Who Is Ash Warren?
Ash Warren is that rare breed of author who simultaneously has the guts to try just about any prompt while bringing his own signature style to the brief. Often characterised by an attention to detail, vivid, sometimes dreamlike imagery, and a preoccupation with the interior lives of his (often flawed) characters, Ash has never shied away from the dark side of characterisation.
His first story for NiTH, Yamauba, set the tone for another feature of his writing. A horror story set in Japan, Ash employs his knowledge of the country and culture to great effect, inducing a pathos that is uniquely dark, pithy, and tautly paced.
But just who is Ash Warren? We reached out to this author of international credentials to find out more.
Ash: I was born in Sydney and grew up in North Rocks, near Parramatta. I studied English Literature and Medieval History at University of NSW and I travelled extensively throughout Asia and later lived in Britain for four years where I trained to become a language teacher before coming to Japan in 1992. Currently I run my own company here in Tokyo teaching English and Japanese to corporate clients. I also work in a number of capacities as a writing advisor, translator and trainer at universities in the Tokyo area, plus I lecture on Japanese culture in English for training Japanese tour guides.
I am married (my wife is also an Aussie) and we have one son and live in western Tokyo with an extremely spoilt Pomeranian. My interests include writing, learning languages (I speak English, Japanese and Spanish) playing the cello, Baroque music and chess, which I play competitively. I also hold a teaching license from the Urasenke School of Tea.
Investigating The Taken
Ash’s first win came with The Dishonoured, a brilliant short story that captures the feel of a Samurai Epic in only a thousand odd words. He has also sealed wins with Woman In The Mask, The Confessions of Thomas Knell and The Taken. When we asked Ash which stories he had penned ranked among his favourites, The Taken came as no surprise.
When I read The Taken I feel like there is a lot of subtext in this story. The way the fairy grills the little girl and those closing lines imply a cycle of psychological violence dressed up as magic. Am I right in that interpretation?
Ash: Yes, that would be a fair interpretation. Historically fairies and sprites etc. were thought of as evil, unlike today where people just think of Tinkerbell. I wanted to answer two questions in dealing with this ‘Evil Fairy’ theme. The first was ‘What is the nature of their evil?’ – and basically I imagined them as sociopaths who are addicted to innocence and beauty and who react violently when they are scorned or ignored. Which let me to question two, ‘Where do fairies come from?’ – and of course they are the souls of the ‘taken’ children themselves, whose innocent nature is corrupted over time (kind of Stockholm Syndrome?) until they too are appropriately warped and sent out into the world to look for new victims. I wanted to push this idea of the Evil Fairy and their relationship with children right to the edge.
We know that you have a preference for stories that examine the interior of characters. How do you get into the mind of someone like ‘evil fairy’?
I imagine the ‘voice’ of the character. What they sound like, what they might say. Knowing the ‘voice’ is very important for me in developing a character. From the voice also comes the rhythm of the story, the drumbeat of the the words. In ‘The Taken’ the voice of the evil fairy has this rhythm which builds towards the end, toward this crescendo of vindictiveness. If I can hear them speaking, I can get inside the character’s mind and make it my own while I am writing. And when I am finished and sort of come up for air, this ‘voice’ is often ringing in my ears for days.
Was there any particular influence for this story?
No, I am afraid this is straight out of my own dark mind….
And if you had to write a story about your own dark mind, what would it look like?
Hmmm… well, Hannibal Lector’s Memory Palace always rang a bell with me! OK, imagine a large, book lined room. There’s this guy sitting in the middle of it at a large desk. He’s lost in something he is reading to the point where he imagines that he is one of the characters. Then he picks up another book and the process starts again. I think my mind is this kind of place, a place full of things that resonate, of different real and imagined worlds and memories that I can come back to and experience again. Sound weird enough?
No weirder than any writer should be. The Taken represents one if several wins you’ve had at NiTH. What’s it like to win, how’s it feel, is it important to you personally?
Sure, it’s great to win! I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I always feel a bit of tension when the ‘Winner’s Announcement’ is about to happen! I think I am very competitive by nature, so winning is nice. And also I think that it’s important to be like this as a writer as I, (vain as I am) think it is important to believe in the quality of your own work. I think this is essential for a writer, especially someone engaged in a large work like a novel. Also one thing I really like about NiTH is that the winner is not decided by popular vote like some other contests. It’s five very intelligent and informed judges, so when these five people gives you the thumbs up so to speak, that is a great confidence booster.
Process and Ambitions
Do you have a particular writing process?
Ash: Generally when I am writing for NiTH I start by having a very careful read of the brief, as I have a habit of getting carried away and then writing something which would probably get me disqualified! I then follow a plan like the following:
Go to bed, with a notebook.
I want to avoid sounding totally nerdy here, but I tend to approach the brief from a chess player’s point of view. I have been playing chess all my life and I tend to look at the brief like it’s a problem on the chessboard. So I like to test various ‘candidate moves’ against it to see what works.
I like to explore the brief from various different angles, looking for something which is going to grab my reader’s attention. So I tend to play a game of ‘what if’. For example, if the brief is to write about two people who fall in love, I start turning this over to see if I can find an interesting angle. What if the two people are dead? What if they are animals? What if they are shirts? (I actually wrote that one once). So I am looking for something original and something powerful, an idea with legs. This is the part of writing I like best, just playing with the problem in my head and the satisfaction that comes with finding a really good solution.
