Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At The Desk: Jonathan Campbell

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Jonathan Campbell

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Toronto writer Jonathan Campbell tells us about his decade in Beijing and the home office in which he started writing his book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll. Jonathan will be giving a talk about his book at the Toronto Reference Library on Tuesday, February 14th. See Open Book's Events Page for details.


I began writing Red Rock in the summer of 2009, in Beijing, where I lived from 2000 to 2010. I was blessed, for the last four of those years, with an apartment located in the heart of the old city big enough to house a home-office as well as more square feet than my wife and I could use. The one thing people assume about China is that it is cramped, and, for many, that is the case — just not for us. The size of our apartment often surprised visitors, who would invariably set to sock-skating across our massive living-dining room floor revelling in the space. In that way, our home was like Beijing: visitors (and, often, residents) were always surprised at how much of the city was unlike that which they’d expected.

I spent a portion of the writing and research phase out in that city, interviewing and writing in its cafés. With their overpriced lattes, wi-fi access and hipsters dallying far beyond the realm of what might seem possible, the cafés would probably be familiar to city-dwellers anywhere. Like so many other expats, I spent days there, pounding away on my laptop: all of us had books in us, if only some of us had book deals.

But mostly, I would remain my office. Like the cafés, my office could have been anywhere, right down to the Ikea table on which I worked. A crumpled piece of paper hung from the shelf above my desk, just above my brain, so I saw it every time I looked up from the screen: “Jon: Rock On!” it said, and I was careful to follow its advice. Because when John Paul Jones thusly speaks, one doesn’t question, one just does.

My speakers, perched above the note, would seldom not pour forth with music; at first, it was the music about which I was writing, but as the work turned from creating to sculpting, the list narrowed to music I could write to rather than about: Lonely China Day and Omnipotent Youth Society played most often, but many others, including Wang Wen, Lava|Ox|Sea, Wang Lei, Hualun, Zhaoze helped tremendously. Once I realized I didn’t have to feel guilty about listening to non-Chinese rock, the list expanded: Shearwater, the Besnard Lakes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey. And more. I seldom wrote in silence.

Though my office could have been anywhere, the setting outside the window could not. Overhead, a flock of pigeons, sent out by their owner on daily cruises, would zoom by with a wail emanating from the noisemakers attached to their legs that sounded like alien ships. A slightly smaller but identically-white-and-blackened-with-Beijing-grime building lay across a courtyard from my own and in that courtyard, senior residents of the compound would gather most mornings to exercise in groups, counting off with each new move. The loud yapping of the resident seniors who spent their days in the courtyard delving into the intimate details of the lives inside the buildings would float through the window with regularity.

As we prepared to leave Beijing, our neighbours transformed in a way hard to imagine, and harder to describe. The yapping and exercising turned to crazed vulture-like behaviour you’d expect when, say, a pack of teenaged girls meet their pop idol in the alley behind the concert hall, where they’ve been waiting in the rain for hours. (It was behaviour I’d seen before, like the time at one Beijing real-estate expo when I was asked to stand at a booth pushing soon-to-be-completed condos, attracting visitors by my foreignness, when we’d hand out fancy bags full of brochures.) No sooner did we place, next to the garbage cans in the courtyard, the possessions we’d decided were not coming with us, did the hordes descend. It seemed that in the half-minute between trips from the courtyard where we deposited the bag or three we could carry to the garbage area, back to the elevator, which we had filled up bags and bags of stuff, and back to the courtyard again, the clothing, tchochkes, CDs and DVDs we’d acquired over the years had been rifled through as if by gangs of racoons of the sort that we would soon, in Toronto, come to know all too well. When my wife saw most of a shopping-bag’s worth of her undergarments strewn across the courtyard, she didn’t know whether she should be more embarrassed for herself or for the neighbours that felt the need to go through her unwanted unmentionables. There was a comfort knowing that there was something of a recycling program at work, but the opposite came from knowing that our old clothing was going to continue to stalk the grounds of our former home.

Leaving Beijing after a decade was difficult, but my book benefitted from the move. There was the logistical: No longer did I have to rely on a VPN to jump over China’s Great Firewall, which blocked sites willy-nilly, and my online research productivity soared. Most importantly, I left Beijing’s echo chamber. Confronted with the very real world outside of Chinese rock, where nobody knew, or cared — yet, I still tell myself — about anything that took place inside the pages I was writing, the perspective garnered from that realization is essential.

After putting in time at a few of Toronto’s cafés came my final I-live-in-Toronto-now move: I set up, in our new home, a new home-office. The window looks out onto our backyard, sans any exercising or gossiping seniors. The birds, when they fly by, are silent. The racoons, though, give the dumpster-divers a run for their money.

And, atop the same model of desk I left behind in Beijing, along to a soundtrack of music from both inside and outside China, I finished the book. — Jonathan Campbell

Jonathan Campbell lived in Beijing from 2000-2010, spending much of that time in the local rock scene as drummer, chronicler, booster, agent and more. His writing has appeared in a range of international publications, he’s put together China tours for dozens of bands from around the world, arranged European tours for Chinese bands and attended international music conferences as part of China delegations. He has been called a “stalwart of the Chinese music scene”; “an instrumental behind-the-scene (figure)”; “the busiest man in Beijing showbiz” and “the Dr. [Norman] Bethune of China’s rock scene.” He lives in Toronto with his wife, and dog. Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll is his first book. For more, visit


For more information about Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll please visit the Earnshaw Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon. 

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