Michael Meyer first came to China in 1995 as a Peace Corps volunteer, then worked as a Beijing-based journalist, contributing to The New York Times, TIME, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post and many more outlets, winning a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. His first book, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed details the three years he spent in the Chinese capital’s oldest neighborhood, living in a shared courtyard sans heat and toilet, and teaching in the local elementary school. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, he also teaches Literary Journalism at the University of Hong Kong. His next book, In Manchuria: Journeys Across China’s Northeast Frontier, will be published soon.
How did you get started traveling?
In libraries, and reading National Geographic. I grew up in Minnesota, not far from the Mississippi River, in a small town that was mostly cornfields. But it had a great library, and history and English teachers who believed we lived in a special place, and so should know all about it: the people that came before us, the companies that started the city and the economy that sustained them both. So reading Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Laura Ingalls Wilder made me travel in time, back to what was. And the monthly arrival at home of National Geographic took me on present-day trips around the world. I’ve yet to convey to my current undergraduates how amazing and exciting it was to see an issue of that magazine waiting in our dirt-road mailbox each month. Especially when it had a map! They wallpapered the walls of my room until I had to tack them on the ceiling. So that was the start. Like most Midwesterners, I knew I lived in the middle of a massive land mass with borderless horizons, and couldn’t wait to see what lie beyond them, Out There. It’s a strange thing, knowing early on that you will leave home. But Midwesterners do it well.
How did you get started writing?
My high school journalism teacher and I couldn’t stand one another, so he brokered a truce: I wouldn’t take his class or be on the school paper, and he would get me a gig at the community paper, instead. Those papers are fantastic – each one is a novel. The DUI arrests, the fishing forecast, the city council infighting. I wrote for that, and became addicted to newsprint. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison because it had two daily campus papers, two daily city papers, a free weekly, plus the then-nascent Onion. It was a great town in which to be a young writer. I was edited, a lot, by many editors, as I moved from the campus to city papers.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
As an undergrad, I spent a spring break volunteering with the United Farm Workers office in San Juan, on the Texas/Mexico border. Up to that point, I was a journalism major, fluent in Spanish, and working as an entertainment reporter, mostly covering music. But San Juan was a personal “road to Damascus.” I spent time in the schools, in the churches, in refugee centers, on the lines as pepper-pickers picketed Pace picante. (How many times in life do we get to start five words with “p” without trying?) For the first time, I wrote feature stories; I was in people’s homes, I was with them at school, and in the fields, I was drinking with Marines who had recently returned from the first Iraq war. I liked the unhurried conversations, the sense that it was better to let stories unspool over time, naturally, rather than try and summarize them to meet an arbitrary deadline. I drove back to Madison, changed my major to Education, quit the paper, and started thinking of applying to the Peace Corps. Two years later, it sent me to China.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
There’s a wonderful paragraph of at the end of The Great Railway Bazaar, where Theroux says a trip can go too far; “any further travel makes a beeline to confessions, the embarrassed monologue in a deserted bazaar.” And he starts that image with this: “The farther one traveled, the nakeder one got, until, towards the end, ceasing to be animated by any scene, one was most oneself, a man in a bed surrounded by empty bottles.”
That’s my biggest challenge, the rawness of travel – “delay and regret,” to quote the master again. My writing is mostly set in China, where, no matter how fluent I am or how culturally attenuated I am after 18 years here, I always stick out, and it’s natural in any small community, worldwide, to distrust the stranger. And I know that, inherently, because of where I’m from. So I have to kickstart myself to bother strangers – which is what reporting is, essentially. I hate to be bothered; why am I out bothering people who have their own joys and worries and things to do and places to be? Honestly, if a foreigner moved to my hometown and said he wanted to hang around asking questions for two years to write a book that we may never read, I’d walk the other way. Which is why it’s so rewarding to see my Beijing book coming out in Chinese – to be able to hand it to the people that it’s about.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
In China, it’s access. Not access to people, because despite what I answered above, people here love to talk to strangers. Bus and train rides are rolling salons. It’s a chatty place; it’s how stuff gets done. You ask someone if they know where to get a certain size light bulb, or a job, or a date, and then you’re off, being passed from one acquaintance to the next.
