Tash Aw was born in Taipei to Malaysian parents. His family returned to Malaysia when he was two and he grew up in Kuala Lumpur, where he was educated at a Catholic school before moving to England at the age of 18 to attend university. He began writing short stories upon moving to London after graduating and worked at odd jobs for 18 months before training and working as a lawyer in the City. It was during this time that he started work on The Harmony Silk Factory, writing in the evenings and at weekends. In 2002, he left his job to complete the novel, which was finished a year later, nearly five years after its conception. He has been a full-time writer ever since. Task Aw’s second novel, Map of the Invisible World, was published in 2009. His third and latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, was published by Fourth Estate in February 2013.
Tash Aw lives in London.
Why I write
I write because I wouldn’t know how to fill my days otherwise. I could occupy my days with lots of other pursuits: swimming, woodwork, learning a new language, travelling – the sorts of things I’m always complaining that I don’t have enough time to do, but ultimately they can’t satisfy me in the way writing does. I also have to earn a living, and writing is the only job I’ve done so far that suits me temperamentally – I’m a solitary worker, and writing allows me a clarity of thought and purpose that I don’t think I’d have in any other white-collar job. So I guess in that sense I write to escape, though my escapism is more a way of opting out of social interactions rather than of reality, because writing is entirely about confronting reality in an intimate way.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours? Or do you work to a daily word count? What time of day do you write – and why?
When I’m working on a novel, yes, I absolutely do write every day – which is to say that I am at my desk every day. I try and be regular in my hours – from about 7.30am to lunchtime, followed by a break and then another shorter session in the afternoon, until about 6.30. My productivity varies enormously. In the early stages of a novel, my writing hours may yield only 200 words or even less; at the end of the novel, when I have a few years’ momentum behind me, I might write up to 1,500 a day. I’ve learnt not to base my happiness on my word count, tempting though that might be.
Where do you work? Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I work principally in my study, which double up as my dining room. It’s a small square book-lined room with a round table in the middle of it, and a day bed running along one wall. I have easy access to all my books, as well as to the tea and coffee in the pantry kitchen, which is just next to the study. I can’t write in public spaces – I do need reasonable silence, and if there is music, it has to be mine, not someone else’s.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet, by far.
Best source of inspiration?
Reading, followed by physical exercise.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
All the time. Being a writer involves learning to live with these doubts and realising that they are never going to go away.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
There are a number – Aleksandar Hemon and Yiyun Li are two who spring to mind instantly. Alex Ross in The New Yorker, and David Sedaris to a lesser extent. James Wood, too.
One of many equal firsts: Moby Dick.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
A number of Dickens’.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
“Oh my god.”
How did you get started writing?
I started writing stories when I was 12 – I have no idea how it happened. I think probably as a result of having no friends.
Does writing change anything?
Of course it does – at its best, it changes the way one sees the world and oneself; it asks questions, even if it can’t provide the answers. At its banal worst, of course it changes nothing.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
I’m taking a break from fiction and working on a series of non-fiction essays on Malaysia, with the canvas broadening to include other parts of South East Asia, perhaps. I’m collaborating with the photographer Ian Teh. I have no clue when it will be out – it’s still in its early stages.
Posted: Friday, May 31, 2013