In 1946, George Orwell articulated the reasons why he put pen to paper in an essay entitled Why I Write.
In this Web series, authors talk about their literary habits and reading preferences,
and examine Orwell's question that lies at the heart of being an author—why they write.

Adam Minter

Junkyward Planet


Adam Minter is an American writer who has covered a range of topics for publications that include The Atlantic, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Mother Jones, Scientific American, ARTnews and Sierra. In addition to his freelance work, he is Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View.


His first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, is an insider’s account of the hidden world of globalized recycling, from the US to China and points in between.


Adam Minter has covered the global recycling industry for more than a decade. In 2002, he began a series of groundbreaking investigative pieces on China’s emerging recycling industries for Scrap and, later, Recycling International that were recognized, in 2004, with the first Stephen Barr Award for individual excellence in business feature writing, awarded by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. Since then, he has been cited, quoted, and interviewed on recycling and waste by a range of international media, including The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, and National Public Radio. He regularly speaks to groups about the global waste and recycling trade.


He currently divides his time between Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Minneapolis.


Why I write
It’s the only thing that people will pay me to do on a consistent basis. Some people manufacture cars; I manufacture sentences, paragraphs, and pages. It’s my trade, and I’m reasonably good at it.


What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I’m busy enough these days that I need to write every weekday, and usually one day on the weekend. I don’t like to take days off in the midst of long-form projects because I tend to lose momentum and voice. The only limits I set on time and word count are deadline-related. That is, if I’m expected to turn in 800 words by 5pm, then that’s what I’ll do. Otherwise, I work until I’m tired. It’s worth noting that procrastination is part of my process. So even though I may start “work” at 8am, I don’t tend to really get cooking until mid-afternoon. My best work hours are between 3 and 6pm.


Where do you write?
I work on the sofa in the sitting room, in front of the television (which remains off). I tend to sit cross-legged, with the laptop perched on a TV tray that just happens to stand at the right height to keep my hands from cramping.


Worst source of distraction?


Best source of inspiration?
Reporting. If you write a lot of opinion, as I do, it’s very easy to get too far into one’s own head. Reporting a story – talking to people, seeing places and things – doesn’t just inspire the immediate story, but it tends to impact the other things I’m working on, too.


How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I equate writers’ block with not having enough information. That is, if I know a subject, I shouldn’t have any trouble writing about it. If I get writers’ block, it usually means I don’t enough. In that sense, writers’ block is a wonderful flashing red light that something isn’t right. To be honest, I’m fairly confident in my abilities, but I do know my limits and I tend to second-guess myself when working in formats or word counts that aren’t familiar to me.


Contemporary writer who you always read?
Robert Caro.


Best book about China?
Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones.


Favorite Chinese writer?
Qiu Xiaolong.


Favorite book?
Robert Caro’s The Path to Power.


Favorite writer?
Can I choose a songwriter? If so, Joni Mitchell. She’s had a huge influence on me, and particularly how I do description. The Hejira record, in particular, continues to teach me about saying more with less, and what kinds of details can have descriptive and emotional resonance at the same time. If I can’t choose a songwriter, then it’s the novelist Louise Erdrich. I started reading her young, and her novels about the intersection of Native American and mainstream American culture continue to move and amaze me.


The book you should have read but haven’t?
Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung, aka Mao’s Little Red Book.


You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Accidents happen.


How did you get started writing?
I ran for a minor elected office and lost. To commemorate the event, I wrote a few thousand words that I thought were pretty good and sent the manuscript off to an editor of a magazine in Minneapolis. He, too, thought they were pretty good, and ran them in his next issue. I’ve been writing ever since.


Does writing change anything?
People who write news change the world every day. So yes, in that sense, it does. But other kinds of writing – opinion, fiction, long-form non-fiction – have spottier records. Here and there, yes, a work of non-fiction like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, might change the world (or at least the United States). But in general, I think people who go into writing with hopes of transforming the world should maybe adjust their expectations. In the era of the Internet, it’s really hard to get your stuff read, much less change anything. I aspire to entertain, and anything else after that is gravy.


What are you working on now and when is it out?
I’m busy promoting Junkyard Planet, writing columns for Bloomberg and – perhaps most important – stalking a very specific idea for a next book. I hope to be able to announce something related to it before the end of summer. For now, all I can say is that it won’t be about junk, China, or globalization, but it will be – in a very specific way – very, very trashy.


Posted: Friday, January 24, 2014


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Posted on: January 23rd, 2014 by JFK Miller No Comments