Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Right Times: An interview with Peter Hessler


Peter Hessler’s career began in China in 1996 where he worked for the Peace Corps and taught English at a teacher’s college in Fuling, a small city in Chongqing. His experiences there inspired his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. In 1999, Hessler moved to Beijing and worked as a freelancer, writing for publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and National Geographic, among others. In 2000, he joined The New Yorker staff. This time period spawned two more books: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Future, and Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. In 2011, Hessler and his family moved from Colorado to Cairo. His work has earned him a MacArthur fellowship, a Kiriyama Book Prize, an American Society of Magazine Editors award, and a National Book Award nomination.


In September 2012, Hessler was generous enough to Skype with me from his home in Cairo. At the time, he was learning Arabic and covering Egypt’s ongoing revolution for The New Yorker. Hessler and I spoke for more than an hour, and the following is a condensed version of our conversation in which he discussed why he and his wife, nonfiction writer Leslie T. Chang, moved to Egypt with their twin daughters, his Chinese fan base, and writing habits, as well as his relationship with John McPhee.


Hot Metal Bridge: What drew you to Egypt after living in China for so long? How did you and your wife make that decision?


Peter Hessler: We decided around 2006 that it was either going to be Syria or Egypt. Basically, we both wanted to live back in the states for a little bit because neither of us had been there for many years. We wanted to have a couple years and have kids, but after that we wanted to go back overseas. I wanted to write about something other than China, and I was concerned about being stuck as a China writer. I also felt like with Country Driving I closed a chapter in my life. That was a good way to end it. In my last pieces from China, I used everything I had learned. My writing was getting better from my perspective, and I didn’t want to coast. I didn’t want to get to a point where I was repeating things. I didn’t want to get burned out. I also felt like I was young enough to tackle something different. We wanted to find a place—and it’s hard to find a place where you can find work for two nonfiction writers. It has to be pretty marketable. It has to be a part of the world that people care about. You can’t go to Portugal. I mean, you can go to Portugal, but there are only so many stories you can do for The New Yorker from Portugal. If you’re hoping to make a living, that’s an issue. If you’re hoping to write books people want to read, that’s an issue. We wanted to go to a place that was significant, where things were happening. We wanted to go to a place with a rich language. I liked learning Chinese. I liked the idea of a place, like China, that has a deep history, but also contemporary material. It gives you more possible directions as a writer. Egypt was a pretty natural choice. It’s also a place neither of us knew anything about. We were initially thinking more about Syria, but that decision was made for us in 2011, when the civil war broke out.


HMB: Do you feel like you are in the right place at the right time with Egypt?


Hessler: I’ve had a lot of right times. Even when I was first in China, nothing really happened in ’99. Certain countries are always at a certain stage, and Egypt is a lynchpin for this area, and it has an impact on the rest of the Middle East. But this is a particularly intense period. It’s very confusing as a writer. There’s a lot going on, so it’s a challenge. It’s very hard to study the language and get a sense of this place while it’s changing around you. In other ways, it’s not changing. China, I think, had a lot of physical materials change [in terms of modernization and industrialization], but in Egypt, that hasn’t happened. The economy is dead. But, there’s this political change. It’s the opposite of China.


HMB: After leaving China, you wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled, “Dr. Don,” about a small-town pharmacist in southwest Colorado. How did you find Dr. Don?


Hessler: My wife and I were driving around the southwest looking for a small town to write in. We also wanted to have kids, well, a kid. And, we found this town called Ridgeway in southwest Colorado, and we found a house that was big enough that we both had an office. Then I did a story on a uranium plant in Nucla, and that was about an hour-and-a-half drive. Beautiful drive. I really enjoyed doing that project, and early on, when I was talking to people in those towns, I’d ask questions, and they’d often say, ‘talk to the pharmacist, talk to Don. He knows everything.’ So I set up an interview with him about the uranium story, and I realized he was really interesting. I was in the middle of my uranium project, when I realized I wanted to do something on him as well. So I decided to set him aside. Even though he was really quotable, I kept him out of the uranium piece. Then, toward the end of working on the uranium story, I approached him and said, ‘I want to write about you.’ It’s hard to approach someone like that because he hadn’t been written about before. He’s not doing anything distinctive. For him, it doesn’t seem like it’s important. I said, ‘I’m interested in this area, and I’m interested in what you do. I just want to hang around and see if I could write something,’ and he was up for it. But I didn’t pitch it to my editors at The New Yorker because I knew if I did, they would turn it down. It’s about a pharmacist. They’d think it was really boring. The first thing I knew about him was that someone had left him half a million dollars. That also piqued my interest. I said, ‘There’s gotta be something to this guy. There’s gotta be a story.’ That was my thought process. But mostly it was personal. I just liked him. I like places where people hang out. Here in Cairo, I hang out in a coffee shop, one of these classic places where people smoke shisha. There are a lot of people there, and they come in every day, and those are the places where you learn stuff. And his pharmacy was like that. It was natural. And poor Don kept saying, ‘I hope you’re getting stuff.’ He had no idea. He didn’t see how you got a story out of that.


