Omni Podcast: Peter Hessler on "Country Driving"
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.
Amazon: That first book was River Town?
Amazon: And when you went over there did you go over there expecting it to be a subject, that you were a writer and you were going to take notes and this was going to be your big book?
Hessler: No, I didn't expect that book to come about. I was 27 when I joined the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I thought that being in the Peace Corps would help me become a better writer, partly because I would have time and I also thought I would learn a lot of new things. But my idea was more that I might learn Chinese and learn something about China and eventually become a foreign correspondent. And the idea for that book didn't develop until the very end of my time in Fuling.
Amazon: Did you have time? Was it as contemplative as you thought?
Hessler: A huge amount of time. Oh yeah. One of the wonderful things about the Peace Corps--it can be a curse, it depends on how you react to it--is a lot of time. Especially then: we didn't have an Internet connection, you're far from your family. We didn't really have a phone connection to the outside, at least not a good one. So you're on your own. We were teaching 40 hours a week, basically, in a college, and yeah, I had lots of time. I used that time to learn Chinese, and then as the years progressed I started to write more. So it was very productive.
Amazon: For this book you were based in Beijing, but it's actually not about Beijing at all. You organize it around the idea of driving, which the whole country seems to be learning how to do. But one thing I like, and I think Dwight Garner in his New York Times review this week put it really well, is that your work is really as much about staying put and watching as it is about moving. Your book is filed under "Travel," but it's very clear that this is not just a place that you're not just hitting and moving on.
Hessler: In the first section I'm taking a journey across northern China. In that sense it's more of a traditional travel narrative: me going to a place. As a writer you want to have movement. That's where you get your narrative from. But one thing I learned in China, even from the Peace Corps days, is that things change very fast there. And another way to get movement is to be in a place for a period of time. You get to know people and watch the place, and it becomes something different. Places are transformed very quickly. People's lives are transformed. So it's a different type of travel.
To me it's also a narrative with an arc, and the second two sections of this book follow that path. The first one's about a village where I had a home for more than seven years, and watching how that place changed. And the last part is about a factory town where I made visits over a period of more than two years. That was a strategy--partly because my father's a sociologist, actually. When I was a kid I grew up hearing a lot about "longitudinal studies," where you take a group of people and you follow them over time, and it really was something I thought about when I started doing nonfiction writing.
Amazon: You were living in Beijing, but you wanted a country place to write, and not necessarily write about, but you ended up writing about it.
Hessler: Everything in this book was connected to me getting a driver's license in 2001. That's when I started to take this long journey across the north. It gave me a new freedom, and I realized I wanted to have a place outside of the city. Beijing is a big city, and it can be overwhelming: 13 million people. I wanted an escape. And the other thing about Beijing is the city ends pretty quickly. A lot of Chinese cities are like this. They're very dense. And I realized you drive north and it's really stunningly beautiful within an hour. You're in the mountains and the regions of the Great Wall. And so I wanted to find a place out there, and once I got my license and started renting cars I looked around with a friend for a house in a village. Yeah, I wanted an escape, and a place to write. I wasn't necessarily looking for a subject. As time passed, though, it became a place I wrote about and became very connected to.
Amazon: In the time you were there, as you were saying, in just the space of seven years you could do a longitudinal study on this very small community.
Hessler: Yeah, what's unusual about China now is that the pace of change is so rapid that the kind of thing that you'd invest 20 years in, in some other culture, happens in five. In this village, I happened to move there in 2001 and started renting a house there, and that turned out to be the first year of the big auto boom. And the next year, in 2002, the village, which had previously been at the end of a dirt road--they paved that road. And that was a really key change. Once a road is paved in a place like that, new people start to come in. People from the city could come out. And then people from the village could more easily go to other places. And so things started to change.
And then the Beijing auto buying boom really took off in '03. Then you had a lot of city people with cars, and they wanted to go places on the weekends, and they started to show up in the village. And the villagers started to do business and to do trade with them.
