Xu Lai: On fiery blogs and 'making science warmer'

The Write Stuff

This is the second of five profiles in The Write Stuff series featuring literary journalists from around the world.

In the winter of 2016, I met Xu Lai at the Guokr office in Beijing for the first time. Rushing into the room, this man took my hand tightly and shook it. He had a buzz-cut, his face was framed by black-rimmed glasses and he was wearing a light suit shirt. "Are you the new intern?" He asked loudly. Without waiting for my answer, he went on in his distinctive high-pitched voice: "I am Moojee, welcome!" Before his words faded, he was on the move again, disappearing behind his desk.

"Moojee" was always busy. At that time, he was editor-in-chief of Guokr, a Chinese web-based community for science and technology education. Prior to that, he had worked for Beijing News as a cultural journalist and editor, and before that, with Shanghai Oriental Morning Post. During that time, he also published two short story collections (in 2008 and 2015) using the pen name, Moojee. Since 2018, he has been editor-in-chief of Igetcool, an educational app targeted at teenagers.

His large output, working, in parallel, on fiction as well as his non-fiction, may explain the daily chaos of his life. As I watched from my intern's chair, there were countless times when he frantically wrote for hours without lifting his head. He seemed too immersed in his world, then he would suddenly shout, clutching his head in his hands, or stand up out of the blue. He perfectly fit the stereotype of a writer, passionate but too emotional.

Since that internship, we have had no contact for three years. Yet, when I reached out, he immediately accepted my WeChat phone interview, conducted in Mandarin, with a string of OKs and took the initiative to ask, "Do you want to start now?" He still speaks fast and loud, still seemingly ready to shout at any time, just as he was three years ago.

But, he doesn't shout. Now 40, he has learned to control his emotions. Actually, he learned that lesson a little over a decade ago. In his twenties, while working as a journalist, he had made a name for himself as a fiery blogger with sharp political insights, which he published on his ProState In Flames blog. In November 2008, his blog was erased, without explanation, from the website on which it sat. He opened another blog on the site, and in January 2009, the website itself was closed. Undeterred, he moved to a new website.

'If you don't practise and feel the relationship between language and emotions through innumerable readings, you obviously can't display it.'

Then in February 2009, after giving a talk at a Beijing bookshop, he was accosted by two men wielding knives. The Guardian reported at the time "the attackers said to him either: 'We're here for revenge'; 'You'll know better than to offend people next time'; or 'You brought this on yourself. You know why you're doing this, don't you?'"

He survived the knife attack but it changed his life path. He no longer writes blogs, and unless conversing in a secure environment, he is always polite and speaks carefully. But deep in his heart, he still has the enthusiasm, and the desire to express his views has not disappeared. He chooses now to inject them into a different kind of writing.

"I feel very sorry for [my family] and don't want them to worry anymore ... So, I slowly stopped doing that kind of thing," he said, turning instead to science writing and science communication.

And he likes to write. Xu is an extremely confident and prolific writer, but he thinks most of his narrative skills are simply the necessary tools every journalist should have, such as how to do research. For him, observation comes first. "I really like to follow interviewees and see their life status."

He once wrote a narrative about Shanghai underground bands. From the performance to rehearsal, and even to musicians' personal life, he says he followed the bands like a stalker and observed everything.

He acknowledges this immersive storytelling is not always possible because of the time pressure many journalists face today. So, he offers another simple method by which journalists can gather their material, namely, by chatting. "Chat more with people, no need to be strangers but people with diversity ... During the chat, you must grasp the details. The granularity of the details you get will eventually affect what you write."

'Only after you have enough exquisite and rich details can you dig the emotions hidden inside.'

Speaking of writing methods, Xu becomes more excited. He speaks of a unique approach, one he calls "adding emotions into information", which he introduced to scientists writing for Guokr during his eight years as editor. In that time, Xu came to know many scientists with stories to tell. Their stories are not about humans but are found in the general sciences, such as biology, physics and geography. They had great stories but their literary abilities were not their greatest strength, he said.

So, he decided to train them in the way they write to "make science warmer".

Adding emotions can "narrow the distance between your writing and the readers," he explained. "On the basis of objective and rational, we can deliver information like this ... It can reach more people, let them look at the world from a different angle.

"If you want to influence their emotions, you must have emotions first." Asked how best to put those emotions into words, Xu laughed. "This is very hard. Many people try to imitate, but they can't write as well as we do."

Then he returns to the importance of granular detail. "Only after you have enough exquisite and rich details can you dig the emotions hidden inside." The writers need to find the details that impress their hearts, then relay those details accurately to affect the emotions of others. To have such details, in addition to collecting information, also requires lots of reading, he said.

"Most journalists I know rarely read literary works, especially the works with dense emotions," he says with a little hesitancy in his voice. "This is quite a pity... If you don't practise and feel the relationship between language and emotions through innumerable readings, you obviously can't display it."

For many years, Xu has divided himself into two parts to create his non-fiction and fiction at the same time. He sees no problem in him switching between identities because "these two are completely different things that have no cross." The material source, the writing process, the reflection of the emotions, even the pleasure of writing, are entirely different.

He believes that the emotion of non-fiction creation is cumulative and coherent, that literary journalists are bystanders with a large amount of scattered real information puzzles waiting for permutation and combination. They sort out the story and get the pleasure of completion. But fictional creation has randomness, and the material does not need to be real. The writers can evoke countless plots and imaginations from one point, while the emotions can be triggered by certain moments. What they enjoy is the pleasure of fiction or, "the thrill of deception".

In 2001, Xu won a Hong Kong Youth Literary Award for fiction but his short story collections, published in 2008 and 2015, have had a mixed reception, with critics calling them "very boring". This response depressed him but he rationalises it this way. "Readers need to have some literary reading experience to understand, [and], well, most people don't."

In the meantime, there are consolations. Xu has a high reputation in non-fiction writing and is a well-known science writer with millions of followers on Weibo. He has also successfully trained up a group of scientists to "make science warmer" through their writings, promoting general science in China. Presented with these achievements, Xu is suddenly modest, attributing the rising awareness to the efforts of other science writers, online media development and the ideological awakening of netizens. "I just played a role in this process."


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