Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Michael Standaert - A Journalist Turned Novelist

Welcome to “Up Close & Personal.” For every interview I will be introducing a literary personality discussing his views and insights, as well as upcoming literary events around the world.

Today’s interview is with Michael Standaert, author of the new released novel Pisco Kid. His writing has appeared in TechCentralStation.com, Far Eastern Economic Review Hong Kong), San Francisco Chronicle (book reviews), Central Europe Review (Prague), Vietnam News Network, Seoul Times, Boston Review, Maisonneuv (Montreal), Nthposition.com, CritiqueMagazine.com and others.

He has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Europe over the last few years, and helped found Euro-correspondent dot com. Besides journalism, his fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of notable publications, magazine and has completed three novels.

EI: Would you share some insight into who you were as a teenager? What were you like? Please tell us more about Michael Standaert -- the man behind the journalist and author.

MS: Probably both pretty normal and a bit odd I think. Your regular awkwardness, goofiness, and shyness at times; other times a bit more daring, exploratory, outrageous. I had bad acne early on when I was about 13 or so, and hit puberty earlier, so grew rather quickly. I was a good football player for a while in middle school and in high school, a poor golfer, wasn’t really that studious unless I was reading what I wanted to read. I would spend a lot of time in the school library reading Hemingway, Douglas Adams, and Tim Cahill and others. These were my favorite writers early on … so a strange mix of realism, humorous sci-fi, and wry travel writing. I wanted to be something like Hemingway for a while, and this probably led me to pursue journalism since I knew he’d started that way. I still haven’t been able to give up journalism like he did, since I really haven’t made any money at all off the two books I’ve written. The first could still break even and the second is just out, so I don’t know if I’ll get above the line yet. It’s funny, I ran into a guy a few years ago when I was out at a bar in my hometown and who I’d gone to school with from grade school through high school, and he remembered me as something of a preppy football player type, kind of like Zack (I think that was the name) from Saved By the Bell, but I never really saw myself that way. By later in my senior year I’d started rebelling a bit more and getting into your usual teen age trouble, experimenting and all that.

EI: Mr. Standaert, please tell our readers about your experience as a journalist in the US. What was the career path that lead you to that level?

MS: I started as a sports journalist, and later was kind of a roving correspondent for the Des Moines Register while attending the University of Iowa. After finishing at Iowa I moved to Europe to start an MA program through Cardiff University in Wales and after a year that moved to Brussels, Belgium where I freelanced most of 2002, covering the EU and a variety of other stories. That was when I started writing for some higher profile publications. Part of it was luck of being where other American journalists were not, but a lot of it was hard work just trying to build myself up as a freelance writer. After running low on money I came back to the U.S. from Europe and went underground for a while in 2003, working as a janitor at night, living at my parents, and writing the Pisco novel. After that I moved back to Iowa City where I’d studied before and covered some of the Iowa Caucuses and interviewed about 30 writers from around the world who were there for the International Writing Program, selling quite a few of these stories to publications abroad. I was also writing the Skipping Towards Armageddon book for Soft Skull at this time. I think it was around this time I started reviewing books as well. In Iowa I met the woman who would be my wife. She was born in Canada, grew up in Taiwan, and was my interpreter for an interview I did with the Chinese writer Yu Hua. She eventually moved to California to continue her studies and I followed her out there and got a job as a writer for a foundation, a great job that gave me the opportunity to live in and write for the community of Big Sur, and also allowed me the chance to go to India and Sri Lanka to help document projects they were involved with there. This last year I did a review every couple weeks for Publishers Weekly, but had to give that up upon moving to China since it isn’t very cost effective for them to send books all the way over here. So, now in China I’m working as an editorial consultant for a weekly English language magazine that is basically overseen by the government, something that’s both been frustrating and illuminating. After my year contract is up, I’m not sure what will be next. It depends on what both my wife and I have going on.

EI: Do you think your experience as a journalist helped you succeed as a writer? Do you still write for periodicals? What are the “do's and don'ts” of writing for periodicals and how does the discipline differ from writing your novels?

