An Interview with Award-Winning Author, Acclaimed Travel Writer, and CAPA Visiting Professor Michael Meyer
Meet Michael Meyer, an award-winning writer who has published a non-fiction trilogy set in China. With experiences abroad as a journalist and as an acclaimed travel writer, and having contributed to The New York Times,Time, the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune among others; he is also an associate professor for the English writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. Below, he talks about how he got his start overseas, shares lessons from his writing and publishing experience, and reveals what students can expect from his Travel Writing course this summer in London.
CAPA WORLD: What sparked your interest in traveling?
MICHAEL MEYER: Both travel writing and China happened by accident. The Peace Corps sent me to the latter after I had rejected seven other countries, none of which spoke Spanish, my second language. China was their final offer. I was about to graduate, broke and without prospects. I majored in Education and worked as a journalist throughout college, but there was no job waiting for me. A plane ticket to China felt like a reprieve, even though I couldn't speak a word of Chinese, or even use chopsticks. I started writing travel stories after landing, an exercise in making sense of the newness around me.
At age 23 on arrival in China.
CW: Can you tell us about your work as an acclaimed and award-winning author?
MM: I sent stories over-the-transom—that is, unsolicited—to newspapers and magazines, and things snowballed from there. After Peace Corps, I moved to Beijing and worked as a journalist, a profession that made me feel like a vampire, swooping in on strangers, getting a quote, then flapping away, never to return. I quit to focus on writing a book about daily life in the capital's oldest neighborhood, moving in to a dilapidated courtyard shared by several families and without heat or a toilet. I volunteered as an English teacher at the neighborhood elementary school. Over time, I felt like a toothless vampire—still collecting quotes, but not causing any harm. This lasted two years, and then I flew to London and wrote the book The Last Days of Old Beijing in a hotel a few blocks from CAPA. My second book, In Manchuria, is set on a rice farm near the North Korean border. I wrote the third book in this China trilogy—The Road to Sleeping Dragon—a few blocks from CAPA, as well. There must be something magical in the veg at the Cromwell Road Sainsbury's.
CW: What do you enjoy most about teaching college students?
MM: Their glass is usually half-full. By which I mean, undergraduates come to class eager to add to their experience, rather than to recount it, as graduate students often will, at least when it comes to writing. I think "write what you know" is horrible advice for a writer. Write what you don't know! The joy of writing is the pleasure of finding things out.
In front of my Beijing courtyard.
CW: What advice could you offer students who wish to pursue a career in writing?
MM: Never wait for permission to write. If a topic or place interests you, write about it. Worry about finding a place to publish it later, after the work is done. I was once told to think like a farmer growing carrots. A writer's job is to tend to her/his carrots; where they end up—in baby food or on a plate in a fancy restaurant—is often beyond control. Focus on growing the best carrots you can.
CW: What is the most important lesson that students could take away from CAPA’s Travel Writing course? And what can students expect when they take this writing course with you?
MM: I love teaching this course, and have seen how quickly it helps students immerse themselves into the city and see and consider aspects of it they otherwise would have missed. Class time is divided between workshopping each other's stories and doing fieldwork, both independently and led by me. Wear comfortable shoes!
CW: How will studying abroad give students an edge when they return back home?
MM: Travel brings a shift in perspective. Most of us know that odd, interesting sensation of emerging from a dark cinema into bright daylight. That's what students have told me it felt like, returning home. They see their city, campus and relationships a bit differently, and many of them feel confident to take risks or apply for things they would not have, previously—be it graduate programs, the Peace Corps, or a job overseas.
CW: Having published several books and articles of your own, what lessons did you learn along the way that you could pass on to students who are interested in one day doing the same?
MM: Writing is an art, but also a manufactured object. You can take apart great pieces of writing and see what makes them tick. It's common to see students sitting in front of paintings at the National Gallery, copying masterpieces, learning those lines. It's less common in university writing programs to see students doing the same to words. I benefited immensely from being made to look at the structure of pieces by writers such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Karen Blixen, and V.S. Naipaul. And yes, these writers and more, are on our syllabus.
It's not too late to study abroad this Summer! Take Prof. Michael Meyer's Travel Writing course in London. This is a great opportunity to learn about travel writing from one of the best in the industry.
The Last Days of Old Beijing, In Manchuria, and The Road to Sleeping Dragon all authored by Michael Meyer are published by Bloomsbury.