Memoir Interview with Matthew Polly Author of “American Shaolin”

by Jerry Waxler

Matthew Polly’s memoir, “American Shaolin” chronicles the two years he learned Kung Fu in an ancient temple in China. The trip took place in the 90s when the giant nation was moving rapidly out of isolation and into the global economy. In this interview, I ask Polly questions about writing his memoir, about Coming of Age, and about seeking Truth.

Jerry Waxler: In your childhood you moved from one home to another, creating a radical shift in your self-image and your need to fit in. Then you moved from the Midwest to a top Ivy League school, a huge cultural change. Then again, you made the transition to China. I’m fascinated by these major transitions, because transitions always contain power, as we try to reclaim our center in the new place. My question, though relates to you as the memoir writer. How did writing the book help you make sense of the transitions?

Matthew Polly: It forced me to re-experience my time in China. Also because the book was written 10 years after I’d gone, I was able to look back at my younger self from a certain distance.

JW: Did writing help you gather all these disparate parts into a unified whole?

MP: I don’t know. I’m not sure we are ever really a unified whole. What it did more than anything was to put that part of my life to rest. I stopped thinking about China as much.

JW: What were some of the issues, if any, of going from a private person, known mainly by your friends, to a public one, known by strangers? Of course as an author, you now want to be known by as many strangers as possible. Help us understand this shift out of privacy.

MP: It didn’t bother me at all, strangely enough. As you said, I wish more strangers knew about me, provided they actually bought the book. I don’t get stopped on the street, but I do receive a fairly large amount of email from people wanting to compliment the book or talk about the book or ask for advice. On the one hand, this is highly flattering; on the other, it is a new burden, because I try to reply to everyone in detail. The other big difference is that it gave me a huge increase in credibility as I was researching my next book about the sport of mixed martial arts, which was nice.

JW: The years at the Shaolin Temple represent remarkable self-sacrifices. You gave up so much. You invested years to learn a new language. You became a foreigner in a foreign land, a celibate monk who worked hard every day to learn to fight. You immersed yourself voluntarily in the third world poverty of rural China. And yet, you never ask the reader for sympathy or admiration. How did you achieve your “this is just the way it was” style of writing? Did you workshop to weed out self-consciousness? What steps did you go through to generate the sincere, revealing tone of the book?

MP: It’s the old saying: “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” It was ten years later. And it was hard to feel sorry for myself when so many good things came out of the sacrifice. For one, I was a stronger and more interesting person. For two, I won the Rhodes scholarship almost solely on the strength of the trip. (My grades weren’t that great.) If I had written the book right after my return as I tried and failed to do, there probably would have been much more “feel sorry for me” to it.

JW: At first you were peaceful, almost a wimp. But later, you hit people in the face until they bled, and got so fired up with adrenaline you were screaming with rage. This raised some weird moral questions for me. This wasn’t an action movie. You were really hurting people. I started to worry, “hey, maybe he’s not such a nice guy after all.” When you portrayed yourself as an aspiring “bad ass” did it make you cringe, and ask “was I really that crazy?” Or did you appreciate discovering that side of yourself? Do you like to think of yourself that way now?

MP: I often ask myself: “Did I really do all those things? Was I that crazy?” But I am happy I integrated my shadow self. It wasn’t that I didn’t have that anger inside me; it’s just that it was terribly repressed. But as you suggest, as the anger came out it started to worry me that I was becoming a bad person, a bully. It didn’t bother me to reveal that. I thought there was a great moral lesson in it. What really bothered me was writing that first chapter where I revealed that I had been a wimpy kid who had been bullied. I wrote that chapter last. I still had strong feelings of shame over my cowardice as a child.

JW: I really loved your comments about visionary experience and other direct experiences of transcendent presence. It was fascinating that you found a surprising number who had such experiences themselves. How did you feel about turning such private experiences into a public statement? Does it make you feel vulnerable? Did anyone ever accuse you of being weird for expressing this interest?

MP: I was concerned about revealing it in the Lao-tzu sense: “The knowers do not say, and the sayers do not know.” But I felt an obligation to reveal it and let people know that Shaolin wasn’t just about learning how to fight, it was also a spiritual center. That kung fu is a form of spiritual practice and that I knew that for a fact because I had directly experienced it.

No one ever accused me of being weird. Quite the opposite. I received a number of emails early on from people who have had their own spiritual experiences. Some were very interesting, some were slightly disturbed. I think it is the Upanishads that says something to the effect, “the line between divinity and insanity is as thin and sharp as a razor’s edge.” But I may have that quote wrong.

JW: You were apparently on a spiritual search and yet after three years of studying religion and philosophy, your memoir contains hardly anything about your belief system. I consider this absence of preaching to be an impressive feat. You stuck to your story rather than reported your belief systems. Please comment on your choice to hold back so completely on ideas, belief, theology, and so on.

MP: That is very astute of you to notice and kind of you to say. The grandiose answer would be: Jesus taught through parables. The truth is I’m very uncomfortable when people evangelize, so I didn’t want to do that to readers of my book. I felt that the moral thing to do was simply recount my experiences as best I could and let the readers draw their own conclusions.

JW: Are you tempted to write more about what you believe? Why or why not.

MP: No, I’m opposed to it. I think of myself primarily as a colorful storyteller, not a preacher or a missionary. It strikes me as dangerously arrogant to believe that “I know the truth and you should believe as I do, because I tell you so.” It’s the sin of pride. It’s a short step between writing about what you believe and expecting others to do the same.

JW: I was delighted with the way you end the book. I don’t like to discuss endings in detail, because I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the last section of the book and especially the last line created an excellent effect, wrapping up the whole thing in one fell swoop. The end is an important part of any book, because that’s when readers are trying to make sense of what they just read, and the writer must guide them from his life back to theirs. You performed this part of your task beautifully. Was it hard for you to come up with the ending? What went in to creating it? Did you know where the book was going to end when you started it?

MP: Thank you. The story goes: I had finished the manuscript. My book editor read it and suggested that I should really go back to the Temple and see how it had changed for the closing chapter. I pitched the idea to Slate, so I could cover the cost of the trip. (Your readers can find the article here.)

The final two paragraphs of the book just flowed out of me. I didn’t know what I was going to write until I reread what I had just written. When that happens, it is almost always great material.

JW: How did this brainstorm about the ending work in with the overall structure of the rest of the book? Did finding the right ending make you rethink the beginning?

MP: I liked how the ending had turned out so much that I went back and rewrote the entire manuscript. It wasn’t the structure so much as the quality of the work. I’d reached a new level with the epilogue and I needed to improve the rest of the book to match it.

JW: What are you working on next?

MP: I’ve been researching a book about mixed martial arts (MMA). It has involved getting hit in the head frequently. Probably not the best thing for a writer.


Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

To read my essays about the memoir “American Shaolin,” click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.