MS: I think journalism can help to an extent, but it can also blunt your fictional instincts, so it’s good to be able to take a break now and then. I’ve mostly been a freelancer, which has its good and its bad … you have a lot of time to devote to your writing, but it’s a catch-22 since if you want to eat, all of that writing has to be journalism. But you find ways. The last few years I haven’t found those ways to devote to fiction though; getting married, having a full-time job, moving to China for a full-time job, and the two books hanging over my head diverted me from any fiction writing. That’s about to change though. I can feel a good period coming on. I’ll still write for periodicals when I can, but I only want to do it if the story is interesting or important, or if I’m reviewing books, which I enjoy since it helps me keep up on what’s current. I don’t really have any tips other than to try to write the best you can, no matter what it is. That’s a hard thing to do at times. That aspect isn’t any different from writing a novel, but a novel takes much, much longer and can really wear you out compared to a 1,500 word article. And don’t blog too much, unless you’re blogging fiction. I have a feeling that my own blogging has taken some energy and drive from me.

EI: Do you enjoy writing? What is it about this art form that enchants you the most? And could you describe your path that leads you to publication -- any stumble along the way? Is there anything about you that you would do differently, knowing what you do now?

MS: Journalism writing can be interesting at times, but I don’t enjoy it as much as writing fiction. I hate press conferences. You never get much out of them. I do enjoy one-on-one interviews with though, which is a benefit of journalism … getting out and meeting people you would otherwise probably never talk to. I enjoy writing fiction, and in crazy moments poetry, but it can be a long and weary process writing fiction, especially a novel. Yet when you’re in a groove nothing else is better.

EI: Was there a central theme that you wanted readers to grasp? What surprised you most about the publishing process from the writer's perspective?

MS: The central theme for Pisco revolves around lies. Big lies, small lies. Pisco is constantly lied to in the story, lies to others, and lies to himself. There are other themes weaved into this, but I think that’s at the heart.

EI: Mr. Standaert, you are well known in the writing community as a China based writer and journalist currently living in Beijing. Your writing has been published in notable publications such as: San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Review, Eastern Economic Review Hong Kong, Seoul Times, Central Europe Review in Prague etc... and now an author? Do you ever feel pressure or insecure, or are you able to separate all that from your own creative process?

MS: My wife and I were joking the other day that if I wrote something very critical of the Chinese government, I might get kicked out of the country and that the publicity would be good for the book. I can see the headlines now: “Unknown Writer Booted from China” or “Minor Author Banned” … I am not know at all, so it was funny to read your question. As far as pressure or insecurity, yes, they are there, they are always there. Sometimes pressure is good if you channel it correctly. Insecurity can freeze you in your tracks. When that happens you must go forward somehow. But as far as any pressure from being ‘known’ … that’s not there at all. I’ve lately felt the opposite pressure since there hasn’t yet been a review of Pisco, and it just leaves a person wondering why. If I get all bad reviews, that’s fine. It’s more of the fact that if I didn’t have any response, I would never know.

EI: Are there any kid or teen books rocked your world while growing up? And why?

MS: Where the Wild Things Are … but that was when I was very young. I was also a big Dr. Seuss reader. I didn’t really read many teen books, though I did read a lot of classic adventure stories in larger print. Both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were extremely important to me. I thought I was Tom Sawyer for a while, and growing up along the Mississippi River lent some reality to that. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series was as well. I think I was drawn to its weird humor. A couple books that rocked my world in my late teens were The Stranger by Camus and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. Lately it’s been Haruki Murakami.

EI: Let’s talk about “Moses” in your novel “The Adventure of Pisco Kid”. How much is ‘Moses’ planned out in your head? How do you know where you will go next with his character?

MS: Moses is actually Pisco, or the name Pisco’s adoptive mother gave him. He liked the name Pisco, since that was the word on the cloth bag he was found in. Pisco is a liquor made in Peru. She has something in her mind about him becoming a savior type, and tries to press him on this. I didn’t have a lot planned out from the start with Moses/Pisco. I knew he would be a rodent exterminator, that he would like folk and bluegrass music, that he was really just a regular imbecile like the rest of us who happens to have a series of events change his course in life. You know where to go next by what has just happened or what you think might happen next. I really didn’t plan this one out in great detail, though I did have some Point A to Point B plotlines I wanted to move Moses/Pisco to and from. Between that is unknown territory.

EI: What was your biggest challenge and obstacle while writing and creating “Moses?” Did you work him out in advance, or did he evolve as you wrote the story?

