Tash Aw, whose debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory was awarded the Guardian Whitbread Award for first novel in 2005, will be in town for the Singapore Writers Festival which kicks off this Saturday at The Arts House.
The Harmony Silk Factory tells the story of Johnny Lim through the eyes of three different people - his son Jasper, his wife Snow, and his friend Peter Wormwood. Three very different portrayals of the same man result in a richly textured account that demands the full attention of the reader in solving the novel's central puzzle - who was the 'real' Johnny Lim?
Aw explains the rationale for this: "At a very basic level, the novel is about the messiness of history and memory, and about storytelling in general. Only in Hollywood and Agatha Christie novels do you get stories that are really neat and nicely tied-up. Real life isn't like that."
Even though Aw was dubbed the "RM3.5 million author" by the Malaysian press after he disclosed in interviews that he had been paid over £500,000 for his first novel, he has this advice for aspiring novelists: "Don't give up the day job. Life as a writer never glamorous, and it's the worst when you're just starting out."
The 34-year-old Taiwan-born, Malaysian-raised author currently resides in London, where he is working on his second novel.
What made you give up your career in law to become a full-time writer? What made you so sure that writing was your vocation, and not just a hobby?
I don't think anyone really knows that writing is their vocation until they are actually established as a writer. You might convince yourself that it is what you were put on this earth to do, but so do millions of other people!
I had a great job with an international law firm, but I'd spent a long time writing short stories quite intensively. I had also started working on a messy draft of a novel (which would eventually turn into The Harmony Silk Factory). I would spend weekends and holidays and the odd evening working on it. It got to the stage where I thought I had to make a leap of faith to see where my writing took me - it felt important to me, much more than a hobby, because when you're working 70 hours a week at your day job the last thing you want to do is scribble a chapter of a novel, and that was what I was doing. So I took the plunge - but I still had no idea it would lead anywhere.
Some writers focus on telling a story, some are more intent on techniques, while some write as a way of trying to make sense of the world, or to come to terms with certain aspects of their lives. How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I think any good writer will be concerned with all those things you've mentioned. They're all very important elements. I suppose my main motivation, like all writers, is the desire to make sense of the world in which I live. My own experiences aren't so much in the foreground, but they obviously filter into my work even though I'm not conscious of them.
When it comes to the writing of the novel, I am very aware of style and technique. I don't really believe writers who say they 'just tell the story.' Everyone is concerned with style, some more so than others. Without it everything becomes schematic and pretty boring.
What were you trying to achieve with the use of multiple and conflicting narratives in The Harmony Silk Factory?
I wanted to use that particular narrative structure to create a story that was textured and rich. At a very basic level, the novel is about the messiness of history and memory, and about storytelling in general. Only in Hollywood and Agatha Christie novels do you get stories that are really neat and nicely tied-up. Real life isn't like that. There are things that remain unexplained, things that frustrate you because you can never get to grips with them. I wanted the reader to get the same sense with The Harmony Silk Factory.
Some people complained it was opaque, that it didn't have a watertight ending. But that was the point. Sometimes we just have to live with a lack of resolution and leave 'closure' to Hollywood - and to lawyers!
What, in your opinion, is the role and responsibility of an author?
That's such a big question, and obviously it depends on where and who the author is. If you're talking about novelists, then (certainly from a personal point of view) I would say that we have a duty firstly to the craft of the novel. This means thinking seriously about the novel as an art form, and thinking about how we can push the boundaries of the novel. This isn't just in terms of form or style, but in what the novel is capable of saying. It needs to aim at some kind of universal truth, even if this means talking about things that are uncomfortable.
Above all the novelist has to move people, to try and open their minds to new things. Because in doing so, you open your own mind to those things.
What do you think of 'writer's block' and how do you deal with it?
Writer's block is one of those terrible vague terms that people have come up with to describe a range of very complex conditions. It's like calling someone 'mad' when they might actually be suffering from something quite precise like Bipolar Disorder.
What actually constitutes Writer's Block? Half a day staring at the computer screen? Two days scribbling notes on characters you'll never use? Two weeks thinking or planning without actually doing anything? A month worrying that your novel is rubbish? I suffer from all those things. And to minimise this, I try and stick to a routine that mimics an office job - I work to regular hours, 8.30 am to 6.30 pm with breaks for lunch and a swim, plus plenty of tea. That way I develop a rhythm that isn't quite so vulnerable to any one of those afflictions that form 'writer's block.'
Who are your favourite authors? What do you like about their works?
[William] Faulkner, [Vladimir] Nabokov, [Gustave] Flaubert, [Leo] Tolstoy, [Herman] Melville, [Joseph] Conrad. I can't really start talking about why I like them, otherwise we'd be here all night. All I can say is that they share certain basic qualities: unpredictability, invention, a concern with style; and, most importantly, an understanding of the human condition.
Do you have a favourite genre? If yes, what elements of that genre appeal to you, and why?
Sometimes I read crime fiction, which I really enjoy for the plotting and the detail. I don't read science fiction, which is the thing that serious writers often say they read in order to try and make themselves seem cool and more with it. They'll only have read Ursula le Guin, whose brilliance takes her beyond the confines of genre. If it's a choice between, oh, I don't know, Terry Pratchett and a third re-reading of Anna Karenina, you should always go for Anna.
Lastly, what advice would you give to budding writers?
First of all, read as widely as you can. Read as many of the great classics as you can. Once you've read them you'll know why, and you'll be thankful. You need to know what's been done in order to do something new.
When you start to write, be true to what you believe is important. DON'T write what you think people want to read.
Experiment. Write something that excites you, not anyone else.
Next, something which may sound like a downer but isn't: don't give up the day job. Life as a writer never glamorous, and it's the worst when you're just starting out.
And finally, persevere.
Meet author Tash Aw, whose debut novel 'The Harmony Silk Factory' was awarded the Guardian Whitbread Award for first novel in 2005, on 1 Dec, 2007 at 12 noon, The Arts House, Blue Room. For more information on the Singapore Writers Festival, visit the website.
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