Q&A with "Genius" Author Peter Hessler

October 2011

Ridgway has at least one bona fide genius in its midst: Author and journalist Peter Hessler recently received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship. The award, better known as a“Genius” grant, is paid out in quarterly installments over five years and fellows may use the money to travel, research, buy a home, or whatever else they wish. In Hessler's case, the money comes just in time to support his next major move. Hessler lived and worked in China for 11 years before moving to Colorado in 2007. He is best known for his three books, River TownOracle Bones, and Country Driving, about reform-era China. Now, he is preparing to move his family from the High Country to the Middle East. We talked to him about the award, learning a new language, and Egypt.

Congratulations on your award. Tell us about the fellowship and how you got it.

It’s not something you apply for, and they don’t tell you that you’re being considered, so it was a big surprise. They called September 6th, talked a bit about my work and why they wanted to support me, and said they were giving me a grant for $500,000.

What are you going to do with all that money?

This award is paid out over five years, so it will help support me. It’s also going to help make a transition to Egypt—my wife and I are planning to move to Cairo with our two babies. We’re going to need to study Arabic, and there will probably be a period when I can’t be very productive as a writer because I’ll be learning about my new environment. This grant will help me cope with that.

Why Egypt?

In 2007, we decided we wanted to go the Middle East, so we’ve actually been planning this a long time. It seemed like a place where you could do a lot of work as a writer—an area that still isn’t understood. The idea of a rich language and history like Arabic appealed to us as writers. Unfortunately, the environment has changed. It’s become a big political moment for Egypt, but that also makes us more excited about going there.

Why did you choose Colorado after leaving China? 

We wanted a radical transition. We knew we’d be moving from a crowded, polluted city like Beijing and eventually going to a crowded, polluted city like Cairo. In between we wanted somewhere quiet and small in the American West. We ended up in Ridgway.

You have twin one-year-old girls. How do you feel about raising two young daughters in Egypt?

I think it’s great for little kids to have an environment that is interesting and engaging. The girls will probably grow up speaking various languages, so it’s a nice opportunity for them. Children respond to their environment. It’ll be an easier transition for them than it will be for us.

What challenges will you face?

There are always political and regulatory issues, but my sense is that the biggest challenge by far is language, culture, and getting connected in a new place. But that’s part of the joy and the challenge.

—Image courtesy of Darnell Kennedy