But here, it’s access to archives, which I want, to go as deeply as possible into my subject, be it Beijing or a farm. The goal is to write books that people will still want to read in 100 years. It’s not that far away. I read memoirs and diaries of travelers who passed near the farm where I was living in China’s northeast, and they could be describing my average week. For my next book, titled In Manchuria, I’ve found materials about the village where I live in the libraries of Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong and London. But nothing in the local government office; nothing at the nearest university; nothing in the nearest city library. Records have been lost, or mildewed, or destroyed for political reasons by overlapping regimes, or shipped elsewhere, or are simply locked up. As a researcher, this makes you dig, but also talk. I appreciate the “oral tradition” more now than when an anthropology professor lectured about it.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I love editors, and all writers know how important editing is. When you’re sending in work from afar, though, there can be some eye-rolling exchanges. I once had to fax, from a Chinese hotel, a photocopied image of a cigarette box to show that yes, in fact, the story’s character was smoking a brand named Famous Dogs, with a panting spaniel as its logo. Once, in a restaurant story, I mentioned scorpions, to which the editor replied, “On the menu or on the floor?”
What’s always been hardest is matching the work to a publication. I make my college students go to a big bookstore and spend time at the magazine and newspaper rack, identifying where their voice may fit best. The best magazine travel piece I’ve done ran in Sports Illustrated, of all places. That’s something I grew up reading; they do 4,000-word features; the voice closely matches mine. The second best piece appeared in the New York Times Book Review. It’s so important to find that venue, or editor, who “gets” you, and doesn’t want a piece on Rome or Havana, but a piece from anywhere, by you.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’m a teacher by training – both my BA and MA are in education, and I’m certified K-12, though now I teach at university. Teaching provides a nice schedule, a desk and computer, free coffee, and an end time. When I lived in Beijing, I’d take on all comers – tour guide, World Economic Forum summary writer, Rough Guides updater (I drew China’s northeast; those travels led to deciding to write In Manchuria).
Before China, I made ends meet by being a relay operator for the deaf/hearing impaired. I’d type what you said, and the deaf caller would type back, and I’d read the words aloud to you. It was a voyeur’s dream – lots of seduction of married men and women during the 10pm-6am shift. I love using dialogue, lots of it, in my work, and I think it comes from those years of typing conversations.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Theroux makes me laugh, and his sentences are so much fun. He’s the best. I’ve tried convincing The Paris Review that he merits an Interview. Wouldn’t he be fun to interview over days, in Hawaii? One thing I love about his books is that he’s a reader; he tells us whom he’s reading on the road. I picked up Jan Morris and V.S. Pritchett and Bruce Chatwin because of him.
In Patagonia is my favorite travel book, and the one I’m working on now is an homage.
I’ll read anything by Ian Frazier – I know most people know his road books, but if you haven’t read Family, do. It’s about coming home to his small Ohio town. I like Geoff Dyer a lot, too. While stuck in an airport recently, I read his Out of Sheer Rage, about not writing his book on D.H. Lawrence, while traveling the world to research said book.
I think of places, and the books about them: Didion on California; Hemingway and Orwell and Richard Cobb on Paris; Pamuk on Istanbul, and Paz and Mehta on Bombay/Mumbai.
In terms of influences, it’s been mostly novels set firmly in places: East of Eden (best first chapter for a travel writer; read, too, his diaries from writing the book when he was marooned in NY, estranged from his young sons, for whom he’s writing it: Journal of a Novel); The Sheltering Sky; Winesburg, Ohio; The Berlin Stories; Lolita (probably the best American travelogue ever, right?).
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
The story is not about you. Place is a character. Start with the place, not a quote from a character who is going to walk across stage, then vanish, never to be seen again by story’s end. We want to read about the place, and how it shapes and has been shaped by three-dimensional characters you’re going to introduce us to. If it’s over a longer period of time, then that’s even better.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Now that I’m a father, it’s traveling with my son. Even if I’m typing this in a hotel bathtub so as not to disturb his sleep in bed. (He’s fourteen-months-old.) From now on, we’ll travel like Paul and Jane Bowles, and book two rooms.