Hot Topics: Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

'Writing's a job, it's not glamorous'


WHAT MAKES HIM TICK? Tonight is the equivalent of Oscar night for writers. Six authors will find out which one of them has won the coveted Man Booker Prize. For the first time, a Malaysian has been shortlisted. Nooraini Mydin catches up with Tan Twan Eng in London

EUROPE'S largest  bookstore and London's oldest, Foyles, seems a fitting place for a rendezvous with an author. As I sought out Tan Twan Eng's publicist, Kate Nash, I passed a black armchair with a man in a dark suit sitting in it.

Something made me turn around. His glasses gave him away. I wanted to carry on but he lifted his head, smiled and said my name in instant recognition of somebody he had never met. We Malaysians are funny that way.

Tan was waiting to be filmed by the BBC. I thought he looked nervous, clutching his novel.

"When I stop being nervous, I should really be nervous."

Book signings and readings go with the territory and Tan should be used to them by now. His debut novel, The Gift of Rain, made the Booker longlist in 2007 and now his second, The Garden of Evening Mists, has made the 2012 shortlist.

Set during the Emergency era, The Garden of Evening Mists is the story of Teoh Yun Ling, a teenage survivor of a Japanese prison camp.

On completing her degree, she sought out Aritomo, the former gardener to the Japanese emperor to help her construct a Japanese memorial garden for her sister.

Chair of the judging panel, Peter Stothard, told the Guardian that Aritomo was "one of the most memorable characters in all the 30,000, or so pages we've read this year".

Tan's idea for this character came to him when he was introduced to the gardener of the emperor of Japan while he was in Cape Town. But they barely exchanged a word because the gardener could not speak English.

The Booker comes with a STG50,000 (RM250,000) prize. More important, sales increase at every stage of the selection process.

In the week of the shortlist announcement, sales of Tan's novel shot up from 174 to 950 per cent. Some previous winners had even seen increases in excess of 1,000 per cent.

Few debut novels make the Booker longlist, but Tan scored a first with two successive novels longlisted.

The journey had, nonetheless, been an arduous one for the 40-year-old writer.

"If you're serious about having a writing career, you have to be published in the United Kingdom or the United States, the publishing capitals of the English-speaking world."

The Gift of Rain was rejected by almost every publisher in the UK. On his agent's advice, he continued with his second novel.

After a year, Myrmidon, a regional publisher based in Newcastle gave him his first break. Half of this year's shortlist are from independent publishers like Myrmidon:

Hilary Mantel Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)

Will Self Umbrella (Bloomsbury)

Jeet Thayil Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

Tan Twan Eng Garden of the Evening Mists (Myrmidon)

Deborah Levy Swimming Home (And Other Stories)

Alison Moore The Lighthouse (Salt)

So, who is this outsider who has managed to unseat established authors to stand shoulder to shoulder with previous Booker Prize winners? Before his first novel made the longlist in 2007, Tan had not published anything.

Tan isn't the product of some fancy private international school in Malaysia. He attended an ordinary secondary school.

His University of London degree and his Bar qualification were all completed in Malaysia. He practised intellectual property law in Kuala Lumpur for five years before realising his childhood dream of becoming a writer.

Since the age of 5, when he discovered books, Tan had been living in a world of his own. I imagine he would prefer good company or no company at all. He comes across as one who would not suffer fools gladly.

"I had a very liberal upbringing, but it comes with responsibilities. I had to make sure that I passed all my exams."

He remembered reading Lady Chatterley's Lover at the age of 9 or 10, even though he didn't really understand much of it.

After Enid Blyton and other children's authors, he swiftly moved on to all the popular fiction and the classics.

Tan wrote his first novel while completing his master's degree.

"In Cape Town, I had time. I didn't have to go to the office and deal with clients' demands."

The Gift of Rain took 21/2 years to complete and has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech and Serbian. The Garden of Evening Mists took him three years.

Despite the radio and television appearances and readings at book festivals, he doesn't think readers should be deluded into thinking this was a glamorous job.

"I write from nine to five. What's the glamour in that? Sitting and writing. It's just a job."

His second novel, like the first, was accused of pandering to the Western audience, none more scathing than a review by novelist Kapka Kassabova, writing for the Guardian.

She took nit-picking to new heights: "... non-events stalk us on every page: 'for a timeless moment I looked straight into his eyes'; 'For a long while he does not say anything. Finally, he begins to speak in a slow, steady voice'.

"The self-conscious dialogue resembles a history lesson collated for the benefit of the Western reader, and everything is ponderously 'like' something else, so it takes twice as long: 'We were like two moths around a candle, circling closer and closer to the flames, waiting to see whose wings would catch fire first'."

But, The Garden of Evening Mists is a book I would want to bring back from my beach holiday.

And it's got nothing to do with the fact that the author is from my hometown either.

‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ is set during the Emergency era.

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