Alan Paul to speak, sign at Aspen bookstore
August 12, 2011
ASPEN – Alan Paul’s memoir of the expatriate life, “Big in China,” will be the subject of a reading and signing with the author Friday at Explore Booksellers in Aspen.
Paul, a seasoned writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Guitar World and Slam magazines, is receiving good reviews for the 262-page, first-person account of time he spent with family and new friends in Beijing between August 2005 and December 2008.
In fact, the veteran producer-director Ivan Reitman, known for films such as “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Private Parts,” has purchased an option for the movie rights on Paul’s book.
“A lot of things get optioned and never made,” Paul said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s certainly possible, and it’s moving forward more than a lot of things ever do.”
Paul, his wife and three small kids were living in Maplewood, N.J., when his wife, Rebecca Blumenstein, an editor for the Wall Street Journal, accepted an assignment as chief of its China bureau. Paul was a freelance senior writer for Guitar World magazine at the time.
He documented his experiences for three years in an award-winning WSJ.com column, “The Expat Life.” Harper released the book in the spring. It shows the transformation of a suburban dad nearing middle age to a man who finds adventure and fulfillment in a foreign setting.
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Paul immersed himself in day-to-day life in China. The move gave him the freedom to explore life while his kids were in school and his wife was working. Reviving a dormant talent for music, he became the leader of a Chinese blues band, Woodie Alan, which would end up touring the country and even won “Beijing’s Best Band” accolades in a magazine’s reader poll.
“I really didn’t know what I was gonna do there,” he said. “I figured I would spend the first few months getting the kids settled down and getting us set up, because my wife would be working in an intense new job.
“But the kids adapted much faster than we anticipated. All of a sudden, I was free; there I was in Beijing without too many responsibilities, other than making sure the kids were OK at the end of their school day. I just started really having fun and exploring Beijing. It was just a great opportunity.”
It was a year before Paul started a band. His background was in music journalism, with a job that has given him access to the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Metallica and other rock acts.
“I also played guitar, but more as a hobby,” he said. “I did have this idea that I would play a lot of music in China, but a year came and went, and I had barely played. I was disappointed with myself. I came back to the United States for a summer break and had some extended jam sessions with friends in Maplewood. It fired me up again: I had to play more music.”
Paul bought a new electric guitar, an Epiphone 335, and returned to Beijing. But when he opened the guitar case after his return, the classic-styled instrument was broken. Later, after a period in which he grieved for the guitar, he inquired about repair possibilities. That led him to a meeting with Woodie Wu, a young musician with a guitar shop. They ended up joining forces, putting together a band (thus, the name “Woodie Alan”) and embarking on a life-changing musical journey.
“Some ‘got’ the name,” Paul said. “There are some Chinese hipsters and intellectuals and musicians who got it. But the humor didn’t completely work with the Chinese audience.”
There is more to the book than the band’s success. Paul juggled family duties in both Beijing and the United States, where his father was diagnosed with cancer. With his wife and children, he traveled across China and gained an intense appreciation for the culture. Through it all, he believes he broke through the “expat bubble” and took advantage of all the country had to offer.
Paul said he’s been coming to Aspen for ski trips off and on for more than 20 years. This is his first summer here, though. His wife is a fellow at the Aspen Institute.
“It’s exciting for me to be at Explore Booksellers,” he said. “I’ve been a customer for years.”
The event begins at 5 p.m. at the local bookstore, 221 E. Main St.