HMB: What was his reaction to the story?


Hessler: I think he liked it. I think he was moved by it. People in the town usually have a negative view of the press because reporters go down and do stories about uranium and make them look like rednecks and stupid. I think they thought this was different. At the same time, there was a filmmaker from New York coming down there a lot. He spent a lot of time with people and ended up renting an apartment, really made the effort to get to know people. They appreciated that. Two journalists who just didn’t go in and out to get their quotes but kept coming back. I still hear from Don regularly.


The thing about that story, for me as a writer, the most interesting technical part of it—and a great thing to think about when you’re doing narrative nonfiction—what role do you play in the story? How do you use the first person voice? How much of you is in it? The “Going West” piece I wrote has a strong first person voice because it’s very personal. But the “Dr. Don” piece wasn’t a story about me. I don’t even mention that I live in the region. It didn’t seem necessary. It would have been distracting. But I realized when I was planning the piece, I had to prepare for me—as a narrator—to do part of the work, to pull together all three streams of the story: Don forsaking his brother, Don loaning all this money to the community, and Don getting this gift of half a million dollars. The way these three things stream together is the heart of the story. But Don didn’t see it, you know? He wasn’t going to say, ‘I always felt guilty about the way I treated my brother, but being a responsible and generous member of the community was a way of making amends, and then Mr. Brick’s gift was a reward for decades of service here.’ Nobody is going to say it so neatly, and especially not Don. But I could do it with the first-person voice–I could make these connections. If someone was going to pull those streams together, it had to be me. So, when I was planning the end, I knew I had to step in and explain a little bit. And you have to prepare the reader for that. If you look at the story, there’s not a lot of me in there, but there are a couple very deliberate things. If you look at that first section, which describes Don and the landscape and him in the store, it sort of ends with me going in there and him giving me the cream for my daughters. There’s not a lot of me, but it’s very personal, and it ends the section. It just puts me there. After that, I step back. Later, I step in briefly to remind the reader I’m there. This is where I step into a bar and talk to the bartender. I planned it pretty carefully. You think about a lot of things when you plan a piece, and I thought about my role. I didn’t want to push the piece. I didn’t want to dominate it. But I had to have a certain amount of myself in there, so at the end, I could explain to the reader that the three streams interact in this way.


HMB: In between “Dr. Don” being published and moving to Egypt, you returned to China to promote Country Driving. What has the feedback been from your Chinese fan base?


Hessler: That’s been one of the most rewarding things. All three books were published in Taiwan first, and when Leslie and I took our girls to China just before Country Driving’s release, I didn’t think anyone would care. But it turned out to be this huge thing. I got swamped with interview requests, and the book events were incredibly well attended. The fans were a young, bright, worldly readership. People were very thoughtful, and the questions were highly intelligent. It was really rewarding. That book has sold many more copies in China than it has in America or anywhere else. And River Town has done really well since finally being published in China. For me, that has meant a lot because I felt bad for a long time. I wrote about China, and no one there read it. I gave the people I wrote about copies of the books, but it wasn’t having a broader impact, and I felt like I exported stories. There could be something unhealthy about that. China has really changed a lot, largely because of the internet, and it’s easier for people to translate books and get them out there. Also, the market in China has changed. The country has been open for over 30 years now, and they’re at a stage where they’re confident to hear what a foreigner thinks about them. In the past, they dismissed everyone, even Pearl S. Buck, who really knew China. She wrote a lot of garbage because she wrote too fast, but The Good Earth is a phenomenal book, and she wrote some other really good books, but they were not well received in China. People were too sensitive about being seen by a foreigner. And they feared foreigners were condescending and focused on poverty. But that’s changed. Other foreign writers have become popular there, as well. It’s a sign that China is confident enough and they’re searching. They want to figure out their own society. They want to get more information.


HMB: What are your writing habits?


