Most of the time, Liu Zhenyun plays things cool. Immersed in his own little world, he appears composed—sometimes he looks directly at you, while at other times he just stares off into space. Occasionally, it may seem as though he’s speaking to himself. Even during a regular conversation, Liu develops dialogue unlike any other writer.
Liu knows how to write a story and how to tell one. The success of movies such as Party A and Party B, Cell Phone, and My Name Is Liu Yuejin secured him a spot as a writer for China Film Group.
So what makes Liu so special? I’ve been puzzling over that question for some time now. Liu appears to be an ordinary guy. He doesn’t seem to need a job, and he has a pretty relaxed lifestyle. He gets up at 6:30 a.m. each morning and jogs for an hour and a half before writing for a couple of hours. In the afternoon, he puts pen to paper for another two and a half hours and then goes to bed at 9:30 p.m. When he isn’t writing, he reads, and if he wants to see people, he goes to the market to chat with the friends he’s made there. He likes people who know how to live, irrespective of their professions.
In many ways, Liu’s not an ordinary man at all. He bought 20 copies of The Analects, and he can summarize Confucius’s three most important principles.
I don’t know if Liu will offend any of his friends by claiming that A Word is Worth Ten Thousand Words is an important book. He describes the book succinctly, saying that there are two murderers, and one really wants to find the other so he can have a heart-to-heart with him.
The idea that a single word can be worth 10,000 comes from something Lin Biao said in 1966. Why did Liu use it as a title 43 years later? “When I say that sentence today, the meaning is different,” he says. “Lin was using it in a political context for political aims, while I’m referring to life. It’s all about the people in my book—the tofu vendor, the barber, the butcher, the donkey seller, the funeral singer, the cloth dyer, the food-stall owner, and the murderers. I am speaking to them sincerely.”
Liu says that writing a novel is all about making friends: “When I wrote A Word Is Worth Ten Thousand Words, Yang Baishun and Niu Aiguo [the two protagonists of the novel] told me that friends can be dangerous. I think that makes sense, since I’ve experienced that myself.” He adds that the greatest attraction that writing has to offer is being able to find close friends in the book. “Those friends aren’t the same as friends in real life. The ones in the book are unfailingly patient, and you could say they’re my closest confidants. Whenever I need them, they’re there waiting for me.” And that is the reason he writes.
When asked about his unique way of thinking and expressing himself, Liu attributes it all to his ability to mull over questions for an extended period of time. “Really good writers are actually thinkers.” He says that experience is the most straightforward way to assess a writer. “Writers work with the same strategies. As a result, their writing is not really important; what matters is what they do before they sit down to write. It’s all about whether an author’s experience is different. All good authors have had experiences that others haven’t.”
After spending some time with Liu, I’d agree with his assessment that he is exceptionally good at mulling over questions and finding answers. And he is keen to learn. He tells me sincerely: “I’m not being modest when I say I really don’t understand a lot about the world. If you don’t know much, but you pretend to know a lot, it’s easy to fall flat on your face. I don’t understand a lot of things my friends say. But after I take a good look at something, I can understand it.” So, Liu takes the time to sit down and chat to people, learning as he goes.
In the film Party A and Party B, Liu plays the part of a frustrated youth, and in My Name Is Liu Yuejin, he plays a half-hidden yawner. Although he appears in only a few scenes, he says that he learned a tremendous amount from the experience: “My greatest realization was that movie dialogue is really lively. In fiction writing, everything tends to be predictable. Conversations go like this: ‘Have you eaten?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘What did you have?’ ‘Stewed pork.’ Movie dialogue isn’t the same. The reply to ‘What did you have?’ might be ‘That guy Zhang is a real asshole! And after that it might be, ‘Li’s had a lot going on these past few days.’ There’s a lot of concentrated information communicated there, and it’s really lively too. If you replicate that in a novel, it’s even livelier. So, it’s good to learn from places other than books. I got something else out of it too: I came into contact with people I wouldn’t otherwise get to know, like directors, actors, cinematographers, and the props guys. I’d never met people like that before. Since they’re in different professions than me, they talk and work differently, too. That was useful for me [to experience] in two ways: it gave me a broader understanding of life, and it made me realize that everyone is a philosopher. The props guys, the extras... you can’t underestimate them. The way they think about the world can be very enlightening.”
Translated by Eleanor Goodman