Saturday, February 28, 2009


Redemptive Realignment
TAN MAY LEE chats with Suflan Shamsuddin about his thought-provoking book, Reset: Rethinking the Malaysian Political Paradigm, which sets out to achieve the goal of making Malaysia an effective and prosperous nation through rethinking the Malaysian political paradigm

SUFLAN SHAMSUDDIN is a lawyer in London, and has had an interest in politics since a young age, having extensively read Bertrand Russell and Immanuel Kant by the age of 14. When classmates were out playing football, he would be huddled with a small group of friends, discussing politics and philosophy. Although he was the Chairman of Kelab UMNO United Kingdom and Eire when he was at university, he put politics on the backburner when he started building his legal career.

Reset (ZI Publications, 2008), his first book, envisions the state of Malaysia every fellow Malaysian longs for but are not able to articulate. He summarises the book as a middle ground between diametrically opposed ideological positions to diagnose why Malaysia faces an untenable political conundrum. It also proposes a non-partisan solution.

Suflan Shamsuddin writes for The Malaysian Insider.

Could you compare Reset to other titles on the shelf about Malaysian politics?
This book is totally non-partisan, and it does not place blame on any person or party. It focuses on trying to draw a common platform from which all Malaysians could understand the challenges of (or obstacles to) nation-building. It then uses this platform to prescribe a solution, which involves a structural change to the democratic framework. I know of no other book that does that.

In the first part of Reset (“Aligning Views on the Social Contract”), you talk about riveting discussions with your friends about the state of the nation; however, many Malaysians, particularly those who live outside the cities, might not even have the vocabulary to contemplate such matters because of limited education. Should all Malaysians rise up to this intellectual level, or is there a way for us to comprehend politics in simpler terms?
I think we have failed our youth by neither encouraging nor giving them the tools and space to think critically and to express themselves. There are many societies which have had much less opportunity for material progress compared to us, that have developed both a tradition and culture of critical analysis, and this is what makes a society learn, grow and adapt.

Having said that, the problems that beset Malaysia are actually very complex. It is very easy to allow our prejudices to make us lazy in understanding the problems for what they are. And I find this to be a real problem, which I find pervasive amongst Malays who want to maintain the status quo, but also non-Malays who want to destroy the hegemony and all that comes with it. We have to be much more hardworking and industrious in dissecting and understanding the real problems of this country, instead of entrenching our positions along battle lines that we have become accustomed to.

We could think of your position or current residence in London as an advantage because you are able to view things somewhat more objectively and critically. Do you discuss politics with your foreign acquaintances? Would your book appeal to an international audience?
Many of my foreign friends know Malaysia quite well. They are amazed at how well it has progressed, but many are sceptical about how much further it can go because they sense the difficulties ahead. I find it relatively easier to explain my views about our problems to a dispassionate non-Malaysian, and I think it is because he or she lacks the baggage and prejudices that make many Malaysians cynical about any solution.

I think the book would definitely appeal to an international audience, provided the reader is sufficiently acquainted with Malaysia’s overall politics. I have had, in particular, quite a bit of interest from Singaporean readers.

In the chapter, “Meeting the Principles,” you say: “We are also witnessing a great exodus of Malaysian talent who choose to work and settle elsewhere.” You, too, have been and are based abroad (as a lawyer) for many years. How connected are you to your roots? And how does this influence your approach to local political issues?
I’ve spent 21 years away from Malaysia, all in all, over different periods of my life. But I’ve never felt any other country to be truly home. My children, my parents and other members of the family are still in Malaysia, so I remain very committed to the nation, and anticipate returning there one day sooner or later.

Having said that, the exposure to a very cosmopolitan and industrious environment has made me appreciate diversity, inclusiveness and the value of honesty and hard work all that more. It has also allowed me to look at Malaysia from “outside the goldfish bowl,” so to speak, which lets me see the nation’s political difficulties from a totally different perspective. This is a tremendous advantage because I would not have been able to develop the ideas in the book if I had remained in Malaysia.

Is this a good time to live outside Malaysia or fully engage oneself with the community?
I think these are interesting times in Malaysia, and we all have a tremendous opportunity to contribute towards the creation of a new and aligned vision for the country. What we must be able to do is to put the figurative knives back into the sheaths and embrace a commitment to find an accommodative and inclusive solution.