Hessler: I like to write in the morning. I wrote Country Driving in Colorado, and it was the ideal situation. I got up, ate breakfast, and wrote all morning. Then I stopped, ate lunch, napped, edited for a little bit, and did some light writing work. After that, I stopped and went for a long run, and then chilled out at night. When I was young, I wrote for eight-hour stretches. I wrote River Town in four months, and I will never do that again. For one thing, now, I’d just get pissed off at whatever I was doing. It’s aggravating, and the writing can get sloppy when you do that. I edited River Town pretty heavily, but that book was an intense thing that needed to get out fast. I try to control it now. I try not to write much at one time. And I try to enjoy it. That’s the most important part. When I wrote my last book with that routine, running every afternoon, it was not as stressful.


HMB: When you attended Princeton, you were taught by John McPhee. Can you tell me about your relationship with him? Was it a mentor relationship?


Hessler: Yeah, I would say so. But it’s become a friendship as well because we’ve been writing together for years now. He was my professor junior year, spring of ’91. I was only interested in fiction at that point. I didn’t want to be a journalist, but I took his class. It’s a famous class at Princeton. Basically, when I look back on it, I’m more naturally a nonfiction writer. I think my nonfiction was always better. It took me a long time to realize that, but his class showed me that there was more to nonfiction than just newspapers. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to be a journalist. I seriously didn’t like newspaper writing. In his class, I realized there are all sorts of other forms of nonfiction, and he encouraged me. He was a tough critic, but he also let me know I had talent and what I could do with it. We stayed in touch after I graduated, and I talked with him about joining the Peace Corps. That was a really hard decision for me. It felt like I was taking a step away, basically. I had attended Princeton and then Oxford, places where everyone is on a career track. There is no career track for a writer. You need a different kind of context and a different kind of space to develop. But, it was intimidating to feel like I was going to disappear for two years.


I talked with John pretty seriously about that, and he encouraged me. He hadn’t done something like Peace Corps as a young man, but he said it sounded like a great idea. There have been other periods where he gave me great advice. He’s pretty hands-off in a lot of ways. I would never send him a story to edit, for example, or even to give advice. I knew he was busy, and I didn’t want to put him in that position. I didn’t ask him for contacts. When I came back after I had written River Town, I didn’t ask him to put me in touch with somebody. I just sent that book out blindly to agents. He doesn’t even have an agent. He’s not that into the industry. I always felt like I wanted our relationship to be different from that, you know? I wanted it to be more of a friendship than him helping me. He did later. For my first New Yorker piece, I wrote an essay, and he sent it to David Remnick. I didn’t ask him to do it. He thought it was something that they should see. In recent years, I’ve spoken to his class a lot. I’m often there in the spring. I visit him when I’m in New York. He knows so much about writing. There have been lots of times when I’ve asked him advice. Once I had a problem with somebody I had interviewed who was complaining a lot about what I had written, and I asked John what to do about it.  And sometimes there were issues with The New Yorker where I was trying to figure out how the magazine worked, and I would ask John, ‘Have you ever been in this situation? What do you recommend?’ I don’t do that anymore, but in the early years when I was freelancing, he was very helpful.


HMB: A professor of mine often describes a particular paragraph in his book as being five years of his life in terms of research. Is there a paragraph in Oracle Bones that you can look to, and say wow, that’s “x” number of years of my work?


Hessler: Not really. I wrote so much back then. That’s why I’m happy to just be kicking back learning a language right now. In the last section of Country Driving, I used everything I had learned during my time in China: the language skills, the instincts, how to talk to people, and figure things out. I’m proud of that reporting. I didn’t have a researcher. I did that 100% on my own. In terms of figuring out how things work and finding narrative lines, I brought everything I had together. As a writer, after doing these books, and all these articles, I feel the experience now. It gets easier, and that’s something young writers need to know. It takes time. McPhee always says that. He wrote his first book at 31. Same age that I started. That’s early. That’s earlier than most. And I look back on it, and I realize how much better I am now. And you continue to grow as a writer. Hopefully you make the decisions that allow you to grow more, but that patience is something young people have to remember. I knew it when I was young, but it was hard. I was still concerned or worried or felt unproductive in my late 20s, early 30s.


HMB: I’m glad you’re saying this. I’m 31 and I feel like I’m behind in the game.


Hessler: You always feel like that. I left the Peace Corps at 29, and when I got rejected for jobs, I panicked a little bit and worried I hadn’t accomplished anything. I look back now and realize I had this incredible experience. I had learned Chinese. I spoke pretty good Chinese, and I had this book that was waiting to be written. It’s not a bad place to be at 29, but at the time, I felt down often. I think it’s natural. You have to be patient.