Possibly best known around town as the shadowy queen ant behind the Anthill, Alec Ash's work also crops up regularly at the Los Angeles Review of Books– breathing lucid literary China reporting across the Pacific. Then there are the pieces in The Economist, Foreign Policy, Dissent. It goes on and on. But it is in his role as the founder and continuing facilitator of the Anthill that Ash graces us with an ever expanding vault: the foreigner experience in China, scribbled not on Costa napkins but shouted into the great digital void. For a hypothetical future archaeologist, it's a treasure trove, but for Beijing writers it's a community.
Loreli sat down to talk with Ash to talk about not that book, but a new one. Wish Lanterns follows six Chinese millennials, all destined for Beijing, from birth to something like the "end of youth." The prose is breezy, calm, and moving, and we are mercifully spared all preaching. I'm still not sure if it's fair to call nonfic novelistic, but Wish Lanterns is definitely not interested in lectures. It's about (young) people.
MB: Your book gave me that crinkly feeling, behind your eyes? Like before you cry.
AA: But you didn't cry?
MB: No, I made a decision not to cry.
AA: If you didn't cry then I've failed. I want to make you cry by the end of this interview.
MB: Okay. You can try.
AA: I saw a dead dog yesterday.
AA: It was a metaphor for China.
MB: That's beautiful. I want to know more about the relationship between the blog, Six, and this book. In so many ways it seems like a dry run, in form, for the book. Did it inform what you were or weren't going to do in Wish Lanterns?
AA: I think I used what I learned in doing the blog when I wrote the book. On the surface of things it looks very simple: on the blog I was following six people over the course of two years, in a narrative style. Checking in on them with each new blog post. And that's similar to what I do in the book. Follow six people over the course of two to four years. But in the book I started in their childhoods. So I was back reporting most of it. And while I did use what I learned doing the blog in writing the book, in reality I think they're completely separate. It does speak to the fact that six is a great number of people to follow. I don't think it's a coincidence that in Friends we follow six characters. In the original proposal to the publisher I suggested following twelve people. And they said great. Do twelve. Then a couple months later I wrote them and said, hey, what if I follow ten people? A year after that I said, okay, I have these six people. I'm going to write about them. I originally started writing about one of the six people I wrote about in the blog. His name is William. He's an environmentalist. But I found it very difficult to write his story because I've known him for such a long time and he's my friend.
MB: Too close.
AA: Yeah, I was too close to him. So I found six new people.
MB: Which means the medium must be very special, because it sounds like you were hanging out with these people for years, trying to figure out what was going on, their stories…
AA: Yeah, I mean I don't think I took my notebook out with any of them until a couple of months after our meeting. Just getting to know them and letting them get to know me, before I did sit down interviews where I was talking to them about their childhoods. Or traveling with them back to their hometowns.
MB: And with all the back reporting and covering from early childhood, from birth, really, in some cases all the way to 29– they end in different years but in some cases you go all the way to the end of the 20s.
AA: Pretty much.
MB: And since "youth, youth, youth” is clearly part of the mission statement and part of the project. Looking at youth and China's youth. This reminded me of this ongoing discussion in the west, the idea of extended childhood. The idea of the man-child as a trope. Millennial unemployment. People sort of… getting out of college and then floating and not being sensible careerists.
AA: Man-child is a Western concept and I think it's applied to… this American trope of a man in his early thirties still living in his mum's basement. I think that in China you both have that and you don't have it. I think it's impossible in a culture this competitive to remain a man-child in your early thirties. I think the pressures here, especially if you're an only child, make it impossible to be a "man-child" in your early thirties. At the same time, this generation has the ability to take it easy in a way that their parents' generation did not have. So you'll find a lot of people in the square kilometer around where we're having this interview in Gulou, in Beijing, who have opened their cafe or opened their guitar bar. And they just want to be free and have fun and do their thing. And that's something totally new, which reminds me a little bit of American man-children. But at the same time they're getting phone calls everyday from their parents asking them when are you going to get a job at the bank and get married?
MB: I think it has to do with society moving so quickly. You're not going to grow up and do exactly what your parents did. Which, for a long, long time, you might have done. And now you have people graduating and it may not be possible to jump straight into a normal, perfect career path with a lucrative salary.
AA: I think it still is possible. That's just no longer what everyone hopes to do. I think there's a new cohort, especially of people in cities, who actively don't want to do that.
MB: You mentioned not taking out your notebook until a certain point. I'm wondering about the intended process verses the actual process. You already said that you walked down the number of interviewees. But was there any, "I'm going to do the book in this way," then realizing you were going to have to take a different approach?