Amazon: And that became kind of the business of the village: being a village for those city people.
Hessler: Yeah, it was originally a farming place. That's all they did was farm. When I first started going out there you couldn't spend money in the village. There was no shop, there was no restaurant. But once the city people started to come out in their cars then locals would set up restaurants and set up guest houses. That was something they could do. But it also changed their agriculture. They could sell things in different ways. There was more competition from buyers, because people could go up there easily in their trucks and purchase the walnuts. Everything became more competitive, and more complicated as well. One of the things I observed, and one of the things I write about in this book, is how locals responded to these opportunities and also these challenges.
Amazon: And then in the third section you're writing about what for many people is the big story of China over the past 10 years or so: these factory boom towns. And because of that speed of change one thing I love about that section is that you can see the whole arc. These towns are planned ahead in a way that you know when construction is beginning, you can settle down and just watch what happens. And that's what you did.
Hessler: Yeah. The first two sections of this book are in the countryside. The first one's the drive across the north, strictly agricultural regions. The second one is this community, where some of the families are shifting from farming to doing business. And as I worked on this project I realized, if I want to tell the full story of what's going on in China I need to spend some time in a city. We can see that these people are leaving the countryside. There's more contact with the city. Urbanization is really what's happening. I wanted to find a way to look at that. And like you say, there are ways to plan this.
I thought about it, and one thing that radically transforms a region is a highway, so I looked at places where highways were being built. There was one being built in Zhejiang province, which is south of Shanghai. And I just drove along the route of the expressway on an initial trip. I rented a car and I was looking for a place to focus on. At the end of two weeks I chose a city. I went back and I spent another two weeks in the city trying to find people that might interest me to write about. I sort of felt it out in the early stages and then I went back every month, basically, for more than two years.
Amazon: How do you find people to write about? How do you find what you think is going to work as a story, as a reporter, especially since you do work so long-term, in a way that many reporters don't?
Hessler: It takes a lot of faith. I like to go into it very open-minded. I don't like to have a specific idea. I like to try to respond to what's going on. And fortunately the publications I write for--I did a National Geographic story on this town, and they tend to be pretty patient. National Geographic moves at a kind of geologic pace, which can be a frustration. I always thought of it as a great opportunity. They would give me time to work on this sort of project.
So I didn't really have a plan, other than that I wanted to find a town and observe things in this town. When I first went to the city actually--it's called Lishui--they were building a new development zone where they were going to put factories, and all this stuff was coming up from scratch. But I actually had the idea that I would follow construction crews. And I spent a lot of time, at least initially, meeting people in construction crews. I was also meeting migrant workers; that was another possibility. And then just by chance I was driving through this new development zone and I happened to see a guy who was dressed quite well, neatly. When you're in these areas almost everybody you see is male, when it's being built, and most of them are construction workers. Everybody's dirty, and their on the job. This guy really stood out, because he was wearing nice loafers and a nice sweater. You could tell he was probably a businessman. I stopped and chatted with him, and he happened to be there--he was there to design his factory that day. I struck up a conversation with him, he let me hang around and tag along while they designed this factory, and that's how I first met these guys. Just by chance. And they became the central characters in this book.
Amazon: How is both a journalist and a foreign journalist treated who walks up and starts talking to people in a place like that?
Hessler: A place like that is surprisingly open, and the reason is that everybody's an outsider. This guy was coming in from a different city to make this investment. The construction workers are migrants. They're coming in from the countryside. That means a couple of things. For one thing, they all speak Mandarin, which really helps--helps me, as a reporter who speaks Mandarin. I don't speak the local dialect, but I didn't need to in this town, because everybody had to use Mandarin. They're all outsiders.
