Peter Hessler: China hand knows China better than many locals
By Xu Qin
A staff writer at the New Yorker since 2000, Peter Hessler is considered one of the West’s most thoughtful writers on modern China.
Two of his books are translated and published by the Shanghai Translation House, “Country Driving” and “River Town.” Also, “Strange Stone,” a collection of Hessler’s best reportage on China in the last few years, will be published in May.
Born in 1969 in Columbia, Missouri, Hessler came to China in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught English at a teachers’ college in Fuling, a small town on Yangtze River in southwestern China. Within his two years in Fuling, he witnessed the fast growth and changes in the lives of the locals as China’s hinterland underwent dramatic economic development. This inspired “River Town,” his critically acclaimed first book.
Proficient in speaking, reading and writing Mandarin, Hessler has even adopted a Chinese name He Wei. He is what we call a China hand. He passed the Chinese driver’s license exam, drove for 1,000 kilometers from the rural northern Chinese cities to the boomtown of Shenzhen in southern China and skillfully smoked out details from strangers along the road.
Most of Hessler’s stories are about ordinary people’s lives. Many Chinese readers who have read his books have commented that this American understands China better than many Chinese.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (2010) by British novelist David Mitchell. It’s about the Dutch trading concession in 18th century Japan. I’ve never had any particular interest in this history, but the novel drew me in.
What’s your ideal reading experience?
At my home in Ridgway, Colorado, during a vacation in the summer. I don’t get to read much in Cairo where I currently live and work: I’m studying Arabic and reporting and writing, and I have twin three-year-olds. So most of what I read is work-related. I had planned to read some good fiction last August at my place in Colorado; but I had to return to Cairo to cover political events. I look forward to the time when life slows down a little and I can start to read again.
Do you have a favorite classic work of world literature?
Probably Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” I also like “Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard” by Polish novelist Joseph Conrad a lot. I often reread favorite works by Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Who are the best writers working today?
David Mitchell (“Cloud Atlas” and “The Thousand Autumns”) is a great novelist. He has a gift for bringing distant places and times to life. Alice Munro is probably the best short-story writer alive. I think John McPhee has been one of the most influential nonfiction writers of the past few decades.
What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
No big surprises, I’m afraid. I guess I have books by rap singers Eminem and Jay-Z, but nobody who knows me would be surprised by that.
Do you have a favorite childhood literary character or hero?
As a child I really liked books by John Christopher, especially his “Sword of the Spirits” trilogy.
The main character, Luke, appealed to me. He was unusually flawed for a hero in a children’s book, and the complexity appealed to me.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
Joseph Conrad. I’d like to hear him talk about what it was like to be at sea in the 1870s and 1880s. And I’d like to know how somebody could learn English relatively late and yet become one of the greatest writers in the language.
What’s the highlight in the past year? And what’s your next work?
It was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and we had a family reunion in Colorado.
My youngest sister had cancer surgery in the spring, but she recovered and is cancer-free, and was able to go with her family to the reunion. As you get older you are more grateful for the good health of people close to you. I’m working on magazine articles here in Egypt, and I’m probably in the early stages of thinking about a book — but it’s too early to know for sure.