Monday, April 2, 2018

Happy Pub Day!

Tomorrow is the pub day for Greg Bruno's BLESSING FROM BEIJING: INSIDE CHINA'S SOFT-POWER WAR ON TIBET, which untangles the chains that tie Tibetans to China and examines the political, social, and economic pressures that are threatening to destroy Tibet’s refugee communities

Greg is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Forbes, and UAE-based The National.  He has spent over a decade living in and writing about China, and is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where his previous work on U.S.-Pakistan relations earned him top honors from the Overseas Press Club and an Emmy nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

His book is chock full of interesting insights and interviews, so be sure to buy a copy!

Tell us about your book and your journey to publication!

“Journey” is certainly the correct word for my publishing adventure; from conception to completion, it took me about a decade to finish Blessings from Beijing. Perhaps the easiest part was the title, which I settled on not long after a conversation I had with the Dalai Lama in October 2009.

The reporting and writing portion of my book began earlier that year, when I read a report by Human Rights Watch about life for Tibetan refugees in Nepal. China was pressuring Nepal’s government to restrict the movements and political freedoms of the country’s 20,000 Tibetan refugees; HRW documented the carrots and sticks that the Chinese government was using to put pressure on Tibetans living in the tiny Himalayan kingdom. And Nepal’s government – weak and squeezed between China and India – was complying.

After a number of reporting visits to Nepal and India, I began shopping my book proposal in late 2012.

Then, in November 2015, after trying – and failing – to find an interested publisher on my own, Carrie secured me a deal with the University Press of New England. Then came the really hard part: finishing the book! I had already done much of the reporting by then, but I still lacked huge chunks of historical context. Unfortunately, after a few months of attempting to fill these holes with no guidance, it became obvious to me that for this non-fiction work to be respected, it would need to be authoritative.

So, in an effort to gain a degree of authority, I went back to school – to study Chinese politics and history. In 2016, I moved my family to London, where I earned an MSc in the comparative anthropology of China at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This amazing experience gave me access to some of the greatest thinkers on contemporary China, and also enabled me to contextualize the reporting I had already done in Tibetan refugee settlements. With my newly-acquired academic knowledge I was able to better contextualize what Tibetans were telling me and understand how Chinese policy and history supported these observations.

During graduate school in London I finished the manuscript and completed what, for me, was a deeply rewarding marriage of journalism and education. 

How did you decide to write about the Tibetan diaspora?

My connection to the Tibetan diaspora began when I was a college student in the 1990s. I attended Skidmore College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, which placed a high premium on international study as part of the learning experience. Convinced that I could “do Europe” when I was older – I currently live in Prague, so I suppose I’m making good on that assessment – I took the advice of a good friend and applied to the Tibetan Studies program organized by the School for International Training in Vermont. For six months in the winter and spring of 1997, I lived with and among Tibetans in northern India, Nepal, and Tibet. I was instantly struck by Tibetans’ openness, compassion, but most of all, faith in their political future. During those few months I developed a profound affection for the Tibetan people, but also a long list of questions for and about China.

I returned to the US increasingly passionate about the Tibetan issue, but also deeply moved by how China was guiding the future of a people I now counted as friends. So, for a year after I graduated in 1998, I went to China to teach English and engage directly with Chinese on this topic. I traveled throughout Western China and spoke with many students about their views on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, and Chinese nationalism. As my understanding of these complex issues became more nuanced, my interest in the Tibetan topic deepened. When I decided to pursue this book project, it was largely to satiate my own decades-old questions.

What was the funniest interview you did for the book?  The saddest?

This wasn’t a “fun” topic for me or my subjects, simply because it is so personal. Perhaps a better adjective would be “adventurous.” The award for most adventurous interview I did goes to Pemba Norbu Sherpa, a Nepali farmer and former village chief in Lamabagar, an isolated community of stone-and-timber homes a few hours walk from the Tibetan border deep in the Himalayas. In early 2010, I set out for this small village to learn the fate of 17 Tibetan men, women, and children who had been arrested there a few days earlier by Nepali police. Nepal’s media reported that the Tibetans faced deportation which, if it occurred, would have marked a turning point in Nepal’s treatment of Tibetan refugees.

