In 2006, Peter Hessler was in Beijing coming off the success of National Book Award–finalist Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (HarperCollins, 2006), his second book about China. He’d been a Peace Corp volunteer there—an experience he wrote about in his first book, the bestselling River Town (HarperCollins, 2001). We met in Beijing that year and had coffee in a funky cafe in a hutong where he lived. He was 36, single, and thinking about coming back to the States after being in China long enough to become fluent in Mandarin, have a Chinese name, and buy a house in a village north of Beijing with people he thought of as family.
Now, seven years later, Hessler has his own family. He’s married to journalist Leslie Chang with whom he has twin daughters, and he’s living in a very lovely part of Cairo. This time we have dinner at Sequoia, an upscale restaurant on the Nile in Zamalek, but it’s immediately evident that success hasn’t spoiled Peter Hessler. His third book, Country Driving: A Journey from Farm to Factory (which begins with a 7,000-mile road trip he took along the Great Wall), was published by HarperCollins in 2010, and Hessler received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2011. He looks the same as when I met him years ago and has the same attitude and vision he did then. Hessler also has a new book, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, coming this month from Harper Perennial. It’s collection of magazine pieces, most of which, he notes, have been “substantially revised” for the book.
We’re in Egypt two years after the Arab Spring; Hessler has written about the Muslim Brotherhood for the New Yorker, so the talk turns to politics. He’s an observer of society and culture; he gets the big picture from the man in the street; he lives in a country, he learns its language. In fact, he says, he’s been spending a lot of time with his local garbage collector, who knows intimate details about the neighborhood because of what people throw away. But his comment on the Muslim Brotherhood is simple: it’s a social and religious organization and not really equipped politically.
When asked how he ended up in Cairo, Hessler says, “I wanted to go somewhere in the Middle East. There’s such a rich culture, and then the Arab Spring started. Leslie and I decided on Cairo and then went to Monterey, Calif., for Middlebury College’s intense Arabic language program, hours and hours a day, with two little girls...” The MacArthur came right after they were finishing up the Middlebury program. “It was such a busy time; it’s almost a blur. Then there was this phone call. You get a phone call and then you never hear from them again.” Hessler and his wife had been living in Colorado, where they bought a beautiful piece of land and a very simple house. “We wanted a break from China and to be away from both coasts,” he says. He shows me a picture of a wide-open field with mountains in the background, a far cry from this city of 17,000,000, one of the most populous in the world. But for now, Cairo is the place he wants to be. “It’s an exciting time to be here,” he says. He expects a book will come out of it, but Hessler works without contracts and restrictions. Actually, he says, he’s writing and reporting more than he would like; he hopes for quiet to concentrate on the personal, but there is so much happening that the political becomes the priority. He’s been to Sinai three times for work, and taken a family vacation by the sea, but, he says, “We haven’t even been to the pyramids.”
For Strange Stones, Hessler wanted to step back and reflect. The people he’s interested in are the outsiders—people between cultures, a mix of voices. His essay “Wild Flavor,” about eating two lunches of rat in Luogang, China, at both the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant and the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City, opens the collection. There are essays about the hutong; walking the Great Wall; the Peace Corps through the eyes of a rabid devotee, Rajeev Goyal, who Hessler joined on a trip to Nepal; Emily, a former student from Fuling, China, who chose to work in a boomtown rather than be a local teacher. Hessler explores a health crisis in a small Colorado town in “The Uranium Widows” and writes about Jake Epstein, who he grew up with in Missouri and who covers the crime beat for a Japanese newspaper in Tokyo. “I liked the idea of the pieces appearing the way I wanted them to appear, to be able to restructure them and to have control, with no space issues. I felt like I was finishing up those chapters of my life,” Hessler says. His long introduction in Strange Stones gives context to the diverse subjects.
As for a next project, Hessler’s taking his time. “I’ve written four books and I don’t want to be on a treadmill. I want to have a long view of the work. I want to concentrate on one place, to understand one place.” Which is another reason why he takes the time to learn the language spoken in each place he lives. His Chinese is perfect, but typical of the casualness of Hessler, when I ask him if he speaks it much anymore (his wife is also fluent), he laughs: “Leslie and I speak Chinese when we don’t want anyone to understand what we’re saying.” His Arabic, he says, is coming along. At Middlebury he studied Fusha, Modern Standard Arabic, but now he’s learning the colloquial Arabic of Egypt... so he can talk to his garbage man. “He tells me about the people who drink, the ones with diabetes, how cheap the priest is...”
Whatever Hessler writes, his strength is always his voice. He appreciates that for the New Yorker (his card says “staff writer”), he was able to write in the first person. “As a foreigner, you want to let people know who you are.” Unlike his time in Hong Kong in 1994 when he and a friend got acting jobs on a Chinese soap: they went to a talent agent, and Hessler’s buddy explained that “in my country, I’m considered attractive,” and the next moment they were in wardrobe choosing plaid suits. “The producers couldn’t tell us apart,” Hessler says. “We would switch wives in the middle of an episode and no one noticed.” Those days, for sure, are over.