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Unearthing the Story: An Interview with Peter Hessler

Penguin Press

In the fall of 2011, Peter Hessler arrived in Egypt, with his family — twin toddlers, and his wife, the writer Leslie Chang. The two had met in China, where Hessler first landed as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, details his two years teaching English. Two other books, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, followed. After leaving China in 2007, the family settled in southwestern Colorado, where they are now based. A few years later, they decided to wipe the slate clean and move to Egypt. But just as they planning their move, the Egyptian Arab Spring started, sending the country down the chaotic path it has followed until today.

Hessler’s latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, chronicles both the revolution itself, and the lives of the people they met during their five years in Cairo. It’s a deep look at what is, in some ways, the oldest country in the world, and it bears the hallmarks of Hessler’s work: vivid scenes, elegant narrative arcs, and a long lens that examines the links and gaps between Egypt’s troubled present and its ancient past.

Today, Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won a National Magazine Award for his 2007 National Geographic story, “Instant Cities,” and in 2006, Oracle Bones was a National Book Award finalist. In 2011 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. After leaving Egypt, his family returned to Colorado again, before decamping this year for another stint in China, where Hessler plans to teach at Sichuan University, 20 years after he first taught at Fuling Teachers College. Frank Bures spoke to him about the value of language, learning from John McPhee, and what your garbage man can teach you.

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Frank Bures: You built your career writing about China, but how did you start writing in the first place?

Peter Hessler: My first interest was in 10th grade. I had an English teacher in high school who thought that I had some talent at it, and encouraged me. She was the one who made me think seriously about becoming a writer. That was one of the reasons I ended up at Princeton, because they had a good creative writing program. I was encouraged there by Russell Banks, who was my teacher and a thesis advisor, and also John McPhee.

I originally was interested in fiction. I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication. Later, after I took McPhee’s class, I started doing a little freelancing. In grad school overseas I started shifting towards nonfiction, partly because I couldn’t sell short stories. It was hard to publish them, whereas I could publish my travel pieces and essays and get paid for them, and that was encouraging. But I was still unsure when I joined the Peace Corps at age 27. I’d published a lot of travel pieces, but I’d never held a job in journalism, and the kind of stuff I published wasn’t enough for me to support myself.

I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication.

FB: What kind of travel pieces had you done?

PH: The New York Times used to have these essays. The first one I wrote for them was about taking the Trans-Siberian train. Because after I finished grad school at Oxford I traveled for six months, and I consciously researched stories along the way, thinking that when I got home I would write pieces, and possibly write a travel book. I wrote the train essay, and just sent it to a name on the masthead at the Times, and by some miracle they read it and published it. After that I started doing some stuff for them as a freelancer.

FB: When did you start thinking about books?

PH: When I joined the Peace Corps, I wanted to learn Chinese and become a better writer. But I didn’t think I was going to write a book about that experience. I felt I was too young, and I really was. I didn’t have the maturity to write a book, nor did I really have the material at that point. But I did take a lot of notes. It was my way of processing what was going on. I would write about experiences I had, or encounters with people, things on campus, but just in a diary format. And I tracked a lot of my students’ writing because they were such beautiful writers, and I thought they were fascinating people.

Then with six months to go, we got Internet for the first time, and I got back in touch with people. If it had been any earlier, it probably would’ve been a distraction, but at that point it was good to start thinking about the future.

He said, ‘It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.’

I had written to John McPhee throughout my time there, and he had written back often. But now we were on email, and I remember writing to him because I was thinking about applying for journalism jobs, and applying for an internship at Newsweek in Beijing. John wrote me a long letter, telling me: “You should write a book about Fuling.” Because he’d read these letters. He said, “It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.”

That was a powerful moment, because I hadn’t thought about it. Once I got that email and started thinking, it immediately made sense. When I went back through all my notes in my diaries, I realized, “I’ve really got a lot of stuff here.” But I could also see what I needed: more detailed descriptions of the landscape, and some deeper observation of the community and of the city.

FB: Did you write the book then?

