PETER HESSLER HAS come a long way since his bold immersion into China as an English teacher with the Peace Corps. Hessler arrived in the rough and tumble Sichuan town of Fuling, on the banks of the Yangtze, in 1996, determined to fulfil his ambition of living abroad, learning a language and honing his writing. A decade later, he has achieved all three: he is The New Yorker's man in Beijing and a contributor to National Geographic, and has two published books under his belt and is writing a third. He also speaks Putonghua. 'I'd never describe myself as speaking fluent Chinese,' he says. 'I'm comfortable with the language and I don't need a translator.' Not a linguist, perhaps, but a writer, nonetheless. While teaching English for two years and travelling China's hinterland, from the North Korean borderlands to Shenzhen, either on assignment or on a whim, he wrote freelance articles and essays for a variety of publications. Now he's feted as one of a handful of so-called New China Hands, describing the mainland vividly, through younger, less jaded eyes. His latest book, Oracle Bones, the much anticipated follow-up to his acclaimed debut, River Town, lays bare a rapidly evolving China through his often bizarre encounters with the engines of its social change - not the politicians, but ordinary people, from corn-starch entrepreneurs to his army of students from Fuling. 'I've always believed that somebody like William Jefferson Foster [a former student of Hessler's who Anglicised his name] is more interesting and has more to say about China than Hu Jintao. And he may even have more 'power', in a certain sense. 'I'm not sure how much somebody like Hu is in charge. It seems that the Party is simply following a track established by Deng Xiaoping, and the high-ranking leaders are just trying to survive. Young people like Willy, on the other hand, make big decisions about their lives. They decide where to live and how to work and what to do about their families. When you see somebody making decisions, you understand their values and concerns.' He's not alone. Other writers are detailing China's endless intricacies through the eyes of its humble citizenry rather than those in power. 'There's a definite change in the way writers approach China,' says Hessler. 'There are a couple of things happening. One is simply that writers realise it's the best way to portray China during this particular period. In the past, political issues were foremost, and a writer could analyse the country through important speeches and stories. But the leaders are inaccessible and bland. There's a lot of energy and change, but it's all at the level of individual citizens. Naturally, this attracts a writer. 'The other factor is access. Chinese people aren't as intimidated by foreign journalists as they used to be. The foreign journalists speak better Chinese than in the past, and they can live and travel in closer contact with locals. We're already seeing more character-driven books, and I'm sure that this trend will continue.' Is this why he wrote Oracle Bones? 'When I returned to China in 1999, I didn't have a book project in mind, and, to be honest, I was so worn out from River Town, I had no intention of starting another big undertaking. 'I was happy to freelance stories, and I knew I needed to solidify that part of my writing routine. Ideally, an independent writer should have both freelance opportunities and book opportunities. 'I tried to figure out how to best approach writing in China. I preferred projects to be open-ended - often I would arrive in a place without any contacts or specific story ideas, and I'd just hang around and talk with people for a week and see what turned up. And often I would know somebody for months or even years before I wrote a story. 'For almost three years, I followed this routine, and then at the end of 2001, I realised a number of these subjects connected in certain ways. On the surface, they seemed disparate - migrants, boomtowns, history, archaeology, Uygurs - but in fact there were subtle links. 'Each main character and theme forced me to think about China in a different way, because each had his or her own relation to the country. And connecting a range of subjects allowed me to explore broader historical themes, especially the notion of transition that is so prominent in China today.' Writing up his encounters over so broad a period perhaps says more about Hessler's focus and direction. He wanted to be a writer at 16, while at school in Columbia, Missouri, the son of a sociology professor and a history teacher. At college, he majored in creative writing and, after a scholarship to Oxford University, he took a creative writing class under Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. 'I learned a great deal from all of these teachers, and I was constantly writing. I didn't publish much, but that's not the point. Publishing can sometimes be a distraction for a young writer. The main thing is to find the time to write, and also to put yourself in places that inspire you. I was fortunate to come to live in China when I was 27.' The secret, perhaps, to his widening acclaim is effort. Few young writers have the discipline to make notes after every encounter, to detail thoughts as and when they happen. But this is what Hessler did. Oracle Bones, as such, is part memoir, part travelogue, part narrative. It's patchwork prose, embroidered over its foreboding 500-odd pages into an enlightening tap-estry. 'I realised that one key element is to keep good notes. A writer can always put the pieces together later; but if he doesn't have the pieces, he's lost. 'I was always very careful to record any conversation or incident that interested me. And whenever I was reporting, I was diligent about taking my handwritten notebooks and entering them into my computer. Once I began working on Oracle Bones, I had hundreds of pages to refer to. It's not an efficient way to work, and it can be intimidating. It took me about six months just to go through my notes. But I enjoyed the process and it felt quite organic. I was responding to the material, rather than arriving in China and limiting myself to a specific topic that had been decided in advance.' Is he happy with the book? 'Yes, I feel like it really stretched me as a researcher and as a writer. It's not the same book as River Town, and I realise some readers might not understand that. Oracle Bones is more demanding. It asks more of a reader, because it ranges more widely. But that's the step I wanted to take as a writer. It's important that each book represent a different challenge.' Working on the mainland as an English teacher was certainly a challenge. Why did he do it? 'I first travelled through China in 1994, after finishing at Oxford. I was on a long journey through Europe and Asia. And for some reason, China seemed interesting to me. I sensed a certain energy and wanted to return. The Peace Corps was going to send me to Africa, but I got a scholarship to Oxford and pulled my application. By the time I reapplied, they had started the China programme. I often think how differently my life might have turned out.' He probably wouldn't have learned to speak Putonghua, for starters. Nor would he have met so many diverse characters - not least corn-starch entrepreneurs in northeast China, which is one of his favourite encounters, largely because it was unplanned. 'One risk of journalism is that everything can become too focused and premeditated, and I always valued the stories that happened by chance. 'For the corn-starch episode, I was commissioned to do some PR work for a company. There was a period when I couldn't be very picky about work and I had to do pretty much anything offered. This was very good for me as a reporter and a writer. There wasn't a lot of pressure to turn out big stories. That period was critical to my development.' His development is a recurrent theme, perhaps not often associated with writers, and Hessler seems obsessed with his career path. He's now sure that such development doesn't lie in travel writing. He says he's tired of travelling, although he is currently busy hurtling around the US on a book tour. 'I've never seen myself as a travel writer. I tend to focus on subjects that I can investigate over time, and I prefer to work in places where I speak the language. There can be a wonderful energy to travel writing, a sense of real spontaneity, but it's hard to sustain. You can't expect interesting things to happen every day that you're on the road. And there can be a shallowness to the genre, as the writer passes over places quickly and doesn't revisit characters. My goal with Oracle Bones was to combine the best of travel writing - those few truly fascinating chance incidents - with deeper examinations of character and subject.' River Town, too, was a time and place. A somewhat static travel novel, the success of which both surprised and concerned Hessler. 'I don't think it does a young writer much good to get a lot of attention for his first book. Of course, it's also not good to have a failure. Young writers are quite vulnerable and it's best to simply do your work without thinking too much about getting published. I've tried to protect myself; my social routines are quiet and I try to avoid situations where I'm forced to talk about my writing. At this age, I need to write, not talk about it.' Reviews - one of which described his tone in River Town as 'too missionary' - don't concern him, he says. 'Mainstream journalism is much more missionary than my writing. Journalists generally try to expose unsolved problems and give voice to the voiceless. I think that's a great job for Chinese journalists, but as a foreigner it's not my place to decide what issues the Chinese need to address.' Which brings Hessler back to his development. Like an actor, the writer is concerned about being typecast, being thought of a specialist on the mainland but not capable of other things. 'I will have spent a decade in China, and I feel like it's a good time to expand my horizons as a writer. I've never wanted to be identified as strictly a China writer.' A wise move, perhaps - before he becomes an Old China Hand.