Michael Meyer

How did you become a writer?

I worked as a journalist from age 16, but I really started after volunteering with the United Farm Workers on the Texas border, which led to applying to the Peace Corps -- which sent me to China. I was one of the first volunteers there, and had a lot of time to read, to write, and to learn the language. It was great training, being in a place where my story was the least interesting one to tell, and where I could afford to sit and watch other people's stories unfold over time. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I'm the product of the public library, which is to writers what an art museum is to painters. And just as you'll see students sitting on a museum floor, sketching a picture to see how the artists put it together, I have always done the same with books, pulling them from shelves, one after another, and figuring out the structure the writer decided to use. 

When and where do you write? 

I've written two of my books while living for spells in London -- once in a hotel, once in a rented flat. I wish my muse had less expensive taste. Now that I'm home, I work first thing in the morning, at a desk facing a big window overlooking trees. Then I go for a run.   

What are you working on now? 

A book about the amazing afterlife of Benjamin Franklin. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I don't think there is such a thing. If you suspect you're infected, do what John Steinbeck did -- taking Emerson's advice -- to kick-start his writing "East of Eden": write a letter to a friend. There is an inspiring book of these letters, "Journal of a Novel."

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

You know it's time to write a book when the book you want to read doesn't exist. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't wait for permission to write. Nearly everything I've sold came not from querying editors and publishers, but by submitting a finished essay, article, and even book manuscript. Nothing builds confidence and momentum like actually doing the work, instead of talking about it.   

Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction books “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed” and “In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.” He first came to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade has contributed from there to The New York TimesTime, the Financial TimesLos Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, and residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He has taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, a recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar fellowship, and Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches nonfiction writing. The final book in his China trilogy, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Upwas published by Bloomsbury in October 2017; Mainland and Taiwan editions will appear in 2019.