PH: No, I didn’t write the book until I left. I went back to my parents’ home in Missouri, and I decided I would take about half a year. I was 29 years old and I had never held a job. I had college debt, so I felt a lot of pressure. I was applying for journalism jobs at the same time, sending out resumes to The New York Times, Washington Post, and Time, pretty much anybody who had a China bureau, and I got form rejections across the board.

When I finished the book, I sent a resume to Amazon, because they had sent me a recruiting thing when I was in Fuling. I had no idea what it was. I guess my life could’ve been pretty different. I sent them a resume, but they never wrote back.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else. After a couple weeks of this sort of thinking, I finally sent the book out to agents, and a couple of agents were interested. I went to New York and met with them, and I ended up signing with a young agent named William Clark. He sold the book to HarperCollins, and it happened very quickly. It wouldn’t be considered a big advance, but it was enough to pay off all my college loans, and suddenly I realized, “I can just go back to China on my own. I don’t need a job. I’ll just go and figure it out.” And that’s where Oracle Bones starts, in that I was just showing up, and I had a part-time assistant position at The Wall Street Journal, for $500 a month, and that gave me a base.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else.

It took a while for River Town to come out, because I took a long time editing it. But there was a lot of stuff going on that year and people were starting to get interested in China. So I very quickly had a lot of work. After about a year I got a break with National Geographic and The New Yorker. I was on the ground there for just a little more than a year when I sold my first story to The New Yorker in 2000. Then a week later I sold my second story to them, and we were pretty much off and running.

FB: It was a great time to be writing about China.

PH: Yeah, I was very lucky. I was at the right place in the right time. But it did take some faith, because it was very discouraging earlier, when I was rejected for those jobs and living at my parents’ house. I didn’t grow up with any money, so I couldn’t rely on anything else. And the college debt weighed on me.

FB: Was there anything you learned from John McPhee that influenced the way you write, or think about writing?

PH: There were huge numbers of things that I learned from him. There’s technical stuff. Probably one of the best examples is a “set piece.” He’d teach us that in his course, and show us an example from his writing. It’s something, actually, that a lot of journalists don’t learn, because you only do it in long-form writing, but it makes you think differently about the structure and organization, and that was a really useful lesson to have as a young writer. The example he gave came from his Alaska book, where he’s on his trip through the Alaska back country, and they see a bear. The thing shifts to maybe 1,000 or 1,500 words about bears, and it’s no longer in his experience. It talks about the nature of bears, things they do, and their size. There’s all this, of course beautifully written, but it’s a way of getting background information in an interesting way. It also allows you to step away so the voice doesn’t get stale.

McPhee had a lot of technical lessons, but I think the most important thing was the deeper ways of thinking about writing. One of them, for me, was that you can do fascinating creative writing as a nonfiction writer. I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing. My parents didn’t get The New Yorker, so I didn’t realize there were these other ways of writing nonfiction, and that it could be just as dynamic and fascinating as fiction, and just as artistic.

FB: How did you and Leslie choose Egypt?

PH: There are a couple things. We wanted something different from China. We wanted a different kind of challenge, and something that would give us a new perspective. We wanted to study a language that would be fascinating and rich. I like the idea of a place with a long history, and especially with ancient history because I like archeology. But we also needed it to be a place that would interest The New Yorker. I couldn’t go to Portugal, right? I mean, how many stories about Portugal are you going to write for The New Yorker? I had to be able to support my family.

We thought about India, but I didn’t like the way that there wasn’t one language that unified it, and it seemed like maybe it was too close to China in some sense. So we eventually settled on the Middle East. It was going to be Damascus or Cairo, because those are good places to study Arabic. We were leaning toward Damascus for a while, but once the Arab Spring started it was clear that Cairo was the place. But we’d never been there. We showed up in Cairo with these kids, and neither Leslie nor I had ever been to Egypt.


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FB: Having kids myself, I can’t imagine a move like that.