The challenge to our country will not get any easier, and a zero-sum game attitude is a dangerous attitude to have when things get much harder, as they certainly will. We owe it to our children to find a lasting solution to develop a bangsa Malaysia.

How has your career as a lawyer helped you in writing Reset?
I previously held the position of Group Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer for one of the world’s largest multinationals, and it gave me tremendous insight on how issues of good governance and ethical conduct might be encouraged and promoted. Also, as a lawyer whose work is primarily focused on international mergers, acquisitions and divestments, in which the endgame desired by the client is a solution that generates long-term value, I have learnt to dissect issues in order to find win-win solutions.

Let’s talk about the publishing of your book. How long did it take from the first draft to getting it in print? How meticulous was the editing process?
I developed the main ideas about eight years ago. The difficulty I had was finding a way to express these ideas so that all Malaysians, irrespective of religious or ethnic background, could understand and appreciate them. Once I figured out how to do this and set my mind on writing the book, it took me three months to produce a first draft and another six months to get the book in print.

The editing process was reasonably robust. But at the end of the day, I think you have to be very critical of your own writing, and also get views from a number of different people if you want a final product that you are happy with, exercising judgment in making sure that the arguments are balanced.

Reflecting on Reset some months after its publication, are there any chapters or details you wish you could have elaborated on better or change?
I think once a book is in print, and you receive some feedback, you realise that there might have been things which could have been said differently to make some concepts easier to understand. What I am happy though, is that I have no regrets whatsoever about the substance of the book’s message.

You have identified various conflicts in your book, and suggested solutions and paradigm shifts. What are your thoughts on taking a more proactive approach?
That is indeed a difficult question that I have asked myself many times! And so have my friends! I think my approach is to take things one step at a time. My first duty is to get my views out there, which I have discharged. I’ll see what the reactions are to my ideas, and monitor the situation on the ground before determining what more I should do.

A version of this interview was published in the January-March 2009 issue of Quill

Friday, February 27, 2009

Meera MURUGESAN talks to Jeremy SHELDON

Sheldon says that reading the work of aspiring writers is
like getting a window into their hearts and minds.

Get that ‘writing muscle’ toned!
February 25, 2009

Aspiring writers may need to work out daily, advises author, scriptwriter and creative writing facilitator Jeremy Sheldon. Curious MEERA MURUGESAN finds out more. Being grounded is a punishment any teenager can relate to but not many would have used it to such good effect as Sheldon.

THE BRITISH WRITER and former Eton schoolboy first developed an interest in writing when teenage rebellion in boarding school got him sent to his dorm room on Saturdays. At 16, bored and frustrated on one such Saturday, Jeremy Sheldon started writing about the things he would be doing if he wasn’t stuck in his room. This eventually led to a love for creative writing: two published books, a career as a scriptwriter, a tutor in creative writing and facilitator at workshops for aspiring writers.

“If they hadn’t punished me, I don’t know what I would be doing. I would probably be a lawyer or doctor or something,” joked Sheldon, 38, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently for a writer’s workshop organised by the British Council.

Alert and fresh-faced despite the long flight from London, Sheldon, who was on his first trip to Malaysia, was more than happy to share his thoughts on creative writing and his own journey as a writer.

Called City of Stories, the workshop, from February 11-20, targeted at both aspiring and developing local writers, aimed to help participants draw inspiration from their surroundings for the production of written work.

Sheldon said working with aspiring writers and having the opportunity to study their written work is similar to getting a “window into their hearts and minds,” an experience that still astonishes him every single time. His role, said Sheldon, is to function as the “external eye” and to show these aspiring writers not just the things they are already doing very well, but also to point out the few elements they may be missing.

But it’s a huge responsibility, especially when participants seek advice, said Sheldon. He still remembers pointers which his writing teacher gave him years ago. And the best piece of writing advice he received, which is quite simply “write every day,” has not been the easiest thing to follow either, admitted Sheldon.

Writing requires practice and writing daily, even if it’s only a little bit, can make a difference to aspiring writers. “You need to keep working out what a colleague of mine calls the writing muscle. You can’t actually touch it or see it working but you know it exists.”

Born and raised in West London, Sheldon credits his mother—who is Hong Kong Chinese—and her love of films for also sparking his interest in storytelling. His mother, said Sheldon, was quite happy to spend Sunday afternoons absorbed in watching the Technicolor movies of the fifties and early sixties. She was fascinated by such movies and by the great American film stars of that era, an interest she passed on to Sheldon, who also works as a scriptwriter and development consultant for scriptwriters and film production companies.

