Monday, April 15, 2013

The Constant Gardener

TAN TWAN ENG, the author of The Gift of Rain
and The Garden of Evening Mists
SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH learns that the seed of Malaysian novelist TAN TWAN ENG’s writing career was planted early and well tended thereafter

TAN TWAN ENG is a straightforward sort of person. Beautiful, complex sentences are his forte on the printed page, but his answers for this piece is nothing if not brutally candid and clear-cut. When asked how he would describe himself, Tan states: “A person who finds answering a question like this self-indulgent. I’ll leave it to you to describe me—it’s your job after all.”

And when I ask him what he thinks his chances of winning the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction are and what is the first thing he will do if he wins, he replies, “There are six shortlisted authors, so the odds of my winning are one in six. What’s the first thing I’ll do if I win? Walk up to the podium and accept the prize.”

Although the Malaysian novelist did not walk up to the podium to accept the prize (the winner was British novelist Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies, an ambitious and richly detailed historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and the treachery in the court of King Henry VIII), the fame and glory of being “merely” shortlisted is something nearly every other author around the world can only dream of. With The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan has become the first Malaysian to be shortlisted for the prestigious international literary prize. [In March 2013, Tan was declared the winner of the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize. He was shortlisted for the prize along with Jeet Thayil, Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Hiromi Kawakami.]

Tan, who grew up in Penang and later in Kuala Lumpur, says he had an idyllic, uneventful childhood. “I was fortunate to have parents who let me read anything I wanted to. No censorship at all, and I’ve always appreciated the trust they had in me.”

One of Tan’s earliest memories about books and writing goes all the way back to when he was just five or six years old. “I realised that I enjoyed reading a book of texts more than an illustrated book. It felt more fulfilling.” At the age of ten, he remembers thinking that writers had an easy life. “All I’d need to do was write a book and live off the royalties for the rest of my life. How completely wrong I’ve been proven!”

As it turned out, the ten-year-old would indeed grow up to become a writer but only after he had put in some time in law school. “I practised intellectual property law for about five years. I don’t miss it, but I miss the structure it gives to my days.”

Despite the lack of structure, Tan appears to be more than capable of following an organised routine. “I write from nine-thirty in the morning to five in the evening, sometimes later. I take a number of breaks in between. I work five days a week, but when I approach the completion of a novel I’m working on, the hours become much longer and I usually work on weekends, too.”

It seems that Tan adopts this regimented approach in other areas of his life as well. “Always be punctual for meetings,” which he says is his personal motto, comes across as an unusually dry maxim, coming from the fertile mind of a fiction writer, but it ties in perfectly with his disciplined mindset.

There must be something to this ordered outlook because Tan is one of a rare breed of writers who achieve great success from the very beginning of their writing careers. Tan’s début novel, The Gift of Rain, about a young man’s journey through wartime deceptions and loyalties, was critically acclaimed and longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and of course his second published work, The Garden of Evening Mists, has earned him eternal bragging rights and a coveted spot alongside other writers who have made the shortlist over the years, such as Colm Tóibín, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Anita Desai, David Mitchell and Rohinton Mistry, among others.

Set in Cameron Highlands in the 1950s, The Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of seventeen-year-old Teoh Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a Japanese internment camp, and her complex relationship with the self-exiled taciturn Nakamura Aritomo, the owner of the only Japanese garden in Malaya and once the gardener of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Yun Ling hopes to create a Japanese garden in memory of her beloved older sister who died in the camp. It is a heart-wrenching tale of remembrance and forgiveness narrated in a strong yet quiet voice.

TAN TWAN ENG, winner of the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize
for his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan says the ideas and central theme for the book came to him over time. “There wasn’t a single lightning-bolt moment; for me writing doesn’t work like that,” he says. “I had some of the ideas already and it was just a question of sitting down at my desk and struggling hard to get them all to cohere.”

