The editor and author dishes on the behind-the-scenes decisions and drama that went into producing Unsavory Elements: Stories of foreigners on the loose in China.
It was in the heat of a sweltering Hainan summer that I stretched out and read Tom Carter’s carefully collected expat compendium, Unsavory Elements. The book had already made the rounds of the expat city mags and a few blogs, and thus I had read a healthy mix of reviews. Even with its impressive contributor list, I must admit my anticipation was somewhat tempered by my concern that I would be forcing myself through a glut of stories overly conventional to those of us that have lived here and overly idiosyncratic to those that haven’t.
My unease proved entirely without need. The collection of China tales features 28 writers, and there is something for everyone at least twice over. Whether I was nodding along, laughing aloud, or self-consciously cringing; I couldn’t put the book down. It certainly didn’t hurt that there were a lot of familiar names in the author list, including one former Lost Laowai contributor. But more than familiarity with the people was familiarity with their experiences. Not every story knocked me out of my lounger, but an anthology like this isn’t meant to work that way. As a whole though, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The book’s editor, Tom Carter, and I finally had a chance recently to swap questions and answers. I was quite curious to learn about what went into putting a project like this together and what challenges he faced in the process. He was kind enough to share.
Where did the idea for Unsavory Elements come from?
Tom: I first conceived the idea for a collection of “unsavory” essays back during my 56,000-kilometer tramp across China. At hostels I’d find myself staying up all night swapping adventures with other travelers and commiserating with other expats. The stories we told were in many ways more brutally honest – and certainly more racy – than anything that’d been written in certain mass-market memoirs. But I refused to believe that no Western authors in China had ever gotten in a fight, or been arrested, or stepped into a seedy massage parlor… Those are the stories I, as a reader and expat, was curious to hear about from my favorite China writers.
What were the biggest challenges, prior to being published, in getting the book finished?
Tom: I spent an entire year, beginning in the spring of 2011, querying various agents and publishers in the West with this proposal. Their rejections came swiftly; literature being the dying art form that it is, anthologies were considered by them a thing of the past.
The only publisher who saw potential in my proposal was right here in China: Graham Earnshaw, a 30+ year veteran expat in Shanghai. Graham originally founded Earnshaw Books to republish obscure out-of-print works (such as the decadent memoirs of Sir Edmund Backhouse) but has recently begun accepting original manuscripts (i.e. Jon Campbell’s Red Rock and Chris Taylor’s tragically under-appreciated Harvest Season). It seemed that Unsavory Elements and Earnshaw Books were a perfect match; my project had finally found a home.
This was your first foray into editing, correct? Tell us about the process.
Tom: Yes, and because I’m NOT a professional editor I was a bit intimidated by working with so many esteemed writers. But I had a clear vision about how I wanted everyone’s essays to read, which was literary nonfiction fused with the classic short-story style. I also envisioned a thematic, progressive arc for the entire collection, which required a degree of continuity between everyone’s stories. In short, I didn’t just curate these essays; I was very involved in their development from inception. I expected the more established authors and journalists to be resistant to my edits, like “who does this upstart think he is restructuring my paragraphs?” On the contrary, they are used to taking editorial direction and were a dream to work with.
Nonetheless, I unfortunately wound up parting ways with a few writers due to “creative differences.” Most were professional about it; some had tantrums. There was one young buck, relatively new to China, who’d recently gotten lucky with a Big Publishing book deal because of a humorous article of his that happened to go viral. I thought he’d have some other fun stories to tell about China and invited him to contribute, but what he submitted was 2,000 words of self-aggrandizement; a vapid overview of all his accomplishments. There was no point in trying to edit it; it was unsalvageable and I told him so, but generously invited him to submit something new. He declined, then went around sh*t-talking me and the anthology during the 2013 Beijing Literary Festival. I shrugged it off; turns out the guy is generally disliked as a person. But yeah, that’s just some of the aggravation I had to deal with simply for upholding high literary standards.
The author list for Unsavory Elements reads as a veritable who’s who of modern “foreigner in China” writers. Were there any writers that you were particularly excited, and perhaps a little surprised, by their willingness to participate?
Tom: The only thing that surprised me more than everyone’s willingness to participate was their eagerness. Having failed to obtain a Western corporate publisher the likes of what my more renowned contributors were used to, I had incorrectly forecasted that few would want to have their name associated with an indie label. Not only was most everyone from my original long-list still on board, they also generously agreed to divide the royalties equally rather than command their usual up-front fee. They were doing it out of a love for writing – and a love for China – because they too believed that, contrary to what the agents and publishers back West said, it was a book whose time had come – China’s first-ever expat anthology. My faith in boutique publishing remains steadfast.
Was there anyone you would have liked to have had but for one reason or another weren’t able to get into the book?
