Talking China with Michael Meyer
In the March/April issue of The Writer’s Chronicle I published this interview with Michael Meyer (China 1995-97) about his China books. Michael is one of what I call the “China Gang” who in the late ’90s went to China with the first groups of PCVs and wrote books about their host country. The RPCVs are, besides Meyer, Craig Simons (China 1996-98), Rob Schmitz (China 1996-98), and Peter Hessler (China 1996-98). — John Coyne
Michael Meyer is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award, and a two-time winner of a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, Time, Smithsonian, Slate, the Financial Times and [on] This American Life. He has also had residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. He is a current fellow of the National Committee on United States—China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program and affiliated faculty with Pitt’s Asian Studies Center.
Michael is best known for his China trilogy The Road to Sleeping Dragon, In Manchuria, and The Last Days of Old Beijing. Of these books, Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, has written, “I’ve been an admirer of Michael Meyer since his first book, and this, his third, only makes me more so. It’s hard for me to think of anyone who can dive into another culture with such infectious zest and curiosity, and who gets in so deep, so fast.”
When not traveling, or [teaching in London], Michael is an associate professor of creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
John Coyne: Tell us about your foreign travel and living abroad and how these experiences benefited you as a person and as a writer.
Michael Meyer: The central advantage of a foreign experience, beyond just travel, is that it forces a person to look intensely at how other people live their lives, what they value, what they aspire to. My time in China also formed the subject matter of three books of nonfiction, and a tenured professorship back in the United States.
Coyne: So how did it all begin?
Meyer: My China time began when I was sent there as one of its first Peace Corps volunteers, in rural Sichuan province. Writing about the place for a wide audience started when I was teaching in a small Beijing international school, which, by the way, paid me $15,000 annually to teach eight subjects to four grades. This was back in the late nineties. One day, on a manual typewriter, I pecked out a travel story about a hiking trip in southwest China and stuffed the onionskin pages into an envelope, brushed stamps with fish glue and mailed it to The Los Angeles Times. Three weeks later, the reply came: the same onionskin pages, marked up by an editor. The paper ran the next draft with my photographs on two full pages of its travel section, paying $1,500. I felt like I had won the lottery.”
Coyne: You were you living in Beijing then?
Meyer: Yes. At the time, I lived near Dazhalan, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Beijing. That neighborhood became the focus of my first book, The Last Days of Old Beijing.
Coyne: Let’s go back to that first job. What was teaching in the international school like?
Meyer: It was a bilingual, bi-cultural international school that taught in Chinese and English. Classes were team-taught by a Chinese and Western teacher; I would, for example, teach a unit on Rome in English, and my co-teacher, a Beijing native, would teach it the Chinese take on it, in Chinese. The students parried back-and-forth between arguments that Rome was an engineering powerhouse or that it was an over-reaching empire built on the back of slaves. Class discussion was never boring! Nor was our Literature class, wherein we read English, American, and Chinese classic novels and poetry, and took the students on weekend field trips to places such as Confucius’ hometown.
At the time, frankly, I thought it was all a bit much: I had majored in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the height of Political Correctness, then had served two years in the Peace Corps. At age twenty-five, the last thing I wanted was to be lecturing teenagers—again—on the Global Community. But the woman who founded the school—an American diplomat who wanted her teenaged kids to learn Chinese and Chinese perspectives—had the fortitude to realize her vision. And the students went on to graduate from universities such as Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Berkeley, Columbia, Michigan, and more. One of my sharpest high school freshmen visited me this weekend en route to beginning a PhD at Claremont—in International Relations, which is fitting.
Coyne: So, you got this appointment while you were finishing your two-year Peace Corps tour in China?
Meyer: That’s right. I pecked out a resume on a manual typewriter after seeing the job posted in the Peace Corps newsletter, and mailed the onion-skin sheets in an envelope sealed, of course, with fish glue and actual stamps. I did not hear anything for months; I finished my Peace Corps tour, flew to Tibet, and three weeks later had to leave with food poisoning. When I was checking in to the hotel in the city of Chengdu—planning to next buy a one-way plane ticket back to the States—the clerk looked at my Chinese identification card and said, “Heroic Eastern Plumblossom?” (That’s my terrible Chinese name.) “I have a message for you!” I thought someone had died; it turned out it was the Beijing school, who had tracked me down to offer me the job. I met my future wife my first week at the school. She went on to become a lawyer; we’ve been together twenty years now, and are parents of a five-year-old boy. I always urge my students to apply for any job that interests them; you never know where it might lead, and how it might change your life.
