Wade Shepard is a China-based writer and editor of travel blog Vagabond Journey, which he founded in 2004. His debut book, Ghost Cities of China, a book about China’s new city movement, was published by Zed Books in 2015.
Why I write
I write because it’s a way of engaging the world a little deeper, a driver to learn a little more about what I find interesting, a way of organizing and monumentalizing my observations, experiences, and thoughts, as well as a full-on, never ending gallimaufry of mental stimulation. Less romantically, it’s also my job.
Writing opens doors — it provides access to people and places that I wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. I came into writing full time through travel, and it became apparent to me early on that taking on writing projects were often the key difference between meeting interesting people, getting behind closed doors, and gaining a unique perspective on a place and being left on the outside, impotently drifting through cities as a tourist. People make time for writers, they answer their questions, take them places that the general public can’t go, and show them things that most people will never see. On a personal level, writing enabled me to see the things and go to the places that I wanted to for the fun of it, it provided me with access, and the fact that I could make money doing it was an additional benefit.
Writing also provides the impetus to go out and seek interesting kinds of experiences. It’s rather awkward to walk up to a stranger and start asking foolish questions, it’s slightly nerve wracking to call someone you don’t know up on the phone to do an interview, it’s a little intimidating to walk into a government office/ company/ institution and demand a share of someone’s time and knowledge, and it really goes against your senses of self-preservation to go into potentially dangerous or unusual places. But when you’re writing you have to do these things as a standard operating procedure. There is no other option; you must leave your comfort zones, put yourself out there and risk embarrassment, ridicule, and, once in a while, safety to get the information that you need to do your work. I have to admit that I have had many remarkable experiences, met many people, learned many things, and went to many places that I never would have otherwise if I wasn’t writing.
I mean, writing gives you an excuse to put yourself in some pretty strange/ interesting situations. You can’t just call up a world famous archaeologist and ask him to take you on a personal tour of his excavation for the fun of it. You can’t just walk into an architecture firm and chat for an hour with a lead designer just because you think her work is pretty neat. You can’t expect a university professor to talk to you on Skype just because you possess a genuine interest for what he’s researching. You can’t gain access to many intriguing private spaces and important situations just being a random voyeur. But you can do many of these things almost daily if you’re writing. To put it simply, writing provides ordinary people the opportunity to have extraordinary experiences.
When it comes down to it, a writer’s job is to learn things. All day long you’re ultimate focus is the search for knowledge, the requisitioning of information, whether it’s through interviews, research, or observation. I know of no better feeling than waking up in the morning and being like, “Hmm, what am I going to learn about today, who am I going to talk to, what am I going to find out,” then rolling out of bed to discover the answers throughout the day.
Writing is ultimately a form of exploration, and that’s another one of the reasons I’ve become so taken by it. This is especially pertinent when its considered that the information that you’re finding is ideally unique and little known to most people in the world — and every once in a while you can be among the first to make a connection or uncover something. Like I said, I found my way in writing via traveling, and I suppose I’ve taken the traveler’s conceit of being the first one to go to a place with me into more abstract, literary realms.
Though I also have to admit that I write simply because I enjoy it. I‘m not sure why, but it’s just fun. This is probably the main reason.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started writing?
Writing was always something that I’d just figured I would do on a serious level — as in writing books and being a journalist — all through grade school and college, but the logistics of how this would happen weren’t always straightforward. It was just a concept of my future path that was so ingrained that I never really bothered analyzing it too in-depth or broadcasting it too loudly. There was just nothing else I wanted to do, ever. I have been a voracious reader since I was able to pick up a book, so I suppose there was just some natural progression of logic that lead to wanting to write them. Kind of like a kid who watches sports dreams of being an athlete.
It took me a long time to find an angle in, my role, my purpose, so to speak. An 18-year-old kid who doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know anything probably isn’t going to produce anything of quality at the keyboard, so I fumbled with writing for some years, not really focusing on it too intently. Perhaps I figured that I’d eventually have some kind of epic adventure that would write itself or something. Then it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen, and that I would have to start from the ground up.
I went to university, earned a degree in journalism…
I began blogging when I was 24 as a daily writing exercise, not really imagining that it would eventually be my full time job for a span of years. Through doing this I gained some good experience, had the opportunity to work out some kinks, and develop my strategies and style. It was an environment where I could make mistakes with very little consequences and learn lessons the hard way — which is to say, the best way. Eventually, the site become relatively popular in its niche and began bringing in good amounts of traffic and enough money to keep traveling on, so I starting taking writing a little more seriously. Daily narratives soon gave way to all out journalistic studies, one of which got me a book deal with Zed.
Since then I’ve kind of gravitated back into the fold, so to speak. I now write for big newspapers, etc… and kind of abandoned my position as a stubborn and idealistic independent publisher.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I came into writing through blogging, and as I was traveling continuously the potential sources for stories were nearly endless. So there was always far more to write about than I could possible get down and publish. This taught me a good deal of discipline — which I supposed was helped by the fact that this work became kind of an obsession. For a string of years I would pump out two or three articles per day, almost every day. Travel, collect information, and write was pretty much all I did. I couldn’t complain though, I loved it.
Now that my focus is more on bigger projects I’m not publishing nearly as much, but I’m still on the keyboard eight to 10+ hours per day when not actively moving between places or out in the streets collecting info for stories. Though I have to add here that this time of course isn’t all spent clicking keys, as much of the work is in researching, doing interviews, taking notes, stroking my beard…
Though the writing process doesn’t start or end at the keyboard. When you get into the habit of writing daily the physical world of raw experience and the narrative world of writing start to blur together. Eventually, you find yourself talking through events almost as they are happening in the voice that you write in, kind of like a commentator giving a play by play of an athletic event. So almost all day long you are cerebrally putting experiences and observations into words, trying out passages, reciting quotes, and putting story lines together. There is just this unceasing chatter, this dialog going through your head all the time that’s just spinning and spinning and spinning that there’s really no way to stop it. So writing eventually stops being this physical activity that you can start at a certain time and end at a certain time, and becomes something that you just live all day long.
