Alec Ash is the author of Wish Lanterns, a literary nonfiction account of the lives of six young Chinese, which was published by Picador in 2016.
His articles have appeared in The Economist, Dissent, BBC, Prospect and Foreign Policy. He is a contributor to the book of reportage Chinese Characters and co-editor of the anthology While We’re Here. In 2012, he founded a writers’ colony of stories from China at the Anthill. He is a regular blogger for the Los Angeles Review of Books and has interviewed over sixty authors about their literary influences at Five Books.
He has lived in Beijing since 2008.
Why I write
Of George Orwell’s four motivations, “sheer egoism” is the one which cuts close to the bone, and I hope it’s not the key one. I identify with “aesthetic enthusiasm”, as the pleasure of the craft is real, and it’s very satisfying if you feel you’ve captured something in the right words. The “historical impulse” to record is there, but I’ve never felt “political purpose”, or at least not consciously, whatever my biases.
The fifth motivation I would add to those, besides making a living, is the urge to understand. I think writing is a way to make sense of the world. That doesn’t have to be for anyone else except yourself: it can be therapy for the bewilderment that is living in such a quicksilver country as China. The process of research, note-taking and writing – pushing all the messiness of reality into a number of paragraphs or pages – is all an act of thinking on the page. Or what we try to understand might be personal, an aspect of our own story. Sometimes I feel I can only understand something by writing about it. That’s where the urge comes from. If we’re helping other people to understand and getting paid in the process, all the better, but at times that feels secondary.
What’s your writing regime?
I have a rule to write every day. But it could be fifty words on a scrap of paper, or a well-crafted email. I don’t thinking writing has to be defined as for intended publication. So long as you exercise that muscle which turns thought into words, when it does come to writing for publication, the words flow more easily – just as a training for a marathon is easier if you’ve already been jogging a little each day. This interview ticks off my writing for the day.
I don’t have any strict regimen, I just write when I’m energetic enough for it to flow. I’ve never been good at getting up early and writing first thing, as a lot of writers seem to be. I always end up scrolling news and reading online until its mid morning. Then I’d work for a few hours, have a bite of lunch, read a bit, and keep going. If I’m stressing over a project, though, I’ll switch to night hours and do long stretches of writing at night, when there are fewer distractions.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
For a longer project I write in my study at home, which is an Ikea desk facing a window looking out over some hutong greenery. To the left is a piano keyboard, and often I take a break from writing by tinkling on it. To the right is a standing desk and a corkboard. My swivel chair has a length of rope attached to it which I tie to my ankle. I do my thinking in Muji notebooks, and type in an app called WriteRoom. There’s a plant, a yoga mat and some bookshelves. Sometimes I will go lie down on the mat until the next sentence comes to me (or just for the hell of it). And if I’m writing late I like a glass of whisky on the shelf in front of me. That’s the sweet spot.
But to be honest, I’m not too picky about where I write. If I get cabin fever I go to a café down the block which has a nice back room. I’ve written on buses and airplanes, in waiting rooms, in bed, and in a co-working space which is more like a traditional office. Like EB White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”
Worst source of distraction?
Everything! I used to get up and wander about a lot, open the fridge, just stare at the food inside it, then close the door again. That’s why I started tying myself to the chair, so my distractions are all within a metre radius. But there are still a lot of them.
Best source of inspiration?
In China I think it’s all around us — talking to people, walking the city, keeping your eyes open. I imagine for a fiction writer inspiration can be anything, but for nonfiction the material is the muse. If there’s a story, you can write it. But to get those juices flowing, sometimes I open a book I like and read a few sentences to remind myself it’s possible.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
All the time. But I’ve learned not to sweat it, and to just keep putting one word in front of the other. One trick when I panic is to forget the reader and begin just writing for myself. That’s when it gets fun again, and less anxious. A bigger problem is often finding the headspace to write — not just the time, but the mental real estate to focus on the writing and quiet all the other voices and demands and doubts crowding in on your mind.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I like Shi Tiesheng, a Beijing writer who died in 2011. I haven’t read that much of his work, as little is translated and I read too slowly in Chinese, but Me and Ditan is one of the most deeply reflective essays I’ve stumbled on, and I think he engages with his history in a meaningful way.
Best book about China?
There’s no single one, but I’m a big fan of Sang Ye, who records oral histories of China in the tradition of Studs Terkel. His book China Candid is first-person narratives of so-called ordinary Chinese people, from a migrant worker to a politician, a computer geek to a former Red Guard, and so builds up a composite picture of Chinese society at the ground level. There’s also a book of his from the eighties doing the same thing, Chinese Lives. I didn’t put him as my favourite Chinese writer because he is channeling the voices of others, but his skills as an interviewer and editor are evident, and I think every China hand should read his work, because it’s a reminder to put the voices and lives of the people you write about front and centre.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I quite like it actually! It was an account of hitchhiking to Morocco from Oxford, in university as part of a charity drive, for the college magazine Isis. I was so excited to write it, and looking back it was pretty immature. But I can recognise myself in it, and the enthusiasm and fun is something I’d like to recapture, as writing for a living can drive that out of you. That’s why I’m teaching English literature part-time now, so I have more freedom to choose writing projects I’m passionate about instead of thinking about the bills. There’s a China subreddit where some folk seem to think I have a trust fund, but the truth is I went broke after I finished my first book. Freelancing is a difficult thing, and there’s very little money in it. Maybe this loops back to the first question: why I write. I don’t want money to become the primary motivation.
The book that changed your life?
When I was ten, I went on a summer holiday to California with my family. On the morning we were due to go, I woke up to find a paperback copy of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck on my bedside table. I think it was my dad who put it there. It was an old enough edition to have that heady, musty smell. I read it under redwoods and in Monterey, soaking in the texture of the language and the stories of these bums drinking quarts of wine by the seaside. Even if I was too young to understand it, I think that was when I fell in love with words.
Does writing change anything?
Minds, I hope.
Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2017