I had so much fun with my first author interview, I just had to do another!
Ann Mah is a journalist and the author of Kitchen Chinese, a novel about “food, family, and finding yourself.”
A Paris resident since August 2008, she was a Program Manager at the American Library of Paris for a year and a half, organizing the Evenings with an Author series. She has now stepped down from that position to focus on writing her second novel about a female sommelier in Paris. (Janet Skeslien Charles who I interviewed last time has stepped into the Program Manager role at ALP – don’t you love all these connections?)
Previously Ann has worked as an assistant editor at Viking Penguin in New York, as a staff writer for an English-language magazine in Beijing, and even won a culinary scholarship to study in Bologna, Italy! Her husband’s post as a diplomat ensures they have exciting new countries to discover every few years.
Ann took the time to answer a few questions about writing, getting unwired, and the importance of place to her work.
We had a brief Twitter exchange recently where you compared writing a novel to having a baby. Can you elaborate a little on that analogy and talk about the process of birthing your first novel, Kitchen Chinese? (And perhaps a sneak preview of how far along you are with your second?)
I don’t have children, but publishing my first novel felt a lot like what I imagine giving birth to be like. First of all, the writing process can be painful. Secondly, you feel incredibly protective of what you’ve created, not to mention nervous. Perhaps there are things you could smooth or improve, through hard work and patience, but when someone else offers criticism or rejection (which happens a lot to writers), it stings. Thirdly, you feel like no one cares about your project, or understands it like you do. This can lead to the new parent / author’s mistake of trying to do everything — marketing, publicity, editing — yourself. I think it’s important to let go a little bit and trust the professionals who are there to help you.
I’m working on my second book right now and I’m still very much in the gestation stages — I have only about 100 pages — but already it feels different. It doesn’t get easier but I do feel more confident about taking risks this time around.
Despite 17 books to her credit and several awards, the prolific and multi-award winning Canadian author Alice Munro still fears after each book that it will be her last. It seems the fact of having achieved it once doesn’t always make one believe it’s possible again! Can you talk about what lessons you’ve learned from having successfully completed your first novel? How are you applying them to your next novel? Or does it feel like starting completely from scratch?
The most important lesson I learned from writing my first book is how easily I’m distracted. I love the internet. Love. I could easily spend the whole day surfing the web and not write a word. I also love going out for coffee or lunch with friends. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that these very pleasant activities affect my concentration. My most productive days are the ones I spend alone. As a social person, this drives me crazy, but I’m learning to accept it.
You wrote Kitchen Chinese while living in China and are now working on a second novel about a female sommelier in Paris while living in Paris. Some people find that having distance from a place actually helps them see it more clearly, while others find it invaluable to be immersed in their novel’s setting. How does living in the places you write about inform your novels? (Would you even say that the fact of living in each of these places spurred the idea for each novel or played a role in its conception?)
I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to live in great cities like Beijing and Paris. I’m very inspired by place. I could never have written Kitchen Chinese set in, say, Chengdu — I feel sure that it would have turned into a completely different story.
Every time I visit a new city, I find myself contemplating the story I’d write there. Also, I’m well aware that one day I might be living somewhere decidedly less dreamy (and marketable) than Beijing or Paris — somewhere like Novosibirsk — and I think I’m stockpiling the beautiful places in my imagination for then!
How does place affect your writing in general? Are you finding you work differently in Paris than you did in Beijing, for example? What does your “typical” writing day look like?
When I first moved here, I used to say: The only thing better than working on a novel in Paris is NOT working on a novel in Paris. There is so much to do and see here, so much beauty to absorb. I think I take more breaks than I did in Beijing — I feel much guiltier here if I don’t go outside all day. I like to start first thing in the morning and work until two or three in the afternoon. But I also like to go to the gym in the morning, so I’m still trying to figure out a good balance of exercise of the mind and body.
I’ve discovered we share a similar guilty pleasure/procrastination tool – and you’ve noted it above – the Internet! How do you make yourself sit in the chair and focus on writing without distraction – even on those days (most days?) when it’s hardest?
Some times it feels impossible. I set a goal to write 500 words a day — it’s not a lot, but it adds up. I also tend to be pretty hard on myself if I don’t meet that goal — If I’m not producing, I feel terrible. To keep myself off the internet, I unplug it and set a timer for two hours and allow myself to take a short web break when it goes off.
You do many different types of writing – you’re a novelist, you blog, you’ve worked as a journalist. What do you get out of each of these different types of writing? Do they inform each other in any way?
Freelance journalism and novel-writing definitely inform each other — researching articles and interviewing people has been a wonderful way to jump start my book research. Blog writing is great for instant gratification — the feedback is so warm and heartening (most of the time) and it’s nice to feel like someone out there in the world is reading what you’re writing, which is not the case with longer projects.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Turn off the internet.
What role does research play in your writing?
The book I’m working on now, about a female sommelier, requires a lot more research than my first. I’m enjoying interviewing people from the wine world, both male and female, and thinking about how their experiences might fit into the lives of my characters.
Are you having to taste a lot of wine as research for your new novel?
It is very, very arduous, but I am doing my best! But seriously, getting to know French winemakers and tasting their wine has been an honor and a privilege. It is hard not to admire a tradition that stretches back to at least the 11th century!
For those of you in Paris, Ann will be speaking at Shakespeare & Company on Monday, November 8 at 7 PM. FREE wine will be served by Jean-Marc Espinasse from his vineyard, Domaine Rouge-Bleu. (And for those who like even further connections, Jean-Marc is the husband of author and blogger Kristin Espinasse of French-Word-A-Day).
WHAT: Free wine! + Reading from Kitchen Chinese
WHEN: Monday, November 8, 7pm
WHERE: Shakespeare & Co
37 rue de la Bûcherie, 5e (across from Notre Dame)
To find out more about Ann Mah, feel free to visit her website.