“I think her interest in movies came from her Hong Kong background. She said in those days, you had one day off and you ate dimsum and went and saw three films; that sounds like my ideal day too,” said Sheldon with a smile.

Sheldon, who counts Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie among his favourite writers, is the author of The Comfort Zone (published in 2002) and The Smiling Affair (2005). He has also written a number of anthologised short stories.

Sheldon is also a tutor on the MA in Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine.

But this year, Sheldon, with a third book in mind, is determined to focus as much on his own writing as he does on the work of others.

“Writing gives you the freedom to be an individual in a way which doesn’t happen very often with other ways of life,” he said.

Occasionally, to compensate for not writing enough during term time, he takes off for a week or two, stays in a quiet Bed and Breakfast, away from all the usual distractions and just focuses on his writing.

Otherwise, his day always starts with a dose of television humour. An avid fan of the sitcom Frasier, Sheldon never misses switching on his TV in the mornings for the half hour of laughter that the series promises before dividing his time between his own writing and preparing for classes in the afternoons and early evenings. He’s also quite taken with online chess, though he smilingly admitted to not having won a single game in three months.

“I go out a lot too. My friends are not people who tend to read books every day or want to sit in the pub talking about books, but I’m lucky because they allow me to take a break from either my own writing or from working with other writers,” he said.

Sheldon, whose mother suffers from multiple sclerosis and has been wheelchair-bound since 1985, is planning his next book to address the subject of being disabled. “There isn’t much written about being disabled because it frightens people ... that we are all so physically fallible,” said Sheldon.

His mother, whom he describes as “amazing, funny and brave,” lives independently despite her debilitating illness. Her attitude to life, says Sheldon, is very inspiring. “I’ve always shunned from writing about my mother’s illness but I think I have finally found an access point to the topic that works for me.”

Reproduced from the New Straits Times of February 25, 2009

Thursday, February 26, 2009

S.W. LOW reviews ... Peeing in the Bush

Whale of a laugh

Review by S.W. LOW

Adeline Loh
MPH Group Publishing, 232pp

WEARY of weaving wonders out of words, journo Adeline Loh did what members of the cubicle community usually only dream of doing: resigning and rejuvenating oneself far, far away. The country of choice? Amazing Africa! Zoological Zambia, to be precise.

Trips like this wouldn’t be complete without a companion. And who else but “auntie-looking” Chan (her full name is never given), her sparring partner from kung fu lessons, though only after some persuasion.

I was impressed by the way Loh details each and every item she packed into her back-breaking backpack. No wonder the petite traveller looked as if her bag had engulfed her!

So Loh and her sidekick hop on a plane to the rugged wilds of Zambia, where they meet all sorts of creatures, wild and domesticated. The writer is a master of character-building, wonderfully fleshing out the people they meet, and the book has idiosyncratic tour guides, hostel owners and fellow travellers aplenty.

Loh does an especially good job conveying the personality of her usually anxious (sometimes sensibly so!) travel partner as the adventure unfolds. Vegetarian Chan thinks that they will be served monkey brain stew with fried invertebrates as in-flight lunch.

Not that Loh is much less irrational with some of her own preconceptions. About to touch down in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, uneasy thoughts begin to run through her head: what if she and Chan are infected with HIV/AIDS from syringes? Considering that 16.5 per cent of the country’s adult population was infected in 2003, according to UNAIDS, it’s a fair enough concern, perhaps.

Hearing the “I-told-you-so” chants by family and friends in her head makes Loh nauseous; but she’s reassured when the first thing she sees, right on the edge of the runway, is a cheerful billboard with the image of a jovial Zambian woman welcoming visitors to her country.

Most importantly, she survives to tell this story, and comes across in it as the more adventurous one of the travelling pair. She must be, since her life’s ambition is to become the deadliest female kung fu fighter on the planet (mentioned in the blurb inside the book)!

One thing that stands out is that Loh has a vocabulary as vast as the savannah. She generously puts in a variety of adjectives to enhance her nouns—to the point that I felt a little overwhelmed sometimes, but this didn’t affect my reading. Yes, the book is a little slow to get off the ground, being a little boring in the beginning, but once the women hit the road, it was hard to put down. And that, I attribute to Loh’s descriptive language. She uses highly original (if exaggerated!) analogies that tickled my funny bone every now and then.

