The book Unsavory Elements, published last year, is an anthology of stories by expats in China. Shanghaiist recently caught up with its editor, Tom Carter, along with its publisher, Graham Earnshaw, and one of the contributors, Susie Gordon, via email for a behind-the-scenes look at the book’s assembly.
SH: The book is an anthology of stories by 28 different contributors, some of them quite well-known, and some of them less well-known. How did you decide who to commission from? How did you balance the mix of newer and more established voices?
TC: When I first conceived this project, years ago, I was actually conflicted about whether I should showcase established authors or offer a voice to the voiceless: emerging talent who had been snubbed by publishers but whom I knew had cool, true stories to tell and could tell them well. My first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, was published by an indie press in Hong Kong (Blacksmith Books) and I too have felt the cold shoulder of Big Publishing, so that is the direction I was leaning. However, lit agents I originally queried were adamant that an anthology should exclusively feature “branded authors” and celebrities or the book would never find a home.
So for nearly a year I was caught up in this impasse with the agents until I met Graham Earnshaw for the first time after I moved to Shanghai in 2012. Graham liked the idea of an expat anthology, and was supportive about my inclusion of relatively unknown writers (such as Shanghaiist founder Dan Washburn and Susie Gordon, interviewed below) featured alongside household names like Peter Hessler and Simon Winchester. And as you can see, it worked out quite harmoniously.
SH: Other than getting the right mix of more and less established writers, what else did you consider when choosing the stories for this anthology?
TC: There are a couple major themes coursing through the collection that I architected: one of them is that I wanted to give the reader the impression of experiencing an entire lifetime of an expatriate, from fresh-off-the-boat culture shock to the assurance of an Old China Hand. I wanted there to be something for everyone, expats and casual travelers alike. I certainly did not want this to just be a collection of sordid tales, which is why I tempered it with family-friendly fare and foodie pieces, and yet after assembling everyone’s essays I knew it would be disingenuous to leave out the less “savory” stuff. That is why I ultimately decided, against Graham’s sagacious advice, to martyr myself with my xiaojie story, which wound up offending certain critics.
SH: Other than making the choices of what to include, what other duties did you have as editor? Did you suggest many edits, or were you hands-off?
TC: I was extremely involved, sometimes to Graham’s exasperation, who had to field a few calls from contributors questioning my proactive approach to editing. In retrospect perhaps I was a bit too persistent about their perfection, but I really couldn’t help it: I enjoy classical writing over contemporary and wanted the anthology to be a return to the old-school style of short stories in the vein of Somerset Maugham. I dislike reading blogs, and even reportage today is vapid and uninspired, so I wound up clashing with a few bloggers and journalists who weren’t used to writing literary long-form narratives.
But, you know, all great creative collaborations have had their share of tension and disagreements; there hasn’t been an album producer who didn’t quarrel with his recording artist, or a director who didn’t scream at his actors, so it’s only natural that publishers and authors, or editors and writers, also have some rifts along the way. I was just one fellow editing 28 stories while placating 28 different personalities – and believe me authors tend to be quite precious. But I had a crystal-clear vision for this book, and I think the final product proves that my over-involvement wasn’t a bad thing.
GE: It was always the intention with Earnshaw Books to do original works, and we simply used reprints as a way of kick-starting the business. The second book that we published was a new work. The market for the reprints lasted maybe three or four years and then died out as the rapid rise of digital meant that anybody interested in reading an old book could find a version online, probably in some part of Google, without too much difficulty.
In the past two or three years at least we have done new books exclusively. The value of a publishing house list is entirely related to new works, and my main interest in Earnshaw Books is in using it as a platform for the creation and the encouragement of new works that are in some way or another illuminating with regard to China either today or yesterday.
SH: As a publisher, what are the differences between republishing older works and commissioning new ones such as Unsavory Elements?
GE: Republishing old books provides almost no opportunity for helping to shape a product to help it stand a chance in the market, and also stand the test of time. Textually, a reprint has to be basically complete and in line with the original, or else it’s not a reprint. So the only role for the publisher really is the choice of the work for reprint, designing the cover and ensuring that the new version is true to the original. Commissioning new works, however, is a much more rewarding experience, more interactive. The process of creating Unsavory Elements was rich and memorable, and Tom did a great job in terms of creating the project and herding the authors to a conclusion.
SH: I’m curious to know if you often find yourself hanging with rich decadent local playboys, as you do in your Unsavory Elements story “Empty from the Outside”. Were those events an unusual occurrence for you, a single western woman in China?
SG: The events that I depicted in my essay happened several years ago, and I have lost touch with the Zhou boys now – not due to any particular fracas or disagreement; simply because I moved out of their industry and our paths stopped crossing. As compelling as I found their world to be, I also saw it as pretty nihilistic and wasteful. I hope I can call it an interesting experience without seeming voyeuristic or mercenary. People, after all, are individuals and not merely fodder for inspiration.
I’m not convinced that my friendship with the Zhous was particularly unique, even for a single Western woman, being a somewhat exceptional set of circumstances to an outside eye. Living and working in a city like Shanghai offers a multitude of opportunities to connect with a multitude of people – on the surface, at least. A lot of expat writing can lapse into the ‘us and them’ realm, and this is something I particularly wanted to avoid. If my story has in any way contributed to the insidious “otherisation” of China and Chinese people, I regret that sorely. I dislike the East/West binary – it’s a cheap shot and an indulgently easy gambit.
SH: Your story mostly recounts the self-indulgent evening you spent with your characters, but at the end you start to look at the larger picture, and how your
characters’ behavior might serve as a metaphor for the city of Shanghai, or even China as a whole. Would you elaborate on that here?
SG: I hoped that the overarching theme would be that human nature is largely the same across the social classes, as illustrated by the idea of dinner toasts being the same everywhere – to health, to wealth, etc. Since the Zhous were at the tip of the economic pyramid, their behaviour and beliefs cannot be held up as indicative of “China” per se. That’s the thing with China: there are no absolutes and no cast-iron maxims. It’s a mistake to start any sentence with “Chinese people are…” or “Shanghainese people are…”
I think that is one of the successes of Unsavory Elements as a collection: it offers glimpses into the wide array of situations that are possible for Westerners in China, like the seedy brothel of Tom’s much-vaunted tale and the business wranglings in the essay by Graham.
Images provided by Tom Carter
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