Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel, The Gift of Rain, was one of 13 on the Man Booker prize long list. Eng came to South Africa to take a break from his homeland, Malaysia. He travelled and wrote his book before embarking on an LLM at the University of Cape Town. After an interlude back in Kuala Lumpur he returned to Cape Town where he devotes himself to full-time writing.
Describe yourself in a sentence.
I have high standards but reasonable expectations. I will always try to see the other person’s point of view and compromise whenever I can.
Describe your ideal reader.
Someone philosophical, cultured and open to new voices and experiences, interested in good-quality and nongimmicky writing and stories with universal themes of love, death, family and sacrifice.
What was the originating idea for The Gift of Rain?
My idea was to write a testament, a paean, to the island of Penang. It has a great deal of atmosphere, nostalgia and many, many fascinating stories, but these are all fast disappearing due to modernisation. Beautiful old heritage buildings are being torn down and replaced with shopping malls and apartment blocks. Every time I visit the place I see another distinctive colonial mansion being demolished to make way for a shopping mall or a restaurant. I was keen to capture the essence of Penang before it becomes just another modern Asian city. I also wanted to explore what it means to be an outsider, to not belong in the world in which one grows up.
Describe the process of writing and publishing. How long did it take?
I write from 9am till late afternoon, taking regular breaks. I start by going through what I’ve written the day before, to get into the rhythm of the words and the moods and to improve on what I’ve already put down in writing.
It took me about a year to complete the first draft and another few months to rewrite it. I then sent the manuscript to literary agents in the United Kingdom. One agent was quite excited and I decided to go with her as she’s reputable, tough and has been in the business for the past 20 years. She had trouble getting the publishers interested but, in the end, Myrmidon Books decided they wanted to publish it.
Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us why or how.
Kazuo Ishiguro: I enjoy his early works, such as An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day. He has a detached, distant style that makes the emotional trauma and regret he describes effective and striking.
Salman Rushdie: I’ve become a huge bore by telling everyone I meet to read Midnight’s Children. I love his irreverent and inventive way with words and the sheer narrative energy of his writing.
Andre Brink: I am in awe of how he keeps coming out with a new book almost every year. His descriptions of the South African landscape are incredible, evocative and cinematic.
Martin Booth : He died three years ago after writing his memoirs, Gweilo, which deal with his youth in Hong Kong, on his deathbed. His books are out of print now, but I’ve found quite a few in used-bookstores: Hiroshima Joe, The Industry of Souls (shortlisted for the 1998 Booker), The Iron Tree and Adrift in the Oceans of Mercy. A highly underrated author, he explores themes that interest me—identity, atonement for past crimes, old age, memory—without forgetting that a strong storyline is essential.
What are you reading at the moment?
A book called Prisoners of the Japanese by Gavan Dawes. Part of my research for my second book.
Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?
I use a laptop. I can’t write with pen and paper—nothing seems to flow. I also prefer seeing the words on a screen. It makes them seem more substantial.
What is the purpose of fiction?
To entertain, to break down cultural borders, to widen one’s world, to touch one’s heart and to help us understand and appreciate life.
How do you see the future of fiction?
It’s robust and exciting. We’re going to see more and more writers from various parts of the world get published and read. I hope we’ll also realise that we don’t need gimmicky writing styles or weird fonts and page layouts to make a novel worthy of being called literature.
Is there anything you wish to add?
I hope readers who pick up The Gift of Rain will enjoy reading it and that the story will resonate in them long after they’ve read the last page.