Books

Malaysian lawyer-turned-author Tan Twan Eng on why be­ing a full-time nov­el­ist is any­thing but glamorous.

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Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng has a knack for bring­ing his­tor­i­cal events to life. His sec­ond novel,

The Gar­den of Evening Mists, takes read­ers to the high­lands of Malaya, switch­ing time frames be­tween the 1980s and the trou­bled af­ter­math of the Se­condWorldWar as the lead char­ac­ter re­vis­its her time as a Ja­panese pris­oner of war.

Art­fully evok­ing the poignancy of both re­mem­ber­ing and for­get­ting, he blends his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy with at­mos­phere so ef­fec­tively that in June he beat Tu­dor fic­tion stal­wart and two-time Booker prize win­ner Hi­lary Man­tel to the 2013Wal­ter Scott Prize for His­tor­i­cal Fic­tion.

Im­pres­sive for some­one who un­til six years ago was just an­other city lawyer.

Of the two books Tan has penned in his short writ­ing ca­reer, both have re­ceived crit­i­cal ac­claim. His de­but, The Gift of Rain (2007) was long-listed for the cov­eted Man Booker Prize, while The Gar­den of

Evening Mists was short­listed for the same award in 2012 and went on to win him the Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize this year.

Hav­ing forged his pre­vi­ous ca­reer as a so­lic­i­tor and ad­vo­cate work­ing for a Malaysian law firm, how has Tan Twan han­dled be­ing thrust into the lit­er­ary spot­light?

“To be as­so­ci­ated with the pres­ti­gious Booker with my very first book was use­ful in terms of get­ting peo­ple to be aware of my work. I’m grate­ful it hap­pened be­cause it forced me to grow. On the other hand, it put im­mense pres­sure on me. When my first book was long-listed I was work­ing on my sec­ond and it heaped ad­di­tional pres­sure on the ‘curse of the sec­ond book’.” But if the awards are any­thing to go by, that pres­sure worked to his ad­van­tage.

Raised in Malaysia, Tan has trav­elled a lot, and both of his books tackle is­sues of iden­tity, be­long­ing and na­tion­al­ity. They are also con­cerned with the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion of his na­tive Malaysia – a topic that has fas­ci­nated Tan since child­hood. His fa­ther was just six at the time of the in­va­sion in 1941, while his mother was not yet born. Patch­ing to­gether his fa­ther’s mem­o­ries with a lot of read­ing and re­search of his own, Tan says that al­though it was a dev­as­tat­ing pe­riod of Malaysian his­tory, it united Malays.

“Peo­ple from dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties had to work to­gether against an ex­ter­nal force. Af­ter the war we re­alised that we had to take charge of our lives. The Ja­panese in­va­sion serves as a clear di­vid­ing line, there is so much scope for writ­ing about it.”

How­ever, he also found the past is not al­ways easy to un­lock. “Many peo­ple don’t want to speak about it,” he says.

“Malaysians are prag­matic, we let by­gones be by­gones and move for­ward be­cause many peo­ple be­lieve there’s no point in dwelling on the past. It’s a cul­tural thing – you don’t talk about bad things to strangers. You present the good side to the world.”

But he be­lieves his writ­ing serves an im­por­tant role for pos­ter­ity, painful as the past can be at times. “I

am pre­serv­ing this part of our his­tory for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. I’m pre­serv­ing it with­out any po­lit­i­cal agenda – the in­ter­pre­ta­tion is up to read­ers.”

Born in Pe­nang in 1972, Tan was a keen reader as a child and al­ways wanted to write. “My in­ter­est was fur­ther height­ened when I learnt the mean­ing of the word ‘roy­al­ties’. I thought I could do some­thing I liked and get paid for it too,” he says.

He read any­thing from the Hardy Boys se­ries to Nancy Drew, grad­u­at­ing to the likes of Kazuo Ishig­uro and Ju­lian Barnes as he got older – in­flu­ences that can be de­tected in his eco­nomic yet evoca­tive prose style.

But de­spite his novel am­bi­tions, it was the court­room that called Tan first. Hav­ing stud­ied law at the Univer­sity of Lon­don in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal, he worked for a law firm in Malaysia be­fore mov­ing to Cape Town to do his masters de­gree in law. While read­ing vol­umes of cases he also man­aged to pen his first novel.

His side pro­ject was top se­cret and it took two years af­ter fin­ish­ing his draft and find­ing a UK-based agent Jane Gre­gory, be­fore The Gift of Rain was pub­lished. By this time Tan had moved back to Kuala Lumpur and was work­ing at his old law firm, but the book’s launch saw him quit law once and for all.

“I found it dif­fi­cult to con­tinue prac­tis­ing and travel around the world to pro­mote the book,” he says. This meant liv­ing fru­gally but he some­how man­aged.

Hav­ing ful­filled his life­long am­bi­tion to be a writer, he ad­mits that the le­gal world had a lot to of­fer him. He cred­its his le­gal back­ground with forc­ing him to be clear in ev­ery­thing he writes.

“It’s made me more will­ing to ques­tion things in­stead of tak­ing them at face value. I try to get to the heart of things” he says. In­deed in some ways, once a lawyer, al­ways a lawyer. “My friends al­ways com­plain that I in­ter­ro­gate them be­cause I ask a lot of ques­tions,” he laughs.

Hav­ing worked hard to evolve into the writer he is to­day, is the life of a nov­el­ist all he thought it was go­ing to be? “The big­gest mis­con­cep­tion peo­ple have about be­ing a nov­el­ist is that it’s very glamorous, be­cause peo­ple of­ten see 10 per cent of it at fes­ti­vals and tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances by es­tab­lished writ­ers. But there is the other 90 per cent that is any­thing but glamorous when you sit in your room alone to write.”

Hav­ing now writ­ten two suc­cess­ful nov­els and in the process of fin­ish­ing a third, is there a point when he puts down his pen and is sat­is­fied that he’s done? “I don’t think it’s ever fin­ished. I al­ways want to edit. Usu­ally my pub­lisher and agent tell me it’s enough, then I give up my baby for adop­tion. Even af­ter it’s out, for in­stance, at read­ings I change it slightly to sim­plify some­thing if I feel it’s not clear. It makes the read­ing fresh for me, but I’m care­ful not to change too much be­cause I don’t want to dis­ap­point the reader.”

Fi­nally, with his work so pre­oc­cu­pied with pre­serv­ing the past, how would he like to be re­mem­bered?

“With fond­ness. I’d like my books to live long af­ter I’m gone. I want read­ers to feel they haven’t wasted their time read­ing my books.

“Time is so pre­cious I ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that peo­ple take time to read my books.”

Tan Twan Eng’s The Gar­den of Evening Mists has won two cov­eted awards

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