A Few Quick Questions With…Walt Hackman

Late last year, I was approached by Walt Hackman to read and review his book, No Problem, Mr. Walt. Which was absolutely not my kind of book, but there was something about it that appealed to me. I’m glad I did, it was quite a tale. I reposted my take on it earlier today, in honor of the book launch tomorrow. Walt was kind enough to take part in a Q & A with me — which was enough to make me want to re-read the book. Hopefully, it convinces some of you to give it a first read.

I’m always interested in the writing process, why writers make the choices they make along the way — why did you decide to approach your story by mixing Chinese history with the story of your junk?
When I started to outline and write “No Problem, Mr. Walt” it was not in chronological order. As each Chapter unfolded, I found myself writing about subject matter that emerged along with my story – like the reference to caulking from Marco Polo’s journal or the Cultural Revolution – and it occurred to me that including snippets of Chinese history would assist the reader by providing context to make my story more relevant. So, at the beginning of Chapter Two I begin with “I think it is safe to say that the average American may suffer a bit of historical amnesia regarding China’s recent history. Therefore, I have decided to start in the next chapter with the last Emperor Pu Yi in the early 1900s, and present the reader with a brief history up to the present; these bits of history will be presented at the beginning of each chapter. If you understand China’s recent past, it will be easier to understand references to history in the story, and easier to understand present-day China.”
For that matter, why did you decide to Where there some anecdotes/memories that you wanted to put in the book, but couldn’t find a way to fit them into the narrative? Care to share any?
Yes, there are a few but these stand out: the initial draft included poetry that I wrote depicting experiences I had such as the bus ride in Chapter 23. However, the editor felt including them would take away from the story’s narrative so I kept the content they included but the poems themselves were removed.

More importantly, my journey began with the sudden death of my only son Wally, which is something I find very difficult to talk or write about even to this day. I feel there are no words adequate to explain the anguish, sadness and magnitude of our loss. Those parts of the story that dealt with “Rebuilding a (my) Life” were tough for me to write (and rewrite).  That being said, Wally’s death was the catalyst that propelled me on that improbable journey and is an important part of the story even though I only talk about it briefly in the Preface.  I did the best I could to address it but feel that in a future revision I might find a better way to tell that part of the story. My daughter Lynn is a writer and owned the Mei Wen Ti from 2000 to 2008, I think hers might be the voice that best explains that time in our lives and we’ve been discussing a collaboration.

What was the biggest surprise about the writing itself?
Steven King said in On Writing, “….I believe the first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no longer than three months, the length of a season.” For me, my biggest surprise was how long it took me to write the book. Not months but years!

I tell people it was easier to build a boat in China than it was to write a book about it.  Even though I approached my writing with discipline, I found it impossible for me to write a fixed amount daily or weekly like King suggested. I set a goal and really believed that I would get the book completed before the China Olympics in 2008. But looking back, I would still do it all over again because this project has never been about notoriety or money, I have always thought it could be a good story that people might enjoy.

A lot of what makes a writer are the books that he’s read — what books in particular do you think made you the writer you are/the book the book it is? (other than the books on Chinese history, etc.) .
Before starting the book, I read Steven King’s On Writing. One of his main points is that generally, if you want to be a good writer you must be a good reader. I’ve always been an avid reader but I began reading a lot more beginning with every book Steinbeck ever wrote. Somehow, knowing I was going to write a book caused me to notice writing subtleties and styles that I liked. After all the Steinbeck, I read Hemingway’s Boat, The Sun Also Risesand A Farewell to Arms, etc. Even though King’s On Writing is centered around writing fiction, it helped me and I often referenced it along the way.
You’ve lived quite a life — is there another book in you?
The answer is yes. I have given this more thought than you can imagine. I’d like to write a revision of No Problem, Mr. Walt that would meet approval for sale in China (i.e. tone down any reference to Communism that might be viewed as “unfavorable”) And similar to how I included Chinese history for western audiences, this version would be a juxtaposition that includes U.S. history and customs.

On my trips to China, people were fascinated about the junk (surprisingly, you don’t see a whole lot of them especially the size and style of the Mei Wen Ti) and the fact that I was even there building it. Junks (sail boats) have not been built in China now for many years since the introduction of modern engines. Many people I met wanted to know what I was doing in China, why I walked to the bus station and rode the bus, why I was wearing cowboy boots, if I liked the food, if I could tell them about California, why the U.S. was selling our latest jets to Taiwan, etc. Lastly, I believe the book is a simple story that the current generation of Chinese people would enjoy. The collaborative work with my daughter is also a possibility since No Problem, Mr. Walt ends with the delivery of the Mei Wen Ti on the docks in San Pedro. The story that proceeded to unfold after the Mei Wen Ti hit U.S. soil (or rather, water) is a unique one all its own!

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