PH: When I look back, it’s totally crazy. Leslie and I, maybe we’re delusional or something, but we’re also pretty calm people. It helps, too, if you’re doing this with somebody else who’s totally on board. It was definitely a hard first year. I mean, I think the whole thing was hard, because it’s hard with little kids to do something like that, and it’s hard to be in the midst of this chaotic political period. It was very intense. But it’s an engaging place. The people are likable, even though Egypt has problems on a level that we had not experienced in China. There’s serious dysfunction in many aspects of Egyptian society. But it was a phenomenal experience, and I was also fortunate in that I did get to know individuals who brought some light to what was going on, and not just in the sense of understanding. They were engaging, positive people that I liked to spend time with. Sayyid, and Manu and Rifaat, our teacher. We loved it.

FB: What’s your feeling about the importance of learning the language of a place where you’re writing about or living?

PH: To me, it was fundamental. I’m not interested in writing in-depth about a place where I’m not at least doing my best to learn the language. In Egypt I didn’t become fluent like I was in Chinese, but I was very conversant, comfortable with somebody like Sayyid. I could spend a lot of time with him and his family and understand what’s going on, and that was really important to me.

FB: With Egyptian Arabic, what did you learn about Egypt that you wouldn’t have learned without that?

PH: There’s the deep religious nature of the language, and the impact of religion on the language itself. It’s fundamental to that language. I think that that’s pretty rare in the world. There aren’t that many cultures where you have the religion so deeply embedded in the language. It’s a huge part of what you’re saying when you’re using these terms all the time.

I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing.

The language also makes you think a lot about the Pharaonic world, and the ways in which it lasted or didn’t last. There are remarkably few Pharaonic words in Egyptian Arabic. It’s quite striking. There are probably more Turkic words than there are Pharaonic words. But it’s also striking that a lot of those Pharaonic words are very foundational, like the vocabulary for agriculture has a lot of Pharaonic stuff in it, and the word for women, the word for water, the word for land, the Nile, the river. These are things that have deep roots, and those survived the adoption of Arabic.

FB: I love how in both The Buried and Oracle Bones, you’re writing about the distant past and the present, and finding connections and divergences. Do you think that was one of the reasons that you were attracted to Egypt?

PH: I definitely liked the idea of this place with an incredibly rich ancient history. I think there are always some people who say, “Well, that’s not really relevant to what’s going on today.” But I don’t believe it disappears. There are too many echoes that you can see. Also, it’s not just whether things stay the same. I’m not saying that everything is static, but more what I’m saying is that the ancient Egyptians were brilliant politicians, and a lot of what they did politically we see echoes of. For example, their use of nostalgia. Even 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, they were already writing nostalgically about the past, and the perfect political world of the past. That’s an effective political strategy. It’s what Trump does now. People do this all over the world.

FB: What’s your sense of the difference between how people in China and Egypt relate to that distant past?

PH: It was a huge difference. The Chinese are much more comfortable with it, and there are a couple reasons for this. The main one, of course, is they see their history as an unbroken line. It’s a very powerful thing to have that link. Egypt does not have that. The other huge difference is that the last Egyptian to declare himself Pharaoh was somewhere in the second century BC, and from that point until 1952. there was not a single Egyptian leader.

FB: What was the biggest challenge as a writer in Egypt?

PH: It was getting enough language, and being able to do that while the revolution was going on and while I had small children. I couldn’t study all the time the way I had in Fuling. In Egypt I was having to go report on stuff, and I had kids to take care of.

FB: In Oracle Bones you say that in writing narrative nonfiction stories, you’re collecting fragments and organizing them into stories. Some of your stories have arcs that span years. How do you know when a fragment, or something that you’ve collected, is part of that story?

PH: It’s an instinct you develop over time. It took me a while to get there, but by the time I left China I had a pretty good sense of this. When I was in Colorado, for example, and I was reporting on the uranium industry in my corner of the state, and I ran into a town where everybody was telling me to talk to the pharmacist, because he knew everything. That confused me, because why would a pharmacist be somebody who knows a lot? Then I talked to him and realized, well, there’s no medic, there’s no hospital anywhere near here, so he’s basically like a doctor.

I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start.

He also mentioned the story of some loner in town who died and left him half a million dollars, and at that point my instinct kicked in and I thought, “There’s something going on here.” So I left him out of the uranium story, with the idea that I was going to pursue this. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I thought there was something there. You get those instincts over years of writing stories and books. The same thing in Egypt when the garbageman, Sayyid, kept bringing me stuff from the neighborhood and he knww so much about people.

