Taras Grescoe is the author of five previous books of non-fiction, including The Devil's Picnic; Bottomfeeder, which won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing; and Straphanger, which was shortlisted for the Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction and won the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction. Grescoe, who lives in Montreal with his family, published his sixth book this month: Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Only a few years ago, I would have said those of James Joyce. It's hard not to get word-drunk on his exactingly muddled, exquisitely distilled prose: He turns dinner into "thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes." Recent events have altered my attention span – as well as my bedtime reading – and lately I find myself relishing the phrases of Dr. Seuss. All those esculent anapests, iambs and spondees. But then it's not a far tramp from Molly Bloom, Buck Mulligan and the "snotgreen" "scrotumtightening sea" to Snorter McPhail and Sylvester McMonkey and the Sneetches on "those wild screaming beaches."
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?
I'd choose the late 1920s and early 1930s – as lived by a literary wayfarer. I'm thinking dinner at the Savoy in London with Rebecca West. Gibsons at the Algonquin in Manhattan with Dorothy Parker. A cross-continental ride on the Santa Fe railroad's Chief, with a sojourn at D.H. Lawrence's cabin in Taos. A spell as a screenwriter in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Hollywood. Then, at the height of the Depression, I'd wash up on the China Coast, and live the life of Riley on the favorable exchange rate, covering the International Settlement and the French Concession for the North-China Herald. That, incidentally, is pretty much how "Mickey" Hahn – the subject of Shanghai Grand – spent the decade. Which, if nothing else, shows great geotemporal perspicacity. (Though she probably should have left China sooner than she did.)
What's the best advice you've ever received?
"Shut up and listen." It's advice I got at the beginning of my writing career, and something I remind myself of it every time I embark on a new book, article or essay. Set aside what you think you know, and pay attention to voices that are unfamiliar to you. The corollary (or anti-axiom) is: "Father knows best." The hell he does. Since becoming a father myself – rather late in life – I see how much this old saw is a justification for noxious orthodoxies. Just because a venerable nugget is passed on with the ring of authority doesn't mean it's true. (Humanity's capacity for endlessly reiterated idiocy is enormous.) This is no time for heeding patriarchs. On the contrary: It's time for the authoritarians to stop talking and listen up.
Which book do you think is under-appreciated?
China to Me, by the aforementioned Emily "Mickey" Hahn. It's a witty, wised-up account of her time in the Treaty Port of Shanghai. Along the way, she tells the story of Sir Victor Sassoon, the Sephardic multimillionaire who built Shanghai's greatest Art Deco landmarks, Zau Sinmay, the opium-addicted scion of one of China's wealthiest families (who recited Baudelarian decadent poems in a sussurating Shanghainese accent), Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen, a Cockney tough guy who got his start in the Nationalist underground by saving the owner of a Chinese diner in Saskatoon, and a mischievous gibbon named Mr. Mills. Mickey, born into a family of Jewish non-conformists in St. Louis, was a born line-stepper: Her charm, good looks and intelligence let her get away with crossing lines of gender, class, and race (most shockingly to Shanghailanders, by becoming Sinmay's "concubine"). She recorded it all, too, in letters to her family in Winnetka, Ill., and in vignettes for the New Yorker, for whom she wrote for 70 years.
The title China to Me, as well as Mickey's approach – based on eight years in China, the last two under Japanese occupation – was a challenge to such authoritative, hyper-masculine bestsellers as Inside Asia – in which superstar foreign correspondent (and Hahn family friend) John Gunther professed to have understood an entire continent after a visit of just a few months.
I became intrigued by the vanished world of Shanghai after wandering off the Bund into the Peace Hotel (formerly Sir Victor's Cathay), where I caught an octet of septuagenarian Chinese musicians playing Slow Boat to China and Begin the Beguine. Reading Mickey's China to Me was the literary equivalent: It plunged me into a twilit world now almost completely lost to living memory.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
Q. The one I want to ask other writers: Where do you find the sitzfleisch? In other words, how do you manage to sit at your desk and write for hours at a time – especially on a fine, sunny day? (Honoré de Balzac did it by drinking dozens of cups of coffee – and having his butler lock him in his study, sans his culottes.)
A. Here's my technique. I take two breaks – one at 11 a.m., one at 4 p.m. – to do the exercises on the Canadian Chiropractic Association's website. (Just Google "Straighten Up Canada.") I use blackout curtains. And I stream a site called "Rainy Mood," which simulates the Zen-state inducing sound of distant thunder and fat raindrops on a tin roof.