Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

How I became a novelist in Beijing — by Carly J. Hallman

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Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Later this year, through some mysterious cocktail of luck, hard work, and sheer determination, my first novel will be published in the U.S. ‘Year of the Goose’ is a dark comedy about the Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful fictional corporation. The novel weaves together tales of a deadly fat camp, a psychopathic heiress, a hair extension tycoon, a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a talking turtle, some witches, and an anthropomorphic diary-penning goose, among others.

I dreamed up the original idea for the novel back in America, sparked by a short story I wrote while still a student (about the aforementioned fat camp). I’d traveled and lived in China before, and, hailing from a boring small town in Texas, found it to be a treasure trove of inspiration — China is a place where things are happening, present continuous tense.

After I graduated I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where I worked as a glorified babysitter, sent out endless “real job” applications and resumes, and struggled to find my way out of a bad relationship. At twenty-four I gave up and got out, and moved back in with my parents. Depressed, disillusioned, directionless. The only thing I knew I wanted — needed — to do was to write that novel.

My final semester of university I’d applied for a prestigious arts grant that would’ve allowed me to spend one year in China, writing my sad little heart out with full financial support. While in Los Angeles I received the exciting news that I’d made it to the final round, and then months later I pulled the letter out from my parents’ Louisiana apartment mailbox. Thin. We regret to inform you… Devastation, laser-jet printed, folded into thirds.

Luckily I managed to regroup quickly, in the desperate way that only the hopeless do. I decided to go it alone, get a job, and write/research in my spare time. I paid for half of my one-way ticket to China with money I won from a penny slot machine.

Beijing

Setting is an important component in fiction, and therefore in the fiction writer’s life. Setting shapes character — that of the people who inhabit our imaginary worlds and our own. China is, as many have said before me, a wild west of sorts. It’s a setting where, at this particular point in history, anything, everything feels possible.

Skim the websites Shanghaiist or ChinaSmack or even the People’s Daily online and you’ll see what I mean. A millionaire found in a cage at the bottom of a lake in Zhejiang. A man who’s trained his dog to wear clothes and a backpack and walk upright like a human. Middle school students being coerced into prostitution by a strange dragon lady who lives in their town.

There is so much craziness that happens here every day, so many strange and beautiful and horrific events, that writing about a bashful goose leading a young man to snack food fortune hardly felt outlandish. Not much of anything did.

And then there are the strange and beautiful and horrific events that hit closer to home; forces outside of my life as a writer, forces that shook me, difficulties that I could’ve faced anywhere in the world, sure, but that I faced here instead. Events that shaped me and my writing somehow– though their exact influence is abstract, difficult to define.

Problems with love.

With money.

With friends.

With depression.

With a man climbing into my apartment’s second story window in the middle of the night and robbing me.

I’m not a memoirist at this current junction in my life and so I don’t usually write about these experiences in any honest or direct sense. Actually, I was always bothered by the adage “Write what you know”. I’m twenty-seven. I’ve seen but a few minuscule corners of the earth. I don’t know shit. I think it’s better, more interesting to write about what I want to know.

Nonetheless, the emotions, atmospheres, and reverberations of my experiences do seep, if unconsciously, into my work. Human existence is, at times, a terrifying one. Though my characters are fantastical and though the circumstances of their lives are far removed from those of my own (I’ve never been a Buddhist monk or a billionaire heiress, though perhaps the day will come), we share many of the same fears, anxieties, coping mechanisms, hopes, and dreams.

Still, while it may at first sound counter-intuitive in light of all I’ve just written, and particularly to those who grew up with images of “Red China” or “The Rising Dragon,” I’ve found great freedom here. It’s not just the relatively cheap cost of living or the laissez-faire attitude towards activities ranging from picking one’s nose in public to setting off professional-grade fireworks in one’s apartment compound, though I’m sure these are contributing factors. It’s artistic too.

Living as a real-life character in a weird and wacky story of a city, I’ve been able to tear down many mental walls and break into previously locked parts of my imagination. But I’m also very aware that I say all this as a non-Chinese citizen, as someone who uses a VPN to access the internet, and as someone who can write freely about Tibet and what goes on behind the red walls of Zhongnanhai, the secretive government compound, and probably not be sent to prison for doing so. I say all this as one of the lucky characters.

A portrait of the author next to Houhai lake, in Beijing.

A portrait of the author next to Houhai lake, in Beijing

It took me three years of work to finish my novel. I didn’t work on it every day, and there were long periods of time — months, even — when I didn’t really work on it at all. Making yourself sit down in front of a blank screen or, worse, a messy document is tough, especially when trying to keep up with a teaching job and the ridiculous demands of a ridiculous social life.

The only thing worse than being an aspiring writer is being an aspiring writer who doesn’t actually write. In 2013, after some self-reflection, I decided to quit my job and assume temporary hikikomori status while I focused on finishing my book, which was, after all, the entire reason I’d come to China. I took freelance tutoring jobs to keep myself fed, and I also had a supportive partner, now fiancé, who is the type of human being who can get up every morning and go to work without having a full-fledged, anti-capitalist, existentially-driven panic attack. God bless him, and heroes like him.

Even with almost unlimited time to write it still took me six months to finish the book, and, full disclosure, after signing my book contract, I had to rewrite about a quarter of the novel, which took a few additional months. Now that I’m in practice though, even when not actively writing, I’m writing. Every time I look out my window or go for a bus ride or get on the subway or hop in a taxi I’m making notes, I’m questioning, I’m seeking stories and plots and characters and possibilities. I don’t know how to turn this part of my brain off — not that I’d want to. Hunkering down allowed me to develop this always-on mentality, as well as much stronger writing muscles and a much more consistent schedule and workflow. I also have a much lower bank account balance. But, hey, we all make choices.

In theory, it’s quite romantic to pick up and move to a foreign country to write a novel. It’s something many people the world over dream of doing. It brings to mind images of Hemingway lingering in a cafe gorging on foods I can’t pronounce, and Gertrude Stein lounging in her living room gazing at some soon-to-be priceless painting on her wall and receiving soon-to-be legendary guests. But Beijing isn’t Paris. And, hell, let’s be honest here, Paris probably wasn’t Paris, not that Paris anyway. Never was, never will be.

Being a writer is difficult. It’s lonely. It’s sometimes frustrating. It’s bad for one’s self esteem, and considering the sheer number of hours put in, its financial rewards are scarce, even if you do manage to land a book deal. And in Beijing, despite all the good, there’s also the smog, the jabbing elbows on the subway, the spitting, and the at-times-seemingly-insurmountable language barriers to contend with.

Still, I do my best to hold onto the romance. We need the myths we tell ourselves. This is what we writers do, after all; we tell stories. And if given the chance, would I tell this story all over again? Yes, yes, one-point-three billion times yes.

Carly can be found Tweeting here. Her website is http://carlyjhallman.wordpress.com. Her debut novel Year of the Goose will be published fall 2015, by Unnamed Press. 

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3 Responses

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  1. Oh my how you’ve grown up I can’t wait to read your book

    Kathy lee

    May 5, 2015 at 3:08 am

  2. […] second most popular post is: How I became a novelist in Beijing. Written by my friend Carly J Hallman, it’s her tale of how she came to write her debut […]

  3. Kung hai fat choy to Paul For 6th. January from uncle bernard

    Bernard Dixon

    January 5, 2016 at 2:25 pm


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