Pioneering online writer moves beyond medium
How did you first become a writer?
In the beginning I just wrote for fun online - I didn't take it seriously. Then people liked what I wrote, I was approached by publishers, and here we are.
You published your first short story Goodbye Vivian [translated as Goodbye An in The Road of Others] online in 1998, well before internet writing had taken off. Why did you decide to write online?
For pleasure, to kill time, to grow a hobby and to express my thoughts and emotions. It was rare back then for people to write online - there were a couple of forums for Chinese who studied overseas to publish their literary works. We were just having a good time together. What was the scene like? It was an entirely different time. Online writers were few, internet users were well-educated [mostly IT workers, or people in foreign trade, the commerce industry, or PhD students who studied overseas]. Unlike now, a middle school student rarely had access to the internet. In addition, online writers were very serious about what they wrote. Today, I don't pay attention at all to online writers now that the internet has been popularised.
You were working in a bank when you decided to leave your hometown Ningbo in Zhejiang province, to try to write and travel. What did your parents think?
My parents were against my giving up my stable job in the bank. But I am rebellious and stubborn, so I went against their will. When I gave up my job there were risks of course, [but] to go somewhere new was very appealing to me. I didn't fear it - maybe my parents were more afraid than I was. At that time, I hadn't published any books yet, I was still at the 'online writing' phase. I was 25 years old. I was tired of my life and my city. I was looking for a new life.
Your debut short story collection Goodbye Vivian (2000) sold more than half a million copies and made you famous. In the title story, the young playboy Lin becomes obsessed with a girl he meets at an internet chat room leading, in part, to the suicide of his on-off girlfriend. What was your inspiration for the characters?
My early works can only reflect me aged 24 years old - I was anxious and depressed. My characters change from one book to another, there isn't a fixed pattern of what my characters believe in or value. I cannot say which character was designed to be me, because they were all fabricated.
In Goodbye Vivian the fashionable, modern Lin is a coffee connoisseur. Many of the urbane characters aspire to a 'Western' lifestyle of fervent consumption set against a spiritual emptiness. Why?
In the 1990s or early 2000s, China wasn't as developed as it is now. Life has changed tremendously. Ten years ago, things such as coffee were a fashion symbol, while now it has become common. I was young [when I wrote Goodbye Vivian], that's why I was interested in those things. But now Western material things like coffee are no longer important to me so I don't have to include them in my books. [Still] in terms of spiritual things, I am strongly influenced by both Eastern and Western philosophy - I read both the Bible and the Buddhist sutras. I read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus and Indian philosophers.
Your latest novel Lotus (2006) is about a terminally ill writer who travels to the Tibetan plateau to wait for death, where she meets a middle-aged man who is looking for a long-lost childhood friend. The book has sold more than a million copies in China. What is its essence?
The book is about the pursuit of different things in life. Three people - the writer, the man, and the childhood friend - pursue different things and therefore make different discoveries.
For the book you travelled to Motuo, located in the southeastern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and the only county not yet accessible by car. [A road being built is due to be completed this year].
I had always wanted to go to Motuo, but it was a closed area. I didn't go there to write or to seek inspiration - I went for myself. It is far in the mountains in the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon. The locals are poor and we did not have much communication, even though most can speak Putonghua. It was the scenery and the dangers - such as landslides or the cliffs - that struck me the most.
You have a huge number of fans on the mainland. What reactions have you got from readers?
Many readers have written to me telling me that my books changed their lives. They are often students or white-collar workers, aged around 30. I don't have time to reply, but if something is very urgent - if the reader needs me to resolve his or her confusions or practical problems immediately - I will reply. I may read all their e-mails, but I only reply to 5 per cent of them.
What do readers tell you?
All kinds of things. For example if they have lost their loved ones, are having difficulties with their families, or if they are at the point in their life when they need to make big decisions, etc. They want to hear what I think. My fans also send me presents, such as their diaries, scarves they have hand-knitted, postcards from all over the world ... But I don't have anything to do with them in real life.
Finally, tell us what your writing schedule is like?
In an average year, I spend some time travelling, some time enjoying life - reading, going to the cinema, going to concerts - and then some time writing. The time I spend writing a book ranges from three to six months, but it takes me a long time to prepare. It is possible that I spend two years preparing for one book - but when I write, I will write all day, for 10 hours. I may go to a strange place, maybe a city or village, I may go to cafes, or write at home. Anywhere to my liking.