Tan Twan Eng was my ‘discovery of the year’ for 2012, after reading both his first novel, The Gift of Rain, longlisted for the Booker in 2007 and his second The Garden of Evening Mists, shortlisted last year, in December. Both long, but worth while reads I love his lyrical writing and tightly woven plots. I was so please to be given the opportunity to ask Tan a few questions about his work-so thanks to him.
Both your books deal with the relationships between students and teachers. Have you had an inspirational teacher and what was the greatest lesson they taught you?
My teachers are all the writers I’ve ever read and still read: Vladimir Nabokov, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Somerset Maugham, and many, many others. They taught me the different ways one can view and describe the world.
I felt when reading your books very ignorant about the part of the world you come from; do you feel that your books are helping to educate people around the world about the history of Malaysia? What sort of responses have you had from Western readers and how do they compare with readers in your country?
They seem to be helping to educate people around the world, although that isn’t my main purpose or intention when I write. Western readers have more questions about all aspects of my novels, from the setting and factual background to the characters. Readers in Malaysia are more interested in the characters than anything else, because they’re already familiar with the setting of my novels.
Your writing is so full of lovely metaphors and descriptions, are you a notebook-on-you-at-all-times kind of writer or do they just come to you as you’re writing?
Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, a part of me is always noting down whatever I find interesting, describing them in my mind. It’s the writer’s mind-set, to filter everything I observe, experience and hear through this sieve, hoping to catch something that can be used later. I do it almost without being aware of it.
In the past I didn’t take notes but remembered the descriptions I’ve come up with. These days I tend to jot them down in my phone.
One thing I loved about The Gift of Rain was how multicultural it was-do you find the blending different cultures and attitudes easy within your writing? How much does this reflect your life?
I grew up in a multicultural country, and the world has also become very multicultural too, so my life is reflected in my writing. It’s something I don’t even really think about. It’s made me adaptable and to be able to respect the different cultures I’ve experienced around the world.
You now live in South Africa, how did you find yourself there? Would you write a book set in that part of the world? How does it differ from Malaysia (I know that might be quite a lot of things!).
I obtained my Masters in Law in Cape Town. I liked the place so much I decided to live there for part of the year. It’s a beautiful city, and the people are very welcoming, very friendly. It reminds me of Malaysia in many ways. I’ve thought of setting a book there, but it’s a complex, complicated society, and I’m not sure I can be objective about it at this stage of my life.
Your writing deals with occupations, colonialism and other global migrations both aggressive and economic. Do you find yourself bitter after researching these events?
Sometimes I get enraged by what I find out in my research, but I tell myself it’s in the past. We tend to evaluate the past through the filters of present day ethics, knowledge and morality, and that skews our judgment.
There were a lot of unfairness and oppression and exploitation in colonialism. But, like so many of my generation, I’ve only reaped the benefits of colonialism, so to get angry about it seems hypocritical to me.
The 2012 Booker prize shortlist was notable for its inclusion of titles several independent publishers, including your own Myrmidon Books, what were your feelings about this? Are you purposefully with an independent publisher and how important are the standards of your publisher to you?
I’m very glad for my publisher, and for the other independent publishers, that they received this extensive, worldwide recognition and exposure. There was an article in a British newspaper praising the courage of these small publishers, for the way they took risks in signing on unknown authors. The article noted that ‘It’s only these independent publishers who can afford to run these risks.’ I feel it’s not true – in fact it’s completely wrong – these independent publishers cannot afford to run these risks, yet they still do it, because they’re passionate about the books they want to publish.
Being with an independent publisher, I can communicate directly and immediately with the primary decision makers if I have any problems. We usually solve our issues very quickly and pragmatically. We discuss everything, from the book cover to the blurb, to marketing and promotional plans.
The standards of my publisher are very, very important to me. It has to have highly experienced and discerning editors and designers – I want my books to read well and to look elegant. The content and form of my books have to be produced to the highest standards possible – I don’t want to be ashamed of them when I walk into any bookshop anywhere in the world. My publisher has recently issued a limited hardback edition of The Garden of Evening Mists to celebrate the Man Booker shortlisting, and I must say my publisher has done an extraordinary job on it. Extraordinary. People who’ve seen it agree completely.
2007 Longlist, 2012 Shortlist…you must be feeling so much pressure for your next novel! How do you relax? Does your first two books gaining so much acclaim change the way you approach your writing?
I relax by reading and exercising, by meeting friends for drinks or a meal. Or by going out into nature: to a park or the beach or the mountains. I walk a lot too, on my own.
I push myself to constantly improve as a writer, so my first two books receiving so much acclaim hasn’t really changed the way I write. Every book that I write has to be much better than the previous one. And to my horror I realised that the writing isn’t going to get easier with time.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is published in hardback and trade paperback by Myrmidon Books.