Peter Hessler’s World of Words
Just about any modern China reading list worth its salt will include at least one book by Peter Hessler. Almost from the moment he arrived in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996, the author of “River Town,” “Oracle Bones,” and “Country Driving” has earned a reputation as a keen observer of China, its people, and their rapid entry into the modern world.
Hessler’s ability to give expression to these experiences has made him as popular with Chinese readers as he is with international audiences. His books helped kickstart China’s ongoing literary nonfiction boom, inspiring a generation of young authors to reexamine their surroundings and find value in stories previously dismissed as mundane or uninteresting. His 2019 decision to return to China to teach at Sichuan University was big news in the country — as was the university’s controversial choice not to renew his contract in April 2021.
The China that bid farewell to Hessler in 2021 was in many ways a fundamentally different place from the one that greeted him in 1996. It’s not the only thing that’s changed, either: The rise of the internet, social media, and streaming have reduced demand for long-form journalism, while mounting geopolitical tensions have made it harder for writers on both sides of the Pacific to tell the kind of human stories that made his career.
Yet Hessler continues to believe in the importance of nonfiction as a window into the wider world. This spring, he sat down with Sixth Tone for a wide-ranging email interview covering his experiences teaching two very different generations of Chinese, the importance of people-to-people exchanges, and his approach to writing.
Sixth Tone: Americans give their generations names like “Boomers,” “Gen X,” “Gen Y,” and “Millennials,” whereas Chinese people use terms like “the post-’80s,” “the post-’90s”, and “the post-’00s.” Which do you tend to use? What is the most significant characteristic of your generation?
Peter Hessler: In the U.S., I am considered part of Gen X. One of the most significant characteristics is that we did not grow up with technology. My family got a very weak home computer when I was in high school, and it did not even have a word processor. So I still used a typewriter when I went to college, in the fall of 1988. After arriving at Princeton, I realized that they had computer centers, and I quickly adjusted to using a word processor. And I bought my first personal computer when I was 20.
I did not use email until I was in grad school, at the age of 23, and I did not use the internet in any real capacity until my late 20s.
Then I basically did it all over again, in China. When I went to Fuling (a city in the southwestern province of Sichuan) in 1996, it was not possible to get an internet connection. So for a year and a half I did not have email or contact with websites. That was probably fortunate, because it forced me to study Chinese and to write. And I had a lot of time to think about my writing — I wasn’t posting quick things on websites or social media. Sometimes that pace is too fast, especially for a young writer. It’s better to spend more time with material and think about how you want to present it.
In Fuling, we finally got a dial-up internet connection with about six months or so to go. We could not get on websites, but we could use email. That turned out to be important for Adam Meier (a fellow volunteer) and me. Adam was able to figure out his plans for graduate school. And I got back in contact with John McPhee, my teacher from college. We were corresponding with email and at one point he sent a long message suggesting that I write a book about Fuling. I had not considered doing that, but after he wrote, I realized that it made sense. And soon I started working on “River Town.”
I was fortunate with the timing, because the lack of internet made me a better observer and recorder during the first 18 months. And then the arrival of the internet near the end made me think more about my future and what kind of writing I wanted to do.
Some people from my generation are not fully comfortable with technology, and I am one of them. I don’t use social media and my phone and computers are always very simple and old. I feel like I need to protect my attention span in order to be the kind of writer I want to be.
In China, of course I use the “post-’80s” and “post-’90s” designations, like everybody else. But in my writing I often describe the people I taught in Fuling as belonging to the Reform Generation. Using the simple decades is not always so useful, because they are only ten years long and they are not descriptive. I felt like those people I taught were an interesting generation because they were born shortly before Deng Xiaoping started “reform and opening-up.” So those young people grew up with remarkable economic and social changes. That’s the generation that made the incredible shift from the countryside to the city, from poverty to middle class, and often from relative ignorance to a good education. I feel quite close to people of that age because I taught so many students and we have been in close touch over the years. I admire their toughness and their flexibility. I’ve always believed that they are a special generation in China.
Sixth Tone: What’s it like for you to interact with your children’s generation? Is your relationship with your children similar to or different from your parents’ relationship with you?
