Publishing’s ‘pop stars’

2013-09-26 00:00

“WRITERS have become more like pop singers. You come up with an ‘album’ and then you’re expected to tour with it, and perform all the ‘hit songs’.”

With these words, and an air of mock exasperation, award-winning Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng bursts into laughter; as one of these “pop star” authors himself, these days, he’s pretty exhausted.

“It fascinates me how much the [publishing] industry has changed,” says Tan, when we meet in Cape Town.

“When I became a writer, this was the last thing I expected to do — to have to go out and promote not just your books, but yourself as well.

“These days, when writers get together, we discuss literary festivals and which ones are worth going to. It’s become a performance thing.

“Publishers insist that writers have an Internet presence. They want us to be on Facebook and Twitter and to write blogs! I said to my publisher: ‘You do my Facebook page, then. I don’t do that.’ I am not on Twitter either and I don’t do blogs. I mean, really, don’t they want me to finish writing my novel?”

It’s been a whirlwind year for Tan (41), who has become a rising star for his elegant and haunting novels set in Malaysia, and looking at aspects of war, history, memory and art.

When we meet at a Waterfront hotel, he is still basking in his most recent achievement: in June, he won the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists.

Earlier in the year, for the same book, he won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, edging out Orhan Pamuk to become the first Malaysian recipient of the prize.

The Garden of Evening Mists was also short-listed for last year’s Booker Prize, but British author Hilary Mantel took the award for Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment of her trilogy charting the life of Thomas Cromwell.

Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain — which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 — is set in Penang in the years leading up to and during the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War 2. It has since been translated into numerous languages.

The Garden of Evening Mists, published last year, is told in the voice of a woman, Yun Ling, who is the only member of a family to survive a Japanese prisoner of war camp — and takes place when the Japanese occupation is over.

His success means he is now on first-name terms with authors who, once upon a time, left him “starstruck”. He once met his literary hero, Salman Rushdie (I wish I had written Midnight’s Children) at a function and “blabbered away like a fool”. They’ve discussed it since, and laughed about it together.

“It is intimidating until you get to speak to them and then you find people like Hilary Mantel and the other writers are very nice people. It is a surreal situation. You think, ‘there is Hilary Mantel’, and then you meet her and she is telling you about her aches and pains, and the problems she is having with writing.”

Tan enjoys seeing his books translated into other languages. “It is strange because sometimes they change the titles. They called the Italian version of The Gift of Rain, The Girl who came with the Rain.

“When the Scandinavians were interested in The Garden of Evening Mists, I told my agent to tell them to call it The Girl with the Garden Tattoo!”

Tan spends six months of every year living in Cape Town and the other half in Malaysia. While he is working — or trying to work — on his third novel, it has been a year of distractions.

He was about to get into a routine again when, about two months ago, his father died. “It was not unexpected, but we thought he had more time. He had lung cancer and died in his sleep at home. He was 75.”

He also recently signed the movie or television rights for his second novel with a British Malaysian company — a process that took months of stressful negotiations before finalising.

“I’ve started on the third novel, but this past year has been quite crazy. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for various literary festivals and prize awards. So my writing has been interrupted again and again. I am trying to find a space where I can just sit down and have a work routine again.”

Born in Penang, Tan was raised in various parts of Malaysia, including Kuala Lumpur. He always loved reading and fancied himself as a writer from an early age. The first novel he read was Shirley Conran’s Lace, which he read when he was eight or nine, but barely understood.

He qualified as a copyright lawyer, before working as an advocate and solicitor in Kuala Lumpur, focusing on software piracy. It was dangerous work as he was sometimes expected to look into illegal operations backed by the triads.

Ten years ago, he decided to move to Cape Town to study for a Master’s in shipping law at UCT.

During that year of study, at a time when he was missing Malaysia, he completed The Gift of Rain.

It didn’t take him too long to fall in love with the lifestyle and people of the Cape — and he decided to stay. He now lives in Sea Point, and writes from his apartment, walking on the promenade every day while he takes a break from aikido. (He is a black dan, but burnt himself out on it.) “South Africa is very similar to Malaysia in so many ways. Even the terms for food are similar — like blatjang and atchar. It is very strange because sometimes, when I walk in the streets of the city, I feel I am back in Malaysia. The Cape Malays, they look very similar to the Malaysians,” he says.

But there are big differences between Cape Town and his second home, Kuala Lumpur. “I love the fact that the air is so clean, compared to Malaysia. It’s unpolluted, it’s crisp and the skies are an amazing shade of blue that you don’t see in Asia because it is so hazy there. In Malaysia, three-hour traffic jams are common.”

Tan loves the small towns of the Cape, where he finds the landscape and the architecture intriguing and the people to be “so civil and well-mannered”.

He’s fascinated by the history and language of Afrikaners — and has peppered his work with Afrikaans characters.

“I find the language very beautiful. It is so earthy and nature oriented, and sometimes very literal in its descriptions.” He has become fascinated by the history of the country and the architecture, especially the Cape Dutch homes.

“You fall in love with the Cape the moment you see it. And those open spaces, the immense blank countryside. I couldn’t get used to it at first.

“Now, when I’m back in Kuala Lumpur, I feel claustrophobic and long for the open skies and the countryside that goes on and on. Whenever I speak to South Africans who say they want to leave, I say: ‘But, where are you going to go? Which country is perfect? There are none.”

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