Let’s face it, if you’ve lived in China, then you know the question: why did you come to China? For some, the answer is a tall tale. For others, like me, the answer is pretty lame: via a university email list.
For author Ray Hecht, the answer is a psychedelic experience at Burning Man.
Author of Loser Parade, 411, The Ghost of the Lotus Mountain Brothel (which I reviewed here), and Pearl River Drama, his most recent book is South China Morning Blues. available now at the publisher’s website and for pre-order on Amazon.
I asked Ray his thoughts on writing, his inspiration for South China Morning Blues and much more:
Can you recall a single instance that inspired you to be a writer or is it something that you’ve always had an attraction to?
I can’t recall a specific incident, it’s something that developed slowly. I originally wanted to be an artist before I wanted to be a writer. I felt like writing would be a good thing superfluously in my teens, and tried some stories. It was in college – late years in college in my twenties – I decided to study film screenwriting. I remember at 23 for some reason I vowed to write a novel a year. I didn’t follow up on that particular pace, but I have been writing seriously ever since.
Do you work on a specific schedule, where you write every day?
I mainly like to write in the middle of the night, but life doesn’t always let me. Usually I do first drafts after midnight. Then, next day at noon to the afternoon I might slowly do rewrites. It would probably be a good idea to get a consistent schedule, wouldn’t it!
Do you have a preferred writing program? (Word, text editor, etc.?)
Microsoft Word of course. I’ve even been studying some of the more intricate ways to edit and use the software to the best of my ability. Got a lot of typing shortcuts memorized. If it’s not too obvious to say, isn’t Word basically a must in this day and age?
You’ve mentioned that your love for ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Snow Crash’. Could you tell us more about why you like these novels?
I love the danger and the outlaw attitude and the intelligence and the punk rock aesthetics and just how damn sexy it is. The novels are quite different, although they are both written in present-tense first-person narration. They are also both novels that exploded their respective writers on the scene.
‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh is magnificent literary achievement. The phonetic dialectic in writing, the grittiness of the drug culture, the power of each separate narrator’s unique voice. And yet, it is a free-flowing art work that explores all over without sticking to the rigidity of a narrow plot. Plus, it can even be darkly funny.
‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson is incredibly smart, a complex cyberpunk postmodern science fiction epic, and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is often hilarious. I wish I was smart enough to write science fiction, but I’m not. I do highly admire Stephenson’s ability to be brilliant and at the same time be that cool.
What do your friends and family back in America think of you being a writer? Are they supportive? Do you ever find that some people just don’t understand what being a writer actually is?
I’ve been very surprised how supportive most of my old friends have been. Although, due to the nature of my writing topics I tend to keep family at arm’s length. Hopefully though, I impress everyone back home and most are proud of me.
However, I tend to think most people don’t understand what being a writer is at all. Rather, they imagine that being a writer is this thing to be. Especially people who want to be writers. Nobody seems to imagine what it is to write. Writing is a thing to do. Lots of people want to be writers; most people do not at all want to do any of the writing. That’s the part people always get so particularly wrong.
What was the impetus for writing South China Morning Blues?
To put it bluntly, I feel compelled to spend endless lonely hours writing. I needed subject matter to write about. I ended up in China, studied a bit, observed here and there, and the stories had to be told. That’s the short version.
While reading your book I saw a lot of familiar people and situations. Was it much the same for you, in that you were drawing from personal experience?
Some of it was personal. Much of it was hearsay. A whole lot never happened to anyone I know (that I know of) but things I only learned of online.
I’ll go ahead and reveal this right now: The drug stuff was based on personal experience. The sex stuff was not.
Were there any big scenes / characters cut at the editing stage?
Not too much. Perhaps there should have been. I rewrote and rewrote and polished, and perhaps this is bad writing advice, but I don’t like to cut out too much.
The presence of Chinese zodiacs. Did you know about that when you started or did it happen naturally?
I knew the basics of the Chinese animals, even when in America – though never a believer – I knew I was dog year and so on. When I set out to write this novel, I further researched. The acknowledgments gives a shout out to the book I mainly used.
Can’t say it happened naturally; it was a conscious choice from the beginning to structure the characters that way in the foundation and then see which way their stories would go…
In the book we see people struggle with identity and ambition. Danny says, “Back home, my old college classmates are surpassing me”, a feeling I can relate to. Do you think the ambition that many foreigners in China have — opening the business, becoming the great writer, etc. — is a way for them to keep up with their contemporaries?
Sure. But not only for expats, many people often feel anxious that the people from their past are surpassing them. With expats in particular, the contrast between one’s own weird life and those left in the home country can be stark. It’s a positive thing to healthily compete and start a business or forge a craft. At least expats in China tend to be interesting people (even if weird) and that can make for good goals. Being motivated by old cohorts surpassing, whatever works.
Going with the previous question, do you think there is something about China that attracts these kinds of people?
Good question. There is something about the expat phenomenon that attracts odd people. Odd in good ways and bad. Adventurous, or the dreaded loser stereotype, I don’t know. But there’s something there.
And why China of all places? I suppose it’s a big place, and it’s blowing up right now in world history. I’ve always liked that the economic growth puts it in this sort of limbo between undeveloped and developed, full of cheap outdoor restaurants and expensive shopping malls, and somehow that can suit certain people.
To close it out, do you have any advice for new writers who are reading this?
Going back to perceptions of the writer versus writing, I can only say to write. You’d think it would be obvious. Don’t fantasize about being this mythical creature called the writer. Be a person who writes. Then, when the writing gets good, whatever your niche may be, go out there and network and best of luck to you in getting published.
That is all.