Peter Hessler: I think that my children are still too young to be part of a recognizable generation — they are only 13. But obviously one of the big differences is the use of social media. It’s pretty clear that social media is terrible for children, and my sense is that we are now in a period when people don’t quite realize this, or they don’t know what to do about it. My daughters don’t have phones and we limit their use of technology. It’s relatively easy because my wife and I also don’t use these things much. But I am aware of how different my daughters are from most of their peers. They read a lot and they prefer that to technology. They are somewhat anachronistic.
I am an older parent than my parents were. When my father was my age, I was already finished with graduate school. But my daughters are only in the seventh grade. I had children much later than my parents did. So there are some differences. For one thing, I am more financially secure, because I spent many years working before I had kids. My parents had very little money when I was growing up. I had a lot of jobs as a young person — I started delivering newspapers from the age of 8. I also did all kinds of jobs around the University of Missouri and other places. I was buying my own clothes before I was in high school, and I always paid for my own haircuts. When I was 16, I bought a car — I paid for every cent on my own; my parents gave me nothing. So I had a strong sense of financial responsibility and independence. Of course, I also wasn’t doing any homework at all. My high school was very easy. So I had a lot of time to work my jobs.
I want my daughters to find part-time jobs, but they won’t work as much as I did in high school. And they are more serious about academics.
Sixth Tone: You have built a close bond with your former students in Fuling. Do you see yourself in them, both then and now?
Peter Hessler: There were of course some major differences. I did not grow up with a lot of money, but my parents were well educated, and my father had a university job. It was very stable, and those jobs have good pensions. So I did not grow up with anything like the kind of financial pressures that my Fuling students had known. Most of them were from the countryside, and some of them had been truly poor. In many cases I did not realize how hard things were for them until later. They did not complain and often they hid things like the fact that they couldn’t eat very much at the college.
Also, my future was more secure. I was coming from a developed country, and I had degrees from Princeton and Oxford. So I always knew that if things didn’t work out with China or with writing, I could return to the United States and get some kind of good job. My Fuling students did not have that kind of security.
But despite those differences, there were also many connections. I admired the way that my students and others of their generation worked. They were very diligent and they could chiku (“eat bitterness”). And I was willing to do that, too. Living in Fuling was pretty difficult as a foreigner, but I took pride in not complaining and doing my best, because that was what so many other people were doing. Also, I respected their appetite for risk. The people of that generation were willing to take incredible risks — they were fearless. I think that I had a little of that quality. Joining the Peace Corps was a risk — very few people from elite colleges in the US would do that. And it was a risk to write “River Town” without a contract, and then it was a risk to move to Beijing in 1999 without a job, to try to freelance. But I always thought about all the Chinese people around me, and I would say: The risks they are taking are so much bigger, and yet they remain calm. So don’t worry about this. Just do the best you can, and try to work hard, the way these people are working.
Sixth Tone: You have kept in touch with your former students in Fuling, and more recently you taught a younger generation of students at Sichuan University. When talking to different generations of people in China, do you notice any common topics or themes that they’re all interested in?
Peter Hessler: There are significant differences. My Fuling students generally had very little money, and there was no tradition of education in their families. So they were very motivated to try to learn and try to improve their economic situation. For them, the improvement in living standards and educational standards was critical. They were making a break from their parents’ world.
The students at Sichuan University were mostly middle class. Their parents were roughly the same age as my Fuling students, and they had already made that big transition out of poverty and out of the countryside.
In many cases, I sense that the Sichuan University students want something different from life. Often they hope to make money, but they also talk a lot about spiritual and creative needs, about finding some fulfillment that runs deeper than finances.
I was impressed that the students at Sichuan University were also very hardworking. I had expected that they wouldn’t work as hard as the kids in Fuling, because they are from a more comfortable class. But middle-class people in China don’t feel very secure. The young people from that class tend to feel a lot of pressure to excel.
Sixth Tone: What kind of generation-related stories in China intrigue you the most? Why? Do you think such stories tell us something new or different about China?
Peter Hessler: It’s interesting to see how the generations interact. Do they get along? Or are there tensions? If so, what causes the tensions? What are the things that they don’t understand about each other? For example, my Fuling students often comment to me that the younger generation doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer. They have never experienced poverty or hardship. And my Sichuan University students often said that their parents were close-minded about issues like gender and sexuality. The young people tend to be comfortable with LGBTQ, but the people in their 40s and 50s often are not.
