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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, but lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law through the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur's most reputable intellectual property law firms. He also has a first-dan ranking in aikido and is a strong proponent for the conservation of heritage buildings. He divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town, The Gift of Rain is his first novel and he is currently working on his second.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Gift of Rain?
Tan Twan Eng: There wasn't one single flash of idea for it. I was planning a huge novel about the history of Malaya but it became too daunting for me to complete. I decided to take out a few minor characters and write a smaller novel based on them. I told myself, "If I can finish this smaller novel, then it'll give me more confidence to complete the larger one." Strangely, I soon found these characters more compelling and interesting, and what started off as a small-ish novel grew into The Gift of Rain.
I also wanted to write a novel set in Penang, which is an amazing location, rich with atmosphere, history, tragedy and natural beauty. It's one of the earliest places settled by the British East India Company, in the 18th century.
Although I was born there, I grew up in other places in Malaysia, and it was only later in my teens when I moved back there. That was the period when I suddenly realised how rich in material for a writer Penang is. Each road, each street, each colonial building had some story to be told. But all of these roads, houses, pre-war architecture are fast disappearing, and so The Gift of Rain is also a paean or a testament to them and the island.
I'm also intrigued by the impact the West has had on the East, and Penang is an ideal place to study the results of this meeting and clashing and melding of cultures. Using the character of Philip Hutton, who is half-English and half-Chinese, I wanted to explore as many aspects and repercussions of this East-West meeting as possible.
MT: How long did it take you to write The Gift of Rain Twan?
TTE: It took me around a year to write the first draft. Working from 9am till 5pm several days a week. Sometimes I'd also write after dinner if I felt there was something I wanted to put down on record. I was also studying for my Masters degree at that time.
MT: What did it mean to you to be longlisted for the Booker prize?
TTE: It was an immense honour to be on the Longlist, especially for a first-time author. It has also helped elevate our profiles – mine and Myrmidon Books – around the world and I'm very glad that happened as we initially faced obstacles in getting people to read, review and stock the book. And being on the Longlist has also meant – for me – a validation of my writing plans in many ways, and a repaying of the faith my agent, editor and publisher have in me.
MT: Do you read the critics Twan? Have you been pleased with the response to your work? Have you learned anything from it?
TTE: I do read the critics - which first-time author doesn't? I'm pleased at many of the responses and the comments, although there have been some critics whose comments I felt indicated that they haven't grasped or understood the book or the social, historical and cultural contexts of the story.
Some critics complained that I was overly-detailed, while others said they wished there were more in-depth descriptions! Another was disappointed that I ignored the worker-class segments of society and their fight for better wages – which had no relevance to the novel at all.
What have I learned? That you can't please everyone!
MT: Your book is about pre-war Malaya – did you have to do much research?
TTE: I've been interested in pre-war Malaya since I was a teenager and I've been reading up on it for years, collecting materials, books and articles. There wasn't much research - more a confirmation or checking of facts. It's also intriguing how some of the scenes or situations I made up in the book did actually exist in real life when I was checking my facts. And because Penang has - until recently - retained so many of its historical elements, I could still see how life had been lived 50 years ago.
MT: What were the biggest challenges in writing The Gift of Rain? How did you overcome them?
TTE: The biggest challenge was finding a balance between explaining too much and too little. Because Malaya (and after its independence, Malaysia) and Asia are so unfamiliar to readers around the world, I had to make sure the things or events which I took for granted and never thought twice about would not be perplexing to my readers.
Yet I had no intention of writing a textbook – for me the heart of a novel is always the story. So I had to make certain my readers would comprehend the background essential for the appreciation of the multi-layered narrative. The clarifications had to be part of the story – unobtrusive, non-gimmicky, harmonious to the whole.
Of course it would have been so much easier to explain things in numbered or bullet-point form and in distracting and unusual fonts and pass it off as a piece of post-modernism but that would have been to insult the intelligence of my readers. I find gimmicky writing-styles to be distracting and annoying when reading a book. If the story is strong enough, one doesn’t need weird typography, split columns and upside-down paragraphs in a novel to make it good.
Also, the philosophical and religious elements of China and Japan I raised in the book - for example the concepts of fate and predestination - would have been unusual and daunting to these readers. That’s one of the reasons why I included aikido in the book. Aikido is one of the most philosophical of the martial arts, more a cultivation of the mind than anything else, although it is an effective and lethal self-defence form. It carries within it elements of Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, the Way of the Tao and it also exemplifies how many Asians think and see the world and behave in daily life.
In the book I used the very few scenes involving aikido as the vehicle to lighten the load on these elements. Through action, the reader can understand what Philip Hutton has to absorb and accept, mentally and also in his life. Think of these scenes as something similar to the musical interludes in a musical – every time the singing stops, something or someone would have changed – the character, the relationship between characters, the understanding and growth of the character.
I overcame these challenges by reading over and over what I had written, trusting the nagging voice inside my head.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
TTE: I write directly onto a computer – and definitely with lots and lots of editing and amendments! I like seeing the words on the screen – it makes them seem more ‘real’. I have difficulty writing when I have to use pen and paper.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
TTE: I read a lot and I travel and answer my emails and then I read some more. There are also the details of daily routine to attend to.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
TTE: I don’t have an ‘ideal’ reader in my mind when I write – I write more for myself when I start, and only towards the end those other considerations – which I’ve mentioned above in Question 6 – come in. But after I’ve finished writing, I do have an ‘ideal’ reader: someone well-read who’s open to new ideas and is interested in other parts of the world.
MT: What are you working on now Twan?
TTE: I’m working on my second novel, which is set during the Emergency in Malaya, when the Malayan Communist Party tried to take over the country just as the UK was about to grant independence to Malaya.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
TTE: My favourite writers - I can’t just name one! – would be Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edmund White. I also find Martin Booth sadly underrated.
[You can read about more of Tan Twan Eng's favourite books in his Tuesday Top Ten article on our Editor's Corner blog.]
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
TTE: Read as many books as you can, and as widely as possible.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
TTE: To the other authors on the Man Booker Longlist this year, I’d like to say it’s been an honour for me to be on the same list as all of them. To my readers, I hope they’ve enjoyed The Gift of Rain.
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