MSW Interviews: Taiwan Travel Writer Steven Crook
SC: I was born in South Africa in 1969, and lived in the south of England from the age of two to 22. I’ve been in the Tainan area, mostly, since 1991. Like lots of other people I started off by teaching English. I then moved gradually into freelance writing. I spent two-and-a-half years in Taipei, working first for the Taiwan News newspaper, then for the Government Information Office. After getting married and moving back to the south (my wife’s from a small village in Tainan) I’ve been keeping busy writing, editing, and the odd bit of consulting (government bilingualization projects, for instance).
MSW: I’m interviewing you today about two books that you have recently written and published about Taiwan, Do’s and Don’ts in Taiwan and Keeping Up with the War God. Can you give us a brief introduction to each book?
SC: KEEPING UP WITH THE WAR GOD was my first book. I hope the subtitle, “Taiwan, As It Seemed To Me” makes it clear that it’s a collection of personal experiences and impressions. Some parts are straightforward descriptions of journeys to places like Jade Mountain. Others are observations or snippets of history that I think are worth sharing. I wanted to go into these topics more deeply than is possible in short newspaper and magazine articles.
DOS AND DON’TS IN TAIWAN is part of a series published by a company in Bangkok. Each of the books aims to introduce the culture and lifestyle of a country for the benefit of tourists, business visitors and expats. Hopefully, my book will help outsiders avoid causing offense, and increase their tolerance and understanding when local people behave in ways that, to Westerners, seem illogical or incomprehensible.
MSW: I enjoyed reading both books, but I found Do’s and Don’ts in Taiwan to be particularly informative because it covers so many aspects of life in Taiwan. I think this book in particular would really appeal to my readers on MSW. Where did you get the idea for the book?
SC: The format of the book was decided by the publishers, who’ve produced several similar guides for Thailand, Vietnam and some other places. It was up to me to apportion space to each section – eating, love and marriage, religion and so on – as I thought fit.
MSW: I found the sections on Holidays and Festivals and Gods and Ghosts to be very interesting. It must have been a real challenge to write about these topics. How were you able to conduct such thorough research?
SC: There’s actually a great amount of English-language information about Taiwan out there, it’s just that some of it isn’t easy to find. You have to really dig on the Internet, and then cross-check what you find. Some fascinating and obscure books have been written about Taiwan. In my daypack I have a copy of a 1970 privately-published book about Taiwanese folk religion, written by a Protestant missionary together with a Taiwanese Christian.
I’ve spent most of my time in Taiwan in the south, which is more traditional than Taipei. When teaching adult students back in the 1990s, we often got talking about customs and folk religion, and I’ve done quite a bit of background reading. A book I highly recommend is David K. Jordan’s GODS, GHOSTS AND ANCESTORS, the title of which inspired the title of the religion chapter of my second book. I interviewed Dr. Jordan a couple of years back for Culture Taiwan.
When I started writing I felt I was 80% sure about many Taiwanese customs, but 100% certain about very little. It was very interesting to delve a little deeper and confirm or refute some of things I’d previously heard. I should thank my wife. Not only did she grow up in a pretty traditional environment, but she takes an interest in local culture, and her English is good enough to explain the subtleties.
MSW: Which aspects of Taiwanese culture and/or lifestyle were challenging for you to learn about when you first moved to Taiwan?
SC: Gosh. It’s a long time ago. After backpacking for months through India, Nepal etc before coming here, I was pretty used to Asian cultures. I don’t recall any particular problems. I did notice that those Westerners who’d never spent a day in Asia before getting off the plane in Taiwan struggled a bit. Not a useful answer, I know.
MSW: Keeping Up With The War God reads as both a history book and a personal travelogue. Can you talk a little about how you decided to organize the book and why you wrote it that way?
SC: At first I wanted the book to follow geography or chronology. Neither approach worked, and actually I’m glad it ended up as a book that can be dipped into at random. I put my account of the Yanshui fireworks festival at the front because I thought it would draw in bookstore browsers and then they’d buy the book.
MSW: I hope it works. That was one of the best introductions I’ve read to Taiwan in a long time! What were some of the challenges you faced while writing Keeping Up With the War God?
SC: With both KEEPING UP WITH THE WAR GOD and TAIWAN: THE BRADT TRAVEL GUIDE, deciding what to include and what to exclude was the major challenge, aside from the physical slog of getting the words onto the computer screen and then rewriting and editing until you’re happy. For KEEPING UP WITH THE WAR GOD, I had a list of topics I wanted to write about. Some could be dealt with in a single paragraph. Others required several pages. Some were mainstream. However, many were little personal things that I couldn’t fit into magazine or newspaper articles, but which I felt strongly about.
MSW: How did you go about getting your books published?
SC: Like many other people who’ve come to Taiwan and found it a fascinating place, I noticed the almost total lack of book-length travel narratives about the island. One of the few exceptions is Douglas Fetherling’s book THE OTHER CHINA. (Don’t waste your money on this book).
In 1998 or 1999, by which time I was writing regularly for the China Post, I pitched my ideas for a travel book (a description of traveling here, not a guide) to at least a dozen publishers in the UK and North America. Most of the responses were along these lines: “There just isn’t the interest in or demand for the kind of book you propose.”
So I went ahead and self-published in late 2001. People often confuse self-publishing and using a vanity press. The former means you do everything yourself; designing the cover, finding the printer, checking the proofs etc. Thus it’s cheaper but more time consuming. A vanity press, I understand, will – for a fee – handle every part of the production but won’t help much with distribution or marketing. I got KEEPING UP WITH THE WAR GOD printed, then went about selling and promoting the thing.
Bradley Winterton of the Taipei Times gave it a very favorable review; the China Post also wrote a short article about it. Thanks to Paul LeJoy (author of BLACK IN TAIWAN), I had some contacts at Caves Books and the Eslite chain. Caves have sold quite a few copies over the years; Eslite moved fewer than 100 before calling it quits.
After KEEPING UP WITH THE WAR GOD, I decided I wouldn’t write another book unless someone paid me. Self-publishing wasn’t a bad experience; it was enjoyable and interesting if not financially rewarding. It’s just that writing feature articles for inflights and government publications makes sense when you’ve a living to earn. Anyway, early in 2007 someone did offer to pay me to write a book. Not a fortune, by any means, but enough to make it worthwhile. That project was DOS AND DON’TS IN TAIWAN. For various reasons, the gap between finishing the writing of that book and actual publication was 20 months!
Just after I’d finished DOS AND DON’TS, Bradt Travel Guides in the UK contacted me, asking if I was interested in writing a guidebook for them. After a bit of negotiating, a contract was signed and I got down to work.
MSW: If you could offer one word of advice to someone moving to Taiwan, what would it be?
SC: One word of advice? Explore! Don’t stay in your apartment. Don’t stay in your city. Get to the east coast, get to the mountains. Look inside that temple you walk past every day. Wander down the little lanes and alleys.
MSW: What does the future have in store for Steven Crook?
SC: Right now I’m working on a bunch of articles for various magazines. The most interesting topics are Taiwan’s foreign-language publishing industry (that’s to say, companies that publish books in English, French, Japanese etc) and volunteers who serve in Taiwan’s national parks. These articles will appear in the first half of 2011.