Tan’s novel reveals remarkably well-researched details about Japanese culture and he admits that it grew out of his passion for aikido, a type of Japanese martial arts. “I practised aikido for ten years. I was obsessed by it. It’s one of the more traditional Japanese martial arts, and to improve your skills in it you have to understand its historical and cultural contexts. My knowledge was accumulated through reading and talking to visiting instructors.”

From left: Tan Twan Eng, Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel,
Will Self, Alison Moore and Jeet Thayil

Despite his rigorous writing routine, Tan says it took him more than three years to complete The Garden of Evening Mists. He admits that he faced a few challenges during the early stages of the writing process. “Getting the structure and the balance right. For the novel to work, the sequence of chapters had to be carefully considered.”

Tan, who now lives in Cape Town, hopes his novel will prove to be a transformative experience for readers and change the way they look at things. He is confident that those who attempt a second read will be rewarded with fresh new aspects of the story. “If you reread it, you’ll view aspects of the book from a different angle. It’s similar to walking through the same garden you’ve already seen, but at different times of the day, or in another season of the year.”

For those keen on being a novelist, Tan’s advice is: “Read as much and as widely as you can. Be thankful if there’s someone in your life who can give you the harshest, most honest criticisms about your work. If you don’t have such a person, find one. You must be able to accept those brutally honest criticisms. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. A manuscript will never be perfect, but you should do everything possible to make it so. Find out everything you can about the publishing industry. Read the trade journals. If writing is to be your career, you should have a working knowledge of all its aspects.”

Monday, April 01, 2013

April 2013 Highlights

1. Harvard Square (W.W. Norton, 2013) / André Aciman
2. Americanah (Fourth Estate, 2013) / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
3. Maya’s Notebook (Harper, 2013) / Isabel Allende
4. The Blind Man’s Garden (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Nadeem Aslam
5. Life After Life (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown, 2013) / Kate Atkinson
5. Orphan Train (William Morrow, 2013) / Christina Baker Kline
6. Tapestry of Fortunes (Random House, 2013) / Elizabeth Berg
7. Horses of God (trans. from the French by Lulu Forman) (Granta Books, 2013) / Mahi Binebine
8. This House is Haunted (Doubleday, 2013) / John Boyne
9. The House of Special Purpose (Other Press, 2013) / John Boyne
10. Palisades Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) / Alan Brennert

11. A World of Other People (4th Estate/HarperCollins Australia, 2013) / Steven Carroll
12. Six Years (Orion, 2013) / Harlan Coben
13. The Childhood of Jesus (Harvill Secker, 2013) / J.M. Coetzee
14. Paris Was the Place (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Susan Conley
15. The Sea of Innocence (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Kishwar Desai
16. Last Friends (Europa Editions, 2013) / Jane Gardam
17. The Mothers (Scribner, 2013) / Jennifer Gilmore
18. Benediction (Picador, 2013) / Kent Haruf
19. The Railwayman’s Wife (Allen & Unwin, 2013) / Ashley Hay
20. Where You Can Find Me (Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press, 2013) / Sheri Joseph

21. Fever (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Mary Beth Keane
22. Five Days (Atria Books, 2013) / Douglas Kennedy
23. A Man in Love: My Struggle: Book 2 (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Karl Ove Knausgaard
24. The Flamethrowers (Scribner, 2013) / Rachel Kushner
25. The View from Penthouse B (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Elinor Lipman
26. Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Fiona Maazel
27. The Dark Road (trans. from the Chinese by Flora Drew) (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Ma Jian
28. The Lost (Headline, 2013) / Claire McGowan
29. Constance (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Patrick McGrath
30. The Woman Upstairs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Claire Messud

31. Motherland (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / William Nicholson
32. The Forgiven (Hogarth, 2013) / Lawrence Osborne
33. Odds Against Tomorrow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Nathaniel Rich
34. The Shelter Cycle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Peter Rock
35. Paris (Doubleday, 2013) / Edward Rutherfurd
36. Orkney (Counterpoint, 2013) / Amy Sackville
37. All That Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / James Salter
38. The Edge of the Earth (Atria Books, 2013) / Christina Schwarz
39. The Hungry Ghosts (Doubleday Canada, 2013) / Shyam Selvadurai
40. Love Water Memory (Gallery Books, 2013) / Jennie Shortridge