Coyne: You’ve taught writing elsewhere in the world. Are there similarities in students who want to become writers? And can you recognize talent from just reading an assignment?
Meyer: I’ve taught at journalism schools and MFA programs in China, Hong Kong and the United States, and the students who seem to most enjoy their time in class share the understanding that instead of writing what they know, they need to write about what they don’t know. They have an interest in answering a question, researching to find the answers, and then transmitting their findings to an audience. Talent manifests itself as a distinctive voice with something interesting to say, and yes, I can see that immediately; it’s not uncommon. My job is to help students channel that talent into pages—many, many pages.
Coyne: So, in your nonfiction class you have them research and write, not just write about what they know. That’s you approach to the subject matter?
Meyer: Yes, but I don’t assign a random topic, such as snails, and say, “Make it interesting.” Although, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis, a good writer can do a sermon on a sheep-dip pamphlet. Students have a subject that interests them, and we go from there, digging deeper. Even topics about which students think they know—for example, their mother—gain a greater depth when researched. Often the subjects that students think they’re writing about change course over their graduate studies, as does their audience. Incidentally, an example of this that really helps them is looking at the same material that forms Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life,” which appeared in The Sun in 2002, and the introduction to her memoir Wild, published a decade later.
Coyne: In the years you have been teaching, do you see any differences in the type of students coming into your classroom?
Meyer: I teach in the first nonfiction MFA program ever founded, by Lee Gutkind at the University of Pittsburgh. While our applications are at an all-time high, the numbers still pale to the fiction and poetry applicants, a trend that holds across the country. But what I do see is more fiction and poetry students taking nonfiction courses—researching and writing true essays and reporting—and more nonfiction students taking fiction and poetry courses—working on creating suspense to keep readers turning the page, and on word choice that compels a reader to pay attention, to feel. At Pitt, we encourage cross-genre study: you are admitted to the program, not your concentration. Nonfiction students get to work with not only the author of Concussion and intern at Longform.org and produce its podcasts, but also with fiction and poetry faculty that includes a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient who edits The New York Times Magazine’s poetry selection, and professors who founded the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and who write for Marvel comics.
Coyne: What students have you had at the University of Pittsburgh who have gone onto becoming published writers?
Meyer: In the past year, three of my best undergraduates bypassed graduate school applications and went right into jobs as a daily reporter or editor at the South China Morning Post, Esquire, and Architectural Digest. One graduate student turned her thesis into a book proposal now under contract at Crown, and another—a fiction writer who became my best nonfiction student—publishes humor in The New Yorker.
Coyne: In giving advice to your graduate students about their careers, given the way that the publishing world has changed so dramatically within the last decade, what do you tell them?
Meyer: Never wait for permission to write. I see my students spending so much time querying, waiting for responses to queries, and telling themselves they need a “yes” to write a story on something that had already attracted their interest. Just write it!
Coyne: What do you tell your students about “life after college” and how to go about making a career as a writer/teacher, or make a living writing?
Meyer: Because I teach talented MFA students, I am constantly urging them to think of a whole shelf of their books, not just the first one. Spend your class time learning and practicing skills—how to interview, how to use archives, how to write a scene and a set piece—that you can use during a lifetime of work. Don’t just say you’re here to write a memoir about your mom. You can do that in addition to trying all of these other skills you’ve yet to hone.
Coyne: Well, you have had, yourself, extensive overseas experience, both through travel and work. Do you advise them to also take a similar path?
Meyer: Yes. Being overseas gives you distance from yourself. It sharpens your awareness of your own culture and assumptions you hold and—at least for me—makes you write with your audience in mind, taking care to pay out facts and details like fishing line, leading them deeper into the story, to see what you see.
Coyne: I’ve always been impressed at how many journalists and nonfiction writers have come out of the experience of living in China. One writer of mine who was in Africa says that he should have gone to China because China was “new” to the western world. Do you think there is any truth to that?