Sixth Tone: Your fans in China have coined the term “Peter Hessler-style writing.” What do you think your style is, and where did it come from?
Peter Hessler: I suppose that there are different aspects to style. Some of it is technical, the way that a person writes. As a young writer I was influenced by Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Joan Didion. They tend to write quite simply and clearly but with great attention to rhythms. People sometimes think that good writing is a matter of finding a clever turn of phrase or using the right word. In my opinion, it’s more about building rhythms and cadences through paragraphs and sections.
Another aspect of style, for nonfiction, is the topic. I generally have not written much about celebrities or people who are well known. I feel like there are already enough stories about such individuals, and often they become very polished and skilled at dealing with the press. I prefer to write about people who haven’t been the topic of much journalism. The experience of being interviewed is still fresh to them, and I feel like I can see the real person more clearly.
Sixth Tone: When it comes to the writing process, do you have any particular writing habits?
Peter Hessler: Over the years, I learned that I can write anywhere. And I needed to. I was often living in fairly rough conditions, like in Fuling. Or things were chaotic, like Cairo. I can’t count on my environment to be stable and easy. But I learned to disengage from those things when I am writing. I can tune out a lot of stuff.
I prefer to write in my home office in southwestern Colorado. I have a beautiful view of the Uncompahgre River valley; I look out at pastures and cows and forests and big mountains in the distance. There are different colors with each season and I never get tired of that view. It makes it easier to sit there and write.
In general, I am not a neurotic or superstitious writer. Again, I had to learn to write in many different and often difficult situations. So I could not complicate things for myself as a writer. Real life was already complicated enough.
I am fairly self-sufficient as a writer. I’m a pretty good judge of my own work and I can figure out where the problems are and what I should do. But when I finish a story or book, I often send it to Doug Hunt, a writer friend from Missouri. He has given me so much helpful feedback over the years. And of course I also give things to my wife Leslie to read.
Leslie and I probably have similar writing personalities. We tend to prefer to go over things a few times by ourselves before giving them to others. We don’t give each other stories or books to read in the early stages. Writing is not a team sport. Ideally, a writer becomes as self-sufficient as possible, and he has a good instinct for when he is on the right track or when something needs to be fixed.
I’ve been more aware of this over the past year, because Leslie and I have both been writing books at the same time. That’s never happened before. Her book comes out in January, and mine should be out a half year or so later. I suppose that having two writers at this stage in the same household could be stressful, but that hasn’t been our experience. Of course, we are now in our fifties, and we understand that this is partly a matter of endurance. You can’t get too worked up about any specific problem with your writing. Stay calm, patient, and confident, and usually the solution will come.
Sixth Tone: Much of everyday life is mundane, but writing often requires tension. How do you balance the two?
Peter Hessler: Generally speaking, there is some tension in every life. The more time you spend with a person, the more you learn about the forces that shaped them. They may have some family sadness, or maybe it’s a deep personal worry, or maybe it’s something that happened long ago but still makes them feel ashamed. You have to be patient. There’s always a story; it’s just that we usually aren’t around for long enough to figure it out.
Sixth Tone: Which nonfiction works or authors have influenced you the most?
Peter Hessler: I was greatly influenced by John McPhee, both because of his writing and because he was my teacher. He was a very generous instructor and he also took the time to explain pressures he had felt in the early part of his career. I especially like his books “Coming into the Country,” “Encounters with the Archdruid,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Levels of the Game.”
I also loved Truman Capote’s writing, although there is one caveat — when he was writing nonfiction, people were not as strict about the truth. So some of his material is not strictly true.
When I wrote my first book, I was definitely influenced by “Iron and Silk,” by Mark Salzman. Salzman had taught in Hunan province (in central China) in the 1980s, roughly a decade before me. That book is wonderful and it was read by all the foreign residents when I was in China. In the end, I wrote a very different book, but it helped to read Salzman’s book and realize that it was possible to write about the experience.
Sixth Tone: Many lay audiences, at least those in China, often struggle to read longer texts as they are increasingly distracted by short videos and social media. Do you think long-form nonfiction writing still has a future or is still worth pursuing? Why?
