Peter Hessler, one of four children, was born in 1969, in Pittsburgh, but moved shortly thereafter to Columbia, Missouri. His father is a recently retired professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, and his mother teaches history at Columbia College.
Hessler attended Princeton University, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. The summer before graduation, he worked as a researcher for the Kellogg Foundation in southeastern Missouri, where he wrote a long ethnography about a small town called Sikeston. This became his first significant publication, appearing in the Journal for Applied Anthropology.
In 1992, Hessler entered Oxford University, where he studied English Language and Literature at Mansfield College. After graduating in 1994, he traveled for six month in Europe and Asia. One of the highlights of that trip was taking the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing. That journey resulted in his first published travel story, an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 1995. And that journey was his first introduction to China.
He spent the following year freelancing and attempting to write a book about his travels. Although the book didn't work out, he was able to publish travel stories in a range of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The Newark Star-Ledger, among others. In 1995, he received the Stratton Fellowship, a grant from the Friends of Switzerland and spent two months hiking 650 miles across the Alps. Afterwards he continued to freelance, writing travel stories for American newspapers while teaching freshman composition at the University of Missouri. He also organized volunteer projects for students on campus.
In 1996 he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to China. For two years, he taught English at a small college in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze River. While living in Fuling, he studied Mandarin Chinese and became proficient in the language.
After completing his Peace Corps service in 1998, he traveled to Tibet, where he researched a long article, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1999. Following that trip, he returned to Missouri and wrote River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. While working on the book, he continued to write travel stories for The New York Times and other newspapers. In March of 1999, Hessler decided to return to China independently and try to establish himself as a freelance writer.
Over the following years, he traveled widely in China and freelanced for a variety of publications. For a brief spell, he was accredited as the Boston Globe stringer in Beijing. In 2000, The New Yorker began publishing some of his stories; the following year, he became the first New Yorker correspondent to be accredited as a full-time resident correspondent in the People's Republic.
In 2000, Hessler also started researching stories for National Geographic Magazine. The first assignment was a story about Xi'an archaeology, which sparked his interest in researching antiquities. Subsequently he accepted an assignment for a story about China's bronze-age cultures, which led to his interest of the oracle bones of the Anyang excavations.
River Town was published in 2001. It won the Kiriyama Prize for outstanding nonfiction book about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. It was also a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover award, and in the United Kingdom it was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. The book has been translated into Korean, Thai, and Hungarian. The Hungarian translation won the Elle Literary Prize for nonfiction in 2004.
Peter Hessler's magazine stories have been selected for the Best American Travel Writing anthologies of 2001, 2004 and 2005, and also for the Best American Sports Writing anthology of 2004. "Chasing the Wall," a National Geographic story published in 2003, was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Hessler first conceived of Oracle Bones at the end of 2001 and spent the next four years researching and writing the book.
He currently lives in Beijing.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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"The only steady job I ever held in journalism was delivering the Columbia Missourian," Hessler revealed in our interview. "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen years old. Mary Racine, who taught sophomore English at Hickman High School, first encouraged me to take writing seriously. Mary Ann Gates taught juniors and Khaki Westerfield taught seniors; they were all remarkable teachers It makes a big difference to be encouraged at such an early stage."
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In the fall of 2006, nonfiction finalist Peter Hessler took some time to talk with us before the National Book Awards ceremony about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee. I think there are two McPhee books that I like even better -- Coming Into the Country and The Pine Barrens -- but Encounters is the one that made the biggest impact on me. I read it in 1991, when I was a student in McPhee's writing seminar in college. That was the first time I read a book and heard a writer talk in detail about it, explaining some of the challenges and decisions involved in the project. That made the writing process seem less mysterious, and it also introduced me to narrative nonfiction. Previously I had concentrated on fiction, but after that seminar I began to think more seriously about nonfiction.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway -- I read these every year, for the attention to language and the economy of detail.
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad -- Having lived abroad for so long, I appreciate Conrad's sense of place. And his characters -- all the exiles and misfits and outsiders.
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff -- So cleanly written, and the tone is perfect for looking back at a difficult childhood.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov -- This book has such a beautiful sense of language and loss.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- Maybe all writers from Missouri feel connected to this book.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Another book about displaced Midwesterners.
My Turn at Bat by Ted Williams -- I love the voice, the bluntness and his oddly distinctive language. Not many athletes are capable of deliberately fouling off pitches in an attempt to hit a fan, and even fewer are willing to write about it.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami -- This book has a remarkable sense of history, and the set-piece stories are amazing.
Other writers I often re-read: Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and Raymond Carver.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Apocalypse Now -- I like it for the same reasons I like all of Joseph Conrad's books.
To Live,, Zhang Yimou -- This movie captures a remarkable sweep of history, but mostly I appreciate the way it portrays the distinctly Chinese combination of sadness, toughness, and good humor.
In the Mood for Love and 2046, Wang Kar-wai -- The music and the colors are amazing. Tony Leung is wonderful, and so is Wang Fei.
The Godfather I and II.
Raising Arizona -- Reminds me of home; I was working at the Biscayne Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, when this movie came out.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like Springsteen and Paul Simon, especially when driving. I listen to rap at the gym. I can't listen to music when I write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Shakespeare, Gawain and the Green Knight,, Renaissance poetry and Victorian novels. All the periods I enjoyed in graduate school.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Nothing special. I wake up early and write best in the mornings. I drink a lot of Jianyi Kele. I enjoy writing; it feels easy after the reporting, which can be challenging in China.
What are you working on now?
A third nonfiction book about China. This one describes, through three stories, the transition from countryside to city.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
The two years I spent in the Peace Corps made all the difference in the world to me as a writer. I was isolated from editors and magazines and publishers, and all I thought about was teaching, learning Chinese, and writing in English. I couldn't worry about rejection slips; I was concerned with making myself understood and learning to function in a place that could be hard on outsiders. Since then, I've had my share of failures and successes as a writer, but the memory of those two years has always kept me on an even keel. The reasons I write are not complicated and I first realized that in Fuling.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Mike Meyer, a good friend in Beijing. For the past year he has been living and teaching in an old neighborhood, gathering stories and preparing to write a book. It'll be well worth reading.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
It's hard to give advice because what works for one writer won't work for another. For me, it was important to find a new world and a new language. I finished grad school and realized that I needed to get away from campuses and writing workshops and everything else familiar. I sensed that I wanted to write nonfiction, and a nonfiction writer is only as good as his material. All of these instincts led me to China, and once I arrived I was able to focus on teaching, learning and writing.
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