Tom: Naturally, a number of writers I invited to contribute refused for various reasons: I had hoped that some of the great pioneers of China travel writing like Paul Theroux, Jonathan Spence and Colin Thubron would participate, but their Big Lit Agencies tended to complicate things to the point that it wasn’t worth the trouble for me to pursue them. There were also a number of contemporary authors and journalists who, disappointingly, declined: I specifically recall tenaciously pursuing Adam Minter, Fuchsia Dunlop, Rachel DeWoskin and James McGregor till they were rightly sick of me. Hopefully they are impressed by what I pulled off with Unsavory because I’d still like to potentially tap them for future anthologies.
But I was also diligent in showcasing emerging authors and lesser-known writers who had yet to breakthrough into publishing. I specifically held open a slot for you, Mr. McLaughlin, and was quite disappointed when you declined. I also sought out but failed to snag a few Old China Hands like Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo because I’d been fans of their writings since I first arrived here and thought it would be a nice gesture to involve them in the book. Many of the publishers and agents I originally pitched sneered at such inclusiveness: “It must only have household names!” they all exclaimed. And I get that. But as it turns out, some of the most critically acclaimed pieces in the anthology are from unpublished writers; indeed, Dan Washburn, Kaitlin Solimine and Susie Gordon have received the lion’s share of praise.
I know from speaking with you early on in the process that you spent a good deal of effort coming up with cover art as well as a title for the book that captured its essence — no easy task I imagine when there are such a variety of stories contained within it.
Tom: Book titles and cover art are often taken for granted by readers, but in actuality they are, at least on a subconscious level, one of the most important factors of a book’s success. Choosing a title and cover also tends to be the hardest and most heated part of the process between authors and publishers.
In the instance of our cover art, at first I was compiling Cultural Revolution-era artwork of foreigners; most were a bit sappy. There was also an unknown Chinese-American graphic artist whose work I’d stumbled upon online which I really liked, but his licensing fee was insane. Finally, I put in a call to my friend Dominic Johnson-Hill, founder of Plastered T-shirts in Beijing. I asked if he’d ever come across any imagery that incorporated foreigners into its theme; literally eight seconds later he sent me an email with some original artwork he and Nick Bonner at Koryo Studios had recently commissioned in North Korea. The retro-Cultural Revolution style and cheeky “harmonious” theme was a perfect fit with our stories. Dom and Nick generously contributed the artwork, and good karma came back their way when, half a year later, their entire series went viral online.
What was the spark of inspiration for the title Unsavory Elements? Were there any solid runners up?
Tom: Settling on a title was an even more difficult task. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, had (in hindsight rightly) rejected my original proposed title. But rather than hijack the process, which, I hear, larger publishers tend to do, he gave me the latitude to explore other titles. So I spent a good while brainstorming new ideas and sounding them off to friends and fellow authors. “Once Upon a Time in New China” was one of my early working titles; not very original, which is why it was crossed off the list. There was also “A Funny Thing Happened to Me in China” (the sequel would have been “A Funny(er) Thing…”). Lame, I know. You’ll forgive me if I don’t list the better ones here; I may use some for future projects. But I’ll say I was quite keen on using the title of Jonathan Watts’ essay “Invasive Species.”
At the end of a lengthy back-and-forth process of elimination, the consensus was with the title of my own essay “Unsavory Elements”, from bùliáng fènzi, an obscure communist propaganda slogan I’d heard somewhere in the past decade here and recited offhandedly in the course of my narrative. And sure enough, the title has struck a chord with readers and reviews; it is distinctive and perfectly characterizes the government’s current perception of foreigners in China. And if I do say so, it seems that the use of this title has reinvigorated Western awareness of communist terminology and turned bùliáng fènzi into a new cultural catchphrase.
One of my favourite praises of the book came from Sascha Matuszak, writing for ChengduLiving.com, where he says:
“Lots of people with what I would say ‘zero clue about China’ are interested in China and they will pick up a collection like Unsavory Elements just to live vicariously. And the good thing is, every one of these stories is accessible to the clueless. Sure, long time China Watchers will read between a few lines and see themselves there, and nod accordingly, but every single one of these tales contains enough humanity to do exactly what it is all of us who live in, work with, and write about this place want to do: Bridge the Gap.”
Do you agree that Unsavory Elements, more than being just an “experience log” and collection of stories, acts as a bridge between the foreigners who live here (or have lived here) and ones who have not?
Tom: Mr. Matuszak’s blurb is also one of my favorites. But as much as I’d ideally like to believe that Unsavory Elements will inspire foreigners currently living in China to get out of their expat enclaves in their first-tier cities and go experience “real” China, the brutal truth is that, from what I’ve perceived in my ten years here, the average expat in China tends to despise this kind of book. Being in China seems to jade foreigners. It’s like when a Westerner in China encounters other Westerners, they tend to cast their eyes down and pretend they don’t see each other because, strangely, we want to feel like we are the only ones here.
Along with much praise, at least one book review sparked a good deal of controversy, specifically targeting your contribution to the anthology. The comments introduced me to a new term, the “fem-pat”. Can you explain what happened there?
Tom: I too had never heard “fem-pat” until I saw it in the comments on that scathing Time Out Shanghai review. Who ever wrote that comment should get credit for coining such a incendiary phrase. And yet, “fem-pat” continues to be attributed directly to me simply because I quoted it in a Business Insider interview, then, in a characteristic moment of unchecked bluntness, attempted to define it as “those angry, lonely, single female expats in China who are overlooked by western males seeking Chinese girlfriends”.
As a result of my candor, accredited journalists from The Wall Street Journal and Bloomsberg began “hate-reading” the book together on Twitter, and certain female writers whom had been commissioned by various publications to review the book were now reneging on their reviews. I guess there’s no such thing as objectivity anymore.
As far as the essay that caused all this fall-out, even my own publisher tried to dissuade me from including it in the anthology because he knew it could have severe implications on my precarious standing here as a foreigner in an authoritarian republic. But I’m not sorry that I did; if certain goody-goody Western authors want to pretend that prostitution doesn’t exist in China and blow smoke up the overly-sensitive arses of their misinformed middle-American readership, then they can go on living that lie. I stand with the Chinese on this one: prostitution of all forms, from neighborhood hair salons to high-end KTV, is an ineradicable part of life here.
This was not your first experience diving into the publishing world, with the release of CHINA: Portrait of a People back in 2008. What were the major differences between your experiences with your book of photography and Unsavory Elements, and where were some of the challenges you faced this time around?
Tom: The first time around, with my photobook, which was published in Hong Kong, I was devastated that nobody could buy it in the West, and that no Western media were reviewing it. My publisher, Blacksmith Books, was still in its infancy and not yet the independent publishing powerhouse house it has become today, so I had to wait nearly two years before they finally obtained international distribution, which breathed new life into it. Due to positive word of mouth over the years, along with a trickle of well-placed coverage as a result of my own resolve (e.g. a photo-essay in The Atlantic), CHINA:Portrait has gone on to become the top-selling, highest-rated Asian travel photography book on Amazon.
Earnshaw Books has international distribution, but because they are a boutique publisher and based in Shanghai, their books tend to get snubbed by Western media. Going into it I assigned myself the entire responsibility of promoting this book because I knew nobody else was going to; that’s one downside to independent publishing. I had hoped that the status of my photography book as a fixture in the China genre would impress editors enough to take Unsavory Elements seriously, and in the China expat scene ‘zines it was. But trying to get it reviewed in the West has once again been an unpleasant, grueling process. Despite the paradigm shift in publishing and the rise of boutique publishers, Big Media books editors are still only offering their consecrated imprimatur to the well-connected. Guanxi is not just a Chinese thing.
You closed out 2013 with a well-received group AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit with your Unsavory cast of contributors. How did that come about?
Tom: As I was saying, I had spent nearly a year personally contacting editors and reviewers in America and the UK, mailing out countless copies of Unsavory, only to have them “pass this time.” I was quite bitter and disenchanted about it for a while, primarily because we were nearing the end of the year and I felt I had let down all my contributors, who I owed it to get their wonderful essays read and reviewed. But this book has been a grassroots project since inception, and I realized: why not just bypass highbrow editors and take the book directly to the people?
Reddit’s IAmA is one of the most popular online “town hall” forums, and the Reddit Books mods were amiable about hosting our AMA. But I changed it up a bit in that I invited all 27 of my Unsavory contributors to do the session with me, and that’s where we broke a Reddit record for largest ever group AMA. Due to logistics and being scattered all over the world, not everyone made it, of course, but the ones who did were rock stars and had fun (you can read a recap of the highlights over at Beijing Cream). The book has been selling steadily on Amazon since then; it’s gratifying to know that authors don’t need Big Media as much as we think we do.
Half through intention and half through happenstance, we’ve left this Q&A quite late into the regular literary media cycle that comes along with a new book. Now with the most arduous footwork behind you, can you give us a hint about what’s next for Tom Carter?
Tom: It’s been a heck of a year. I’ve raised a newborn baby and simultaneously shouldered the burden of promoting a new book, and as a result I’ve exhausted myself into a kind of coma. I’m also quite broke due to depleting my insignificant income from mailing out so many review copies of Unsavory and from going on little book tours around China and Hong Kong all year. But them’s the breaks. Some authors are content with just “being published” and never look back. I’m not; I write to be read, and that is why I invested as much time promoting the darn thing (including doing this long-awaited interview) as I did creating it.
Nevertheless, a part of me just wants to say f*ck it and go dark in 2014, because the thought of having to continue whoring myself on the interwebs like some street-corner xiǎojiě really makes me nauseous. But the masochist in me, and the lover of literature, is inclined to do it all over again. I’ve got several proposals for new anthologies out there with agents and publishers, as well as some other quirky projects I’ve been working on on the side, such as an illustrated book, some new photography books, and of course my great Un-American novel, which I’ve been struggling for the past several years to complete. I kinda also want to start a band, but that’s a whole other thing. Either way, we’ll see if the Year of the Horse can spur me back into productivity.