Over the years I’ve lived in China, the experiences I’ve recorded in my journals have served as rich material inspiring my own writing endeavors — including many a post on this blog.
When you live in another country and culture, you’re constantly immersed in an environment that challenges you in each and every moment, often with questions of what might have been…if you had grown there, or even lived there under drastically different circumstances.
Author Travis Lee has frequently drawn from his own life in China — particularly Wuhan — in penning many of his own works, from the book “Expat Jimmy” (featured here on the blog a few years back) to his latest novella “The Boy with Blue Eyes.” It follows the eponymous child as he rambles through the streets of Wuhan, and stumbles into some shadowy characters along the way, all told in unconventional prose that mirrors the uncertain and dubious world swirling around him.
It’s my pleasure to once again feature Travis Lee on the blog through this interview.
Here’s Travis’ bio on Goodreads: “Travis Lee lived in China for two and a half years. He currently lives in the States.” You can learn more about him and follow his work at his website. “The Boy with Blue Eyes” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.
Tell us what inspired you to write this story.
At Wuhan University, I lived in a small apartment much like the one the boy lives in. I was married, no kids at the time, but one day I thought, what if we had a child, and what if I had no residence permit, and we were scraping by illegally?
The perspective of this child would be the most interesting, and challenging to write. I decided I would try to write it with no dialogue. I wanted people to picture a black & white world, minus the eyes, glowing blue against this background.
The idea was there, but I didn’t start working on it until after I returned to the States.
This story is written in an unconventional style. Could you talk more about why you chose to present the story in this way?
I had several false starts. I’d always get to the point where the boy makes it to the Information Market near Huazhong Normal University, and things would come to a standstill. After the third false start or so, I moved to the other books while ‘The Boy with Blue Eyes’ brewed in the back of my head. I believe real writing occurs subconsciously, and when we sit down to type, we’re receiving dictation from a higher part of our brain.
During this time, I read ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Manhattan Transfer’, and I decided to try the unusual style in the first two books with the sense of city of the third, and see if I could finish it. Plus, ‘The Journey through Nanking’ employs an offbeat style, and that was my first professional publication, so I thought, eh, why not?
I wrote most of the first complete draft in Wuhan. I know people who’ve gone back and they talk about the development like it’s a good thing, but I hardly see the good in knocking down the old city to erect fields of highrises going for 20,000 RMB a square meter and mega-malls with ‘New World’ in the name–that slid easily into ‘The Boy with Blue Eyes’. One of the construction areas they visit is a real place; it’s the ruins of the backstreet serving the first university I worked at.
For a while, I didn’t think I’d ever publish it, so I kept the first complete draft locked away on my hard drive, tinkering with it here and there.
Then the pandemic hit. Shelter-in-place. And once I understood I wouldn’t have to try to impress some literary agent’s hypercritical slush reader, I went through and made the style even weirder, removing coordinating conjunctions, combining paragraphs, stuff like that, all while listening to Japanese music like Harumi Hosono’s ‘Paradise View’ and Muraoka Minoru’s ‘So’.
I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying, The story demanded it.
This book (like “Expat Jimmy”, which also was featured here on the blog) has characters falling into crime. Why did you decide to add some criminal elements to the story?
The story naturally went in that direction. The gang of boys and the blue-eyed man had to be doing something, and serving the corrupt official is where we ended up. Also, the blue-eyed man’s relationship with the official shows that despite his pretentions otherwise, the blue-eyed man is very much outside the guanxi network–he’s an outsider just like the boy.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope the style allows you to experience the story rather than simply read it. Too many writing groups and writer’s workshops love to tell you what you can’t do: you can’t use a semicolon, you can’t use the past progressive, you must describe what your main character looks like–ignore all that. Don’t allow some writing group to admonish you into writing their style. It’s your story, not theirs, so experiment, experiment, experiment. Find your voice and stay true to yourself, regardless of what others consider “real” writing.
An enjoyable story, and the realization that no one can dictate your style to you–experiment, experiment, experiment. Writing groups will admonish you to do things their way, they’ll tell you you can’t use a semicolon, you can’t use the past progressive, you must describe what your main character looks like–ignore all that, and stay true to yourself.
Thanks so much to Travis Lee for this interview! You can learn more about him and follow his work at his website. “The Boy with Blue Eyes” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.