The Reading Life ... Joan Foo Mahony
JOAN FOO MAHONY was born in Penang, Malaysia, but regards herself as a global citizen. “I have lived and worked in Tokyo, New York, London, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur for the past 30 years. I was an international lawyer [corporate finance] and my legal career started in Tokyo in 1974, where I worked until 1984, when I moved to Hong Kong, and then New York. When I chose to retire early in 1997, I bought a publishing company because I decided to follow my heart, which had everything to do with books, books and more books!” She is now a publisher of coffee-table books on art, cooking, sailing and gardens. Leaving the Heart Behind is her first novel.
How do you find the time to read?
Surely, one never has to find time to read? Reading informs, transforms and ignites—I cannot think of anything else that gives me so much pleasure. I make time to read, but it does take some assiduous planning as I live a very busy life. I have always read three books at the same time: one (usually) small book in my handbag for every free moment I have, for example, while waiting at the doctor’s; one in the car for the usually interminable journeys; and one by my bedside table as I must read every night—usually for an hour or two—before I go to sleep.
Could you tell me a bit about your first novel, Leaving the Heart Behind? What was the seed of the novel?
Leaving the Heart Behind is a work of historical fiction, a tale of two families and two cities: Tokyo, Japan, and George Town, Penang, set between 1936 and 1975. The characters include concert pianist Kimiko Koyama; her twin brother, the reluctant photographer-spy Mako; and the Japanese colonel Toshio Ishikawa. There is, among other things, love, passion, betrayal, music, opera, and kabuki, set against the growth of the Malayan cinema industry.
The inspiration for my novel is my own family history. My grandfather started one of the first cinemas in Malaya; one of the characters is based on him. He had an enigmatic Japanese wife whom he loved very much, and my eldest aunt is their daughter. I weaved all my musings and fantasies of what could have been into the characters of Kimiko and Toshio against the complex historical backdrop of Japan and Malaya during World War II.
Do you think reading matters? In what ways?
It seems more and more young people no longer read—they prefer watching the telly or playing computer games. I am so sad to see this. While one can live vicariously through virtual worlds on screen, nothing really compares to the thrill and joy of reading the nuances in an author’s words, and the images they conjure. Reading is not just about learning new words or improving one’s limited vocabulary.
How do we go about getting more Malaysians to read?
It starts from the beginning, from preschool. From the fractured English I hear young people speak today, it will be an uphill task to teach them how to read and appreciate words.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
I read Shakespeare and all the classics, and I adored Greek mythology—I gobbled up everything! I loved poetry, too, and I think poetry is crucial as it gives one a proper grounding and appreciation for the beauty of the written word.
What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I love biographies, history and historical fiction. I don’t like science fiction, detective thrillers or chick-lit. Nor do I like the Mills and Boon type of romance paperbacks. However, one of my favourite contemporary books is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I regard as a modern classic. It blends elements of the classics (Greek literature), melodrama (two murders) and rich details of college life in Vermont into an amazing psychological thriller that I really enjoyed.
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why did you enjoy reading it?
I have so many favourite books, both fiction and non-fiction! There’s David McCullough’s John Adams, a well-written, beautifully researched biography of the second president of the United States which captures the period of revolution and change rather brilliantly. Andrew Roberts’s The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, published by Penguin in early 2010, is the most succinct and compelling book on World War II I have ever read. In The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street), Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz writes with such detail and compassion about human values and emotions, seen from the slums of Cairo to behind the high walls of the rich palaces of the privileged.
Do you reread books you have enjoyed the first time round?
Yes, sometimes, but there are so many more books that I have yet to read!
As a fiction writer and an avid reader, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? (If you prefer reading non-fiction, tell me why you prefer non-fiction over fiction, and what the essentials of good non-fiction are. Perhaps you like a mix of both.)
I enjoy reading both fiction and non-fiction. Good fiction must have a strong narrative flow. The characters must be carefully fleshed out. The setting should be as believable as possible. One cannot write fiction in a vacuum and that includes not just the characters but also the setting, experiences and emotions of the author.
What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
Words, words, and words—the beauty of words—how the writer is able to articulate a subject through the use of words. Ah, how I wish I could write like Shakespeare!
As a publisher, what do you look for in a manuscript?
Credibility of the content, publishing costs, and the subject matter’s appeal and whether it can sell.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life on my iPad. I’m also reading Ingrid Betancourt’s story of her captivity, Even Silence Has An End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, and Elias Canetti’s autobiography, The Memoirs of Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, The Play of the Eyes.
For better or worse, we are now in the age of the e-book. What are your thoughts on e-books and e-readers?
I still love the feel of turning the pages of a ‘real’ book! But I do have an iPad and I have loads of books in my iPad library and I take this along with me when I travel instead of lugging a suitcase that’s half-filled with books. My iPad has become indispensable when I travel. Otherwise, I still prefer reading a ‘real’ book!
Do you think e-books will replace physical books one day?
I hope not! I hope the two can live peacefully together!