Write Now With Michael Berry

Today's Write Now interview features Michael Berry, professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies and author of HOSPITAL.

Write Now With Michael Berry
Photo courtesy of Michael Berry

Who Are You?

My name is Michael Berry; I am a Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UCLA, where I also serve as Director of the Center for Chinese Studies. I research Chinese film and literature and have been a literary translator since 1997. I live in Los Angeles.

What Do You Write?

I thrive on diversity; so I am usually juggling multiple projects at any given time. These range from academic monographs on topics related to Chinese film and literary culture, oral history projects carried out in collaboration with Chinese writers and filmmakers, and translation. My literary translation works have spanned everything from historical fiction to coming-of-age stories and a pandemic diary to dystopian science fiction.

I began translating my first novel (To Live by Yu Hua) while still in senior in college and never looked back. As a translator, I go where the work tells me to go…even if that means encountering uncomfortable or unsettling themes. I have found that, over the years, I seem to gravitate more and more to difficult, idiosyncratic, and experimental works. As mainstream culture is increasingly dominated by 280-character Tweets and 60-second TikToks, the way up for me is long, dense, multi-layered narratives that preserve the richness and complexity of the human condition. Writing and translating can be a painful and lonely journey, but I still believe in the power of words to not only describe our reality, but to shape our future.

Where Do You Write?

At home; sitting on a chair in my bedroom, lying on an outdoor carpet in the backyard, lounging on the couch (with terrible posture that I really need to correct), or occasionally in my campus office at UCLA. My tools are a MacBook Pro, split screen with original Chinese PDF on one side and Word on the other side for my translation. The Pleco dictionary app on my iPhone has replaced a massive arsenal of hardcopy Chinese-English dictionaries I used to use (and still occasionally dust-off when needed). My co-pilot is Rex, a nine-year-old Himalayan-Persian mix, who is usually squeezed up beside me as I type, occasionally coming between me and my laptop. I’d like to think that he somehow improves my work. And there is usually a bass guitar not far away in case I need some additional inspiration.

When Do You Write?

Every project is different. When my obsessive-compulsive drive kicks in, I will usually translate many thousands of words per day, squeezing in time whenever I can – early morning, late at night, between meetings, etc. At other times, when I become overwhelmed with teaching or other academic duties, I sometimes put projects aside, returning to them several weeks, months, or, in a few rare cases, years later. I usually set my own goals and deadlines.

Why Do You Write?

Life is short. We are like candles slowly melting away. For much of my adult life, I have felt that writing is a way to inscribe our presence on the world, to leave something behind, to use the individual will to create something. As we move further away from the print age to the digital age, I sometimes wonder if writing still carriers the same weight, impact, or value that it once had. Does anyone care anymore? Does anyone read anymore? Does any of it matter? But somehow, I still trudge forward, writing and translating having become what I do and, to a certain extent, who I am.

How Do You Overcome Writer’s Block?

Having multiple projects to work on at any given time is a great cure for writer’s block. When I stuck with Project A, I move on to B, when I run into a brick wall with B, I go back to A, or C….

Having children was another great cure for writer’s block. I became a father 12 years ago and learning to balance teaching, writing, translating, advising, and administrative duties, with full-time childcare forced me to be adopt a strict work ethic and machine-like efficiency. Although the hours of the day available for me to work went down considerably, I was able to use those hours when the kids were at daycare (or later school) much more effectively. Free time to write became such a luxury that whenever I had an open block of time to write or translate, I made sure to get something down on paper.

Bonus: What Do You Enjoy Doing When Not Writing?

Quality time with family, music, especially jazz-fusion, (listening, playing, attending concerts), walks along the bluffs in Palos Verdes (about 30 min. south of where I live), films and reading, teaching and conversations with my students, playtime with Rex and Roxie (our two cats).

My thanks to Michael Berry for today’s interview.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!