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S2 Ep 7: Tan Twan Eng – A writer’s inspirations & the makings of a novel

Author, Malaysia

The author of The Gift of Rain (2007) and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), which were respectively longlisted and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was in Cape Town during the recording of this episode due to worldwide lockdowns due to COVID-19. The hard pause to life as we know it has given him the space and time to focus on the writing of his third novel. While he enjoys his time in Cape Town, the Penang-born writer cannot wait to head back to the island he calls home.

In this episode:

Any hints on the novel you are working on right now?

“No [laughs], it keeps changing you know the basic premise, so I don't want to be pinned down. (Because) what I say now and later my decide that the premise isn't working well and then I have to change it slightly, and then it becomes totally different from what I say now. All I'll say is that it’s set in Penang. But there are no Japanese there, there’s no second World War there [laughs]. I thought I’d want to do a so-called Malaysian trilogy. So, get Malaysia out of my system. It's my home, you know, and there's so many interesting stories. I mean, especially Penang, you know that, every street there every family has some sort of colourful, interesting history. And more of these stories should be made known to the rest of the world, to the rest of Malaysia as well.”

Which is more difficult to do – to write a novel or to get it published?

“To have it published, because what you just said about the first book being very hard to write, it's actually not true because the first book is always the easiest to write. I feel that (is true) for any writer, because you have accumulated 15/20 years of material and experience to put down on paper. With your first book you tend to overdo things, you put everything onto the page, and it shows. That's why a lot of first novels are overwritten. The hardest thing to write is actually the second novel. Because when you come to the second novel you are already empty. The analogy I've used before is the well is empty now and you have to wait for the water to fill up again before you can draw from the well. I think it gets harder and harder with each subsequent book as well. The first book very often comes from your heart and the subsequent books come from your mind. So, the first book was a joy to write I feel. But getting published was incredibly hard. I got an agent quite easily. She had about 35 years’ experience in the industry and she's quite respected. I think she thought it would be quite easy to find a publisher for The Gift of Rain. To her surprise, she sent the book out to I think almost every publisher in London, and all of them turned me down. All of them. We asked for the reason why. So, a number of the editors liked the book, in fact they enjoyed it. But when they took it to their meetings to discuss the book (and) whether to buy, the marketing department said no, “This book is weird,” “It's very, very difficult to categorise,” “It is too difficult to market and promote and sell for the British market.” So, a lot of times it was the marketing department that said, “No, we're not buying this book.” That shows you how the industry works, that the bottom line always comes first.”

Being a patron of the Young Walter Scott Prize

“It all happened years ago when The Garden of Evening Mists won the Walter Scott Prize. This was in 2013, I was the fifth winner and I had an email from them and they said, “Would you like to come to the Borders Book Festival?”… So I said yes and I went there and at the time The Garden of Evening Mists was just shortlisted for the prize. The other shortlistees were Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker. So, I really wasn't expecting to win. I thought, okay, let's go there anyway because they were kind enough to invite me and the place looks very beautiful. It was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. From that connection there, a few years later, the patrons of the prize the Duchess of Buccleuch, she said, “Do you want to be a patron of the Young Walter Scott Prize?” which she is setting up and I said, “Yes, of course,” and it's a great honour. This prize is unique in the world because it's for teenagers. There are two categories in the prizes; the first category is for 11 to 15 years old and the second category is for 16 to 19 years old. It encourages not only the young people to read and write, but also to take an interest in history because the stories have to be based on a historical event. Not just well-known historical events, (they can be) any historical events. I think two years ago, a boy wrote about his grandfather's experiences in Shanghai before the war, because he found a suitcase of his grandfather's letters and he started reading them and he became interested. So, he wrote a short story about his grandfather's experiences living in Shanghai. So you can see how the whole prize helps to promote not just reading and writing, but also an interest in history and through that also, an interest in travel.”

Inspiration for The Garden of Evening Mists

“Well, this family in Johannesburg were going to create a Japanese garden on their estate. They were wealthy enough that they hired one of the gardeners of the Emperor of Japan to fly over with his entourage to design and construct the garden. The main gardener himself came and he consulted and gave his design, and then his underlings stayed on to carry out his instructions. The brief to the gardener was that they didn't want any foreign plants, they wanted indigenous South African plants for the Japanese garden, which [laughs] very strange. But the man succeeded, it's considered one of the gardens to visit if you're there. I was invited to this coffee reception and I thought, okay, that was interesting to meet him and to hear his job description. So, from there, the job description continued to resonate in my mind. So, when I was starting my second book, I thought, okay, let's create a character that's a gardener of the Emperor of Japan from that.”

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