AA: Totally. So I had the deal to write the book back in 2012. I was twenty-six. And I didn't really have any idea how to write a book. That's all stuff that I found out while I was doing it. So the process was very much a learning experience for me, both in terms of the research and in terms of the writing. Which I think ultimately is the only way to learn how to write a book. I was schooled in many different ways, in that I discovered how my approach was wrong to begin with. For existence I started by looking for character types – a fuerdai, a fenqing – that would somehow represent different types of Chinese youth. And what I found out, when I started meeting people, is that obviously people are individuals. And they might fill several roles at the same time, and above all they have their own individual identities and contradictions. That's when I moved away from what the initial proposal, which was chapter profiles of these different character types, towards what the book is now: six lives interwoven throughout the book. And ultimately representing nothing except themselves, although I hope they do shed light on different aspects of being young in China at the same time.
MB: Yeah, which connects to another question. Maybe you already answered it. To what extent was homogeneity a problem? Like, "I want to profile these two people, but actually I want two people who are more different for the sake of balancing the book?"
AA: I think it's impossible to find homogeneity in China. Contrary to the expectation of many people when they first come here. I think that’s especially true with the generation that I'm talking about. There will never be a group of people so diverse. Because in the 80s and 90s and 00s, when these people were being born, that was the first time in Chinese history where you were suddenly able to try to be anything that you would like to try to be.
MB: Can you talk more about the process of getting this book off the ground? You said you were talking to people as early as 2012?
AA: Yeah, I found an agent. Which totally surprised me. I interviewed her for an article I was writing at the time about the London Book Fair. She at the time was the publisher of Ma Jian, who I was writing about. I ended up pitching her the idea for my book in a pub in Oxford, while slightly tipsy.
MB: Which pub?
AA: The White Horse. Totally off the cuff. And for some reason, which still evades me, she decided to sign me on.
MB: That's a magical story.
AA: Pretty much.
MB: I’m wondering to what extent this book wrote itself in the notes, after the research was done.
AA: To no extent did this book write itself. If only.
MB: So you still had to write everything from scratch after the research was done.
AA: It happened after a fair portion of the research was done, and I decided it was time to write the book. What I discovered about book writing is that you only discover what type of book you're writing about half way through. So about half way through writing the book, I discovered what kind of book I was trying to write, and I had to go back and rewrite the first bits. So in my mind the research and the writing were two pretty distinct periods. You can write up certain set scenes that you've witnessed and I did but, in my mind, a book is one thing with one voice and one style and one set of themes, and it needs to be written in one frame of mind. For me the process of writing was very much distinct from all of these pages of notes that I had, where I had to incorporate the material that I had within a voice and a set of themes that I was striving for. And the bitch of writing a book is that you only know what that voice is when you're well into the whole thing.
MB: Then it's a matter of conforming other portions?
AA: Yeah. I spent about two years researching these people, and then another year of very intensive writing, while still spending time with them and finding out what was new with them, completing their stories. But that intensive year of writing was very painful, very solitary, very lonely. I spent most of my time, just my dog and I, in my garret.
MB: It's a garret novel.
AA: In that sense. I think it's easier with nonfiction than fiction, because you have all your material already. You don't have the pain that I imagine a novelist has, of being able to invent anything. You already have the material and you know what it is you're trying to write. But it's still a very crushing experience to write so many words. And I think there's no way around that.
MB: What's the dog's name?
AA: Ginger. Ginger is acknowledged in the book. She was the most stable female presence in my life while I was writing.
MB: I think one trick you pulled off is staying– you're a journalist– respectful and gentle, while describing these people and their foibles, flaws, warts– and yeah, successes. I feel like you managed the trick of never casting even implicit judgment on any lifestyle decision, anywhere on the spectrum.
AA: I appreciate that. I don't know if I pulled that off. But definitely while I was writing about people's mistakes and compromises, I couldn't help but identify with them while I was fucking things up in my own life, so it's difficult to cast judgment when you are making the same mistakes yourself.
MB: I think sometimes the keyboard encourages it.
AA: I talk a lot with my good friend Tom Pellman about the differences between fiction and nonfiction. I think both of us find they're very different universes but with a lot of similarities in terms of process.
MB: And you can't hide from me. I know you've written fiction.
AA: Not really, no.
MB: Red Bean.
AA: Oh, that was just imitating Anthony Tao's story Mayonnaise.
MB: You don't count it.
AA: I don't write fiction. I've tried it and I'm shit. I'd like to write fiction like any writer but I just don't think I can do it. I don't think I have the skill set for it.
MB: Now I want differences. What are things that you bring to nonfiction that are antithetical to fiction? Or vice versa.
AA: Okay. I think part of my approach to Wish Lanterns was deliberately trying to use the techniques of fiction within nonfiction. I wanted to write a nonfiction book that read like a novel. Although I took pains that everything in it was accurate and true. But I wanted there to be a feeling of a story arc and an emotional arc within each character. So I think the only difference in terms of literary engineering is that you're shackled by the truth. I wasn't able to have these plot twists which, if I were writing a novel, would help the book stand up. Because real human lives aren't like that, and I think even more interesting for it.
