s preeminent Western writer of Chinese culture. Buck, who from infancy was raised in late-1800s China by American missionary parents, learned to speak Mandarin before she did English, and then wrote nearly 100 books throughout her lifetime, many based on her personal experiences in China. Being intimately familiar with rural China, I can personally attest that Buck’s depiction of Chinese peasantry in The Good Earth transcends time, and is just as accurate today as any recently-published work. For the veracity of her narrative, the richness of her observations and the eloquence of her prose, it will always be a book I can read time and again.
Favorite author overall?
Gary Jennings, the late historical fiction writer who spent a decade drifting around 1970s Mexico to research his epic novel Aztec, and then another decade on the Silk Road to write The Journeyer, a novelization of Marco Polo’s story. I can’t even begin to imagine the adventures Jennings must have had to inspire him to craft such stories, but a passage he wrote in Aztec could have been words he himself lived by, and which I in turn have adopted as my own personal doctrine:
“Collect adventures and experiences to reminisce about…go to far places, meet new people, eat exotic foods, enjoy all varieties of women, look on unfamiliar landscapes, see new things.”
Aztec by Gary Jennings, an epic, 1,000 page-long odyssey that I stumbled upon by sweet serendipity during my own year-long wanderings through Mexico 13 years ago. I’ve re-read it countless times since then, compelling me to see as much of the world as I can.
What are you working on and when is it out?
Editing anthologies like Unsavory Elements is one way for me to keep inspired until I’m ready to seriously commit to my own writing. In fact, I have several uncompleted manuscripts on my hard drive, fiction and non-fiction, that I just might never finish now that I’ve delved into editing. I know my limitations as a writer; unusual for an author to admit this, yes, but then again, I never set out to be an “author”, I just somehow inadvertently got caught up in the publishing game. But now that I’m in it, I’ll continue to put out quirky little projects like anthologies and illustrated books until I am able to focus on finishing my Great Un-American Novel.
Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013