THE WRITING LIFE ... Anne BERRY
ANNE BERRY was born in London, England, in 1956, but spent much of her infancy in Aden (Yemen) and then in Hong Kong, where she grew up and worked for a time as a journalist for the South China Morning Post. The Hungry Ghosts is her first novel, and was the very first title published under HarperCollins Publishers’ new Blue Door imprint. Now living in Bookham, Surrey, she writes full time and has completed her second novel, The Water Children (Blue Door/HarperCollins Publishers, April 2011) and is at work on her third.
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF ANNE BERRY
Anne, heartiest congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ First Novel Prize (South Asia and Europe) for your first novel, The Hungry Ghosts (Blue Door/HarperCollins Publishers, 2009). What was it like being shortlisted for such a prestigious prize?
It was absolutely thrilling to be shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ First Novel Prize (South Asia and Europe) for The Hungry Ghosts. I really couldn’t believe it when I first heard about it. There is so much in my book that touches on my personal experiences of growing up in the then British Colony of Hong Kong, and my love for the island and the Chinese people. It is a great honour that the judges of such a prestigious prize gave recognition to these themes that are interwoven throughout the plot.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your family history?
I was the daughter of a senior government official on the magical, bustling island of Hong Kong, and my childhood home was a flat on The Peak. My father donned a suit on even the most sweltering days and worked long hours in an office in Central District. But there the conventional stereotype ends. He took me to Island School every day on the back of his big Honda motorbike, roaring round the tight bends of the steep roads. I can remember holding on for dear life, feeling the wind in my face, and staring mesmerised down the dizzying slopes to the sparkling sea. My mother worked as an actress in England before she got married, and on her side of the family there is a distinct theatrical flavour to the past. And that was the direction I was nudged in, attending the Guildford School of Acting when I came to England to live, at eighteen. But my first love was writing, always writing. After acting for a few years I returned to Hong Kong and worked as a reporter for the South China Morning Post. In those days, there was a devilish computer that filled an entire room and liked nothing better than to eat up your copy at the end of the day out of pure spite.
You were born in London and moved to Hong Kong when you were six. What was it like to grow up in this part of the world?
Actually, when I was a baby of only a few months old, my family moved to what was then known as Aden. We settled in Hong Kong when I was six. Hong Kong was quite simply my home. I knew no other. It was England that felt like a foreign country. The island was a place of extremes that were often exciting and sometimes unsettling. The sun was bright and hot, and the skies were blue, except when the mists settled on The Peak and even your bed felt soggy. The typhoons that battered the island were terrifying. The insects you shared your home with could be pesky, or sting you, or, as in the case of the dreaded raids by nocturnal cockroaches, be the stuff of nightmares. The butterflies were dazzling. The wealth could be obscene and the poverty terribly distressing. The Chinese culture that I have been immersed in was a feast of colour and legend and tradition. No people I have ever visited rival the Chinese for their warmth and hospitality.
Now that you no longer live in Hong Kong, how often do you go back there?
For many years I returned to Hong Kong to visit my parents. They continued to live there right up to the return of the island to China. But inevitably these trips lessened with marriage and the arrival of my own family. I have not been back for nearly twenty years now. I plan to set another book in Hong Kong. Part of me would so love to visit. But I also want to remember it as it was then for another novel.
When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I believe I was born a writer. Nothing made me happier as a child attending Big Peak School, than being given an English composition for homework. From the moment I had the title I could think of nothing else. I always wrote, working briefly as a journalist, writing stories for my children as they grew up, and then writing plays for a drama school I ran. Over the years, the writer’s voice became louder and louder. By the time I began The Hungry Ghosts it was deafening, refusing to be ignored for another second.
What does it mean to be a writer? What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
It means everything to me. I am doing what I love. My head never stops buzzing. I am soaring up there with the clouds on good days, and I am wading through glue on bad days. I have so many books to write that every minute is claimed.
Was it difficult getting your first novel, The Hungry Ghosts, published? Did you experience (the usual) difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for it?
I have faced many difficult challenges in my life, including having four babies within three years, but no mountain has been higher to climb than getting published. There are few sorrier sounds than the thump of a manuscript on the mat! But I am very lucky. I have the most supportive family in the world. My husband hid rejection slips, and my children peeled me sobbing off the floor, sat me straight back down at my computer and ordered me to get back to writing. In my initial phone call with the woman who was to become my agent, Judith Murdoch, I was so nervous I told her I was ringing about the book she had written! She must have thought I was mad.
Could you tell me a bit about The Hungry Ghosts? What was the seed of the novel?
