Mishi Saran is the author of the travel memoir Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang (Penguin, 2005). She spent a year researching the book by tracing the footsteps of Xuanzang, a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled along the Silk Road from China to India, passing through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mishi Saran’s first novel, The Other Side of Light, was published by HarperCollins India in 2012 and has been shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. She is currently working on her third book, also a novel, set in Shanghai in the 1930s. She has lived in Shanghai since 2006.
Why I write
It’s a bad habit I wish I could kick, because it means I live a split life. First, there’s me, walking, looking, chatting, eating, sleeping, cooking. Then there’s the dwarf clamped to my shoulder – a mini-me – hissing into my ear: “You could use that.” Very few moments in my day are purely, fully, simply lived, because each one must be dissected for its potential to feed the blank page.
Paradoxically, the only time I’m not “split” is when I’m writing.
The other day I went for a facial. The girl was from Hunan – or Hubei – and she smeared lotions and creams on my face as I rested, eyes closed, under the tap-tap of her fingers. Working with the hands loosens a person’s tongue and this chatty girl from Hunan – or Hubei – began to tell me her dream. There were gold wheat fields, an attempt to reach a blue temple, a man with hooves, a ring of fire, conversations with dead people. Poof! There was the dwarf on my shoulder, shoving aside a relaxing, innocent moment, squawking “Use it, use it, use it.”
I write to silence the dwarf, betraying all else.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Yes, I do. It’s like therapy. I carry a little notebook around with me, just in case I need a quick dose – like a hip flask. I aim for a word count rather than a number of hours. Mornings are best.
Worst source of distraction?
I’m my own worst enemy, being a flighty creature who enjoys people and food, and who will sacrifice much for a good conversation. My tricks: I don’t write at home. I rarely lunch with friends. I avoid those three toxic letters, www, and I turn off Skype. The other day, for the first time, I left my phone at home, so I would not be temped to check messages.
Best source of inspiration?
Being in love, of course. Then, there’s natural beauty. Give me hills, lakes, forests, seas, give me typhoons. Writing residencies too: I’ve found that writing daily on a sustained basis, surrounded by other writers is a potent fuel.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Every. Single. Day.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Tough one. I don’t read everything by an author I like; so it doesn’t really apply to me.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
Yu Hua’s Brothers. Or perhaps it’s just the most recent best book. I’m a Jonathan Spence and Lynn Pan fan too.
The answer changes with the hour. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
I’m fickle. I went though a Graham Greene phase, I’m currently in a Nikos Kazantzakis phase (but just for a single book I read this summer.) But if you held a gun to my head I’d say Virginia Woolf.
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
Dostoevesky’s The Idiot. It’s sitting on my bedside table gathering dust.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
“I didn’t write that. Somebody completely different wrote that.”
Does writing change anything?
Everything. It changes absolutely everything.
Posted: Friday, April 12, 2013