Friday October 26, 2012
Malaysian Booker Prize nominee Tan Twan Eng wants to keep evolving as a writer
By NIKI CHEONG
Having been shortlisted for the literary world’s most prestigious prize, Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng is our best bet at eventually winning it. But while his fans might wait with bated breath, all he wants to do is keep evolving as a writer.
TAN Twan Eng, the first Malaysian to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, has had a busy couple of weeks. In London last week, his schedule was so packed that he declined to meet for an interview, preferring to respond to questions via e-mail instead.
His busy schedule is not surprising considering that Oct 16 was the day that the prize winner was announced. (It was Hilary Mantel, for Bring Up The Bodies.)
An e-mail interview with Tan had to suffice, and it turns out that his answers are as fascinating for the way they are crafted as they are for their content. Here’s his description of how he first heard, while he was in London, that his second novel, The Garden Of The Evening Mists, had been shortlisted: “I was walking up and down Oxford Street on the morning Sir Peter Stothard and the other judges were going to reveal the six names they had whittled down from 12. It was early and many of the shops had not opened their doors.”
Tan goes on to explain that he managed to forget about the announcement while reading the newspapers at a cafe. Then, “My agent rang me at around 11.30am. I had made the shortlist. I looked at the people around me, a huge silly smile breaking over my face. It was hard to restrain myself from telling all of them the news,” he writes.
Later that the evening, he attends a dinner hosted for the shortlisted authors to meet the judges, members of the press and other people connected to the prize: “They packed hundreds of people into The Orangery in Holland Park. The noise level was crushing.”
That he would be so descriptive in merely a reply to a nosy journalist not only indicates how well Tan tells his stories but perhaps also how much he loves doing so. After all, the Penang-born Tan, 40, gave up a career in law to write full time; he has written two books so far in his current base in South Africa.
Tan’s first book, The Gift Of Rain, published in 2007, was critically acclaimed and has been translated into several languages. Set in Penang during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during WWII, the book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize – not a bad feat at all for a debut.
The long-listing brought Tan a lot of attention, but even he did not expect it to scale to the level that it has with the shortlisting.
“I thought I had my experience of being longlisted a few years ago to rely on, but I have discovered that the media scrutiny is much, much more intense and demanding,” he says, adding that he has had to start making time for interviews and deal with requests to write articles.
However, the publicity also brought him much support. “The goodwill expressed to me by people from around the world – friends, strangers, and interviewers – was immense. They were all so enthusiastic in cheering for me, and I was disappointed for them when I did not win,” he says.
And he’s no sore loser: Tan has only good things to say about Mantel.
“I’m sure all five of us shortlisted authors were disappointed we didn’t win. But we lost to a formidably talented writer,” he says before going on to do what he does best, elaborate on his story: “Before I met (her), I thought she’d be a difficult person to get along with, but within minutes of our first meeting I found her to be a lovely person – gracious, extremely friendly, down-to-earth, and sincere. A week before the dinner at the Guildhall I told my agent, ‘If I don’t win, then I hope Hilary does.’”
Even though Tan had made it a point not to read the books of his fellow nominees until after the winner had been announced, he admits to having “cheated” and read a couple of pages of Mantel’s book – and “It was extremely difficult not to keep on reading. I’m very keen to get started on her book now,” he says.
A good storyteller doesn’t only work with his or her words, but also keeps the audience – in this case, the reader – in mind every step of the way. In an interview with The Star in 2007, Tan explained his formula for keeping the pace of his book entertaining for readers: “I thought that if I got bored writing a scene, then people were going to get bored reading it. And I get bored easily.”
Five years on, Tan still thinks of his reader’s experience as much as he did before. When asked if he has any actors in mind for the lead characters from his books should they be adapted for the screen (Mantel had recently announced that her two books would be turned into stage plays), Tan declines to answer.
“I never state my preference for any actors to play the lead characters – it would reduce my readers’ enjoyment of my books as they already have their ideas of how the characters look like,” he says, adding that, while he has received adaptation offers, he has not yet found the right people “for various reasons”.
Tan’s rise to success as a fiction writer seems to be moving at a steady pace and in the right direction. His first book was long-listed while his second was shortlisted. Could a win be in sight with his third? This might just be the case if Tan has anything to do with it.
“Even if I had not been long-listed or shortlisted, I’m always striving to improve my writing, to evolve. Each book I write has to be better than the previous one. That’s the only way a writer can grow,” he says.
That response suggests that a third book is in the works, although Tan does not want to discuss it (“I don’t like talking about my works-in-progress; I’d rather be writing them”). Still, it would appear that storytelling is what Tan will continue doing and, no doubt, with the success of both his books – Tan said that the shortlisting has boosted the sales of both his books tremendously – the literary world awaits his third with bated breath.