Susan Barker grew up in east London. She studied philosophy at the University of Leeds and creative writing at the University of Manchester. She is the author of the novels Sayonara Bar (2005) and The Orientalist and the Ghost (2008), both published by Doubleday (UK) and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel The Incarnations (Doubleday, July 2014) is about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and interwoven with tales from the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War, and the Cultural Revolution. While writing The Incarnations she spent several years living in Beijing, researching modern and imperial China. She has received grants from the Arts Council England and the Society of Authors, and has been an artist in resident at the Corporation of Yaddo, Hawthornden International Writers’ Retreat and the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. In 2010-2012 she was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Leeds Trinity University.
Why I write
I write because the human condition is so extraordinary and strange, heart-breaking and terrifying, I want to deepen my understanding of it by rendering it in fiction. Literature has this ability to illuminate areas of human consciousness and experience that other modes of art and communication can’t reach. To write (and read) good fiction is to explore what it is to be human in a very subtle and nuanced way.
Many books have had a powerful impact on me, and I write to replicate the truth and beauty in these works. I write because I love the process of crafting new worlds out of written words – a process that is often slow and frustrating, but occasionally euphorically rewarding. And I write because I can’t not write. After 12 years of being a novelist, it’s all I know how to do.
What are your writing habits?
When I am working on a novel I write for about six or seven hours a day, weekdays and some Saturdays. I start in the morning and work for three or four hours until lunch. Then I write for two or three hours in the afternoon. My word count deviates day by day. There are days I’m inspired and can write 2,000 words. There are days I spend hours rearranging words and punctuation marks in a single paragraph.
I’m usually caffeinated when I’m writing. I drink coffee and then about three or four cups of green tea. I’ve heard this theory that the proliferation of coffee-houses throughout Europe in the 1650s coincides with the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. This makes perfect sense to me.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
During the six years I was writing The Incarnations I moved a lot and I lived in about 17 different places in the UK, China and the US. The first thing I did when I moved somewhere new, before unpacking or sleeping off jet-lag, was to drag a desk, chair and lamp over to the corner of the bedroom or junk-crammed spare room and set up a makeshift workspace. I can work anywhere – large, sunlit rooms, or darkened attics so cramped I can’t stand up without knocking my head. I’m adaptable. In China I sometimes had to work with earplugs or listening to Rachmaninoff at top volume on my iPod, to block out the noise of drilling and renovation in a nearby flat.
Worst source of distraction?
I steer clear of the Internet when I’m working. I write long-hand on recycled A4 paper in the mornings and in the afternoon I work on an old laptop that’s disconnected from the online world. I have my phone ringer on silent when I am working too.
My own daydreaming distracts me though. I fidget and occasionally jump out of my chair and pace around to stretch my legs. I make cups of tea. Every so often I like to go and investigate the contents of my fridge.
Best source of inspiration?
Everything inspires me: Other writers’ novels, non-fiction books, films, HBO series, articles in the news, anecdotes friends tell me, incidents I witness in the street, art galleries and museums, conversations I overhear on buses, weird things that happen to me. I have this vampiristic instinct to turn everything that interests me into fiction.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I have never really had ‘writers’ block’ as in a complete inability to write, but there have been days, weeks and months when my imagination feels stifled, the words come slowly, and the stories that end up on the page seem false. Writing fiction – especially a book that takes many years to complete, is a vast leap of courage and faith. When I was writing The Incarnations I often had moments of self-doubt – that the project was too ambitious and I wouldn’t be able to finish it. But I kept going. I am good at ignoring self-doubt, or compartmentalising it.
Contemporary writer you never miss?
It’s impossible to choose just one writer. Sarah Hall, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis, Peter Hessler, David Mitchell. The list goes on…
Very hard to choose just one book, but Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels is about as beautiful, lyrical and moving as literature can be.
Simone De Beauvoir.
Best book about China?
Like most readers who’ve lived in China, I adore Peter Hessler. Oracle Bones is my favourite.
Favourite Chinese author?
Yu Hua. To Live is deeply moving.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I look back at my first novel Sayonara Bar (Doubleday, 2005), which I wrote when I was 24, and wince at how precocious my writing was. I’d like to go back in time and tell my younger self to focus on creating authentic characters, rather than clever metaphors and showing off with my prose.
How did you get started writing?
I was 22 and working as an English teacher in a small town called Nagaokakyo, outside Kyoto in Japan. There weren’t many other English-speakers there, I had no Internet, and seldom watched TV. I spent a lot of time in the evenings hanging out in coffee-shops, scribbling short stories and terrible, angsty poetry.
Does writing change anything?
Absolutely. The written word is very powerful. If writing didn’t have the power to change the way people think about the world, then why are the Communist Party trying so hard to censor any anti-Party writing? Why are so many public intellectuals and journalists in jail? Writing can be a powerful call to action.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
I’m not writing right now, but I have lots of ideas for short stories and essays. I can’t wait to get started again.
Posted: Tuesday, August 5, 2014