Interview: Travel writer and sinophile Michael Meyer

Having originally come to China with the Peace Corps, Michael Meyer won the Whiting Writers’ Award for his first book The Last Days of Old Beijing (2008), an account of the two years he spent living in a soon-to-be-demolished hutong, or old neighborhood, in the Chinese capital. The book was never published in China—allegedly because of the slightly different shading of Taiwan on an introductory map—but has recently been translated for both the Mainland and Taiwan.Meyer is currently Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh as well as a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong. His next book, In Manchuria, to be published in 2014, recounts his experiences living on a rice farm and travelling (or, in his own words, “bumming”) around northeastern China.We caught up with him on tour in Hong Kong.So the new book is something of a homage to In Patagonia?Sometimes when you’re writing a book you have this subconscious fear that it’ll be the last book you’ll ever write, so you’d better do the best one; do the things you want to accomplish as a writer. I’ve always loved Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia more than any other book, and I’ve always been drawn to north-eastern China (Dongbei, as it’s now known) more than any other region of China, so I thought it’d be nice to do an episodic narrative about a place; using place as a character.I thought I was going to be writing a book about the Japanese invasion, the Soviet era; something more historical. But drop down anywhere in China and you’re going to end up writing a book about change, and usually massive change. So I realised I’d rather do something more personal, shorter scale, more fun.And maybe more real? You don’t want to get posthumously slammed like Chatwin. However good the writing.I’m really sad to see how over the years Chatwin’s books, and Capote’s and Joseph Mitchell’s, have been eroded so much. And you wonder, ‘why did they do that?’, ‘why did they elide the truth?’ That’s one thing I like about this book [Last Days] being translated into Chinese. These are real people, and they’re going to tell people if it’s fake. As a non-fiction writer, you have your reputation and nothing else.And when it comes to China writing there’s just so much bullshit; because there’s no easy way for an overseas audience to verify it.Of course. It’ll be interesting with the Manchuria book, now that I know Chinese people will be reading it, how that’ll change how I’m writing. I’ve noticed that I’m very good at self-censorship anyway after living in China for so long; but even my descriptions of things, I wonder what’ll be different.I love Ian Frazier and when I read his books about traveling in America he’s always talking about driving and what’s on the radio, or the local high school mascots, or he goes to the museum. In China you’re showing up to a tabula rasa; you have to dig for this stuff, it doesn’t exist.So it’ll be really important for me to include my historical sources, because so many of them are in Chinese. It’s not just some laowai saying this.How else do you think your writing has changed since Last Days?I think my voice has changed, because I’ve been teaching literary journalism for a couple of years now. I’ve been teaching so much Orwell and Didion and Kapuściński and Octavio Paz and writers I admire so much, and I’m seeing what they do that works so well. And the real secret is that they have scenes with beginning and ends and when they do set pieces for their summaries they’re short, and they keep you turning the page; something is at stake.And, of course, your reasons for writing the book are somewhat different this time.You look at the Beijing book and it’s really the work of a drowning man. It’s me in a London hotel, with hockey bags full of notes, trying to assemble a book for the first time in a mere seven weeks. Now I’m much more prepared.This time around, the Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese publishers have already signed contracts so it’ll be translated simultaneously and all come out at the same time, hopefully next year.And I’m leaving this for my son now. That’s not to say I’m self-censoring idiocy or drunkenness or whatever, but I have him in mind as an audience now—I want him to see what his father saw, because it won’t be there by the time he’s ready to travel there.Living somewhere is rather different from travelling through it. What was it like putting down roots in Dongbei?I thought it’d be great. I thought I’d move into my wife’s family’s little village; but instead, because my wife’s family had left, what’s there now is third cousins and distant aunts, and there’s a real rift between the people who have stayed and those who’ve left. The Spanish have a saying that there’s no hell like a small village. Also, I found writing about family much harder than writing about