Last weekend I was fortunate enough to find a message from Peter Hessler himself concerning how he ruined my China life. Hessler was gracious enough to see the humor in the article and to give sage advice to aspiring writers.
Ironically, Hessler’s China life seems to have been “ruined” by a popular China writer before him, Mark Salzman and his book Iron and Silk. Read Hessler’s message—which I’ve reprinted below with permission—to find out how.
Not sure if this is the right address for Thomas Talhelm. If not, just ignore this message.
My sister sent me a link to your article about how I ruined your life. Sorry about that … I definitely appreciated and enjoyed the humor. People aren’t always so good-natured about it, that’s for sure.
It’s a funny phenomenon, and one that I remember when I first came to China. There were certain books that everybody read, and the longer you lived there the more you might be inclined to resent them. It’s a natural reaction in a place like China, where you’re constantly learning and discovering. It’s a very personal process, very intense, and a sense of ownership develops. In “River Town” I wrote about how I wasn’t so charitable when I saw a couple of Europeans in Fuling, the first (and only) “uninvited” foreigners that I ever saw in town. I really did not want them there. I realized it was an unfair reaction, very childish; but I also saw that it was quite natural. After a long period of isolation I felt like it was my city.
During the years that I was in Fuling, “Iron and Silk” was the book that all foreign teachers read, and sometimes complained about. When I sent out the unsolicited manuscript of “River Town,” a lot of reactions were clearly shaped by Mark Salzman’s book. Most agents and publishers rejected it, probably because there was already a successful book about teaching in China. Or they wanted to build on it in narrow ways: one agent wanted me to cut my manuscript down into very short vignettes, like Salzman’s book. I’m glad I resisted; over the years it’s become clear that these are very different books and each has its own place. A couple of years ago, I met Mark Salzman at a literary event, and I told him that the foreign teachers now complain about me as well as him. He laughed; he knew what I was talking about. When I was in Fuling, I really benefited from reading his book, as well as Bill Holm’s “Coming Home Crazy.” The fact that they were so different struck me as a good thing. It reminded me that it’s not simply the experience that matters: it’s the writer. And I noticed that these books shared something in common: a sense of humor.
I think that develops more naturally when you live in China as a low-level waiguoren, teaching or studying or doing whatever. You learn to laugh at yourself, and you tend to recognize that the Chinese also have a good sense of humor. I think this is much harder for a foreign journalist, because they arrive in China on different terms, and with different expectations. They’re supposed to cover big, important events, and they feel a lot of pressure from their editors, and often it’s not easy to find a place for humor.
As time passes, it’s more clear that China is such a big country that lots of different things can be written about it. This has always been true, but it wasn’t so obvious back in 1999. When I sent out “River Town,” a couple of publishers responded that they liked it, but they couldn’t offer a contract because, in their words, “we don’t think that anybody wants to read a book about China.” It’s hard to imagine, but there wasn’t this sense of China as such an important, varied, and energetic place. Nowadays there are many books coming out every year, and many of them are good in different ways. It’s much more promising for a young writer.
Of course, it’s not strictly the experience that distinguishes a piece of writing. China has been around for a long time, and experiences have overlapped for years and decades and even centuries. Recently I was reading Archibald Little’s “Through the Yangtse Gorges,” in which he describes a Sichuanese banquet, and then he apologizes because it’s hardly a new story: “Chinese dinners have been described over and over again, but I have narrated this one, as I think few have given an idea of their tediousness and the absence of all that we deem comfort.” Little wrote this in 1887! So I wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with the baijiu banquets in “River Town.”
I had to get beyond this, especially since my goal in that book was to write about everyday observations and experiences. Lots of foreigners shared those things, and there was nothing special about my China background. Fuling wasn’t an important place. Many foreigners spoke the language better than I did, and many people had a deeper knowledge of the culture. But I thought of myself as a writer, not a China expert. My training was more along those lines; before going to China I had worked as an ethnographer in southeastern Missouri, and I had thought a lot about the social sciences and theories of observation. In college I took a lot of courses in fiction and nonfiction writing. I had very few ideas about China, but I had strong ideas about voice, structure, set pieces, story structures. People often don’t realize how technical writing is. It’s a lot harder than learning Chinese or learning about China, that’s for sure. By the time I left Fuling, I had spent only two years engaged seriously with China, but thirteen years engaged seriously with writing. If the ratio had been the opposite thirteen years in China, and two years thinking about how to write that book would not have happened. I might have known a lot, but I wouldn’t have known how to express it, and how to structure it. In any case, that book is more about a learning process; it’s about how language, people, and culture came into focus for me. It’s not about “China” in the strictest sense.
As the years passed, I gained a better understanding of certain Chinese subjects, and my approach as a writer changed. I wrote less about myself and more about the people or subjects I was researching. The second and third books are quite different; they aren’t so much about this learning process. But that’s part of why China is a such interesting place for a young writer there’s plenty of room to grow. You’re trying to figure this place out, learn the language, understand the people; and at the same time you’re trying to learn how to write in English. Two technical processes, hopefully complementary and in balance. One side is quite social and engaged with the environment; the other is much more solitary and individual. I suppose that’s what I enjoyed the most about writing from China, the balance of these combined challenges. I hope it’s going well for you, and that you stick with it.
All the best