I don’t write anything until I can see the whole idea for the story in my head. Once I have a complete plot outline I then write a draft and the rest is all very normal. I do pay particular attention to the opening line. I strongly belief that while reading a novel can be like slipping into a warm bath or wrapping the author’s lovely prose around you like a blanket, the short story is quite a different beast. The short story should be like a slap across the face, immediately grab the reader by the hair and drag them captive to the last full stop. I want my stories to have a rhythm and a ‘single voice’ that carries the reader along and keeps them engrossed, so pacing and rhythm are important things for me.
In the next few days, I will come back and edit what I have written. I need to give myself a bit of distance from the original draft to see if it really works in the cold light of day. I am usually in trouble with the word count so I am often looking for how I can cut without damaging the story. For me this is the hardest part.
What are your favorite themes or topics to write about?
I would say on the whole I prefer to write about psychological themes, I find these more interesting to explore and more powerful. So even if my character is on a spaceship going out into the unknown, I am more interested in what’s going on in his head than where he is physically. So the big emotional themes in people’s lives, love, death, loss, longing and also the great classical themes in storytelling like revenge, greed, vanity etc. particularly appeal to me. So my stories are nearly always character driven rather than plot driven. I am very drawn to those quiet characters with particular traits or obsessions, and I like anti-heroes and unreliable narrators. I guess why recently I have enjoyed watching Mads Mikkelsen’s very interesting portrayal of Hannibal Lector in the recent series, which has such a super script.
What are your writerly ambitions? Can we expect an Ash Warren novel soon?
I am going to start off by saying straight away that I have absolutely no intention of writing another novel. I have written a few of these in the past (all justly unpublished and moldering in the drawer) and I didn’t really enjoy the experience at all. I really don’t want to spend so long with one idea. I think why I love the short form is that you can write something very good in a short period of time and then it’s over and you can move on.
That being said I do have plans to write more novellas and of course a lot more short stories. I enjoy the short form very much and I still think I have a long way to go yet before I can say I am really good at it. It has a lot left to teach me.
Material Girl Revealed
Material Girl is another favourite story or yours. Both beautiful, vivid, romantic and tragic, it is above all these elements ridiculously funny. I’m tempted to call it satire, but satire of what? Gives me your take.
Ash: Right well it’s absolutely a satire on romantic/ erotic writing. The brief was just to write about shirts, so this allowed me to ask the question ‘What if shirts were people?’ and from there it’s a short jump to shirts in love. Apart from being a satire though, I wanted to write something that was heartfelt and romantic at the same time as using every possible ‘shirt’ joke and double entendre on fabric, washing, ironing etc. that I could. It was real fun to write this piece.
Was there any particular influence for this story?
The ending with the cat was actually inspired from the panther that eats the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s story ‘The Hunger Artist’ .
The brief for this award asked authors to write about shirts. How important is it for writers to challenge themselves with these kinds of esoteric writing challenges?
Yes, absolutely essential I would say. It’s very important to confront your comfort zone as a writer and push yourself beyond it. The imagination is a muscle I think and it definitely get’s stronger with use, so you need to take it to the gym and give it a workout and develop a way of looking at things from different angles. To ask yourself the ‘What if?’ question.
Often when I see a new award at NiTH (and this was the case with the ‘Shirt’s’ award), my initial reaction is ‘WTF do I do with this???’ It’s at that moment though that you know you are in open water and you shouldn’t just swim back to shore. You never know where your best work is going to come from, and in any creative field you should definitely allow yourself to know the pleasure that comes from when lightning actually strikes.
You managed to dodge the win with Material Girl. How do you cope with disappointment? Does judge’s feedback make a difference in these circumstances?
I write the next one. In fact I am usually writing the next one before the last one is judged, so I’ve already moved on. For those reading this that are familiar with my stuff, you will know that I lose far more often than I win, and I know my good friend Lydia also knows this feeling all too well too. My advice to anyone writing is don’t get too emotionally invested in being published or winning competitions etc. It’s very nice when that happens, but it shouldn’t be your goal. It’s about the work, so just keep writing. And always, always get the judge’s comments! This is a real resource for you and win or lose you should get feedback if possible. Also I can often lose, but when I see the judge’s comments I am very encouraged to find that they actually liked it anyway!
Stories you’ve like recently?
Ash: Handlebar Wunderbar! 6 3D. By James Daan (For that fantastic opening sentence!)
The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka. (for the brilliance of its panther ending!)
Harrison Bergeron’ By Kurt Vonnegut
Favourite authors, and books that have influenced you?
God, this first one is a tough question for me. OK, here we go.
Probably the book I have liked the most over many years now is Marcel Pagnol’s L’Eau des collines. (‘The Water of the Hills’). There are two well-known books in this, the first Jean de Florette and the second is Manon de Source. I think people may be familiar with the great movie of this with Gerald Depardieu in the 1980’s. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest novels ever written and an epic piece of storytelling. Probably the best novels on the subject of greed that you could ever read. The movie is great too.
Books I often re-read are Herman Hesse, especially ‘Das Glasperlanspiel’ (The Glass Bead Game), Artur Perez-Reverte ‘El Club Dumas’ (The Dumas Club – actually just reading this in Spanish for the first time at the moment), Murial Barbary The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I liked Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and I am a fan of Hemingway, especially A Moveable Feast.
This is a really endless list.
I guess one thing that may surprise people is that even though I have lived in Japan since 1992, I would not say that I am particularly influenced as a writer by Japanese authors. That being said, I really like Tanizaki’s ‘The Makioka Sisters’ and ‘Diary Of a Mad Old Man’ and Mishima’s ‘Spring Snow’ among others, and I enjoy some of the classical works, especially ‘Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book). There is just a whole ocean of good Japanese literature which just never gets translated which is a real shame.
The book I am reading at the moment is ‘A Death in the Family’, by Karl Oze Knausgaard. I am still making up my mind about this but it’s very interesting so far.