The Hungry Ghosts is the story of twelve-year-old Alice Safford, a dreamy troubled girl who lives in a flat on The Peak on Hong Kong Island. Her father is a senior member of the British colonial government. Tensions mount as the countdown to the return of the colony to China begins in earnest. At home, too, a web of secrets and lies starts to unravel. Exploring the morgue of an old British army hospital, the temporary site of her private school, Alice unwittingly becomes the host of the ghost of a Chinese girl who was raped and murdered during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong—unleashing chaos.
When I was eleven years old, on a visit to a friend living in Peak Mansions, her mother suddenly told me that their flat was haunted by a poltergeist. It was the restless spirit of a young Chinese girl, killed during the Japanese occupation of the island, she thought. She was inclined to have tantrums and throw things. I was told all this in the most prosaic of manners. And in that moment the seed of The Hungry Ghosts was sown. Just as Alice was unaware of her possession, so was I—until Lin Shui began to speak!
How did you go about creating the characters that people the landscape of your fictional universe?
I had the strangest feeling with the characters of my novel that far from creating them, they inhabited me. Though of course I drew on all my memories of the many larger-than-life characters I encountered in island life, and of people I met while I was working in theatre.
Why did you choose to write the story from so many different points of view?
I chose to have several narrators for The Hungry Ghosts, and in particular not to give Alice a voice, for multiple reasons. I wanted the reader to hear the story from many perspectives and for them to make up their own minds. Alice’s silence is a symbol of her own frustration, of never being heard, of seeing all but saying nothing, of knowing that she cannot change things. In a very real way Lin Shui becomes her objective voice, commenting on the comic and the tragic with detachment. It also gave the narrative the feeling of a puzzle coming together piece by piece, the picture gradually becoming visible. Also, as a reader I like the writer to let me draw my own conclusions.
How detailed did you lay out the plot before starting the story?
The plot was in many ways organic, certainly for two-thirds of the book. But there were definitely key moments that felt like catching a rugby ball and just running with it for a while.
Did you know where you were going with the novel as you were writing it or did it evolve on its own?
There were some events that I knew would happen and others in which I felt like a bystander. For example, the motley crew of ghosts that followed in Lin Shui’s wake just turned up unannounced, and made it clear they were staying until the end.
What are some of the themes you dealt with? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
I think there were two powerful themes from the outset. The first was the extraordinary experience of feeling as if I was living on a shrinking island, only it wasn’t the island that was shrinking but the colonial lifestyle. All that British pageantry under a baking sun! It felt curiously comic at times, and curiously tragic at others. The second was family, and the often brutal dynamics within them that can be as destructive as the typhoons I experienced.
Was there much research to do?
Despite living through this fascinating page of history, there was a great deal of research to do. You have to be certain dates are exact and names are correctly spelt when you incorporate fiction into fact.
As you were writing the novel, how did you know when the manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text any further?
You always work with deadlines. I certainly did when I was working as a journalist. And when I was acting you knew the show had to go on. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m used to the discipline. As for being satisfied with my work, I’m a self-critical perfectionist, so they have to keep the proofs away from me! The moment I decided Alice would return to Hong Kong I knew I had found the end of my book. It fitted so well with the anniversary of the handover. At last, Alice had come home.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your first book?
Writing my first book confirmed what I had intuitively known all along—that writing is very hard work requiring infinite patience, and in the process of writing a novel you have to play many roles: the inspired, the problem solver, the poet, the critic, the economist, the heart-broken editor, the wordsmith, the reader, and the storyteller!
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? And have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
I am an avid eclectic reader. As a child I read all the classics, as well as Chinese legends. Singling out any is tough but C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid were very special to me. The only books that lose me are science fiction and detective series. Although having said that, I do like [English science-fiction writer] John Wyndham. For me, every book has to be an unknown journey. I don’t want to know where I am going and/or what I shall feel when I arrive. I absolutely loved Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. But no writer has had a greater impact on me than William Shakespeare.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What do you think distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
Well, it sounds silly but you need a good story, and at the heart of every good story is conflict. Nothing, in my opinion, is more important than to create in the reader the compulsion to turn that page. Beautiful writing doesn’t always do that. It’s the hook, the gotcha, the little kernel of pure magic that becomes more compelling to the reader than reality. A great book as opposed to a good book is one that stays with you. It’s a book that gives you something you didn’t have before you read it. It’s a book that, like the dearest of old friends, is always with you.
Tell me a bit about some of the contemporary authors and books you enjoy reading and also about some of your favourite authors and why you enjoy reading their works.
There are many authors who have delighted, influenced and intimidated me by turns. Writers past include Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Graham Greene and Daphne du Maurier, while contemporary writers include Anne Tyler, Kate Atkinson, David Guterson, Bernard Cornwell, Wilbur Smith and Margaret Forster. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River was perfection. And Jane Gardam’s Old Filth made me laugh and cry. But I also love books that challenge your preconceptions and Lori Lansens’s The Girls did just that and was so moving. Rose Tremain is another writer I hugely admire, and her novel Sacred Country is a very special book to me. I have just finished her latest novel, Trespass—a wonderful novel. I like nothing more than to try something new. To coin the Bard’s phrase, I like ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.’
Suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t received as much attention as they should.
Colleen McCullough’s Angel is one. I simply adored this book. From the first page I felt the narrator, Harriet Purcell, take me firmly by the hand and yank me into her world. That bold, sensuous, no-nonsense voice had me from the first sentence to her last exclaimed ‘Ooh ah!’ Set in Sydney, Harriet takes a room in Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz’s rooming house. From the moment she sets eyes on four-year-old Flo, Mrs. Schwartz’s beautiful daughter, Harriet forms a bond that will surpass all obstacles. This is spine-tingling one minute and hysterically funny the next. It has the two vital ingredients of books that last: comedy and tragedy. I recommend it very highly.
Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls is a poignantly memorable tale, beautifully told. Mostly the voice is that of Aunt Rosamond, speaking from beyond the grave on a series of cassette tapes left after her suicide, and found by her niece Gill. In its pages you are drawn into the often inexplicable tragedies that so often nestle at the core of family life. The narrative follows the curse as it seeps into the lives of the next generation, finally exacting a terrible price from the innocent. It is heartbreaking and so moving that I wept. I loved the ambiguous ending, too. For me it was like the haunting refrain that plays in your head long after the music has stilled.
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it?
I am going to cheat here and plump for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. His plays and poetry have accompanied me every step of my life. I have never tired of reading and rereading them, of going to see them performed, of leafing through them to find the echo of what I am feeling. Every human emotion imaginable is in those pages. He transforms words into living, tangible beings. Every second spent with him reignites my passion for writing.
Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
Apart from Shakespeare and Dickens, I do not like to reread books. I give them my absolute and undivided attention and then I move on. There are so many wonderful books out there and I want to read them all!
What are you reading at the moment?
Man Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I love historical fiction. With the very best historical fiction you forget it is history as it’s so immediate and accessible. And this is vintage historical fiction.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I loved Ruth Rendell’s Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories. In the title story, pernickety Ambrose Ribbon spends his lonely life buying books and writing letters haranguing authors for their spelling and copying mistakes. When he targets a horror writer he gets more than he bargained for. I also really enjoyed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck. It’s deliciously astute and ironic, sweet as the ripest cherry to bite into, but leaving you with a sad indigestible stone of truth by the close.
For better or worse, we are now in the age of e-books. What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day? Can you think of any fallouts relating to e-books that might impinge on professional writers in the near future?
Oh, change is coming. You will never stop that. If e-books make it easier for people to read, then I don’t want to sound like the weary Wright brothers’ next-door neighbour, swearing that if God had wanted mankind to fly he’d have given them wings. But I can’t bear the thought that we might ever lose the book. The page, the print, the feel of them, the intoxicating smell, both old and new, the enticing covers that lure you in, the dull worn covers that conceal a world of delights, the euphoria of possession. The book in my hand is mine, all mine! Certainly nothing will ever replace that feeling for me. And seeing as I have only just managed to negotiate my way round Word after some twenty-odd years, I don’t think they will do anything but frustrate me. The book is so convenient, relatively inexpensive, and a considerable source of pleasure for very little outlay. I suppose with the coming of the e-book you might reduce the power of the large publishing firms, or perhaps lessen their control over what reaches the reader. But I am not sure of the merits of that. Overall I think the book is still holding its own very well. And on the maxim of ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’ I prophesy that books are here to stay.
Readers often say how literary novels lack plots. Do you think literary novelists should put more emphasis on plot and less on stylistics? Why do you think there’s a perceived divide between popular and literary fiction?
In answering this I shall say what I like, but do not suggest that it is a rule for all. The authors I read have command of their craft. They are books of excellence but they are accessible to all. They are a marriage of literary and popular. And the story is the thing, the story will always be the thing, the most important thing. Writing that is too literary can be in danger of alienating the reader. And that to me makes writing as pointless as acting without an audience. The Hungry Ghosts exists because of the reader. Each person who reads it brings something unique and fresh to it. Each writer must follow their heart, and my heart tells me that the reader is at least as important as the writer. It is a two-way relationship. And all relationships involve compromise if they are to endure. And I hope to endure for a long time to come!
You have completed a second novel, The Water Children. What’s it about?
Oh yes, I am very excited about my second novel, The Water Children. It is story of four people whose lives cross in the sweltering heatwave in London in 1976. All of them have had profound life-changing childhood experiences with water. Now in that blistering heatwave, the past comes back and transforms all their futures. I am also at work on a third novel; it’s top secret!