Taking his cue from the titular George Orwell essay, former editor of expat mag that’s Shanghai – JFK Miller – has been gathering together a collection of authors and asking them “Why do you write?”
He’s got quite the list of impressive authors on there: Peter Hessler, Murong Xuecun, James Fallows… and now he is lucky enough to add my name to that illustrious list.
As well as being named after an assassinated President, JFK is also the author of the tell-all tale of his time at that’s Shanghai and his challenges with government censorship. It’s called Trickle-down Censorship and I’m currently about three chapters in and enjoying myself immensely. Review to come soon.
In the meantime, here is the Q&A from whyiwrite:
Why I write
Primarily: self-amusement. I don’t believe that my opinion particularly matters, and the world would be a better place if a lot more people realised that as well, so I’m not trying to shove my point of view down somebody’s throat. Like other non-bestselling/non-celebrity writers, money is not my prime motivation either. I write whatever amuses me or is especially latched within my head on any given day, regardless of whether other people find it interesting or not. Just take a look at my blog: it’s a hotchpotch of stories involving talking penises, scripts about children’s TV shows involving dead bonobo monkeys or pastiches of obscure 1980s Victoria Wood songs. I find that if I don’t write then these weird ideas tend to remain in my brain and fuck me up, so the only release is to get them out on paper.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Oh, if only I could write everyday – and I don’t just mean Excel spreadsheets or TPS reports. Not being born into a rich family who could succour me with a trust fund for a few years, and not being born good-looking enough to exchange rent money for an hour every evening on my back, I unfortunately have to spend the vast majority of my day at the grindstone. Those precious few moments of free time that aren’t filled by preparing my lunch (for work), ironing my shirts (for work) or standing on a train (for work), might just might give me a moment or two to write something down. And that’s only if I don’t have a new game for my Xbox at the time.
Describe the physicality of your writing domain…
This is a very middle-class question directed towards someone whose family never even used to own a dining table (it was TV dinners on our laps in front of CBBC). My “writing domain” is generally wherever I am with a notebook or laptop when the writing mood takes me—normally the sofa. One place I can definitely NOT write though is in a hipster coffee shop. Probably because I’m not a bearded pretentious twat.
Worst source of distraction from writing?
Real life, work, and the dog licking my face.
Best source of inspiration for writing?
When I was younger I used to write a lot of typically emo poetry that is a rite-of-passage for any tortured writer who considers themselves a budding artiste. I noticed that there was a correlation between the depth of my poetry’s nihilism with the number of empty bottles of super-strength cider that almost magically used to accumulate around me. In these more enlightened times it is now somewhat-frowned upon for a man over a certain age to drink himself senseless with dubious brands like “White Lightning” or “Scrumpy Jack”, hence my main source of inspiration in 2016 is predominantly gin.
How often do you get writers’ block and/or doubt your own ability?
Considering how little time I get to partake in my favourite past time, I have never experienced writer’s’ block. That doesn’t mean that the things I write are any good, but if I had more time than I could certainly produce more of it—kind of like sticking a more powerful generator onto an industrial muckspreader.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I don’t read a lot of contemporary writers as it is my firm belief that nothing of worth has been produced since 1987, but there are two writers whose work I always make a point of reading. The first is the French depressive-extraordinaire Michel Houellebecq and the other is obscure writer of nihilistic horror Thomas Ligotti. They are more or less the only writers I enjoy who aren’t dead—though considering how depressed both of them are it surely won’t be long.
Favorite Chinese writer?
It’s a cliche to say Lu Xun as it is normally the choice of readers who haven’t read anyone else, but he really is the best. He combined the best of the Russian and French literature trends that were prevalent in his day with his own unique Chinese style. Some of his best work is in his more obscure collection of final essays: Wild Grass. It was written when he had basically given up on life. The Communist Party likes to quote Lu Xun’s famous works like Ah Q and Kong Yiji when it suits them, but they never quote any of his stories from Wild Grass as it would probably result in either Zhongnanhai getting burnt down or a mass gangbang.
Best book about China?
Ways that are Dark by Ralph Townsend. It’s amazing. It’s a semi-racist diatribe about China in the 1930s written by an American diplomat, but it’s worth reading thanks to the density of his prose and the almost Lovecraftian horror he assigns to what he sees as a contemporary Malthusian dystopia.
The Stranger by Albert Camus.
Publicly: George Orwell. Privately: HP Lovecraft.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
I quote Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra several times in my book Party Members, but I must confess that I’ve never actually been able to finish it. Still, it isn’t as bad as—oooh, let me think—absolutely ANYTHING written by James Joyce. James Joyce writes books that are not only hard-going, but also makes you question why you did it afterwards. A little bit like sex with a horse.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It was a short story about a homosexual in World War One who gets his life saved by the spirits of his dead comrades who return as angel-children. Then he meets God. It won a national youth writing contest, but when I think back to it I can’t help but be grateful that it was written before the widespread use of the internet and that it has DISAPPEARED ENTIRELY FROM THE FACE OF THIS WORLD.
Does writing change anything?
On a social basis: writing can change everything. On an individual basis: it can keep you sane.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
I recently had my first book published—Party Members. It’s a dark comedy about corruption in contemporary China. I’m now trying to finish a compilation of short stories that I’ve been working on-and-off with for about two years. Not sure what the final name will be, but I can tell you that the stories written so far include tales of dumplings being made out of foreskins, an underground milk farm and a sci-fi story set in the future where women have designer abortions.
So far it is yet to find a publisher.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.