At the time of my visit, the village was reachable only by foot, and it took me two days to walk there with a small team of translators and porters. A road was being built at the time, and Nepali construction crews were using dynamite to blast huge walls of rock into the valley below. But while modernity was slowing creeping up on Lamabagar, it was a distant way off when I visited.

Pemba’s house was cold and dark during our interview, heated only by a small cow-dung fire. But most memorable was what he told me as I sat in his tiny living room, inquiring about the 17 arrested Tibetans. As I write in Chapter 4, To Kill a Goose, Cut Off its Head, the Chinese at the time were suspected of paying Nepali officials and police to report on Tibetan asylum seekers as they navigated the high-mountain passes out of Tibet. And in no uncertain terms, Pemba told me that many officials – perhaps even including him – were on the receiving end of such bribes. It was a chilling interview conducted on the frontlines of China’s war on Tibetan refugees.

As for the saddest, again, I’d suggest a slightly different adjective – “scariest.” That award is easy, and it goes to Samdup Wangmo, the secretary of a small religiously controversial monastery in South India. During a brief encounter with him in May 2012, this monk told me stone-faced that he prays for the day that the Dalai Lama dies. His reasoning is complex and rooted in a religious rift that has manifested in violent conflict and murder; to Samdup and many others, the Dalai Lama is a source of religious suffering, not peaceful transcendence.

That may be, but the way Samdup dispassionately declared his desire to see a global icon of peace and non-violence drop dead still gives me the chills. Religious scholars told me that Tibetans believe the deity Samdup worships has deadly powers; I believe I saw it emanate in Samdup’s smile that day.

​What was the process like for you after you went on submission (shopping to publishers, dealing with contracts, etc.)? 

Carrie managed most of the logistics once I was on submission and did so brilliantly. My engagement with my publisher was straightforward and painless, as was the contract experience. In other words, this might have been the smoothest part of the whole book-writing process!

After the contract was signed, were there any unexpected aspects of the publishing process that surprised you?

Yes, of course; this being my first book, numerous aspects of the publishing process were (pleasantly) surprising. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener was the editing churn. In newspaper journalism, it’s not very common to receive detailed edits before publication; the onus for fact-checking generally lies with the writer, and editors assume that writers have fact-checked every aspect of their copy. Time simply doesn’t allow for much back and forth.

Book editing is (thankfully!) a much more laborious process. Once my draft manuscript was submitted I spent a few more months going back and forth with the editorial team at UPNE, checking and rechecking the factual details of my story. In a project of this length it’s virtually impossible to catch everything. But, thanks to the keen eyes of my production editor, we were able to prevent a number of errors from finding the final proof. Though I certainly logged more all-nighters than I expected when I signed the contract, in the end, the attention to detail involved in the editing process was a welcome surprise.

What part of the publication process has been the most interesting/fun? What part has been the hardest?

All of it has been interesting, as it was a learning process throughout. But it was also hard producing a book as a career journalist. Writing for newspapers, as I did for years, is usually straightforward: editors need content, and “selling” an idea to a newspaper editor is most often quick. Book publishers, on the other hand, are drowning in ideas, and any new book must demonstrate potential to earn a return on investment. Convincing the publishing world that this book was right was interesting, fun, and maddening – all at the same time.

Anything that new authors can learn from your experiences?

I have two suggestions.

First, buy Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, and read it. Then read it again. This was my literary “Bible” during the early stages of securing an agent, and it helped me craft a book proposal that hooked. As a journalist, I knew instinctively that my book idea was a good one. Not only was it timely; I also had access and insight that allowed me to crack the story is ways others might not. But without Larsen’s guidance on how to sell my idea, I’m certain I’d still be an “aspiring” author, not a published one.

And second, never attempt a first book that you are not 100% passionate about. The publishing process is long, mysterious, and full of rejections (usually without a smile). To persevere, authors must be TOTALLY convinced in the value of their book (if always willing to adjust it). I’m not suggesting that doubt won’t creep in; it will. But passion helps position that doubt positively.

In my case, the passion was personal, because I had lived the story years before I started writing it. This passion carried me through the entire process and help me believe in the book, even when most publishers wouldn’t. I spent more time refining my pitch (six years) than writing the book (four years). In other words, passion fueled my persistence, and I think a similar formula is essential for any first-time author.

What's a fun fact about yourself?

In college I majored in geology, primarily so I could get credit to go camping.