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Writing with Discipline

July, 2007
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Susan_Bookworm_0717 Like many authors, Susan Barker is very fond of writing because she loves books, especially, “the kind of books that tell us truths about ourselves and what it is to be human.” She wrote short stories when she was a teenager, but only for her GCSE English classes. While studying Philosophy and Politics at The University of Leeds, Susan began to write for the Leeds Student newspaper.

  “First I wrote film reviews, and then I became an arts editor,” Susan recalled. “I didn’t begin to write fiction properly until I went to live in Japan.”

  After graduating from university, Susan spent her first two years in Japan. She became a teaching assistant in Nagaokakyo, a small town outside Kyoto, teaching English in several Elementary and Junior High Schools there. She loved working in schools, though it was very exhausting.

  Susan had a guitar at the time, so she’d usually play a very simple English song for the children to sing along with, then taught them some simple vocabulary - perhaps how to use the words in a sentence (if they were older) - then they would play a game to help the children remember the words. The lessons were always very active, with lots of running and jumping around.

  During that time, Susan said she also made a lot of friends.

  “In one junior high school, some of the girls asked me to sit with them at lunch times so they could practice their English, which impressed me a lot.

  “I think the experience helped with the writing of Sayonara Bar, my first novel, because it helped in my understanding of certain aspects of Japanese society - from staff room etiquette to how teenagers behave.”

  After reading her novel for audiences at the Beijing Bookworm recently, LittleStar talked with Susan about her books and writing.

  Q: After “Sayonara Bar”, your first published novel, what are you planning to write next?

  Susan: I finished my second novel at the end of 2006. It is called “The Orientalist and the Ghost,” and it is set in Malaysia and London. It begins during the Communist Insurrection in colonial Malaya in the 1950s, and then the novel moves forward to 1960s Kuala Lumpur, then to 2000s London. I wanted to look at three generations of one family and how the forces of history and society shape them. I’d like to write a historical novel next, set in Imperial Chinese. I read a lot of books on Chinese history before I came out here. The details of life in the Forbidden City, the emperors and concubines and eunuchs, are like something out of a fairytale - it is so fascinating! I’m not sure which Emperor I will write about yet though…

  Q: Where do you get your ideas? Are you looking for new ideas while traveling?

  Susan: Ideas come from everywhere - from other novels, from films, from conversations overheard on airplanes, from things that happen to me, from things that have happened to my friends… Sometimes an idea can take hold of me so slowly that I cannot trace it back to its origins. I had quite a few ideas for “The Orientalist and the Ghost” whilst traveling about Malaysia. In August, I am traveling around China, from Xi’an to Chengdu, then along the Yangtze to Wuhan. I am going to take a notebook so I can scribble down any ideas that come to me on my journey.

  Q: Writing is really hard work, as many authors admit. Are you prepared for it?

  Susan: I used to think writing was hard work when I first began. I didn’t have the stamina for it, and it would be a struggle for me to sit for two or three hours and write. But now, when I am working on a book, I write for about six or seven hours a day - I’ve got used to it. The only analogy I can think of is long distance running - it is very painful and difficult to run a 10km race with no training, but after a few months of training and running everyday, it becomes much easier - even fun (though other people may think it masochistic!).

  Q: What kind of books does you like best? Who is your favorite author?

  Susan: I like all kinds of books. I like novels that are dark and sad, such as “The English Patient” (Michel Ondaatjie) or “Maps for Lost IMG_5233 Lovers” (Nadeem Aslam), but I also like novels that are funny like “White Noise” (Don DeLillo) or “Vernon God Little” (D.B.C. Pierre). My favorite authors (sorry - I cannot choose just one!) are David Mitchell, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Sarah Hall, Jonathan Lethem… the list goes on and on!

  Q: About writing, do you have some suggestions for the students?

  Susan: The advice I’d like to give is to write what you don’t know. Be adventurous and daring, invent memorable characters and outlandish scenes, and stretch the limits of your vocabulary. Try not to think of your audience when you write - write the kind of book you’d like to read yourself. Read as many novels as you can. I feel as though I learn something from every book I read - even the bad ones. And be disciplined - try to write everyday or several days a week.

  Q: You were involved in teaching before, are you going to teach again in the future?

  Susan: I’d like to come back to Beijing and live here for a while. Probably the only job I am qualified to do right now is teaching English or Creative Writing. One way to teach creative writing is to give the students exercises in class - 10 minutes to write about a strange scenario (imagine you wake up with no feet, imagine no one can see or hear you - what do you do?) scenarios that whet the imagination, or descriptive exercises (describe someone completely opposite to you, describe the person you love most). Afterwards, the students can talk about what they’ve written in class, which is often quite fun. These little writing exercises are useful as they can give the students something to build on - to make into a possible short story. I am not sure where I can teach Creative Writing in Beijing though…

By Xing Yangjian

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