Bedtime stories

By Xiong Yuqing in Chengdu Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-29 20:43:01

Author calls upon his own dark experiences to become China’s highest paid writer

Zhang Jiajia Photo: Courtesy of Lü Haiqiang

Most people think of bedtime stories as something for children, but for many adults in Chinese author Zhang Jiajia's bedtime stories were their favorite bit of reading material that helped send them off to dreamland last year.

Back in 2012, Zhang started to write short stories during his spare time, which he would then post on his Sina Weibo account. Tagging them as bedtime stories, most are about the lives and affections of people living in the big city. The stories gradually caught on as a few hundred forwards soon became a tidal wave spreading across the Internet. Zhang's most forwarded post was forwarded more than 150,000 times in July of 2013.

It wasn't long before a publishing house contacted Zhang, collecting his stories into the book I Belonged to You. Published in November of 2013, the book broke the previous year's best-seller record. The very same year Canadian writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for her success in short stories, Zhang created his own miracle with this short story collection. The royalties he earned this year lead him to beat out controversial young writers Han Han and Guo Jingming, and even Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, for the top spot on the China Writer List - a list of China's highest earning authors.   

"For me, the list only helped me to realize just how many readers I have now," Zhang told the Global Times in an interview. When asked about his talents, he replied that he was just an ordinary person with a talent for writing that wanted to share his stories with readers who live in the same world as him. "Once you get past 'The Greats' in the world of writing, all you have left are people who can be divided into those can write and those who can't," Zhang said, explaining that he believes that writing is a talent he was lucky enough to be born with.

Zhang's popularity just keeps rising as his crazy-yet-warm stories have attracted directors such as Wong Kar-wai. Five movies adapted from stories in I Belonged to You are currently in the works, with Zhang just finishing the scripts for two of them. According to Zhang, if everything goes smoothly moviegoers will be able to see these adaptations on the silver screen next year.

Facing the world with warmth

Some critics refer to Zhang as a healer of broken hearts, as his stories tend to be emotionally warm and about the kindness in people's hearts. However, not everyone sees this as a good thing. In an article on examining Zhang's popularity, critic Ma Xiaoyan blamed the rise of "emotional writers" on the increasing amount of the "emotionally impaired" in big cities, going on to describe Zhang's readers as "emotional infants." However, Zhang doesn't see emotions as an illness. "Human beings aren't perfect when it comes to feelings. Everyone has their own history and a sense of loneliness that accompanies us all our lives. If this is a kind of illness, then everyone is ill."

Interestingly enough, just because they tend to be warm and uplifting, Zhang's stories don't always have a happy ending, which begs the question as to why readers see them as a source of positive energy. "Maybe because the characters in my stories insist on living their own lives," said Zhang. "Healing was never my reason for writing. Actually, when I began writing I never thought about who my target readers were."

Many of Zhang's stories are about characters who do crazy things in support of their loved ones' life choices: One man damages his ex-girlfriend's car so she can collect the insurance and live a better life; another man replaces the voice on his girlfriend's GPS with his own as a birthday gift; a woman drinks nine bottles of wine and beer to help the one she loves win a wine battle against a rival. 

Zhang said: "I've done half of these things, while my friends are responsible for the other half."

Zhang told the Global Times that when he first started out, he wanted to write a long novel chronicling his own experiences, but that in the end he felt that would leave him to exposed in front of reader's eyes.

"It would have been like running around naked. Then I decided to break my story into smaller stories and make them about different characters: men and women, the old and the young. I'm hidden behind them, and at their core I am in all of these stories."

Stepping out from the dark

Zhang said that he felt extremely fortunate to become so famous while in his thirties. "If I were 20 this year, I might end up losing myself after this sudden rise to fame. But now I'm 34 and I have my own view of the world. I know what I want," said Zhang.

"Desperation, for a man in his 20s, is only a feeling. But for a man in his 30s, you have to face your parents getting old and some of your relatives may have suffered from some severe illnesses. By then you've probably attended a lot of funerals and you might be having problems with your marriage. These are all dark times in our lives," Zhang told the Global Times.

Dushi Fangniu, a columnist and co-owner of a bar with Zhang, posted a story on his Sina Weibo account describing how Zhang traveled around, got repeatedly drunk and even had his hair turn white after his divorce in 2012.

He went on to explain how Zhang began writing these bedtime stories alone in a hotel room while on a business trip in Beijing.

"These 33 stories are the uncontrolled howling of a gifted man," he wrote, explaining how these stories allowed Zhang to walk out of the darkness.

Zhang feels the same. As he wrote in his book: "Thanks to the world that a 32-year-old man lost, I can see a new world for a 33-year-old man."

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