Meyer: Absolutely—it was new, at least in its post-Tiananmen form. It’s also why I pitch my students the new Peace Corps programs in Vietnam and Myanmar. If I were twenty years younger and eager to begin a writing career, I would sign up in a heartbeat.
Coyne: To sum up your teaching part of your career, Michael, do you have a sentence or paragraph of “words of wisdom” about writing, careers or life for students finishing their degree at Pittsburgh or for that matter, at any MFA program anywhere in the world?
Meyer: With professors and peers, talk about what you’ve been reading, other than your “likes” or contacts. We think nothing of it when we enter a museum and see someone seated on the floor, sketching or painting a copy of a master’s work, or when we enter a club and see a musician doing a cover of a classic. Writing is no different; it’s an art with literally millions of templates around us. Students often feel the tyranny of the blank page or screen, but if they raise their gaze to a bookshelf, they’ll find a whole chorus of encouragement, of example, of false starts and mistakes. I read far, far more than I write—and I’m constantly picking up books in the library or at a bookshop and reading first pages, seeing how the writer has started the story, and what I can learn from it. You’re not in this alone; you’re continuing a conversation that has been going on since the invention of moveable type. Walk into a bookstore and just look at all those titles! If those schmucks can do it, why can’t you? Get over yourself and get to work.
Coyne: Let’s talk a little bit about finding that literature was your road in life. When did you decide that writing was your passion? As a teenager did you decide that you wanted to grow up and become a writer, or did you come to that decision later in life?
Meyer: I knew early on; as far back as I can remember, at least. My parents were nothing but supportive, even though they never attended college. My mom owns a construction company that makes doors and installs lock sets; my dad worked in the music industry. I started writing for the local newspaper when I was sixteen, and wrote for the city and state newspapers through college, but majored in education. I met the sports writer/living legend Peter Gammons at a spring training baseball game, and he advised me not to get a degree in journalism, but to learn as much about something that interested me but that I didn’t yet know. Both of my degrees are in education, and I’m a licensed K–12 language arts teacher and reading specialist.
Coyne: In writing you nonfiction books what’s your process, given your teaching schedule? Do you write so many words a day? Do you work from an outline? How do you know you’ve finished with a page? How many drafts does it take, would you say?
Meyer: I create a tell—you know, those massive mounds of fish bones and household debris that archaeologists shift through? I am like a crow when it comes to fluffing my nest/desk with things I find or jot down during the course of a day: newspaper stories, photographs, snatches of dialogue, typed notes from a book I’ve finished reading. This reporting is always the fun part, and then comes the sorting through it all to find a storyline, and one that will keep readers turning the page.
At Berkeley, the writer Adam Hochschild—who wrote King Leopold’s Ghost and cofounded Mother Jones magazine—taught me to think of the blank page as a stage. Now the curtain goes up: what does the audience see? Who does it see? What is the conflict? Think of the opening of any Shakespeare play, or even Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which begins just like a play (its first sentence is even a verb-less stage direction). I keep this stage in mind: who is on it, what’s happening, is it enough to interest the audience? My rule of thumb is to have at least one new fact or emotion per page—but not much more, or readers get buried in an Information Dump, especially when reading about a place as foreign as China.
My three books each went through seven or eight drafts, and then the various page proof passes. The Road to Sleeping Dragon had four passes—essentially, four additional rounds of tightening sentences and eliminating repeated words.
Coyne: In writing nonfiction about your life and experiences have you found that there are particular incidents in your life or situations that were difficult to write about and have them reflect truthfully the reality of the situation?
Meyer: As a journalist, it’s easy to write like a know-it-all; that’s the default journalistic voice. It’s much harder to show vulnerability and doubt on the page, not because these are foreign emotions, but because the reader paid money or spent time checking out your book, and you’re supposed to be the expert. It says so right here on the hyberbolic flap jacket synopsis! But I’m writing from the perspective of an interested outsider—fluent in Chinese, but still new to these settings: a decrepit Beijing neighborhood, a Manchurian rice farm, a college campus in the rural southwest. My challenge is to bring the reader along with me as I learn and make mistakes and navigate this place. I do it sans soliloquies, but by turning the camera around to the people who live there, and how they react to me, but more importantly, how they see their community and their place in it as it undergoes indelible change. In the end, of course, the books aren’t about me at all. They’re about Chinese places and people.