It also makes them more open-minded, I think in a way. They're accustomed to interacting with strangers. They have to do this. They can't have the mentality they might have if they were in a place where their family has been for generations. And so people were very open. And it's not a very politically charged place, generally. Some parts of China, there's a lot of political pressure, political issues. This particular place is about business. The government kind of steps back and lets these people do their thing. That wasn't an issue. It would have been an issue if I had been in Tibet, or Xinjiang, or some place that's politically charged.
Amazon: That struck me, even about the village compared to the factory town. The village is still run by the Party: the entire culture of it still revolves around the Party structure, whereas when you went to the south, nobody's a member of the Party. It doesn't seem even to exist.
Hessler: Certainly, that's accurate. In the village you really felt the Party authority. And that's because this is a place--the people there are pretty stable, they've been there for a while, and there was a very specific Party structure set up. And I follow this family, and once they became successful, and the husband became basically the wealthiest person in the village, he joined the Party. Which to us weird: you're a successful capitalist, why do you join the Communist Party? Well, it had nothing to do with ideology. It was just to protect his standing in the village.
But once I was in this factory town, as you say, the Party was invisible. If you were just wandering around meeting people you had no contact with them. I had to really try to meet officials, and I finally met one through a factory owner who introduced me. I really only talked to two high-level officials in that town. I applied through the official channels over and over and over, dozens of times, and they never once granted an official interview. I met two guys on my own. But this is the way it is in a town like that. They were just off doing their thing. There's not a lot of contact with the outside.
Amazon: And it seems like their thing is almost as entrepreneurial as the businesses. They work with the businesses as if they were a business as well.
Hessler: They're entreprenurial--they're profiteering, often in illegal ways, which is why they don't want to talk to me, or any other journalist. One example from the book: I was driving there every time on this new highway, and of course I never see cops. Never see cops in the development zone. And I started getting tickets on the highway. I just got dozens of tickets, all the time. And they're all from automated radar cameras, not from cops. And then I realized, when I started looking into it, that it's because cops can invest in radar cameras. They set up these speed traps. You'd go around a turn and the speed limit drops suddenly, and you can't react unless you've memorized the damn thing. And I would just get fined all the time, and it's because the cops could invest. They invested in groups of four--four cops and a radar camera. And each cop got 7.5% of the proceeds. It's a very systematic approach, but this is the sort of thing that the authorities are doing. They're not running the show in a direct way, but they're also trying to cash in.
Amazon: You were talking about communism versus capitalism, and I think the very basic perception from the West is, "Oh, this communist country has become capitalist in the last 15 years." But we were talking before, and you pointed out that especially in the south a lot of their business and entreprenurial characteristics are very tied into long-standing traditions in that area.
Hessler: Certainly. This area, Zhejiang, they had a very well-developed entreprenurial culture by the end of the Ming Dynasty, in the 17th century. And this is a long tradition. In the locals' view it has a lot to do with geography. They're probably right--this is a region that did not have good land links, because of very rugged terrain, so people had to turn to the ocean and develop sea routes and they became traders, they set up ports. It was common for people from this area to go to Singapore and Indonesia and set up family businesses there. And so they had great links with the outside world.
And of course during the communist years all this became stagnant. People there couldn't do trade. But once the Communists opened things up for the free market in '78, these folks responded very quickly. This is an old culture. So yeah, these cultural elements are often much more important than we realize. We get distracted by terms like "communism" and think that's all-important, all-powerful. It's a pretty recent gloss on a place with a long history.
Amazon: One thing I love about this book that can be a little hard to get across is the sense of humor. It's very deadpan, and it's very observant. You put yourself in situations, and then just watch what happens. In some ways that's being an outsider in a place that you're not from, but that outlook seems very consistent with the Chinese outlook.
Hessler: Yeah, it's always been--from the Peace Corps, I was in a small town, in a pretty small place, in Sichuan province. It was a high-pressure environment in some ways: people laughed at you all the time. We'd get on a bus and people would just think we're hilarious, the way we look. And it can be infuriating, right, but at a certain point you just have to see the humor in it. I realized there you could not survive if you didn't have a good sense of humor, basically. You'd be very unhappy. And so humor was a way I dealt with China.
