Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Black Cats in China (Shanghai diary)

Explosions erupt outside my window. No, not terrorists: it's Chinese New Year. Here's the catch--it has been Chinese New Year for the past THREE WEEKS, and the fireworks have basically never stopped. We were awakened this morning at 6:30AM with a massive Black Cat moment -- several thousand firecrackers detonating literally right outside our window. The theory is -- and it's only a theory -- that the fireworks alert the gods and keep their attention; I can't speak for the gods, but it works for the foreigners living here in Shanghai.

One hundred and eight million people rode the trains here last week. Everyone heads home for the New Year--Shanghai has been near empty, an eerie and unusual (and fun in many ways) experience. Everyone returns. For the past few days it's apparent the city is waking back up. But tonight is the biggie: Lantern Festival. Tonight, residents here will walk out into the street and on sidewalks bearing lanterns, to light the way for the New Year. We're looking forward to walking out there among the Chinese and feeling this greeting. Six days remain in the three week holiday, and then it's business as usual--whatever usual is here.

The very nature of the place is unusual. It's probably the best single word to sum up our first seven months here. We absolutely love it here; my wife and I could stay five years or more; our youngest daughter may have something to say about that, as in, we're likely moving back this summer! But so far, so good.

I'm teaching creative writing, in English, at Fudan University, which is the Chinese equivalent of Harvard. These kids are bright! But they've never expressed themselves creatively -- or even verbally. They've kept all these thoughts and emotions pent up, and this gonzo American comes along and says: write a piece about yourself... and oh, my. I've been incredibly lucky to glimpse the inner Chinese. The family centric, all for one but (often) me first, attitude of these brilliant students. I think I'm learning more than they are, which I suppose is bound to happen in a situation like this. We start second semester next week: all new students. I can't wait.

I finished two books this week, and hopefully a third by the end of this coming week (co-written with Dave Barry). I've taken on more work than I should, I suppose--four full length books a year, and usually one shorter one--and at times I feel my head is going to explode. Since this blog is about literature, I wanted to share what happened.

A publisher, unnamed, sent me one of my manuscripts that had been in copyedit. As it turned out, for whatever reason, the copyeditor actually line edited the manuscript, meaning that every sentence had word changes, or structural changes. Every sentence. My heart about stopped when I opened the document (sent electronically because they are cutting back on paper expense). Because of scheduling, and publisher stuff, they wouldn't send me an unlocked document that would allow me to just delete unwanted changes. I had to RETYPE anything I wanted returned to its original form. Twenty-six hours later, in three days, I've now finished the job. And I'm ready to take a baseball bat to a certain copyeditor's knees! These are the trials of authors. When you get a book and read it you don't see the "man behind the curtain." Which is right, and a good thing. But if you did, you might need a air sickness bag, the way I did this weekend.

But Valentines Day is approaching, and I put aside the vomit bag for a better idea: I'll send the copyeditor a string of Black Cats. Fuse already lit.



  1. What an amazing opportunity to live in China, for you and your daughter.

    We adopted our daughter in China, and our travel for the actual adoption and to meet her for the first time was delayed by Chinese New Year. We couldn't go for a month, because we were told "the whole country shuts down."

  2. I was cringing when you described the situation with the copyeditor - when it comes to changing certain lines, words, phrases, etc., they're a bit like the tour-planning person three thousand miles away who looks at Mapquest and decides you can get from A to B in an hour, when you know the area and also know you can't get through that traffic in four hours, let alone one! The copyeditor does things by the book - whichever one of their reference books they've consulted - and that means a lot of going back in and changing to the original for the writer. I only once had to check the copyedits online and it was a nightmare - mainly because, to save time, the editor decided to merge her final edits in the same document. No wonder the thing came out like knitting with dropped stitches all over the place!

    Thank you for the wonderful spotlight on your "China Experience" - I love it!

    Four books a year? You make me feel like a real slacker.

  3. You are the hardest working writer in Hollywood...or Shanghai.

    I'm trying to get my head around your Chinese students taking creative writing in English. Like...could Harvard students write short stories in Chinese?

    Amazing experiences. You're a true Renaissance man.

  4. Oh Ridley, what a horrible experience with the copyeditor business. Hope you have a Happy Valentine's Day!