Peter Hessler is a Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker. A native of Columbia, Missouri, he studied English literature at Princeton and Oxford before going to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His two year experience of teaching English in Fuling, a town on the Yangtze, inspired River Town, his critically acclaimed first book. After finishing his Peace Corps stint, Hessler wrote freelance pieces for Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times before returning to China in 1999 as a Beijing-based freelance writer. There he wrote for newspapers like the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the South China Morning Post before moving on to magazine work for National Geographic and the New Yorker.
How did you get started traveling?
My family always traveled a fair amount when I was growing up — long driving trips to different parts of America, the sort of travel that is familiar to many Midwestern childhoods. And I spent part of my second grade year in Sweden, where my father was on sabbatical as a professor of sociology.
But apart from that experience I saw little of the world outside of America, until 1992, when I received a scholarship to attend graduate school at Oxford. That was really the start of my international experiences — I lived cheaply at Oxford and picked up odd jobs and the occasional freelance writing gig, and this allowed me to travel extensively in Europe and Asia. During those two years I visited something like 30 countries — Oxford was very generous with its vacation time, and I traveled cheaply, using rail-passes and camping a lot. I finished in ’94 and decided to go home around the world — an unplanned trip that started in Prague and continued by land and boat all the way to Thailand, via Russia and China. After returning from that trip, I freelanced and took other trips, including a long hike across Switzerland — in the summer of ’95 I received a grant to hike across the country, and I spent two months camping and hiking in the mountains, from the French border to the Italian border.
But during that period I found myself always thinking about returning to Asia, but I decided that I wanted to live somewhere, work a regular job, and learn the language. The Peace Corps had always appealed to me and I joined in ’96, when I was sent to a small city in southwestern China. I taught English and American literature at a teachers college that trained future teachers of English.
How did you get started writing?
Since I was a sophomore in high school I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I’m not sure where this interest came from; I didn’t come from a family of writers, but nevertheless I always knew that was what I wanted to do. I think much of it had to do with the encouragement of my high school English teachers, who recognized my interest in literature and writing and encouraged me. At college I majored in creative writing; I specialized in fiction and originally had no interest in nonfiction writing. I never wrote for a college newspaper or magazine; I saw myself as a future novelist and professor of English. But during my junior year I took a course in nonfiction creative writing, taught by John McPhee, and for the first time I realized that nonfiction interested me. And soon it became pragmatic: I found myself in parts of the world where I could find interesting stories, and it was an easy way to make spending money. By the time I finished grad school I realized that I wanted to try and write nonfiction for my career.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
Again, some of these teachers I had in high school and college were probably ‘breaks’ of a sort — in that they helped me realize possibilities in writing. But from a publishing point of view, my first serious story was published in ’95, when I wrote an essay about taking the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing. I sent it to the New York Times and they published it; I was surprised because I knew nobody there and just sent it to a name on the masthead. After that, I did another half-dozen or so stories for them, over a period of four years or so. It wasn’t a lot of writing, but in a sense it was important to me because during those years I was often in very remote areas, especially during the Peace Corps. Publishing those travel pieces in the Times was a way of reminding me that there was a writing world out there. And I was fortunate because the Times was very patient with the logistical difficulties — I had no Internet access and had to take a bus into town to get a fax. In retrospect I’m surprised they were patient enough to work with me, even sporadically; we never met in person during that time and it was always a struggle to edit stories. I don’t think they knew how much those pieces meant to me as links to the writing world.
Apart from that, my first break was writing my book about my experience in the Peace Corps. Books are critical to freelancers — I had always heard this from my teachers in college, and now I know why they always emphasized it so much. First, it’s a way of having complete control over your writing — magazine and newspaper pieces are always being edited and cut down, whereas a writer always has the final say over what goes in his book. And a book also makes a huge difference in your future writing projects; it gives you more legitimacy if you’re trying to live the freelance life.
My experience writing the book was pretty simple — at the end of my two years in the Peace Corps, I decided to try and write a book, and I spent four months writing. I wrote the thing in its entirety and sent it off to agents, most of whom weren’t interested. But two were, and I went to New York and chose one, William Clark, who sold it to HarperCollins within a week. Up until that point, I had been looking for full-time journalism jobs, but getting the advance convinced me to try freelance instead. That’s what I’m still doing today.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Nowadays I write mostly about China, where I live, and I’m quite comfortable traveling there. I’ve been in the country for almost five years now, speak decent Chinese, and I travel by about every means imaginable — I’ve done stories about boat and train rides, and I also have a Chinese drivers license and am currently working on some road trip stories. So things like language and culture aren’t major problems. Instead, the biggest hassles are political. In China, to be a full-time resident writer you need to have a journalist accreditation and visa; this means that you are the official representative of a foreign magazine or newspaper or news agency. It takes an enormous amount of paperwork but you’re at risk if you stay long-term in the country without it — the government can throw you out if you write something that makes them unhappy (and a lot of stories do, of course). Once you have the journalist license, though, you have more security — you might get criticized by the foreign ministry, but it’s rare for them to toss you out, because it becomes a diplomatic event — bad PR for the People’s Republic. I’m currently registered as the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent.
