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