Interview with Travis Lee

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? Continue reading

Book review: Unsavory Elements

If you happen to be a China expat, no doubt you have a crazy story to tell. I may feel like an old China hand myself at this point, but I came in 2008 just as the last of the real wildness was getting homogenized. I have my own stories, but nothing like the best of these. Somehow editor Tom Carter has captured the cream of the crazy China experiences, and what a read it is.

Like any anthology, it can be hit or miss. However, there are no great misses, only adequate stories lost among the truly memorable. From famed “Oracle Bones” author Peter Hessler’s story of refugee thieves at the North Korean border in “View from the Bridge”, to Michael Levy’s opening “Selling Hope” about crooked English teachers (a theme very familiar to anyone living here), every account is solid and interesting and the consistent quality is impressive. But it seems to get darker as the book reaches its conclusion, and I for one appreciated that. Charming expat family stories – such as Aminta Arington’s “Communal Parenting” and Susan Conley’s “Where There Are Crowds” – give way to tales of extremely illegal activity detailing the underbelly of Chinese society – of which I will list my favorites below. Thing about China though, is the dark underbelly is never that well-hidden and we all knew it was there the entire time… My personal favorites: “Stowaway” by Pete Spurrier, about hardcore backpacking and sneaking through trains and living on the edge of running out of money and visas; “Diplomacy on Ice” by Rudy Kong details the world of Northern hockey with a healthy does of extreme bloody violence; “You Buy Me Drink?” by Nury Vittachi details easily-impressed gangsters and scammers; “One of the People” by Bruce Humes might be the most terrifying of all, about being mugged and his time in a Shenzhen hospital almost getting his hand amputated, and yet horrifying though may be it’s always written with lighthearted humor; “Thinking Reports” by Dominic Stevenson is another downer, an excerpt from the hash-smuggling author’s time in a Shanghai prison writing propaganda reports, and as serious a situation as it is he never wants any pity only to tell his story; and “Empty from the Outside” by Susie Gordon covers more drugs and call girls all while living the highlife. Finally, the namesake story “Unsavory Elements” by the infamous Tom Carter. If you haven’t heard, he goes to a brothel. It’s really not as offensive as I was expecting, it’s one of the funniest pieces and gives an important yet irreverent insight into what’s really goes on after late nights of partying in this country. A unique book with a unique take on China, with none of the standard journalistic flair and dull economic theories. This is about real life and a real window into the emerging soul of the rising Middle Kingdom. There is something for everyone in the midst of all these talented storytellers. While it was very entertaining to me as an expat, I would recommend this book most of all to people who have never even been to China. The world should know, these are the real stories of this insanely fascinating land.