Peter Hessler is a writer of narrative nonfiction and the author of four books. Originally from Columbia, Missouri, he has spent most of his writing life overseas. In 1996, he joined the Peace Corps, which sent him to Fuling, a small city in southwestern China. For two years, he taught English and American literature at Fuling Teachers College, an experience that eventually became the subject of his first book, River Town, which was published in 2001. This book was followed by two others about China: Oracle Bones (2006), and Country Driving (2010). Together they comprise Hessler’s “China trilogy,” covering the decade in which he lived in the country, from 1996 until 2007.
During this period, China underwent enormous change, and Hessler recorded the moment through observing the experiences of average citizens. For the most part, he avoided writing about the famous and the powerful, instead focusing on farmers, factory workers, students, teachers, traders, and small entrepreneurs. Most of his subjects reflected two key social dynamics of this era: the mass migration from the countryside to cities, and the tens of millions of Chinese individuals who had known poverty but were now becoming members of the new middle class.
With each book, Hessler focused on a different theme. River Town, which is set entirely in Fuling, examines geography and sense of place. Oracle Bones, which ranges between contemporary events and ancient archaeology, is concerned with history and time. And Country Driving is about economics and development, focusing on communities that are being radically transformed by China’s urbanization.
In 2007, having spent more than a decade writing about Chinese people who were moving from the countryside to the city, Hessler went in the opposite direction. He left Beijing and settled in Ridgway, a town of seven hundred people in southwestern Colorado. During the next four years, while he was finishing the final book of his China trilogy, he also researched and wrote pieces about rural Colorado, Nepal, and Japan. These stories, along with others, were collected in “Strange Stones,” a collection of Hessler’s best work from his first decade as a writer.
Since 2000, Hessler has been a staff writer at the New Yorker, and he is also a contributing writer at National Geographic Magazine. River Town won the Kiriyama Prize. in 2001, and Oracle Bones was a finalist for the National Book Award, in 2006. Hessler won a National Magazine Award for “Instant Cities,” a two-year study of a new factory town in China’s Zhejiang province, which was published in National Geographic, in 2007. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. Each of the books in the “China Trilogy” made the New York Times bestseller list.
Beginning in 2011, three of Hessler’s books were published in editions for mainland China, translated by Li Xueshun, a former colleague from Fuling Teachers College. River Town and Country Driving became bestsellers, winning multiple awards in China. His books have been translated into fourteen languages.
Hessler is married to Leslie T. Chang, a former Wall Street Journal writer who is the author of Factory Girls. They have twin daughters, Ariel and Natasha, who were born in Colorado. In October of 2011, when the girls were a year and a half old, the family moved to Cairo, where Hessler and Chang have been learning Arabic, losing sleep, and researching life and politics in post-Tahrir Egypt.