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Powell's Q&A

Michael Meyer

Describe your latest project.
I first came to China in 1995 as a Peace Corps volunteer, and moved to Beijing in 1997, just in time to watch the city's venerable neighborhoods give way to shopping malls and office towers. In 2005, I took up a dare from Le Corbusier, who in the 1920s mocked those who would preserve the old quarters of Paris, yet would not live in them. So I moved into Beijing's oldest hutong (lane) neighborhood, just south of Tiananmen Square. The courtyard home is shared by several families, and absent heat and plumbing. I volunteered as an "Olympics English" teacher at the elementary school and at the retired workers center.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed is a character-driven history of the neighborhood, which is under threat of destruction. My students love to point out the window at the golden arches in the distance. By the end of the first school year, we could see a Wal-Mart, too.

  1. The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed "Meyer's elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life....Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "Nimbly told....The Last Days of Old Beijing is as much a chronicle of the physical transformation of the city as it is a tribute to the inhabitants of his beloved hutong." The San Francisco Chronicle

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I took phone orders for QVC, which was a televised shopping channel. It was worse than working at McDonald's or doing yard work; people called in to buy stuff they didn't need. I started trying to talk them out of it: "Do you really want a sable coat? You live in Arkansas, it can't be that cold there." It was good preparation for being a teacher, realizing you can't always change people's behavior.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"'Go on, Meyer,' said Gatsby without enthusiasm."

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières. It's a historical novel set in Anatolia during WWI and the subsequent rise of the Turkish state. I came across it in a used shop off Leicester Square in London. Free museums and lots of used book shops — what a town. I read it to pass time on a long train ride to Sicily, which it did quite well. It made me want to head for Turkey.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
In high school in Minnesota, I used to drive my '68 Beetle up to Hibbing, where Bob Dylan grew up. The owner of his childhood home let me in to see his former bedroom. When I moved to Berkeley for graduate school, it was a good base for tracing Steinbeck in the Salinas Valley.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
The dining car ran out of food on Day 5 of the Trans-Siberian. A worker with hair dyed aortal red woke me one morning and shared her secret cache: a Snickers bar, a hunk of sausage, Marlboro Reds, and bottle of vodka.

Why do you write?
In the case of The Last Days of Old Beijing, it's because I couldn't find a book that explained why the old city was being razed, what was being lost, and who was being affected. I started it 10 years after first arriving in China, after I was able to read and speak fluently and had the patience to observe the day-to-day routines that were being eradicated when the architecture was pulled down and communities were dispersed. Journalists don't have the time (or inclination) for such a project.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
I hope that heaven isn't the white, vacant space depicted in movies. I want familiar backdrops: the frozen Forbidden City moat to play hockey on, a favorite pub and library, a newsstand, and all the usual characters around them.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Great Books about Cities:

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk

Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood

The Years That Were Fat, George Kates

* Bonus short story: "A Guide to Berlin," Vladimir Nabokov

÷ ÷ ÷

Michael Meyer first went to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps. A longtime teacher, and a Lowell Thomas Award winner for travel writing, Meyer has published stories in Time, Smithsonian, the New York Times Book Review, the Financial Times, Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. In China, he has represented the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, training China's UNESCO World Heritage site managers in preservation practices. The Last Days of Old Beijing is his first book.


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