A peek at writer Ann Mah’s Instagram feed reveals crusty bread, sunny Parisian kitchens, and candids of her 3-year-old daughter in New York City. As a travel journalist and novelist, Mah firmly embraces the belief that a writer is ideally a wanderer: perhaps there’s a home base, but the inspiration of new experiences and surroundings is a necessity.
“One thing that has surprised me as my writing has grown is how much my travel (journalism) started to influence my fiction – with ideas, places, even just settings of places (cities or villages) I’ve been or landscapes I’ve seen,” she says. “Maybe it’s a way of armchair traveling.”
Her husband’s work as a diplomat has afforded Mah the opportunity to live in cities like Paris and Beijing, and served as a catalyst, of sorts, for each of her three novels.
Her first novel, Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself, was influenced by Mah’s transformative experience as a American woman of Chinese descent living in Beijing. “It was this juxtaposition between who I thought I was inside and what I really looked like,” she said.
The idea for her second book, Mastering the Art of French Eating, came to her in the shower several years later, after the couple had relocated to Paris. Her husband was suddenly deployed to Iraq, leaving her alone in the City of Light, so Mah decided to make the most of the experience.
“I knew time was limited, and I wanted to travel and explore cuisine as much as I could,” she says. “So each chapter focused on a different region of France, using the signature dish of the region to talk about history and culture – and tying in my experience as a foreigner.”
Mah regularly travels for freelance assignments as well – her work has appeared in publications like New York Times Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue.com, and BonAppétit.com – and places a lot of importance on traveling solo.
“Before I started writing about travel, I had never even really considered traveling alone,” she says. “Now, I prefer to be alone and set my own schedule on research trips, because it really allows me to absorb a new place. I’m not worried about the experiences of others.”
While all this travel may seem glamorous, Mah is candid and down-to-earth about her writing process. She’s finishing edits on her third book, which will debut this year, and spent much of the past year at The Writers Room, a shared cooperative at the crossroads of the East and West Village. It offers 45 open-air desks and is accessible to members 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Mah began working there while writing her third book because it was her first book process since becoming a mother.
“It’s a sanctuary, really, where no one is allowed to speak or make any sort of noise, so that has been a huge addition to my life since 2013,” says Mah. “Before that I worked from home, which was fine, but now that we have a daughter that becomes much more difficult.”
Mah generally works a more traditional 9-5 routine to fit around her family schedule, though her preferred hours are from about 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“I find the ideas come more easily to me then,” she says, “or maybe I’m just starting to freak out a little that the day is ending.”
She admits writing in a 9-5 timeframe was challenging, and she would often write a significant amount at home after her daughter went to bed – anywhere from 500 to 1000 words by hand –and then type up those notes (and edit at the same time) the following day. With this system, she finished her most recent manuscript in a little more than a year.
The new novel also takes place in France: it’s a contemporary frame narrative (story-within-a-story) set in the Burgundy wine region.
“Because it’s set in a vineyard and so rooted in French culture, I wanted to be careful with my research,” she says. “I think that’s why it took me so long. I had to get a handle on the story and details I wanted to include.”
Like a true journalist, Mah immersed herself in research. She spent a lot of time reading nonfiction World War II era books, checking out stacks and stacks from her local library. She took wine classes for professionals (and received a Level 2 Award in Wine & Spirits). Then, in late summer 2016, Mah volunteered to write an immersive article about the wine harvest in Champagne, which really cracked open the world of winemaking for her.
Aside from doing immersive research, Mah’s advice to those who want to write is simple.
“The product you offer has to be as perfect as possible,” she says. “Putting in the time is only helpful to your finished manuscript, so do as many drafts as you need, and give it to people to read and give feedback.”