Coyne: You mentioned earlier about having your students do research for their nonfiction assignments. What about your recent book. What was the percentage of time that you spent in research on China? And how long, for example, did it take you to write The Road to Sleeping Dragon?
Meyer: On average, each book has taken me at least three years of research, including two immersed on the ground, and one or more years in archives, ferreting out history, since the places I write about have all but lost—or destroyed—their chronicles. Once I have the research in place, the first drafts have come quickly. I wrote The Last Days of Old Beijing and The Road to Sleeping Dragon on separate stays in London—once in a hotel, once in an apartment a few blocks away—in eight weeks, and then spent another year getting feedback from readers and doing rewrites.
Coyne: You write and teach nonfiction. Have you ever written fiction or do you think that living the experiences that you have had in China and elsewhere are novelistic enough?
Meyer: I read fiction voraciously, and try to create suspense on the page they way great novelists do. But I recognize my limitations, and also my strengths. I’m good at talking to strangers and digging through archives. While I can still do those things, I’ll stay in my lane.
Coyne: You’ve now written three wonderful books, all on China. Your first book The Last Days of Old Beijing (2008) is about the old neighborhood in Beijing. Did you move into the area that was facing destruction because of the upcoming Olympics so that would be the “subject matter” of what was disappearing?
Meyer: Yes, even though my graduate school writing teacher Maxine Hong Kingston at Berkeley impressed upon me to never “commit experience,” or land into a place with the expressed ambition of writing about it. I hedged this a bit by choosing a neighborhood in a city where I had lived many years, and had always wanted to live in. I volunteered at the neighborhood elementary school as a daily English teacher and let the research unfold organically from there, following threads that appeared. As a journalist I often felt like a vampire, but on book research I feel more like a toothless vampire, waiting to be invited into to people’s homes, and sort of gumming on them instead of drawing blood and flying away, never to return.
Coyne: In your second book, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, what was the driving narrative? I know that this was your wife’s home—is that why your found it a source of interest?
Meyer: It’s time to write a book when the book you want to read doesn’t exist. I wrote a book about the transformation of urban China, and then wanted to write one about the changes in the countryside. I was also fascinated by the Northeast’s history. Those two threads intertwined in Wasteland, the village where my wife was raised as a child. It turned out to be much more difficult to write about family than about strangers, however.
Coyne: Now your new book, The Road to Sleeping Dragon (2017), sums up in prose your history in-country?
Meyer: The new book looks back at these twenty years of immense change in China, and takes stock of what hasn’t changed, in the end. It’s also meant to encourage anyone who has never been to the country—or abroad, anywhere—to take the leap and set off. I landed in China knowing nothing about the place, let alone how to speak Chinese, or even use chopsticks.
Coyne: With your new book, The Road to Sleeping Dragon, I’m impressed after all these years in China that you have such total recall of your time in Beijing years ago at the International School. Did you keep a journal during those years?
Meyer: Not a journal, but long, descriptive letters home, which my parents—to their great credit—saved entirely, including the stamped envelopes. My parents never visited China, and frankly, didn’t have much interest in the place, but that changed once I landed. Their questions and my responses formed our exchanges. I also started writing articles and submitting them “over the transom” to American newspapers, so I saved all of the notebooks from which those came.
Coyne: What’s interesting, early in the book, is the Chinese’s use of “western” names in these cross-cultural situations. Do you know why? Are Chinese personal names too difficult for Westerners to comprehend?
Meyer: They’re not; it’s far easier for me to remember that a female student is named Wang Mei instead of, say, Dinger, or Bruce (as two of my students called themselves). But there’s a role-playing aspect to learning a foreign language, and many of my Chinese students enjoyed taking on a new persona, if only in class. Outside of class, unfortunately, I carried my assigned Chinese name, which translated as Heroic Eastern Plumblossom.
Coyne: How would you explain your driving impulse to write these three books, all focused on China?
Meyer: The writer Ian Frazier once told me that my books “ruin the fantasy” that many people hold about China, that it’s this place that exists at the poles of brutish repression or ancient enchantment. This is, after all, how journalism often covers it. I’m more interested in capturing how life is actually lived there, in the vast, diverse parts of the country that most foreign correspondents and tourists pass by. These books, to my great surprise, have become bestsellers in China, as well, since Chinese writers haven’t covered these topics or places. I’m lucky to have worked in China when the window was open just enough to do this kind of research.
