Today’s interview is with up-and-coming author Travis Lee, who writes about expats and China. Topics to be discussed will include the nature of living abroad as well as meditations upon the act of writing.
More from Travis Lee can be found at these links:
Firstly, can you tell us about how you came to China?
My how I came to China story is nowhere near as interesting as yours, I’m afraid. I was a French major in college, and as graduation loomed like a fall into a deep pit, I applied to teach English at a French high school, in the assistant d’anglais program. I wasn’t selected.
To this day, I’m not sure why. I had a high GPA, good recommendations, good French and previous in-country experience, so I had all the right checks in the right boxes. It could have been the sheer number of applicants; the professors who assured me that everyone gets in had done the program in the seventies and eighties.
Whatever the reason, that changed everything. Had I gone to France, I wouldn’t have my wife, my daughter, the books I’ve written. We wouldn’t be doing this interview. Right now, I’d be finishing my PhD, praying for tenure.
So instead of preparing for a summer in France, I moved back home and worked on plan B: volunteering in France. While I looked for positions, I received an email through my university’s career services distro: a Tennessee alumnus who worked in Wuhan was looking for English teachers. I read through the email. Free apartment, travel money, chance to see a dynamic country in a real Chinese city. Plus, a Western toilet. Don’t you love how he used Western toilet as a selling point?
I did all the paperwork, and on August 26, 2008 I touched down at Tianhe Airport in Wuhan, China.
What your life was like here?
Like most experiences, it looks better in hindsight. The earlier times are not better, just earlier, but it can hard to acknowledge that.
So, my life, in a word? Free. I felt like I had a lot of opportunity. I had enough time to pursue any hobby I wanted. I studied a lot of Mandarin, kept up with my French, taught myself some Calculus, and I wrote. This was the time in my life when I began to take writing very seriously. I “turned pro”, as Steven Pressfield would put it.
Although I was poor and twenty pounds overweight, I look back on my two and a half years fondly. My life changed completely. My first year and a half or so wasn’t easy — a lot of ESL teacher politics, personal issues — but once I moved past that, things got better. One thing that helped was Wuhan University. There I had only one co-worker, a normal guy, and I never saw him anyways. I taught great students in the afternoons, freeing up my mornings to study and write. I made friends with some great classmates. Wuhan University has a sizable international student population; a very cosmopolitan atmosphere.
I read a lot of expat blogs too. There was a certain buzz in the air. I found some great writers, who unknowingly helped me a lot, just because I read what they wrote.
What do you miss about China? What do you not miss at all?
I miss the free time I had. I miss how even the simple act of going to the store and buying a soda could turn into a story. And travel. I saw some nice places; wish I’d seen more.
What do I not miss? Respiratory infections, one. Internet censorship, the typical stuff that can make life in China hard.
At Wuhan University we were letting my brother-in-law stay over sometimes. The guy who worked the front desk noticed him coming in and out, and he asked us for 200 RMB a month. I said no, and the Foreign Affairs Officer came over and told me to either pay more or my brother-in-law couldn’t spend the night. Their excuse was the electric bill.
Can you describe your writing process?
I’m very much a cover-the-canvas guy. I can’t do outlines; I’ve tried it before, and I ended up either deviating from the outline or not writing the actual story. Outlines work well for class, not so much for writing. I prefer the spontaneity; I can’t write if I know exactly what’s going to happen. It kills all the fun.
So I write and write and write until I have something, and after some time has passed, I revise it. I go through about three drafts. I used to retype my drafts, I stopped doing that. I don’t have the time. I work and right now go to school full-time; I write new stuff in the mornings, revise at night unless I have a big test coming up.
I listen to Final Fantasy music when I write, either Final Fantasy Radio or my own playlist. It helps lock me in my own little world.
Which books and authors have inspired you?
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Beautiful writing, very emotional. Child of God is good too, mainly for the prose. There’s a line in Child of God where Cormac McCarthy describes a woman’s widening pupils as a “breaking brimstone galaxy”.
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo. This book captures what it’s like to chase your dream against many obstacles.
