Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Mo Zhi Hong
ERIC FORBES talks to MO ZHI HONG, a new voice in contemporary fiction

MO ZHI HONG was born in Singapore but grew up in Taiwan, Canada, China, the United States and New Zealand. During the dotcom boom of the 1990s, he worked as a software developer in New York City, and later as an English-language teacher in northeast China, before recently returning to New Zealand. He is 34 years old. The Year of the Shanghai Shark (Penguin New Zealand, 2008) is his first novel, an accessible yet deceptively clever novel about a young boy’s rite of passage in the contemporary Chinese cities of Dalian and Shanghai which recently won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel (Southeast Asia and South Pacific).

Tell me something about yourself.
I was born in Singapore. My family travelled a lot when I was young, eventually ending up in New Zealand where I went to high school and university. After graduating, I moved to New York and worked for a computer software startup company for six years. In 2001 I moved to China where I spent four years, travelling and teaching English. Recently, I have returned to New Zealand and the computer software industry.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I started writing while working in New York. I was doing a lot of reading at that point, and I think when you read a lot of stuff that interests you the writing itch follows naturally.

Was it difficult getting your first novel, The Year of the Shanghai Shark, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first book?
From what I know, the process I went through was relatively painless. I tried approaching literary agents and was rejected by a couple before being accepted by Michael Gifkins. After that, I left things in his hands, and publication followed.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences?
As a teenager I read a lot of science fiction. I didn’t really start reading literary fiction seriously until I was in my twenties and mostly I read a lot of the ‘Penguin classic’-type books. The Russians, Hemingway, Greene, that sort of thing.

The inevitable question—who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
My reading time is quite short these days unfortunately. I do read a bit online when I can—articles, magazines and blogs. James Fallows’s blog is one that a friend of mine recommended and that I look at when I can, and Seed magazine (a science magazine) is another. With respect to fiction, I tend to try to find things that aren’t too hefty length-wise, because of time contraints. I recently read Paula Morris’s Forbidden Cities, a collection of short stories that was recently shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Novel (Southeast Asia and South Pacific), and Saul Bellow’s The Actual, which is a slim, great read. Anything large I want to read I save for the holidays.

Could you tell me a bit about your first novel? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the novel?
It’s a growing-up story, set in China (a lot of the action is set in 2003, quite an eventful year there), and the main theme is what effect close, external influences can have in this process of growing up. It’s a theme I definitely had in mind before I started to write, and, through it, I knew how I wanted the story to finish up. The rest of it was all figuring out how to get to the end.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I wouldn’t agree with ‘imperative’. But they do help in a sense I suppose. In that by throwing any spotlight at all on writers and writing it probably gives some sort of numerical participation boost to the ‘industry’ as a whole.

Do you write short stories? What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
Like a lot of writers I wrote short stories exclusively when I was starting to write for the first time. It was a good way of working out the mechanics of writing in general.

What are some of your favourite contemporary novels? And why?
‘Favourite’ is a difficult word for me. However, here are some (slightly older) contemporary novels I have taken the time to reread recently: Martin Amis’s Money, Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist and Vernor Vinge’s True Names. I first read them all a while back, and am happy to say that they are all still great reads.

Do you think that not liking literary fiction is simply a matter of preference or does it imply a lack of discernment in the reader?
More the former than the latter. Or neither. I would say that not liking literary fiction is simply a matter of being completely comfortable in your general outlook of both yourself and the world. Some people have that, some people don’t.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on my second novel. It’s a slow work in progress.

Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine


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