MS: He evolved as I wrote. I think the biggest challenge was trying to not hurry him through my plotline since whatever humor, or whatever statements are being made, or whatever character development between those points takes time to develop. A lot of it is linguistic gymnastics, compilations of images, and other experiments creating a mood that Pisco is swimming through.

EI: How did you develop or come up with the idea of ‘The Adventure of Pisco Kid?” What inspired you to write this book? What about satire writing appealed to you? What do you think readers would expect different from ‘Pisco Kid’?

MS: I knew I wanted to write about a young man who’s mother thought he was a messiah. I also had in mind various stereotyped characters that I wanted to play with, either accentuating the stereotype or changing it slightly, just playing with it to show some of the absurdities of those stereotypes. I don’t know if I was totally successful with that or not. On another note, I wanted to satirize this notion of “spreading” whatever it is to the rest of the globe … faith, democracy, materialism, whatever … this messianic tendency that is engrained in the American spirit, folklore, music, art. We haven’t even perfected our own democracy and we go around trying to shape others in our image. There are good and bad points to this … you have someone like Martin Luther King, with his very religious messianic messages that helped deliver a people (somewhat) from their poor place in societ, and on the other hand you have some folksy snake oil salesman like George W. Bush who is very clumsy at the messages, half-articulate, but somehow (at least for much of the time) was able to get a lot of people to buy his charms. Means, ends, outcomes and intentions all vary, though my thought is that it’s generally a damaging thing if a nation deludes itself with messianic tendencies, especially imperial ones. But Bush was born of that. His generation first thought it could find inner utopia in peace, drugs and rock-n-roll, later they thought they could find it in the stock markets, Jesus and capitalist globalization. Iraq was just part of that latter manifestation, though it probably would have been better if they’d stayed in their youthful, drugged up, idealistic mode. There is both something terrifying about Bush’s shoulder slapping, smirking, head pumping ways, and also endearing, like hey, this is a guy that would probably have been fun after a few beers. Unfortunately he got drunk on power and Jesus. He’s a sad character really. I kind of crafted one character in Pisco slightly on him.

EI: How do you imagine audience as you are writing? Do you try to do character development, chapter outlines, various novel-related brainstorming? Do you have sheets of newsprint covered in a story boards all over your walls?

MS: I don’t think much about an audience for fiction. I just try to write whatever appeals to me or I want to explore at the time. I do sometimes do character sketches, outlines and brainstorming, but it’s usually very rough. If I really plotted everything out it might take some of the enjoyment out of me of discovering the unknown territories between the plotlines. I think Pisco was the most fun I’d had writing anything, since I just kind of let go and didn’t really care anymore if I was doing this or doing that. No storyboards. I know people who do a lot of prep work though. The advantage is you don’t get stuck as much. The disadvantage of the way I do it is you can get lost and not recover, which is bad news if you’ve been writing a novel for six months. I have two other completed novels that I’ve put in the drawer. I don’t know if they’re very good or not, but I don’t think I could ever go back to them totally. I may be able to do some salvage work for spare parts from them though.

EI: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?

MS: If it is something you really want to do, go for it. If you’re halfhearted about it, it’s not going to work. Keep polishing, keep writing and it will get better, or at least you would hope. Sometimes it doesn’t. Half the time you’ll think your brilliant, the other half that your shit. It comes with the territory.

EI: Would you describe yourself as a confident journalist & a writer, always ready to face the next new challenge? Either in front of a TV camera, or an editor? Do you have to psyche yourself up to try different venues?

MS: Hunger breeds more confidence, though it also wears you out. I don’t think I’m a particularly confident person. You always have self-doubts. I’m most confident when I’m in the zone and writing something, when it’s flowing, because everything else drops away and you don’t really worry about confidence or anything else. Getting back there is the hard part. Worrying that you can’t get back there ruins confidence. As far as journalism, you do your job and try to write the best article you can. I’ve not been in front of a TV camera, and actually the idea scares me a bit. Facing an editor isn’t that difficult.

EI: Now tell us what is life like living in China? What is the transition like for you?

