By Trista di Genova, The Wild East
(Pick up a copy of next month’s ‘Centered on Taipei’ magazine to see this interview in print.)
Steven Crook, a Briton who’s been in Taiwan since 1991, is an amazingly versatile freelancer. He’s worked as a government project consultant, copy editor for Taiwan News and the Government Information Office’s Taiwan Headlines website, and as managing editor of the now-defunct FYI SOUTH magazine.
His resume by no means stops there. He’s penned over 600 articles for an astonishing variety of media outlets, as well as three books about Taiwan: ‘Keeping Up With The War God’ (2001), ‘Dos and Don’ts in Taiwan’ (2010), and most recently, ‘Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide’ (2010).
As they are published, Crook compiles his articles on his blog, http://crooksteven.blogspot.com. Most will find it an enviably comprehensive resource on everything from travel, business, culture and the environment. So in this interview, I wanted to look at how Steven has managed to succeed as a writer in the Taiwan market, and to draw upon his expertise to explain some of the many curious and puzzling aspects of local culture.
Crook says from his home in Xinhua, Tainan County: “Since getting married and moving back to the south (my wife’s from a small village in Tainan), I’ve kept busy writing, editing, and the odd bit of consulting — government bilingualization projects, for instance.”
Trista: Do you consider yourself a travel writer?
Steven: I don’t go out of my way to call myself a travel writer, as it’s just one of the areas I write about.
Trista: As a freelancer, you seem to use a diversified strategy…how did you develop this? And what do you find is the most lucrative of your strategies?
Steven: There is/was no master plan. I’m interested in several fields and writing is a great way to learn about different things. The most lucrative strategy? Keep working!
Trista: Do you have advice for other freelancers such as myself?
Steven: Be persistent, be reliable, be flexible. Keep trying, keep looking for new places to sell your writing. If you promise someone an article, deliver it on time. Make sure you double-check all the facts. Be available and helpful if the editor has questions/revisions. If an editor doesn’t like your precise idea, work with him/her to turn it into something suitable.
Trista: Care to comment on the ups-and-downs of being a modern-day writer in such a roller-coaster ride of a publishing industry?
Steven: I self-published my first book. Writing features is much more lucrative, so I decided not to write another book — even though I greatly enjoyed writing the first one — unless someone waved cash in front of me. Someone did. Then someone else did. Not huge amounts of cash in either case, mind.
Trista: How did you get contracted to write the Bradt Travel Guide?
Steven: They found me, but I’m not sure how they found me. We negotiated for a while, then I signed a contract. It was by the far the largest, most time-consuming project I have ever undertaken. In word count, it’s twice as long as my first two books combined. Also, much of the research I did didn’t end up in the book. Some of the restaurants I visited weren’t worth mentioning, or closed down between writing and final proofs — the last stage of checking the text before it goes to the printer. I checked out several hotels that weren’t up to scratch. Also, in the initial stages I tended to overwrite, that’s to say produce 400-plus words on a place which deserved no more than 100. I had to compile lists which take up a small part of the book but which required careful thought.
Trista: How do you write a Taiwan travel guide on the shoestring budget they usually give for this kind of thing?
Steven: By not devoting myself only to writing the guidebook. I did it while writing other things, and many of the research trips I did for the book were also research trips for magazine articles. Also, some of the research that went into the guidebook has in recent months been turned into articles.
Trista: What are the things about Taiwan culture that have kept you here, writing about so many facets of local life?
Steven: To put it simply, Taiwan is a fascinating place. Things keep changing, and I keep learning.
Trista: What place/s in Taiwan have touched (your heart!) you the most?
Steven: It’s impossible for me to pick out just one (or just a few) places, but I’m certainly more of a mountain man than a beach man. Maybe that’s because I grew up beside the ocean.
Trista: As a member of the Kaohsiung City Government’s Bilingual Living Environment Commission, what do you perceive are the greatest obstacles Taiwan needs to overcome in this area?
Steven: Considering English-speaking foreigners are such a tiny drop in the Chinese/Taiwanese/Asian ocean here, I think the government is making an impressive effort. One problem that crops up again and again is the assumption by Taiwanese that what foreigners want is exactly the same as what locals want. There is a tendency to make do with a literal translation of the Chinese-language original when a complete rewrite would be better.
Trista: What kind of cases do they put in front of you?
Steven: Next week I’ll be attending a meeting to discuss the correct and official English-language names of tourist attractions in Kaohsiung.
Trista: How did you successfully manage to promote your first book?
Steven: I’m not sure I did promote it very successfully. I asked people to review it, and that helped a lot. For instance, Bradley Winterton’s review in the Taipei Times certainly helped spread the word.
Trista: About Taiwan-related literature, I’ve run across several excellent books by foreigners, such as John Ross’ ‘Formosan Odyssey’ and Catherine Dai’s ‘Bound Feet’, which are fantastic reads. Why is it so hard for Taiwan-related literature to break into the publishing market, and why is it so difficult for writers to publish and get distribution in local outlets like Eslite Bookstore?
Steven: I’ve read and enjoyed both of those books. The demand for such books is too small. It’s as simple as that. Eslite did distribute my first book for a while. Caves did a better job of actually selling it, but were a pain to deal with for various reasons I won’t go into now.
