Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Monday, October 25, 2010 at 6:30 PM
Chris Taylor is the author of Harvest Season, his debut novel set in southwestern China and published earlier this year by Earnshaw Books (You can read the first chapter here). He recently answered Danwei's questions about how he came to write his first work of fiction.
How long have you been in China and what have you been doing here?
I first visited China in 1985 as a traveler and a student of Chinese, and traveled quite extensively before leaving via Tibet into Nepal. I didn’t make it back until the very early 1990s, when I coordinated two editions of the Lonely Planet China guide and did an all-new version of the Tibet guide. I was based in Taiwan at that time, and life was
Cutting a long story short, I’ve been living in Yunnan for the last four or so years and doing as little as possible so as to focus on things I want to do rather, than Shanghai- or Beijing-style, rushing around from morning until night making money to pay the rent.
When did you start writing Harvest Season? Is this your first work of fiction?
When I first came to Asia, I was writing fiction. Thankfully, nobody was interested in it, and I got side-tracked by Lonely Planet and then by journalism. I started Harvest Season a couple of years ago, and it was mostly fueled by an anxiety that I was never going to have a serious stab at completing a book of fiction.
I got through it by writing it for the amusement of friends, who read it in installments and were for the most part enormously encouraging – probably more so than they should have been, given all the work I had to do to fix it after I’d completed the first draft.
Is expatriate life in China good for a working novelist?
I find it hard to imagine it could be. The impression I get from a lot of my expat friends in the big cities is they’re too busy. And then there’s the question of whether it would be worth it anyway.
Pitching fiction set in China written by a non-Chinese is a tough sell. It’s a pity. I mean, back in the day, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Co were in Paris, and the Beats were in North Africa (mostly for the boys and the hashish, I think, but they did some writing too), and then you've got Greene and Co, wandering the margins of collapsing colonialism.
But, despite the fact that China is full of foreigners amid change that is unprecedented in history, and many of these foreigners now speak Chinese, very little fiction is emerging from that.
What can you say about a place like Yunnan in fiction that you can't say in journalism?
Well, apart from the fact that I can’t think of a single publication in the world that would publish as journalism the kinds of things that Harvest Season describes, fiction gives you the freedom to explore a place as it's felt and lived. A lot of people might not relate to those feelings, but as a writer you’re not presented with the challenge of fitting your content to the template of any mainstream media outlet. And the fact that portions of a certain demographic – in this case travelers and the drop-out Western diaspora that’s scattered throughout China and the rest of Asia – gets it is what counts.
What might be difficult to “get” if you don’t belong to that demographic?
In general, I’ve noticed that people who have lived in, or even dipped into, the world Harvest Season describes – and that could be southern Thailand, India or South America as much as southwest China – appreciate the book. But dealing with agents and publishers, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of a book about people who are not really doing anything much – for the most part nothing at all. I mean, there are good literary precedents for writing about people like this; the characters in most of Graham Greene’s books are doing little more than muddling through to the next G&T, and Fowler in The Quiet American has complete contempt for his vocation as a journalist, and would like nothing more than to be lazing around with a pipe of opium.
The trend these days is to write about people who have purpose – or, if travel and “exotic locales” are involved, to make it a journey of self-discovery, as in the latest hit, Eat, Pray, Love. I wanted to do the opposite of that. I wanted to depict a community of self-satisfied slackers, congratulating themselves they’ve discovered paradise – and then destroying it.
What is the best book about China you've read recently?
I have to admit I don’t actively seek out China books these days. It’s partly an aversion to those sweeping narratives publishers think equal sales – “the coming China century”, “the coming collapse of China” – but also because so much of it now is business-oriented, and I’m not a businessman.
I enjoyed Mark Kitto’s China Cuckoo – the way he turned the ultimate bad-luck China story into a feel-good twist on A Year in Provence. I enjoyed Zachary Mexico’s China Underground, because his journey takes him into a side of China few foreigners experience. Some years back, I remember really enjoying Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass.
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