41. The Wall (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / William Sutcliffe
42. The Accidental Apprentice (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Vikas Swarup
43. My Beautiful Enemy (Text Publishing, 2013) / Cory Taylor
44. Fear in the Sunlight (Harper, 2013) / Nicola Upson
45. Long Live the King (Head of Zeus, 2013) / Fay Weldon
46. The Interestings (Riverhead, 2013) / Meg Wolitzer
47. Sister Sister (Kwela Books, 2013) / Rachel Zadok

First Novels
1. The Movement of Stars (Riverhead, 2013) / Amy Brill
2. Idiopathy (Fourth Estate, 2013) / Sam Byers
3. Clapham Lights (Silvertail Books, 2013) / Tom Canty
4. The Gamal (Bloomsbury Circus, 2013) / Ciarán Collins
5. The Shock of the Fall (HarperCollins, 2013) / Nathan Filer
6. Ghost Moth (Bellevue Literary Press, 2013) / Michèle Forbes
7. The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Cormoran Strike Novel (Mulholland Books/Little, Brown, 2013) / Robert Galbraith
8. The Last King of Lydia (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Tim Leach
9. Red Sky in Morning (Quercus, 2013) / Paul Lynch
10. The River of No Return (Dutton, 2013) / Bee Ridgway

11. The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (Ecco, 2013) / Rhonda Riley
12. Ghana Must Go (Viking, 2013) / Taiye Selasi
13. The Hope Factory (Tinder Press, 2013) / Lavanya Sankaran
14. The Rosie Project (Michael Joseph/Penguin USA, 2013) / Graeme Simsion
15. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Jessica Soffer
16. Homecoming (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Susie Steiner
17. The View on the Way Down (Picador, 2013) / Rebecca Wait
18. The Golem and the Jinni (Harper, 2013) / Helen Wecker
19. The Third Son (Algonquin Books, 2013) / Julie Wu

1. The Secret Lives of Men (Scribe Publications, 2013) / Georgia Blain
2. Strange Pilgrimages (Picador Africa, 2013) / Achmat Dangor
3. Nothing Cold Can Stay (Canongate Books, 2013) / Ron Rash
4. We’re Flying (trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann) (Granta, 2013) / Peter Stamm
5. The House at Belle Fontaine (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013) / Lily Tuck

1. Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchinson, 2013) / Dannie Abse
2. Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Frank Bidart
3. Collected Poems (ed. Frederick Glaysher) (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2013) / Robert Hayden
4. Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) / Bob Hicok
5. Pluto (Picador, 2013) / Glyn Maxwell
6. The Mining Road (Bloodaxe, 2013) / Leanne O’Sullivan
7. Silverchest (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Carl Phillips
8. Drysalter (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Michael Symmons Roberts
9. Accurate Measurements (Doire Press, 2013) / Adam White

1. Levels of Life (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Julian Barnes
2. Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Damian Barr
3. Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir (Bloomsbury USA/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Greg Bellow
4. She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Emma Brockes
5. The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / David Cannadine
6. The Return of a King: Shah Shuja and the First Battle for Afghanistan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / William Dalrymple
7. Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt (Yale University Press, 2013) / Saul Friedländer
8. Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Philip F. Gura
9. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (Harper Perennial, 2013) / Peter Hessler
10. Prospero’s Son: Life, Books, Love, and Theater (University of Chicago Press, 2013) / Seth Lerer

11. I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Elinor Lipman
12. Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane, 2013) / Diarmaid MacCulloch
13. Country Girl: A Memoir (Little, Brown, 2013) / Edna O’Brien
14. A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Qais Akbar Omar
15. The Still Point of the Turning World (Two Roads, 2013) / Emily Rapp
16. The View from Here: On Affirmation, Attachment, and the Limits of Regret (Oxford University Press, 2013) / R. Jay Wallace