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Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian novelist. His first novel, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker prize, and his second, The Garden of Evening Mists, shortlisted this year. Both novels were published by Myrmidon Books. He has lived in many places. He studied law at the University of London before returning to Kuala Lumpur to practice as an intellectual property lawyer. After quitting his practice, he moved to Cape town to pursue a master’s in law, during which he also wrote his debut novel. He currently divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. Visit www.tantwaneng.com for more.
What is your earliest memory?
I have a few of them, but I don’t feel any real connection to them—they seem to have happened to someone else. It’s like having memories of movies I’ve watched, or reading about the memories of characters in novels. The earliest childhood memory that feels real to me is being scratched by an angry cat I was teasing. I was probably four years old at the time.
What is the first book you ever loved? Why?
Susan Howatch’s The Wheel of Fortune. It’s nearly a thousand pages long, and very addictive. I read it many times when I was in my teens. The story, like many of Howatch’s novels, was told from the perspectives of multiple narrators, and it was the first time in my life that I realized it could be done.
Describe the first time you realised that the world is not as it seems.
It was the first time I read a book, aged five or six. I can’t remember which book it was. But to be sucked into world of a book, and to emerge from it feeling slightly changed, seeing the world from a different angle—that made me realize the world is not as it seems.
What has been the most formative place in your life and how has it changed you?
Penang, the island where I was born. I went back there as a teenager and realized what a fascinating, vibrant place it is. It’s filled with stories, history, and an atmosphere of timelessness.
If you could be any literary character, who would you be? Why?
Genji, in Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. He was good looking, intelligent, charming, literate.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
Housecleaning, grocery shopping, dealing with paperwork and emails, going to bookshops. And all the while I’ll be thinking about how to improve the sentences and paragraphs I’d written that day.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve only ever had two jobs: a lawyer, and a novelist. I’ve been lucky—I’ve never had a job I loathed.
What is your attitude towards money?
It doesn’t necessarily bring you happiness, but it does give you a lot more options in life. If I’m going to be miserable I would prefer to do it in luxurious surroundings.
Being a writer is a strange brand of celebrity. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
Being mistaken for Yo Yo Ma.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic and/or mannerism?
If you were to write a story about an anti-hero, what would his/her central flaw be?
The ability to convince himself that his actions are right.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
I’d like to be able to control and influence the minds of other people, and thereby influencing their actions. You WILL buy my books. Yes you will. Multiple copies of them.
What is the most important piece of life advice you would give a young person?
Don’t be a writer.
What’s next for you (work-wise and life-wise)?
Researching my third novel and trying to work out what it’ll be about. Doing interviews and promotions for the release of the American edition of The Garden of Evening Mists. Preparing my talks for the literary festivals I’ve been invited to. But first I’m going to have tea, and a piece of madeleine cake.