MS: I’ve been here since mid-March, so a relatively short time so far. My impressions are also only of Beijing, since that’s where I’ve been. I have only been as far as an hour outside of the city. Beijing is massive. You can feel the weight of it. Construction continues non-stop, people are everywhere, cars are everywhere, it’s just go, go, go. Lately my eyes have been stinging from the pollution, but in May the weather was very nice. I didn’t witness the sandstorms this year, and I’d partly wanted to go through one. I like living in Beijing so far. Our apartment has three bedrooms, so my wife and I can each have an extra office and if guests come they can stay. All for only about $500 a month, which is quite a change from Monterey and Palo Alto in California where we were living before in one-bedroom apartments for over twice that. Food is cheap. We had four dishes at dinner last night for about $4 and were stuffed to the gills. I’m trying to learn some Chinese, but that’s going slowly. It’s also somewhat annoying to be looked at all the time. I’m blond and big and red faced, so I do stand out. We also live on the west side of the city, where there aren’t many foreigners, where it’s a bit more residential. It’s a bit hard to get to know Chinese people, or at least it has been so far, other than whom I’ve met through others. Being friendly and from the Midwest I always feel like saying “Ni hao!” to people I walk past at my apartment complex, but when I do they look at me really strange and don’t say anything back. I guess strangers don’t really say hello to each other here. Or maybe they just don’t know how to react. The transition for me was easier than it was for my wife, even though she is from Taiwan.

EI: Mr. Standaert, as you know... China, the US & India are in a standoff regarding global warming. It seems unless China and India agree to participate with the US in restricting “green house gasses,” the world’s greatest polluters will not be part of the solution. How does the average Chinese person see China’s role in global warming?

MS: I’m not a China expert; I only live here. And I’ve only been here a few months at that. A really interesting project for someone to do I think would be to interview as many 100-year old Chinese people as possible, to get their opinion on what they’ve seen through their lifetimes. As for your question, I do know that the three major polluters need to come together and hash out a plan of action, but it is going to be difficult. China and India are developing. The U.S. is developed. China and India think it is unfair that they can’t develop to the point where they’re better off and the U.S. doesn’t want to go down. I don’t think it has to be about this though if a system is devised where emissions are cut at the same time less polluting technologies are invested in and adopted. But time’s a wasting, isn’t it? I’m not sure the average Chinese person really gets an accurate picture of what is going on, either inside or outside of China to make a rational and well-rounded opinion on many matters. But that’s the cost of a one-party system and curtailing of free speech.

EI: Recently, China has made important alliances with South American countries securing future supplies of natural resources, especially petroleum. How is this development portrayed to the people of China?

MS: The State media portrays developments like this as benefiting a global ‘harmonious society’ and helping to continue economic progress in China. There’s nothing wrong with this at all. Every country does this. China needs resources to continue advancing and they have actually done a remarkable job of lifting millions of people out of poverty. That isn’t to say that I don’t have a lot of problems with the poverty of culture or intellectual freedom here, but still there is a lot of art being created. Sometimes the weight of repression results in diamonds. I don’t see why more political freedom would be a bad thing, and I think there are people in the leadership who would agree. It’s just that there are others holding this back. They are mostly afraid of turmoil and chaos, and China has a lot of experience with turmoil and chaos to the point where their fears are not unfounded. I just think they are a bit too worried about advances in political freedom than they should be though. If you have a one-party system though, that party doesn’t want to give up power. Even in a democracy, where you may have multiple parties, if one party dominates, things can go a bit awry as they did when the Republicans controlled the White House and both legislative branches. No one party should have that much power and checks and balances are there to curtail that power, but it doesn’t always work. Voting does work though, as we’ve seen. Some semblance of balance has been returned, but then it could swing wildly to the left again and you’d have the same thing. I’m becoming more “critically middle” as I get older I think.

EI: Would you recommend for new writers or journalists live in China to gain an understanding of the culture and acquire experience in the world of journalism where the government officially owns the media?

MS: If that is what they are interested in, yes. I’d like to be here a while to see for myself. Everything is so new to me right now that I haven’t formed solid opinions on a lot of things. It takes some time.

EI: Does the threat of censorship faced by journalists in China's for revealing corruption among high-level Chinese government officials, advocating political reforms, or reporting on other banned topics still exist?