MB: Except that they are in these amazing ways. I already talked to you briefly about the narrativizing of normal life– your pizza is here.
AA: Have a slice.
MB: Dahai spends years of his life literally underground, going through internet forums wondering where his true love is, and then, like, comes above ground, and true love appears.
AA: That's a crazy part of the book.
MB: That part was like fiction for me.
AA: What did you think of his snap marriage? Did you feel it was the real thing or did you feel like he was rushing...
MB: The first thing that came to my mind, which surprises me even now, was his courage. When I put myself there, I was just shocked by the courage. He is single, or looking or whatever. And they have this brief exchange on WeChat. Then you can tell something has fixed in his brain: this is it. Like, I'm going to make this work.
AA: He decides.
MB: "I'm pretty sure this is going to go really well." To me, that leap of optimism is courageous.
AA: I think we all do that.
MB: Yeah, he just did it virtually.
AA: Who is the character you identified with most?
MB: Uh, moments in all of them. I really had this image in my mind, and will for a long time, of a guy taking a contract and being like, "Okay, my life is underground now." There's something great about the image of this man tunneling across Beijing, literally digging a hole underground. Ready-made metaphor. Everyone packed into this city and he's digging a hole under it all.
AA: I did like that metaphor.
MB: So I identified with someone whose work just, as a matter of course, takes over everything. Thinking, "What is the way that I'm going to escape from this? I know I will get out of this somehow, and something better will happen to me, but I don't know exactly how that is going to happen." I relate to that feeling. Also Mia going home is an amazing chapter. I think so many millennials identify with that. "I know these people [her relatives]. I love these people. But I cannot tell them the truth about anything."
AA: Yeah. Her granddad is a real character. Mia's one of my favorites in the book, because she's one of the ones who never gives up on her dream. Real go-getter attitude, which I find so impressive.
MB: She really is. There's a big twist that’s never mentioned, or given one line or something. She has this great gig at a magazine. Suddenly everyone recognizes her and she's the envy of all the interns or whatever, and then the beginning of the next chapter is like, "They offered her a position, so she left." A moment of realization that this person is way more ballsy than you anticipated.
AA: She really is.
MB: But it works out. There's also something really sad about the slow burn of… it works out, but Xiaoxiao finishes school and pursues a dream, then the dream crumbles. She has college, and those appear to be the golden years. Then she starts a new dream with the shop, and that vanishes, and those years become the golden years. I feel like she must be wondering, "When is this going to stop?"
AA: I remember feeling that way when I left college.
MB: Another ready-made metaphor is Snail's internet addiction. I know internet addiction or gaming addiction as something that's drifting around in the culture and that sometimes Fox News talks about. But then Snail goes in hard.
AA: That really struck me. I deliberately went into the book trying to find an internet addict to write about. I was thinking, "This is so funny and interesting and quirky, in China the kids are getting addicted to World of Warcraft." So I actually posted in some of these Chinese World of Warcraft forums. The post literally was something like, "Hi. I'm an author. I'm writing about young Chinese. Have you been addicted to World of Warcraft?" Snail’s cousin got in touch with me and wrote, "Oh, my cousin is like this." But I soon realized that this isn't some joke. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it had a real impact on his life. And I started to understand why he was playing World of Warcraft, and the inequalities in society that led him to believe he couldn't succeed in real life but could succeed in virtual life. So that really drove home for me the realities of this broader phenomenon, which is all too often painted in this sort of comic light.
MB: Then his karaoke adventures. It's a carefully painted picture.
AA: That town was interesting. I didn't go with Snail to that one, he was too busy.
MB: You went alone?
AA: I turned up at that karaoke parlor alone and pretended to be a customer. But I couldn't afford to pay for any of the rooms. So luckily when I turned up they were all full. I waited in the back with all of the karaoke girls. Just chatting with them and chatting with Mrs. Money.
AA: That was the only part of the book that felt that way. Like subterfuge.
MB: Okay. Chinese translation?
AA: I hope so. I think it's important that you're accountable to the people that you write about, and that the generation you're writing about can read it. I think there are sensitivities in the book which may make that difficult, but we'll see.
MB: What's next?
AA: I'd love to keep writing. I'm doing magazine articles right now and I'd love to do another book.
Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing, author of Wish Lanterns, nonfiction about the lives of six young Chinese published by Picador.
He studied English literature at Oxford University, and first moved to Beijing in 2008. His articles have appeared in The Economist, Dissent, Foreign Policy and elsewhere. He is a regular blogger for the Los Angeles Review of Books, contributing author to the book of reportage Chinese Characters and co-editor of the anthology While We’re Here.
He founded and edits the Anthill, a ‘writers’ colony’ of stories from China.