FB: Do you typically start with an idea?

PH: It’s usually either a person or a place. It’s almost never an idea. I don’t start with themes or issues. Partly that’s my instinct, but partly it’s also deliberate because I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start. Maybe you’re fitting them into a larger narrative or idea that isn’t appropriate. So I tend to start either with a place or a person, and then the issues and the themes are secondary. They come in as I get to know the person or the place.

So I get to know Sayyid. Then I start to learn about him. Then that leads me into the informality of Cairo and the self-organization of those communities. Then it also leads me into gender relations, because I start to get to see how him and his wife interact. It leads me to issues of education, because I realize that this incredibly intelligent person is illiterate, and I get to know what his children are doing in school, and educate me in new perspectives. But it all starts with him.

FB: And now you guys are going back to China. Where are you going to be?

PH: We’re going to Chengdu. I’m going to teach for a year at Sichuan University. It’s been 20 years since I taught in Fuling.

FB: Is Chengdu near Fuling?

PH: It’s close. I wanted to teach in Fuling, but I wasn’t allowed for political reasons. I could do it in Chengdu. I’ll also be tracking down my former students and seeing what they’re up to, and revisiting Fuling.

FB: Are you going to write a sequel to River Town?

PH: I suspect some kind of follow-up book. But, I don’t know. I always wait until I’m into it before I really know what form it’s going to take. I do want to build on that experience, and I want to try to write something about how this place has changed and what it feels like on the ground, both for the people involved and for me as an observer. I’m also interested in my former students, who were a remarkable generation, because they were born around the time that Mao died, and they grew up with the changes. I’m curious to know more about their perspective on what they’ve seen and what they’ve lived through, because they’re middle-aged now.

FB: Is your plan to be there for a year?

PH: Right now, I think we’ll be there for five years. I’ll do one year of teaching, and then transition to writing full-time and reporting. Leslie is finishing her Egypt book, and then she’ll transition to writing. We also want our children to learn Chinese.

FB: How did you guys meet?

PH: I was working at The Wall Street Journal as an assistant, and she was a journalist, or a correspondent for them in China. I was the lowest guy on The Journal totem pole, and she had a real job, back in ’99. But we didn’t date then. We were in the same circle of friends, and then in 2003 we started dating.

FB: Can you say what Leslie’s Egypt book is about?

PH: It’s about women factory workers in Egypt. She reported on the factory in Alexandria. She has really good stuff, and she’s partway through it now.

FB: That will sit nicely on the shelf next to Factory Girls.

I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it.

PH: I think the two books will be interesting. My book and her book also will be interesting because we’re looking at Egypt from slightly different angles. There are some cross-themes, and it was fun to have these projects being researched at the same time. It helps, I think, both of us to have all these conversations while we’re doing research.

FB: Do you guys read each other’s work, like Joan Didion and John Dunne?

PH: Pretty late in the game. We don’t do it as we’re working. I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it. Actually, for this last book, she didn’t read it until pretty late in the process because I think she was feeling a lot of pressure for her book and trying to get it going, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw it on to her. She needed to focus on her thing, but I think that was a little bit of an unusual time, just part of the whole challenge of doing these projects with young children. We’re both very supportive, and it helps a lot in terms of the reporting, because each of us is learning things that help the other person.

FB: With two writers in the family, how do you balance your life and work?

PH: I guess that develops kind of naturally. It’s all we ever knew together, because both of us were writing from the time we met. The hardest thing about having two writers is probably financial, and lack of stability. Neither of us have a steady paycheck, but we had kids so late, and then both of us had the good fortune to start in China, which was a good place to get established. Though we would never write together. We have no interest in that. We are not a team of writers. It’s an individual sport, like running.

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Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and editor of Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology. He writes about travel, culture, language, science, outdoors, narrative, and belief for publications such as Harper’sAeonLapham’s QuarterlyThe Washington Post MagazineOutside, and the Best American Travel Writing

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath