Interview with Evan Osnos, 2014 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction


Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos Evan Osnos, credit Peter Marovich Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Photo credit: Peter Marovich

Interview by Lisa Lucas

Lisa Lucas: First, congratulations on becoming a National Book Award Finalist!

Evan Osnos: I’m excited! And it feels ludicrous, which is nice. It would have been one thing if I were expecting it, like “this is the normal course of human events,” but no, I’m totally astonished.

LL: How did you find out?

EO: Well the Longlist is a public announcement, so that was put in a press release. I just started getting messages from people saying congratulations and I was thrilled. And then for the shortlist, Harold, who runs the National Book Foundation calls you. When he said who it was I thought “well isn’t this nice, they’re calling to say thanks for participating but of course there are more books than we can recognize and we just want to encourage you to continue in this business, don’t go to law school”. Then, no, he said “I’m calling to tell you that you’ve been shortlisted” and I thought “my god, you’ve made a terrible mistake”.

LL: So in your introduction to Age of Ambition, you make the very clear point that you’re dealing with a country that contains 1/6th of humanity. In a book that’s roughly 380 pages, how did you approach taking such broad look at a country like China and attempting to reflect what’s happening there?

EO: The problem of scale in China forces you into the recognition over time that the only responsible way to get your arms around it is at the microscopic level. Then, if you’re lucky, you begin to accumulate observations and tiny analytical insights, which eventually accumulate into a portrait of the place. I think what I was actively trying not to do, which is a very real temptation, is to try to start with a unified theory of the place and then impose upon that the lives that would fortify that image of it. I understand the temptation to do that, I think that is natural to want to do that, but that isn’t the way I experienced China living there and being in touch with people constantly.

When I started working on this book I’d already been living in China for several years and people’s lives had already made this impact on me and had started to form this sense of how this period of time was transforming them. The more of those lives that I came to understand, the more that I started to feel that I can tell some of China’s story through their experiences. But I was always trying to resist the temptation, and I’m not sure I succeeded at this, to draw overly declarative observations.

There’s a kind of structural risk in this kind of book because when you come back from China, people understandably want you to make these broad pronouncements about what’s happening or what will happen and it’s funny because actually that is the total opposite experience of what you actually do on a day to day basis if you’re trying to understand it deeply, which is to set aside your existing hypotheses and to absorb and try to understand what you’re seeing. So it requires these two different parts of your brain and I was trying in some sense to unify them in the book. To say here’s what I’ve experienced, here are the lives that I’ve come to understand, and this is what they tell us about the place rather than the other way around.

LL: There tends to be a western perception of China as this totally incomprehensible place, bigger than one can reasonably imagine, and you have all these Western writers trying to translate that, which can feel really paternal. I didn’t get that sense from the book at all. How did you manage that?

EO: Part of the challenge when you’re writing about a place, even your own town, part of the struggle is finding the balance between what is typical and what is atypical; what is representative and what is idiosyncratic. In China, one of my subtle (or not so subtle) nefarious purposes was to tell people in the United States that the lives that people are living in China are remarkably familiar to you in many ways. The things that animate people—the things that they care about, that they are scared about, that they want to accomplish, their schemes and their desires—all of these elemental pieces of their lives are much more accessible to you than you think that they are.

For instance, the fact is that in China the challenge of dating is not that you’re trying to find somebody, it’s that you are actually trying to narrow down the universe of potential mates, which is fundamentally the opposite of what we’re doing in the U.S. Theoretically, we’re all trying to narrow down the universe, but the way we go into the process is slightly different. Or, even more practically, the examples I give in the book are that when China came out of the era of having matchmakers do a lot of the work of introducing people to each other, they didn’t really have the infrastructure for helping people find each other, so they had to improvise.

On the radio in Beijing, there’s a half an hour set aside on the weekend for taxi drivers to give an introduction of themselves so if anyone is listening and interested, that’s how they might meet somebody. On some level, that’s sufficiently different from how we meet people in the United States that it makes someone as a reader outside of China perk up and learn something and hopefully it’s rendered as something dignified and dignifying, it’s not designed to minimize the significance of that person’s experience. But also doing it in a way that you say, well beneath that difference there’s actually this fundamentally shared experience, which is that people are always, everywhere, trying even in the midst of great turmoil and turbulence, to find that thing that makes them human, which is ultimately connection to another human being.

I used the superficial differences in our lives as a way to hook people into caring about a person’s life whom they may imagine to be very, very different from their own, but if I’m doing my job, then after they get drawn in by that person and interested because it’s different, then hopefully beneath that they will find something that resonates in a deep way, that feels deeply familiar to them.

LL: So back to that idea of China as place that is hard to understand. After covering the country for eight years, what do you feel the Western perception of your work is? [Note: the book is not available in Mainland China.]

EO: China is no longer, in any way, mysterious to me. And it really hasn’t been for a very long time. By way of background, I started studying the language in college and I went to China and was a student over there for a couple of different stints while I was an undergrad, I got the China bug, and that was a long time ago… 20 years ago this year. China was such a big part of my life… the way that I engaged it was in its gory details, both positive and negative. This was just my place. I lived longer in Beijing than I have anywhere else because I moved around a lot as a kid. It wasn’t hard for me to have my underlying principle be demystification because it wasn’t mystifying place to me.

I make a point when I talk about China to go in with a story about somebody’s life in which the drama or the fact of it is going to be familiar to the western reader because it diffuses that sense of the exotic. What I try to avoid is starting off by saying “in this faraway place where these traditions are radically different than anything you’ve ever heard of and there’s no recognizable signpost and these people are alien to you in every way,” which would be the Royal Geographic Society way of doing it, but that’s not what this is about. This is about saying that these are people whose lives are relevant to you, and comprehensible to you.

LL: You compare the past three decades in Chinese history to America’s Gilded Age. Given the breakneck speed at which the country is changing, where do you think this is all going?

EO: The Gilded Age comparison looms large in my mind. The reason I draw it out explicitly in the book is because what I’m trying to indicate to people is that a lot of the drama that we see in China and whether it’s about the dislocation that comes with migrating from the countryside to the city, the physical transformation that comes with building railroads all over the country, or the trauma that comes from the enormous corruption that is created by all of that construction. All of those experiences are not uniquely Chinese. In fact, we’ve lived through many of those kinds of pressures and dramas in our own national story.

When I went to Europe with Chinese tourists, I was thinking that this is something that Americans should recognize because it wasn’t really all that long ago that we were going off to Europe with a sort of self-conscious anxiety about whether or not we were going to say the right thing, order the right dish, and feel sophisticated there. Mark Twain was writing about this in The Innocents Abroad. On some level, it’s easy for us to look at what’s happening to China today and say they’re in a state of such turmoil and we’ve been through some of that kind of turmoil ourselves.

On the other hand, for all the ways that China today can look like chapters out of American history, there are also elements of the Chinese system which are unto themselves. One of the way that the U.S. went from the Gilded Age–which was this period of profound inequality, corruption, and all of the other byproducts of this national growth spurt–was that we had a relatively emerging free press; we were beginning to have courts that could allow people to register their grievances; and you had a middle class that was beginning to form a political identity of its own. That’s a different set of factors than what you have in China today, where the political system does not include those kinds of facilities. So as a result, we don’t have the luxury of looking at China and saying, well, it’s going to move down a path towards some kind of Western democratic system that we recognize. I don’t think it’s as simple as that, it’s following its own course.

[In the book] I didn’t want to do either of two things, I didn’t want to say that China’s political system was eventually moving toward what ours is and I also didn’t want to say that we have no right as foreigners to be able to lend our moral support to people in China who are making great sacrifices to push their country in a more progressive direction because those are worthy efforts. I think because we live in an open society we actually have a responsibility to speak up in favor of people who don’t and I don’t think that’s a hostile, Western impulse, I think that’s just a universal impulse.

LL: In Age of Ambition, you covered years and years of people’s lives and there were moments it felt like I was reading oral history. How did you manage to render all of these years of experiences that people shared with you into a compelling narrative and to capture their voices so well?

EO: I’m intrigued by the comparison to oral history, but the part of it that is hugely resonant with me is that I became more and more focused on how people talk to one another. After I had been in China for a number of years, I started tape-recording everything. Initially, when I went over as a newspaper reporter I took a lot of notes. Those were fine for the purposes of writing a news report, but what I was trying to do in this book was something that captured more of the crevices, more of the tiny bits of language that I felt are so vital in rendering the way that people actually live and talk to each other.

When I was walking around talking to people I would have my audio recorder in my hand in a very visible way, I would also have a notebook and a pen and so on. It was very important to me to catch lots of the little exchanges. Oftentimes it was the offhand comment or the small, mumbled aside that turned out to be more revealing to me. I think as far as craft goes, I tend to accumulate a huge amount of information, I think a number of writers and reporters do that, but I have this process that’s hugely inefficient. [Laughs.]

I get this huge mountain of material, so for instance for a chapter in the book I might end up with 100,000 words of interview transcripts. Then I would go through them very carefully and slowly and I would end up boiling all this down until I had decided on the elements I can say in my voice and the elements that need to be in the person’s voice. You reduce it down to this thick black paste. And that’s really the way it always feels. It’s on my mind because I’m writing a magazine piece right now and that is what I’m in the midst of.

For me the great challenge, and the great thrill, is how you take reality–as messy and specific as it is–and render it carefully enough so that it takes on some of the strange magic that is fiction. That’s what nonfiction, when it’s carefully considered, can do.

LL: Are there other writers that you looked to for inspiration or for while you were writing?

EO: I was really interested in Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers because what she had done so profound. It was almost discouraging to read it in the course of trying to write about another country because this was so remarkable and how do you try to elevate your work to that level? Her work was just incredible.

I was reading a lot of Mark Twain, for exactly the reasons I had mentioned about the Gilded Age. It was trying to figure out how you write about a country in the midst of transforming itself and do it in a way that has some lift, that finds some humor. That was really important to me.

There’s a China historian named Jonathan Spence who, in our world, is a real genius. He’s a historian at Yale. He writes about Chinese history in a way that imposes a certain humility on the writer because he’s written, for one thing, about foreigners who’ve come to China and tried to make an impact there and the lesson that he came away with was “be humble”.

LL: Are there some authors that you feel have written touchstone books on modern China?

EO: It’s sort of a heyday for writing about China, both by Western writers or Chinese writers in translation, because you can get around the country in a way that you simply could not before. Pete Hessler wrote a trilogy that was pretty important in terms of understanding this period. As for Chinese writers, Yan Lianke and Yu Hua.


Lisa Lucas is the publisher of Guernica, an online magazine of art & politics. Before joining Guernica, Lisa served as the director of education at Tribeca Film Institute and consulted for various non-profit arts and cultural organizations, including Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco Film Society, and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Lisa is also co-chair of the non-fiction committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival.