Travis Lee is the author of five novels and has lived in Hubei province, where I spent a lot of time in the 1990s. It’s not often that I come across another writer who knows that province well, so I was curious about his thoughts about writing about Hubei province and the pros and cons of being known as a China writer. Please read on to learn more about Travis Lee and his writing process!
Susan B-K: You spent quite a bit of time in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei Province. That comes across in your writing. Do you feel that the interior of China is well-represented in English literature, or is there still a need for more?
Travis Lee: As far as I know, there aren’t any novels set in Hubei. When it comes to the rest of the interior, there’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside by Quincy Carroll, which is set in Hunan. Maybe Harvest Season? Otherwise, I can’t think of anything else.
There is a need for more in the sense that I wish there was more expat fiction set in China. Good fiction that tells the truth about daily life without relying on clichés or acting like you’re in a zoo the size of a large country. Just honest writing that says, Hey, this is what I see. Take it or leave it. Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues both did that very well.
SBK: When you write about China, what are a few important messages you hope to convey?
TL: I prefer it if people find their own messages. That being said, the only thing close to a message is honesty, as in I don’t want to mislead people about China. I don’t want to romanticize life over there or exploit any “wacky China” tropes.
SBK: Can you discuss your writing process? Do you outline your stories first or do you take a relatively small idea and go from there?
TL: For the first draft, I start with a small idea. I tried to outline once and ended up not finishing the story because in a way, I had already finished; I knew everything that was going to happen.
That’s why I think writing truly occurs on a subconscious level. Your muse speaks and you take notes on what she’s kind enough to give you. As an example, there’s a scene later in The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors in which Daniel interviews the widow of a high school principal murdered during the Cultural Revolution. It borrows from the documentary Though I Am Gone, about the murder of Bian Zhongyun.
I wrote that scene on an aircraft carrier. I’m in the Navy, and we were underway twenty-five days getting qualified to go on deployment. In my job, we work twelve hour days. I knew the scene was coming, and all day, it was just under the surface of my mind, little details. I did not actively think about it.
Once I was off work, I went to the ship’s library. It’s right below the flight deck and you could hear the arresting gear snapping as planes landed. I had just worked twelve hours with another twelve tomorrow and twelve more each day for the next fifteen days. All I wanted to do was go to bed, but I sat down with my laptop, put in my headphone (we’re allowed to wear only one, in order to hear ship’s announcements) and wrote.
And the scene came out perfectly. I finished the whole thing and then some, and I didn’t plot it out beforehand. My mind worked out the details and I just put it into words.
SBK: What do you feel about writers who are pigeonholed into a certain subject matter or genre? In other words, would you mind if you were known as a China writer? Or even one who writes about non-conventional parts of China? Not to sound too corporate, but I personally think it’s a good thing when an author has a brand and becomes the go-to for a certain topic. But not all authors agree!
TL: It’s unavoidable when you write enough about one topic. You don’t have much control over it anyways. I write in different genres, but if I’m a so-called “China writer”, that’s great. I’ve written five novels set in Hubei Province, so I have no problem with that.
What I do have a problem with is the perception that no one outside of the expat community cares about these stories. Someone once told me that no one would read my book unless they’d lived in China.
That’s absurd. It’s like saying that nobody would read A Confederacy of Dunces unless they’d lived in 1960s New Orleans.
Going along with that, if you’re in China and you’re writing a novel about an ESL teacher, at some point somebody is probably going to tell you that no one cares, that scene is so old, nobody wants to read about it. Ignore them. They don’t know your vision. You might have an original take on it, and you won’t know until you write it.
SBK: Finally, what are some books in your to-read pile?
TL: Here’s the next five I hope to get to:
Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside by Quincy Carroll, Countdown City the Last Policeman Trilogy Book 2, The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu, The Book of Chuang Tzu, and Beckett’s Fin de Partie.