Coyne: What do you think you have given literature with your three books on China?
Meyer: Last year at Pittsburgh, I assigned the T.S. Eliot poem “The Dry Salvages” to my nonfiction MFA students, which contains a line about being afraid “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” I felt that way about recent books about China—China books are very good at “explaining” China to us, but not so great at depicting what it felt like to actually live in the country during these boom years, when people’s lives rapidly changed, but political reforms deteriorated. I think books are written with readers 100 years from now in mind, and I wanted to add something to the shelf that captures daily life behind the headlines.
Coyne: Are you also one of those writers who are in the middle of one book and already daydreams about the topic for the next one? Do you have a subject all ready to write about next?
Meyer: Yes! Frazier, in Great Plains, writes about the importance of holding a place or subject “in reserve.” Because one day you will up and move to that place or begin researching that subject, and—poof—the dreaming is over, and now you’ve no place or idea about which you can fantasize. I’m working now on a book about Benjamin Franklin’s last will and testament, and have been daydreaming about what comes next. Taiwan, Singapore, coastal China…
Coyne: You mentioned earlier that you read more than you wrote. What authors writing today draw your attention?
Meyer: I went on a Rachel Cusk binge this summer; her two most recent novels, Outline and Transithave such a clever voice and structure that I look forward to teaching them. I like writing that take me places I would never think to go, such as hawking with Helen Macdonald, D.H. Lawrence-chasing with Geoff Dyer, into Ian Frazier’s ancestral Ohio town, across Alaska with John McPhee, corresponding with V.S. Naipaul, via Paul Theroux, and deep into Egypt with my Peace Corps China friend Peter Hessler.
Coyne: Because of your China books and your expensive experience of living and teaching in China have you been asked to take your expertise beyond the classroom and talk about the political and social side of China in for conferences or seminars focused on Asia?
Meyer: Yes, and I’m happy to give these talks, whether at Oxford or Stanford or a local book club or a China adoption parent’s group or a congressional delegation or elementary school classroom. I’ve done them all. Send me an email, I’ll show up at your house with slides.
Interviewer John Coyne is the author of twenty-six books of fiction and nonfiction. A collection of his short stories entitled, A Game in the Sun and Other Stories, will be published in May 2018.
From The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China From the Ground Up
I am an unlikely answer to the question, asked anxiously by a Chinese writer in 1935: “Who will be China’s interpreters?” Sixty years later I arrived by accident, after rejecting six other countries from the Peace Corps. I was fluent in Spanish, and applied after a short stint volunteering at the Texas-Mexico border with the United Farm Workers, hoping to be sent to Latin America. The Peace Corps offered Turkmenistan, Vladivostok, Sri Lanka, and Kiribati. “It’s not Club Med, it’s the Peace Corps,” the recruiter finally snapped, after I declined to spend two years in Mongolia or Malawi. “You don’t get to choose.”
Months passed, until one late-spring day the phone rang in the English classroom in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was student teaching. My turf-warring Comp Ed ninth graders had been ordered to attend an assembly optimistically titled “We’re All in the Same Gang.” I warily picked up the receiver and heard the voice of the all-but-forgotten recruiter, who pronounced a single word with great finality: China. It sounded like a sentence, although really it was a reprieve.
“I didn’t know Peace Corps was in China,” I said, twirling the phone cord, stalling for time. In fact, the program had just tenuously begun, after its planned 1989 start was shelved following the crackdown on the nationwide demonstrations centered at Tiananmen Square. I was 17 then, and when I heard of the bloodshed via my Beetle’s radio, I pulled to the road’s shoulder, and—completely out of character—burst into tears. I didn’t know any Chinese people personally, had never read a book by a Chinese writer, and could not have found Beijing on a map. But suddenly a world event had punctured my bubble of enormous teenaged self-regard. Six years later I knew little about the country beyond the Great Wall, pandas, one billion people, fortune cookies, and the indelible image of a man standing in front of a tank.
I couldn’t speak the language, either, of course. I didn’t even know how it sounded. Not only was I wrong about fortune cookies—they’re from California by way of Japan—I couldn’t even use chopsticks. But this was it: Peace Corps’ take-it-or-leave-it final offer—China.
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