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. It has the best writing advice I’ve ever seen. But it’s not limited there; you can apply it to any calling.
What are you working on now?
The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors, about a missing foreign journalist and his friends’ efforts to find him. I want to publish it through a China-based publisher.
Richard, an amateur foreign journalist, goes missing while investigating a blood cult in Hubei province. Four people are affected: Mary, a newbie China writer who dreams of cementing her name alongside the expat greats; Ying Li, a small-town police sergeant; Chris, a freelance translator whose own experience with the cult has left him scarred; and Daniel, an expat media mogul with drug problems and a failing marriage.
Why did you choose to write this particular story?
The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors has two big inspirations: Unsavory Elements and the documentary Though I Am Gone.
I made a return trip to China in March, 2014. We stayed in my wife’s hometown, a small town in Hubei province. I read Unsavory Elements while there and had the idea to do a story like that, where different people told different stories about their experiences in China, all tied together by a lengthy plot. I intended parts of it to be a deconstruction of expat writing. I began writing it, and I hit a wall; the story didn’t feel right to me.
I liked to ride my father-in-law’s bicycle around my wife’s hometown and out into the country. While out there, I rode past an abandoned house with one of those small mirrors above the front door, the bagua mirror. Just down the road was a small temple. I thought, what if the house and the temple were connected? Who were these people? Why did they leave? Who was inside the temple?
I also noticed messages taped around my wife’s hometown. Some old, some new, I asked my wife. She thought they had something to do with Buddhism. But once I noticed one message, I noticed all of them; they were all over the place, mysterious, perhaps sinister. And not all these messages were new. Some were barely readable while others looked like they’d been posted yesterday. Someone had been doing this for years. Why?
With all this in the back of my mind, I returned to the States and a couple months later I thought of the house, the temple and the messages, and perhaps a young woman who accepted a friend’s invitation to visit the town. The man who invited her wants to show her what he considers “real China”, but what if she saw the messages? What if they led her to something dangerous?
Some mysterious messages…
Is The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors semi-autobiographical in nature?
There are elements of my own life in there, particularly my 2014 China trip. Coming back after three years, I saw how much had changed. I also saw things differently too. Mary’s part is very much from my return trip. Chris’s part, set in 2007, draws from the optimism you feel during your early China years as well as my own experiences of studying at Wuhan University.
Daniel’s part, set in the present day, is less about me than it is about people in general. Daniel clings to an idealized version of the past. He runs a China blog that enjoyed a very good run a few years ago. Today it’s nothing, but Daniel won’t face it. All of the writers from the blog’s heyday have left China, moving on with their lives while Daniel still acts like it’s 2009.
Daniel also has marital problems. He avoids these too; he won’t face the fact that his wife would rather wash down sleeping pills with wine than spend time with him. Daniel talks to a fortune cat he named Steve. Steve talks back. But no, I don’t talk to a fortune cat and my wife doesn’t pop pills. For Daniel, it’s the inability to see how damaged his life is. Daniel could easily fix all his problems; he’s just too cowardly to do it.
What kinds of themes in literature are interesting to you?
Life and death, the big ones. I’m interesting in how people change, or don’t change. The passage of time, it’s effects on the mind. Our limited time here, and what we make of it. The distractions we invent, the few who face it head-on.
I wonder a lot about the people I worked with back in 2008 China. What’s happened to them? One of my classmates from Wuhan University, I looked him up on Facebook the other day. Can you guess what he’s doing? Living in the same city, going to the same clubs, partying just like he did five years ago. The rest of us from my class have left China, but this guys has stuck around, partying in a smoggy Never-Never Land.
I’m also interested in how places change and the effect it has on people. Look at how much not only Wuhan but my wife’s hometown has changed. What other changes are coming? You have a favorite place, you have memories there, and one day it’s been knocked down. A lot of that came out in The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors.
What would you like readers to learn about China?
I hope they see China is a dynamic country that like every other place has its charms and its warts. But the conclusions that people draw about China, it’s out of my hands. I can steer as best I can, but they still have pull the ship into port.