China's a very funny place in a lot of ways. The people there have a great sense of humor. They laugh at the same kind of stuff. The jokes that I would tell would work in Chinese just like they would in English. And so it was always an important part of my approach to living there, and once I started writing about China seriously, which was at the very end of my Peace Corps experience, I really couldn't write about it without humor. I just couldn't do it. In all three books it's an important part of what I'm trying to do. i think it gives a more accurate--I think it sort of humanizes it. I don't think humor necessarily has to be making fun of the people, or poking at them in some way, but I also think it's condescending to say, "Well, this is China, and it's a poor country, it's a developing country. It's a serious place, and we've got to write seriously about it." That's not the way I looked at it. To me it's full-figured: there's a lot of serious moments in this book, and there's a lot of funny moments. I just tried to be accurate to the way I feel when I'm there.
Amazon: Yeah, it feels very empathetic to me. I think of Mr. Wang in your car rental place in Beijing, who you keep coming back to with your dinged up cars. You're not supposed to leave the city limits and you've--"Oh yeah, I went off to Outer Mongolia with my Oreos and Cheetos"--and he seems to have this perspective on whatever might happen.
Hessler: He was just a classic Chinese figure, and the kind of person who makes life there very pleasant and very enjoyable. I brought back a car one time with a broken signal light, and he said, "What did you hit this time?" I said, "I hit a dog." "Gou mei wen ti ma?" (The dog didn't have a problem, did it?) And I said, "No, the dog had a problem. The dog actually died." "Oh, did you eat it?" And he had a dog himself, he's a dog owner. He was just half-joking, and I said, "No, it was one of those little dogs." "Oh, sometimes when people hit a big one they'll throw it in a trunk and cook it later." He had a great sense of humor. There was nothing I could do to a rental car that would ever faze Mr. Wang. People in China, it's one of their wonderful qualities, they're very flexible, they're very adaptable, and they're very good-humored about it.
Amazon: Did you find that you're a different person, or when you're speaking Chinese, than you are back in the States?
Hessler: Yeah, I'm a lot dumber when I speak Chinese. But I realized in the Peace Corps, and I wrote about this in my first book, River Town, that it's sort of liberating to have this other identity. My Chinese name was Ho Wei, and I write in River Town about Ho Wei, "Well, he's a little slow, but he's very friendly and open." Because you have to be more open when you're dealing with people in a different language and you're trying to learn. It's liberating in a way, and it sort of gives you a new perspective. It also changed my character, in that in China you have to be more patient, you have to be more laid back. You can't get hung up on little things. And so when I take the 7,500-mile drive across China, if you go in with the wrong attitude it could be a miserable experience. But I enjoyed it. It was probably my favorite trip that I took in China.
Amazon: And now you've been back in the States for a couple of years, writing this book but also doing some reporting. I'm curious how it is to report as--you're not an outsider anymore, and you're writing about a culture closer to yours, but it's not the culture you've been reporting on for years.
Hessler: You know, I live in a small town in southwestern Colorado, in a place called Ridgway. The town's about 700 people. We're in a county with one stop light in the county. I went to the Fourth of July parade last year, and the central figure was Joe the Plumber. Where's Joe the Plumber on the Fourth of July? He's in Ouray County. So it's my culture, but to me it's just as interesting and--I don't know how you define "foreign" but it's something different. And I'm interested in that. I like learning about people whose ideas are different from mine. And so I've actually really enjoyed being there. I've been doing some research in the areas near where I live, and I find it engaging in a lot of the same ways as China.
Amazon: But you will return to China?
Hessler: Eventually, at some point. I want to go to another country and study another language first. My wife is also a writer and both of us like the idea of doing this, and so we're planning to do that. We will eventually go back to China.
Amazon: We hope you do.