Interview (Part 5): Tash Aw on the art of writing

You’re reading part five of a six-part interview. Click on the links to navigate:

  1. On Five Star Billionaire and personal reinvention
  2. On old and new China
  3. On censorship and (not) being a spokesperson
  4. On living in and writing about Shanghai
  5. On the art of writing
  6. On literary culture in Singapore

Click to view the interview on a single page. 

See Aw’s schedule of public appearances in Singapore in April.

Is writing easier now that you’re not juggling being a lawyer?

As long as you’re remotely disciplined you can create your own structure. I was always quite clear that when I started writing full-time I would recreate the same kind of working conditions that everyone always has. I think ultimately writing is a job like everything else. You need to give it the respect of a job. I think writers always imagine that they’re more important than other people and that work is somehow more mysterious; that’s just disrespectful.

They say that if you work in an office and you wake up not feeling great or you’re having a bit of an off day, you have to go to the office anyway. You might not be very productive, but at least you’re there and you’re getting something done. If I wake up feeling terrible and just not feeling like writing, I’ll just write anyway, I’ll do something. I will work a whole day, because I think writing relies on that sort of rhythm and continuity.

Do you feel like you’re becoming a better writer?

I think I’m changing as a writer, I don’t know if it’s for better or worse. I think it’s really hard for writers to get a sense of that. I do feel like I’m developing as a writer, but it feels as if I’m still learning my craft.

With every book I write I’m always amazed by how much I learn about the process of writing. Not just the technical things I’m learning, but actually just how to be a writer, how to live with writing. With this book I learnt a lot; at some points it felt like I had to reinvent the wheel. That’s why writing is interesting. Every book has its own rhythm and its own demands. It would be quite sad, and really boring, if I ever got to the point where I was in a comfort zone.

Do you feel the pressure of earlier success?

Personally, I’ve learnt over the years to isolate myself. When I first got published, inevitably, you get caught up in the excitement. I wrote that book [The Harmony Silk Factory] over years and years in my basement flat in London, and I had no idea if anyone was going to read it, and then suddenly people are reviewing my book in the Sunday Times, and inviting me to Sydney and Stockholm. I got caught up in that excitement and thinking people actually gave a shit about what I had to say.

But in fact, that’s not why writers write, and it’s not why writers should write. If you write to get that external validation, then ultimately it’s going to feel quite hollow. Because at some point you’re going to have to come back to your desk and work on a new novel; you have the blank sheet of paper in front of you all over again.

Also, I saw around me how so many writers have got addicted to that cycle of: I have a good review and I’m on a real high, and now I have a really bad review, I’m on the floor for three days. I saw how they measured their self-esteem based on how their books were received. I thought: that’s not how I want to live. I basically trained myself: I don’t have that much to do with the literary scene in London, I don’t go out that much to publishing parties, I just get on with what I do.

What I found with my first novel was that, no matter what anyone said about my book, I still had to come back the next day and do my own work. That didn’t change. The challenges that faced me as a writer were still exactly the same as they were before the good or bad review.

I have a lot of expectations when I start writing a novel, I really want to something different with every novel I write, to do something that’s challenging for me. That’s where I face a lot of pressure, but once a book is done, that’s it: then my job is done and I don’t really worry about it. My publishers worry a lot. But they can’t really control it either. Whether people like the book or don’t like the book, it’s a subjective thing; it’s hard to control that. So why get stressed about it?

Who do you look to for feedback? Who do you really trust?

I have a couple of old friends who are very good readers of mine. Some of them are writers, some of them are not. But they’re the ones whose opinions I go to as a first call. After that, my agents and my editor. But they’re professional people, so they’re looking at the book from a slightly different angle. They’re looking at how to bring the book into the world. That’s already a different point of view. So I’m really careful not to show them anything unless I know what’s going on in the book.

Does it matter whether these friends and editors know the subject matter—in this case Shanghai—or is it better that they don’t?

I think it’s probably best that they don’t know the specifics of Shanghai to begin with, so that they can treat the book on its literary merit, and say whether it’s well written or not well written.

But then again, you get worried about it: it’s a book that’s set in Shanghai, which involves Shanghainese characters, and actually in this case involves a lot of Malaysian characters, so I was really nervous to see what people who lived in Shanghai would make of it. And so far, I’m really glad that a couple of people have said it really spoke to them.

Are people reluctant to share details of their lives with you, because you’re a writer?

No! People are always telling me stuff that they actually shouldn’t. They’re more open because they’re secretly hoping it’s going to work its way into your book.

So what happens now? You’ve got the book out. You’re back to teaching, back to that blank piece of paper the next day.

I would like to get to the blank piece of paper quite soon. But with the teaching and a publicity tour coming up soon, it’s quite distracting. I have to get back to the UK in March, and then to Shanghai and Australia, and then my American edition comes out in the summer. So all that is quite distracting.

How do you reconcile having to do all the publicity, when you could be writing?

I used to be quite conflicted in my view to publicity; I used to really hate it, but kind of feel that it was necessary, so I did it half-heartedly. Now I just think, it’s fine, it’s part of being a novelist in this day and age. My problem is that no one ever explained to me what was going to happen! I thought being a writer was just writing books and that’s it… I’ve learned to be OK at it, but I’m not a natural public speaker, for example. I don’t look forward to speaking in front of 500 people. It’s a source of mild stress for me.

Any disaster stories?

Yes! In Singapore, when my first novel came out, my publishers said “there’s so much interest, we’ve been selling so many copies, we’re going to organize a huge thing for you, at the National Library in Orchard Road.”

First of all, who goes to Orchard Road to go to the national library?! I didn’t know this, so they set up this thing. And there were at least 200 chairs laid out in front of a podium, but there was not one person. It was basically me, my publicist, and the guy who runs the Kinokuniya bookshop. So I was just sitting there reading to them, and they’ve already heard me reading about twelve times, and meanwhile the janitor kept stacking the chairs around me.

It’s better now, though?

Well by the time of the second book [Map of the Invisible World] I was quite well established. So they had me stand in Borders, it was like Meet the Author. And not a single person came! I didn’t sign a single book. So this time, I said “I’m not doing big bookshops. I’m just not doing it, don’t make me do it.” And they said,
“We really want you to do it.”

[Click here to see Aw’s schedule of public appearances in Singapore in the coming weeks.]

Do people respond differently to your work in different markets?

The UK responds very well, Australia too. Not so much the US. This one, they seem very interested in. But I think it’s that America doesn’t really care about Malaysia and South-East Asia, but they really care about China. That’s why they’re more interested in this book: “How can we be better than China? How do Chinese people think?”

So much of it depends on subject matter. The British have all these old fashioned links with Malaysia and Singapore, so I think it’s natural that they would be interested in my work. I think a lot of Indian writers say the same thing; they do very well in England and not so much in America.

We’re seeing more and more Chinese authors get international attention. Is there a South East Asian literary wave on the way?

There’s only, like, three of us anyway! The numbers just aren’t there. As far as I know, there really are only about three or four Malaysian writers that have been published internationally. So I think until greater numbers start coming through, we aren’t going to see that.