Worst source of distraction?
The Buffalo Bills. Reading non-pertinent news articles. Email (especially!). Anything that commands my attention that doesn’t have to do with what I’m writing about.
Best source of inspiration?
Monologuing about whatever I’m writing about to my unvariably uninterested but very supportive wife. This is a good way to rate new ideas on her bullshit index. The less contorted her face the better.
How often do you get writers’ block or doubt your own ability?
As far as nonfiction writing goes I’m not sure if writers’ block exists. A century ago people didn’t get writers block — when they had nothing to write about they just went out and did something else. I read something about this that posited writer’s block as something that arose in the later half of the 20th century when relatively large amounts of people began trying to make a living writing. The traditional model was that writing was something that someone (even famous writers) did on their free time, it was something recreational, so there was rarely any real pressure for someone to force themselves to write when they had nothing to write about. I think this model, whether it ever really existed or not, is best.
Live hard enough, talk to enough people, observe enough, experience enough, learn enough, and the writing will flow. When that flow dries up it’s probably not a problem of writing, it’s a problem of living. Go out, do something stupid, get in trouble, and viola, you’ve created something to write about.
As far as doubting my own abilities, a little doubt and a feeling of inadequacy is good motivation. How else are you going to sit in a room for the long hours it takes to write anything of substance unless you feel as if you have something to prove?
Favorite Chinese writer?
I enjoy the first person narrative non-fiction that’s mostly written amateur Chinese writers — migrant worker lit and stuff like that. But as far as the big Chinese writers go I’ve never really gotten into any of them. Though, honestly, I’ve never really given any of them a shot.
That said, since I began writing full time I rarely read for kicks. I really get into what I’m researching, so I mostly read because I intend to do something with the information for my own books and articles, etc… To be blunt, after spending 10 or so hours each day at the keyboard reading words on a screen, this is the last thing I’m going to do for fun. So I mostly read articles, research papers, that kind of thing. I’m not a very kinetic conversational companion on literary topics. Starting conversations with, “Yo, did you read that new study about emerging sites of HCI innovation?” just doesn’t fly.
Best book about China?
Shui Hu. Period. Some of the other classical Chinese literature is also rather amazing. These are good stories, they have underlying messages, some are vulgar and humorous, and many have had some kind of historical impact. They are like the culture drawing a self-portrait of itself, which all classic stories tend to do everywhere.
As far as non-fiction, I really can’t say. That’s like asking what’s the best religion. Though I do like the “Holy Grail” like intrigue of the question: is such a book out there somewhere? If so, I’ve never found it. Though maybe some eccentric immortal is out there working on it right now…
Speaking realistically, the best I feel we can do is find a little niche, a little piece of the China puzzle, and master it the best we can. Then let the broader community of readers piece the whole picture together for themselves in their own way. So books like Tom Miller’s China’s Urban Billion and Leta Hong Fincher’s Leftover Women — books that go in-depth on certain phenomenon — really do this job well.
Though what I really like about much of the writing that’s coming out of China is that there is this incredible movement of writers documenting grassroots existence, the random mundane as travel writer Rolf Potts once put it. Ninety-nine percent of the world is the random mundane — it’s real life lived by common people who are not enduring something horrible enough to make them newsworthy — and this is what I feel is ultimately of importance to know about. Even after being in China for years I can still pick up a Peter Hessler book and read a story or anecdote about someone or something that will impact my perception and extend my depth of knowledge about the country. That’s the power of the random mundane: it can provide a backdrop of knowledge to what you really observe, readily experience, and do something with. It’s the “journalism of the everyday”, and right now nowhere else in the world provides a better staging ground for this than China. This is the country that’s currently in global focus, it’s relevant, and for a writer that’s a huge benefit. Speaking honestly, there is probably no better place in the world for a writer to be, but there’s also this extreme learning curve keeps competition low.
Favorite book? Favorite writer?
I like the 20th-century English language classics. Other than that I’m not too sure. I haven’t been too active pursuing new authors lately. I suppose different phases of life demand different reading preferences, and I haven’t really found my literature stride in my early 30s.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Probably the reknown works of modern Chinese lit.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It can only get better from here. Really, it was so bad that it eradicated all insecurity about writing from that point on. I truly couldn’t produce something as bad as that if I tried. There is something about knowing where the bottom is that makes you feel a little more secure about climbing upwards.
Does writing change anything?
Yes, perhaps unfortunately.
Writing is the prime tool to rally a mob of goons around a cause, it’s one of the main ways of communicating ideas, philosophies, perspectives, and perceived facts. It’s a way that people can engage the world beyond the realm of their immediate experience, and it’s the main way that huge numbers of people have their opinions and worldviews formed and twisted. Since the printing press writing has been changing lives en masse, it has toppled governments, it has changed history, it’s a form of communication that perverts our thoughts and opions daily. The spreading of ideas is very, very powerful, and I believe that the written word is still the dominant medium for this.
On a personal level, writing pushes us down varied paths, especially when young. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for a selection of choice books that I read in the right place at the right time. Who hasn’t been changed by a book?
What are you working on and when is it out?
My first book, Ghost Cities of China, which is about two years of traveling around China to places that have been dubbed “ghost cities”, should be out in April (in March at Bookworms locations in China). Other than that I’m working on a few more books, contributing to a financial section of the SCMP, and getting ready to start a big project about the New Silk Road.
Posted: Monday, March 2, 2015