Peter Hessler: The bottom line is that you can do things with nonfiction writing that you can’t do with any other form. It’s more deliberate and more skilled — it takes years and years to learn to write, compared to operating a camera. And it is completely solitary. A writer does not need to collaborate with others; he does everything himself. As a result, there can be a more focused individual perspective. And if you are a skilled writer, you can effectively create a sense of place, mood, voice.
But it’s true that people are losing their attention spans. They are worse readers, and of course they are worse writers. So the truth is that if you can focus and write, you will stand out. There are fewer and fewer people capable of doing this kind of work. But the number of readers is also dropping. This form won’t disappear, but it will become more elite, I think.
Still, writing remains the most important part of history. The most fundamental historical works are written, not filmed. I always feel like that’s one reason I do this work. It will be of value to people in the future who want to understand this moment.
Sixth Tone: Besides nonfiction, what other genres have helped you better understand China? Can you give a few examples?
Peter Hessler: I was trained as a fiction writer. From the time I was 16, I wanted to be a writer, and my first goal was to write short stories and novels. I worked very hard on that in high school and then in college, where I majored in creative writing.
As a fiction writer, you generally start with character or place. And plot is important. So the mindset is quite different from that of a journalist, who typically starts with an issue. A journalist in China might choose an issue that he wants to write about, like the one-child policy, and then he tries to find characters and places connected to that issue. Sometimes, that can make the character and setting seem secondary. The story is driven by the political issue.
My instinct moved me in a different direction. I would start with a person or a place that interested me. And then as I got into the research, I would find issues connected to the story. But the main focus was on the character, the place, and the plot. I think that this was a good way to write about China. The country is so far away and so different that there is a tendency to reduce everything to political issues.
Sixth Tone: When writing about China, which do you think is more important: emphasizing things that are “quintessentially Chinese” and unseen in other cultures, or invoking something universal? Is it possible to strike a balance?
Peter Hessler: I guess I don’t really think about these issues. I believe that it’s possible to overthink it — you shouldn’t be too conscious of what your audience needs or lacks. You should simply think about your character, your setting, and your plot. Do good research, go through your material, and then tell the best story you can tell.
When I wrote “River Town,” I didn’t believe that it would be published. I had no contact with agents or publishers, and I had published only a handful of newspaper stories as a freelancer. If I had realized that the book would be read by a lot of people, I’m sure it would have been negative. I would have started to think about readers and I would have made it too complicated for myself. It helped to just focus on the material and the writing and not think at all about who might read it.
Because that was my formative experience, I’ve always tried to do it the same way. I’m working on a follow-up to “River Town” now. But I don’t spend any time imagining who might read it or what they will think. I think about the book and that’s it.
Sixth Tone: In previous decades, China seemed to outsiders a strange, mysterious land filled with opportunities. Now China’s relationship with the world has changed. It is deeply integrated with the global economy even as opportunities for cooperation have given way to the rhetoric of competition. Does that change how we should write about China for a global audience?
Peter Hessler: A writer has to be more aware of the risks of getting used for something negative. I feel badly that young journalists have to deal with this kind of politically charged situation. When I started writing, there were problems between the U.S. and China, but it wasn’t anything like it is now. Today, if you write something reasonable about China, you will be attacked by extremists on both sides.
I didn’t write about China as a competitor to the U.S. To me, that construct is pretty artificial. The average Chinese person is not waking up and thinking: What can I do to help my country surpass the U.S.? But they are waking up and thinking about improving their lives. So I wrote about that. And sometimes it is connected to the U.S. For example, during the pandemic, I wrote about an entrepreneur who was selling cheap shoes on Amazon to Americans. I didn’t see him as a competitor. He was a clever entrepreneur who was observing this country across the Pacific and trying to figure out what the consumers wanted. And he was very good at it. Again, it wasn’t because he wanted to beat American businesses. He just wanted to build a good business for himself. I respected that, and it was not difficult for me to tell his story without portraying him as an enemy. He wasn’t an opponent of the U.S. If anything, he was embodying American values of hard work and resourcefulness, and of course he was using the American business of Amazon.
Additional research: Yao Jiachi; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header and in-text illustrations: Luo Xiran, edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)