Trista: I’ve noticed there is actually a mountain of unsung writers on Taiwan, expat and Taiwanese and waishengren [Chinese that came to Taiwan in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek’s armies]. What do you think accounts for the fact that most writers on Taiwan seem to fall by the wayside, in world literature? Do you see any positive trends that might reverse or change this?
Steven: I’m not optimistic. If some major event happened – as happened to East Timor in 1999 – then more people in the outside world would take an interest in Taiwan. But, fortunately for those of us who live here, it’s a stable place.
Trista: What aspects of Taiwan’s history do you find most fascinating, and little-known?
Steven: Anything between the Dutch era and the Japanese era is especially interesting, as the Qing didn’t really go in for proactive governance. The Qing just let things drift, for decades and decades. They only acted when forced to by outside events. Very different to the Dutch, Koxinga and the Japanese.
Trista: How many gods are there in the Taoist pantheon? And who’s your favorite god?
Steven: The only overall total I’ve seen is ‘about 36,000.’ Depends what you count as a god. There are divine entities worshipped in just one temple but nowhere else. Are they gods? I don’t have a favorite god, but I do like some of the stories about mortals who became gods e.g. Liao Tian-ding.
Trista: Any comments about the evolution of religion/s in Taiwan?
Steven: I believe the strength of traditional religion here is largely because Taiwan was so pestilential in the first 300 years of Han settlement. Han Chinese sought help from their gods to overcome plagues and diseases. Since then they have been in the habit of asking deities for favors and protection, and thanking them when things go right. More recently, the rapid changes in society have caused some people to seek certainty and solace in religion. Or so it’s said.
Trista: Do you have any ideas about how Taiwan could promote itself better? Say, photography contests, cultural awards, literature grants, what-have-you?
Steven: I think the authorities are moving in the right direction, more or less. Boosting visitor numbers isn’t easy, and never gets quick results.
Trista: You work with the Executive Yuan’s Advisory Committee for the 2010 English Services Emblem Project. What is that all about?
Steven: This project aims to boost the level of English in retail, medical and other sectors of Taiwan’s economy, and to help foreigners find businesses where English is understood and labelling and signs are bilingual. Stores, restaurants, hospitals etc that think they offer a decent bilingual service apply to the RDEC for an ‘English Emblem.’ Those which pass a preliminary test are then visited by teams of judges (I’m one) who inspect the labels and signs, ask the staff questions, browse the website, and give a score which may lead to the business getting a ‘gold emblem’ or a ‘silver emblem’. In 2009, the team of which I was a member visited hospitals, clinics and drugstores in Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan, Kaohsiung and Hualien. Last year, I inspected restaurants, drugstores and shops in the Kaohsiung area.
Trista: How did this happen, your appointment?
Steven: I knew one of the other commissioners. He nominated me, so I joined up.
Trista: What is currently going on in the government level to improve the English-language environment?
Steven: I don’t know much about the overall bilingualization effort, I just help with cases when I’m asked to. [For example,] one important effort is to ensure department and office names reflect each unit’s function in a way foreigners are going to understand.
Trista: I’ve heard that the Japanese confiscated Romanized writings of the aboriginals, writing the Dutch taught them. Have you heard this/read about it, and do you know of any historical examples? What did they confiscate exactly, and why, and might these texts still be extant?
Steven: Never heard that. Some texts are still extant – I believe the Sinkang Manuscripts now belong the Academia Sinica. I’ve held one Sirayan-language document, written in 1820, in my hands. It was a land contract.
Trista: I’ve noticed you’ve written a few articles on the Siraya tribe in southern Taiwan. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in this group?
Steven: They’re my neighbors, so to speak, and I admire the purity of their ambitions. They have no ulterior motives. They simply want to see their ancestry recognized and respected.
Another interview with Steven Crook on myseveralworlds.com.
Taiwan Today’s review of Bradt Travel Guide: “Out-of-the ordinary tales and enough wry comments to provoke occasional laughter make Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide… a useful resource for those looking to experience something a little different while journeying around the island… A prolific writer on all things Taiwan, Crook has an intrinsic feel for what tickles the average reader’s fancy… a plethora of revealing observations sprinkled throughout that are sure to amuse and enlighten those already in Taiwan and wanting to learn more.”
myseveralworlds.com review of “War God”:
Crook weaves prolific storytelling and meticulous research into a finely crafted collection of personal memoirs. Spanning five years (1996 to 2001), these memoirs have been arranged and bound together – in no apparent order it seems – into a personal travelogue called Keeping Up with the War God – Taiwan, as It Seemed to Me.
The book starts with a first-hand account of what must be one of the most thrilling and unique festivals on the planet, the Plague Expulsion Festival. From there, Crook takes the reader on a journey that meanders through Taipei’s streets and alleys, scales the peaks of Taiwan’s breathtaking mountain landscapes, and visits charming aboriginal villages where folk religion still plays a major role in day to day activities.
Keeping Up with The War God is a terrific read for anyone interested in scratching beneath the surface of the standard fare that is on offer in most Taiwan guidebooks.
myseveralworlds.com review of “Dos and Don’ts in Taiwan”:
Steven Crook’s “200-page guide delves into informative sections that explain everything from eating, and drinking to information on shopping, love, marriage, gift giving, and festivals. There’s also plenty of information on taboos and polite behavior for specific social occasions such as banquet dinners, weddings, and funerals. I personally found the chapter on gods and ghosts to be fascinating…”