Tash Aw is the author of The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World. In 2005 he was the recipient of the Whitbread Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel, and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Aw's story "Sail" was published in APS 13.
1. Can you describe your daily routine, any rituals or habits?
I try to start as early as I can, while my head is still free from the clutter that seems to build up as the day goes on. Ideally, I like to be at my desk when I’m still slightly groggy, so that by the time I’m fully awake, I am completely absorbed in my work. When I’m writing intensively I like to be regular in my hours; I enjoy the rhythm that consistency creates. I try and work as much as I can before lunch, and if it doesn’t happen for me by 1:00 PM, I’ll take a break and have another session in the afternoon.
I don’t have any rituals, except that I need to get some sort of physical exercise—usually a swim—in the early part of the afternoon, before I return to work. I try to keep the table clear when I write—only my laptop and perhaps a notebook are allowed to be at hand; everything else gets flung onto the floor. I’m really not an anally tidy person, but I do need to be completely free of distractions when I write (the room offers a view only of a brick wall, the back of the adjacent building that lies eight feet away). Having a clear desk gives me the impression that I’m concentrating on my work, even if I’m not.
2. Where do you go to people-watch?
I travel a fair amount between Asia and Europe, so I spend a lot of time in airports, which are a great place to people-watch. There's something about people when they are in an in-between state, unattached to their home surroundings, that I find fascinating. When in a foreign place, most of us exaggerate our natural tendencies without realizing it. Malaysians become super-exaggerated forms of themselves, Brits talk louder and with stronger accents than they might do normally, etc. It's almost as if we need to reassure ourselves of where we're from.
3. What are your anxieties about language?
Like most nonnative speakers of English, my anxieties are mainly about whether I can actually use the language properly. Of course on an intellectual level, I know that I can write decently, but on a purely instinctive level, I always fear that I'll never have the fluency of people who were born speaking English. It isn't exactly a second language for me, as I started speaking it as a very young child, but it isn't my mother tongue either.
On the other hand, I also worry that I'm losing the ability to write in either Chinese or Malay, which are the languages I grew up with, because English has largely replaced them as my dominant everyday means of communication, certainly in the written form. But recently I was translating a story from Chinese to English, and at certain moments I got stuck because I didn't have a strong sense of which language was my "primary" language and which my "secondary." Sometimes the division between the languages of my childhood is unclear—that causes quite a lot of anxiety too.
4. Is there a character, a scene, a moment that you dream of conveying, but haven't figured out how to yet?
Famous historical figures—particularly charismatic, semi-despotic politicians—fascinate and terrify me. I've fantasized about taking on Mao, for example, but don't think I'll ever do it. How would I render his private life and thoughts? What kind of dreams fill his sleep? In my second novel [Map of the Invisible World] I gave Sukarno a little cameo of three pages, but didn't dare portray him with any depth. Growing up in Asia, we are exposed to so much of these people's myth-making that we aren't invited to think about them as real human beings. Authority figures often take on an air of untouchability in Asia—to question them isn't encouraged.
5. What landscape do you most often fantasize about?
Vast, silent, snowy fields dotted with timber cabins and partly frozen lakes. Such a landscape has all the exotic allure to me as I suppose steamy jungles have for others. I have no idea why—I don't really even like the cold very much!
6. What is the last book you didn't finish?
2666 by Roberto Bolaño.
7. What are you looking forward to?
Finishing the copyediting of my latest novel. Whenever I'm copyediting, I always think of the Chinese herbal medicine I was forced to take when I was a child: I knew it would make me better and cure me of whatever maladies I had, but the various soups and tonics were bitter and I had difficulty swallowing them—complete agony.