Country Driving is the sort of book that sneaks up on you. I knew Peter Hessler's China reporting from the New Yorker and had always considered him one of my favorite writers there, but I had never sat down with one of his books before. (Country Driving is his third book on China, after River Town and Oracle Bones.) As I read it, I began to say to people, "Hey, this book is really good," and the further I got in the book the more I said it. Hessler's not a flashy writer or a gung-ho, Redmond O'Hanlon-style traveler, but he's immensely enjoyable: he's observant, and patient, and good-humored. His portraits of China and of the Chinese he meets are rich and human, nowhere more so than in the middle section of his book, the story of a small village north of Beijing where he purchased a small writing retreat in 2001 and watched the place and its people transform over the next few years of rapid change. I expect that New Yorker readers and people interested in China will be the first to pick up Country Driving, but it's one of those books whose appeal is so broad that I'd be confident passing it on to any curious reader.
A couple of us got to meet Peter a few weeks ago when he was in Seattle. I mainly watched as he and my colleague Lauren compared notes on their travels and residences in China (and we got to see samples of the bra rings and underwires that the factory he profiles produced), and then Peter and I went down to our little podcast studio, where I asked him some much less knowledgeable questions. You can listen to our interview below, and read the full (and lengthy) transcript after the jump. You can also hear him talk about one of my favorite parts of the book, which we didn't touch on in our talk: the painters he meets in a small artists' community among the factory towns of the southeast, who look at their very skilled work of reproducing Western scenes and paintings for sale back in the places they depict strictly as a trade rather than art. Some of that section appeared in the New Yorker--I can't find it on their site, but I did find a slide show of their photos he narrates. And I also would have like to ask him about something I only realized from meeting him (and then saw in his acknowledgments in the finished copy of Country Driving), that his wife is Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, which came out to wonderful reviews in 2008. I would have loved to hear about what it was like for them to be writing and reporting at the same time on their overlapping subjects.
Amazon: You've actually recently moved back to the States, but before that you were in China for how long?
Hessler: A little more than 10 years. I first went there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996 and ended up writing about the place and staying, and it was my home for more than a decade.