strangers. So after the first year I actually moved one village over so I could have my own space.So you left Beijing looking for space and……found myself in another small village! I know, right.It must be strange revisiting that first book now. Beijing’s moved on so quickly.At times I feel like I’m an 85-year-old man lamenting the loss of this town in which I grew up and fell in love in and had my first job in. It only happened 10 years ago! But that’s the thing with cities. We’re always living on borrowed time in them; they change, despite our best intentions.How did the translation come about?It was a graduate student here at HKU who was the one! That’s amazing to me. She said I want to translate it and I’ll find a publisher for it. I didn’t think she could, because the English version had never been published there. But she did it.Did much change from the English version?Well she knows my sense of humor, she knows my voice. And she gets it. She’s a Beijing person; and she got hit by a taxi, and she’s laid up in hospital reading the translation out loud in an open ward with beds filled with old Beijingers, and she said she knew she was on the right path when they were reacting the way they were supposed to react to different passages.I was surprised that the only things the publisher cut from the 400-page manuscript were three paragraphs from Ai Weiwei about how much he hates Beijing; but they kept the paragraph in about him distancing himself from the stadium, and his father’s demise in the Cultural Revolution. And they cut out three paragraphs about Tiananmen Square; when we’re looking at an official gazetteer of the Square’s history, and I just wrote down the entries for June 2, June 3 and June 4 1989—you know, “the heroic volunteers went out to aid the soldiers”, the kind of stuff I think is really interesting. But any mention of June 4 is a no. They even cut a reference to “the year after 1988.”It’ll be interesting to see how it’s received when you introduce it in Beijing.Right. Imagine if a Chinese person went to London and wrote a piece about “what Brixton really is” or “hey, Londoners you should be protecting these council estates!”But I really do believe no-one knows that situation more than I do. Government officials can’t because they don’t live there, the residents don’t have the historical purview. So initially I think I’m going to be a little defensive about the laowai stuff; and not snap at something someone says.Do I bring up the fact that De Tocqueville wrote the greatest book about America, or that Chatwin wrote the greatest book about Patagonia? And that Lao She wrote a book about London in the 1930s? Outsiders do usually write the best about places. But I don’t want to say that; else you’re the didactic prick.What’s next, once you’re finished with In Manchuria?I’m thinking next about writing about Shenzhen and Hong Kong’s divide; or about the hippies on Lamma. But then, after that, I do want to write about Taiwan; no-one’s writing about it. We need to record that now, too, in history, and where they’re at.It’d be a lot smarter if I wrote a book about Benjamin Franklin; that’d sell a lot more and make life a lot easier. But someone explained to me years ago—and it was a good piece of advice—when you have ideas for library books, tuck those away, ’cause those are the ones you do when you’re 50, when you need to be at home with your kid. While you can still be on your feet, interviewing people, go out and do those books now.One thing I like about book writing, that’s different than journalism, is that I feel like I’m part of something historical. I enjoy hearing the stories and the slowness of it all. I’m a really small fly in that ointment.And, reassuringly, Chatwin must have felt the same way. All authors must, unless you’re someone like VS Naipaul, someone supremely confident of your place in literary history.Paul Theroux’s tell-all notwithstanding.Which is a great book, by the way. People assume it’s vindictive, but it’s really about the writing life.I love that book [Sir Vidia’s Shadow]. I’m always recommending that to people. That, and Steinbeck wrote a book called Journal of a Novel. He’s writing East of Eden and he’s writing a letter to his editor on the left hand page of the notebook, and East of Eden on the right. So this journal is a collection of Steinbeck sitting in front of the blank page every morning and saying “here we go again.” And it’s the most encouragement a young writer will ever need; even he faced that.That it doesn’t get any easier. Do you struggle with that yourself?Well, I chose the agent I chose because he said, “We’re not selling this book, we’re selling a whole shelf of your books, and in 40 years you’re going to have a whole shelf of your titles.” But in order for that to happen I have to start being a little bit quicker and more efficient. I really admire writers like Theroux who can crank books out.