MS: Yes. Certainly. The biggest hurdle I see right now, in my short time here, is self-censorship. People don’t want to cross the line because the line is always blurry and is never in the same place. One day you could be critical and get away with it, the next day you could write the same thing and it might land you in jail. This type of pressure has a way of eating into the work of journalists where they tend to hit below where they think that line is.

EI: Is it true that in Beijing, the newspaper widely cited as having the most journalists attacked is the daily tabloid Jinghua Shibao Beijing Times? The rumor has it that Beijing paper, Jinghua Shibao has earned this distinction by being the "most active media in Beijing, and being first on the scene" of breaking local news events.

MS: I’ve heard some really good things about this paper, and that they are able to get away with more intense and critical coverage. I just wish they weren’t an anomaly. They’ve been able to cover things in Beijing that other papers in the countryside couldn’t touch I think, things like the demolition of hutongs and protests by people evicted from their homes.

EI: Are there Chinese people who are not happy with the situation with regards to their government, and do a lot of people still protest against the government... more than they can endure?

MS: I’m sure there are. There are also many people who are satisfied with the current situation as long as they are making money (which many are, to greater degrees), raising their child (though some have more than one), able to buy the latest technology, see the latest movies (most times). It’s really hard to tell though. I’ve heard the most protests occur in China than anywhere else and there have been increasing numbers of them the past few years, mainly far from the camera’s eye. But I haven’t yet looked into this much yet.

EI: Would you comment on the differences between what you saw the first time you arrived in China and now? Do you have any moments of doubt that there’s something wrong with the perception of American’s overseas?

MS: It’s only been a couple months, so I really can’t comment. As for Chinese perceptions of Americans, I think overall it’s very positive. You’re likely to get more antagonism being an American living in Europe than you would in China. That could change on a dime though if something happened to drive relations down the drain, especially if something happened with the Taiwan situation.

EI: When you look back on your enormously successful career as a journalist here in the US, is there anything you would’ve done differently? If so, what and why? If not, how do you manage to move forward without regrets?

MS: It hasn’t been enormously successful, I don’t think. I’ve been lucky to be able to write for some quality magazines and papers and if I’d chosen a career path that saw me working my way up the ladder at a paper I probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities. You make the leap. I don’t like to think about what I would have done differently, though I would probably have hired an outside editor to look over my non-fiction book I did for Soft Skull so I could have had another set of eyes on it. Moving forward isn’t hard, it’s the only thing you can do. Plus my memory isn’t as good as it once was, and I’m only 33. There are benefits to that.

EI: Who are some of the authors you keep returning to as a reader because of their ability to create vivid, three-dimensional characters?

MS: I’ve read a lot of Murakami the past couple of years. I really enjoyed reading a book by the British author Simon Ings called The Weight of Numbers, recently. I don’t come back to many writers multiple times, though I have read almost all of Hemingway, much of Bukowski, Dostoyevsky, and a few others.

EI: What would you tell those authors considering applying to an M.F.A. program? In your opinion how important is it for a writer to have a writing degree?

MS: It’s not important to have a writing degree unless you want to teach, and then if you don’t and have a few books published, you still might be able to teach. As for MFA’s themselves, I think they are great for the right person, but personally I think there are too many programs. The benefit is it gives you a couple of years to really concentrate on your work and get the opinions of others on your work and network a bit. You can also do this yourself if you move someplace cheap (China? Vietnam? Cambodia?) and spend a couple years writing and maybe have a group of readers online you can work with, though then you wouldn’t have the networking part of that. This is the cheaper way as well, and maybe more interesting in the long run.

EI: What's up next? Is there another book in the works? What can you share with us?

MS: Not sure exactly. I’m about to start in on some writing sketches and see where that takes me. I have a few ideas for books and some rough outlines. I do know I want to devote more time to fiction. I also wouldn’t mind a long non-fiction project about something in China, but that may be a year or two down the road. I’d like to get back into the fiction first. I still have a lot to learn myself and need to get back into the zone.

EI: Mr. Standaert, thank you for contributing to my blog. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know you, and your work a little better. Would you like to end your interview with a writing tip or advice for young aspiring writers?

MS: Thanks, Mr. Johnson. It was a pleasure. My writing tip would be to try to write every day. This is something I’m trying to get myself to do more of.

To learn more about Michael Standaert, please visit him at:

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