But the drawback is that the j-visa goes in your passport, which means that every time you register at a Chinese hotel they know a journalist is in town. Generally they will report to the local police, who may or may not check you out. Often it means that you can’t stay in a town for very long; as a result, journalists tend to pop out for quick trips. But I’ve always preferred long, unstructured research trips, which can be hard when I’m carrying the j-visa. Recently I drove solo across the north for two weeks, and my trip was cut short when a local police department caught me through the registration system. They kicked me out — but they phoned ahead to the next town, and the next day the exact same thing happened to me. I ended up getting run out of the province, and it was frustrating and exhausting; finally I just went back to Beijing. In those situations it’s particularly frustrating because my research wasn’t in any sense critical or unfair; in general I try to write about everyday life in China and I’m less concerned with politics than most journalists.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
I’d say my biggest writing challenge involves juggling projects. I’m generally working on several stories at once, and I prefer to do long features that are loose and uncertain — often I have no idea how long I’ll research them; I prefer to see stories develop organically. I think it’s good from a research point of view but logistically it can get complicated.
This year I was also flooded with work, because I’ve been changing my work routines, and it’s been a bit wearing sorting that out. I used to do quite a bit of newspaper and shorter magazine features, but now I’m shifting to writing long features for primarily two magazines — the New Yorker and National Geographic. I’m shifting to a routine where I write maybe 6 to 8 features a year, which will give me time to do other books. It’s the right routine for me, but it’s taken time to clear out some of the other commitments, and that’s made for a busy year. I think that any time you’re making a change in your freelance projects you’re going to find yourself quite busy.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
This is probably the least problematic part of my career as a freelancer. One of the real benefits of working in China is that living expenses are very low, so I’ve never felt financial pressure since I returned in ’99. Often I wasn’t making much money, but it didn’t matter because my daily routines are so simple and inexpensive. It’s a tradeoff — China is more complicated from a political point of view, but financially it’s simple. Personally, I’d prefer the political complications to the financial hassles — regardless of how annoying they may be, they are always a window into how this place works. And it’s interesting material as a writer — often in my stories I’ve included details about how the Chinese respond to a journalist.
I’m not married and have no children, so that makes things a bit easier. My agent handles my book contracts and some of the magazine financial arrangements, which also helps.
As far as editors go, I work with one editor at the New Yorker and one at National Geographic, and over the years we’ve gotten to know each other. Those are comfortable relationships and I’m glad that it’s not a source of stress — it often is in these circles.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
Since ’99 I’ve freelanced full-time. Before that, I taught part- or full-time.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I recently enjoyed “Red Dust,” a travel book by a Chinese poet named Ma Jian — he started traveling because he got into political trouble in the late ’80’s. It’s an interesting counterpoint to so many Western travel books, which often stem from more personal issues. Lots of books open with the writer telling you that he’s just had a divorce, or lost his job, or something of the sort, and it’s interesting to read one by an author who was in serious trouble, the sort of trouble that could have sent him to jail.
I enjoy a lot of Paul Theroux’s travel books — at his best, he writes so fluently and without pretense. I enjoyed “The Great Railway Bazaar,” “Riding the Iron Rooster,” and “The Happy Isles of Oceania.” I also respect the way that he’s willing to let his less charitable side show through — unlike a lot of memoirists, he doesn’t just want the reader to see him at his best.
Bruce Chatwin wrote some excellent books, very impressionistic and beautiful. A book like “In Patagonia” slips along without the reader realizing just how carefully it’s structured and written, and I admire that — it’s not plot-driven in the traditional sense, but it moves along beautifully. A lot of trips are like that — it’s not always the destination that counts.
William Least Heat-Moon is a writer from my hometown, Columbia, Missouri, and he’s written some great books. “Blue Highways” is about crossing small-town America, and “Prairie Earth” is about a place in Kansas. These are both great books and together they show how one writer shifted subjects gracefully — from a book about movement to a book about one specific place.
Truman Capote has always been one of my favorite authors — “The Muses Are Heard” is a wonderfully funny portrait of an American drama troupe entering Cold War-era Russia. He has lots of beautiful small pieces about Italy and Greece and New Orleans; he’s brilliant at capturing the moment. And I read and re-read Joseph Conrad, because in a sense he was the original foreign correspondent, a rare writer who grasped issues of cultural conflicts that many of today’s commentators still don’t understand. “Under Western Eyes” and “The Secret Agent” are incredibly insightful about terrorism — and they’re nearly one hundred years old.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Personally I think there’s a risk of always being on the move and never getting to know a place well. This is part of why my routines have shifted over the past five years, as I’ve committed myself to writing primarily about China.
The downside to this, of course, is that you can get too focused and lose perspective on where that corner of the world fits into the larger picture. This is something I struggle with — I’m trying to expand and write more about other countries, but it’s hard because I don’t feel the same confidence when I leave China. Ideally I’d like to have two writing projects a year outside of China — this past year I only had one, and it was in Mongolia — not exactly an enormous step away from China. I’d say that this is my biggest weakness as a writer, although it also stems from my biggest strength — the fact that I have a China background deep enough to allow me to explore the small corners. I wrote a book about a small town that few people have heard of, and I wrote a 9,000-word feature about an average factory worker in Shenzhen.
It’s always a tradeoff, and I think about these issues a lot. I feel like I might have another two years of China writing and then it would be good to move to a different place, to get a fresh perspective and make sure things aren’t becoming stale.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Freedom. Since I graduated in ’94, I’ve never had a ‘real job,’ apart from the Peace Corps, and I’ve found time to write about the things I care about. My coverage depends on my personal interests, not the interests of a publication or an editor. I feel like I have real control over my work and my living routines, and that means an enormous amount to me.