Much of the humour in this travelogue lies in the fact that two peas in a pod Loh and Chan are definitely not. When the intrepid Loh wants to traverse the desert at night, the slightly paranoid Chan prefers to catch forty winks. Then there’s the time when our writer decides to travel alone with a guide and nearly gets mashed—by what, I’d rather not say, as you just have to read the book to get the full effect of the experience! Showering in the toilet, slumbering, and the titular peeing in the bush are not very good experiences, either.

Loh’s prose is always lively and peppered with funny anecdotes. So much so that, sometimes, I felt like jumping into the scenes she describes so vividly. And jumping back out when the lions, elephants, rhinos, and crocodiles make their appearances!

Much research has obviously gone into the writing of this book. I was given “lectures” on geography, culture, and the economy, but always in an entertaining way. Safely pinned to my sofa, I learnt a thing or two about Zambia (which has a literacy rate of 81 per cent), the people (unlike the Bushmen depicted in documentaries, many speak English), their food (yummy “nshima”), the animal kingdom (do you know what a “flatdog” is?), and many other interesting facts that often blew away many media stereotypes.

After reading this book, my preconceptions about Africa were shattered. Plus, I had a whale of a time laughing.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 22, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Janet TAY reviews ... The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

More than just a curiosity

What happens when a man is born old and starts to age in reverse? “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is as close as F. Scott Fitzgerald got to science fiction! His literary flamboyance entertains in this trio of stories.

Review by JANET TAY

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
F. Scott Fitzgerald
(Penguin Classics, 128pp)

EVEN WITHOUT THE PUBLICITY surrounding the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sounds intriguing. Who wouldn’t be interested in a tale about the birth of a baby who begins life as a 70-year-old and ages backwards through life!

One can easily imagine the tension and conflict that exists right at the story’s inception and how it would continue to underlie the progress of the plot.

The inspiration for the short story, author F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly said, came from that other great American writer, Mark Twain, who once said it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. The poignant tale of Benjamin Button appears to be Fitzgerald’s “experiment” on whether life would indeed be better if the worst part came at the beginning.

Starting life as an old man, Benjamin creates ripples of horror throughout the hospital where he’s born; he’s called an abomination, one that even his own father can barely stomach: “A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the eyes of the tortured man—a picture of himself walking through the crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by his side. ... He would have to introduce this—this septuagenarian: ‘This is my son, born early this morning.’ ”

But despite this supremely unnatural beginning, Benjamin manages to lead a relatively normal life. He faces the constraints of his age and appearance squarely, and falls in love, marries, and enjoys life in high society.

But then, the other shoe drops, and he’s beset with yet another strange phenomenon: he gets younger as time passes. Benjamin is initially enthusiastic about new opportunities that open up to him, but other parts of his life wane, such as his formerly young and exciting wife as she, naturally, ages. He also finds out that many doors are closed to him as a teenager and, eventually, a child.

Fitzgerald’s vivid imagination in designing this story not only entertains but also provokes thought on whether life is any different no matter where you start or end it.

The other two stories in this collection deserve no less attention, being equally riveting in different ways.

In “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” Bernice, a shy and rather dull and introverted wealthy girl who visits her cousin Marjorie, becomes an embarrassment to the latter who is adept at talking, flirting, and dancing with the boys.

Marjorie helps to transform Bernice into a charming socialite, but the plan backfires when Bernice’s new personality arouses the interest of Warren, Marjorie’s boyfriend. After Marjorie tricks Bernice into going ahead with a humiliating haircut, Bernice plots her revenge against her cousin, one that offers a delightfully fiendish twist at the end of the story.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is almost as improbable as Benjamin Button’s story. John T. Unger, a teenager from the town of Hades, Mississippi, goes to a private boarding school in the city of Boston and becomes friends with Percy Washington, a quiet and mysterious young man in his class.

John is aware that his friend comes from a wealthy family, but has no idea how wealthy until, during the train ride to the Washington family home where John has been invited to spend the summer, Percy declares that his father “has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton hotel.”

This preposterous claim turns out to be true, as the Washington property sits on a mountain consisting of one solid diamond! But why isn’t there a horde of gawkers at the property’s gates, or even fortune hunters trying to beat down those gates?

John soon finds out that the family has a dark and disturbing history arising from its determination to keep the diamond a secret.

Preferring sparseness in prose, I find Fitzgerald flamboyant, like a man who enters a room and draws attention with his loud, eloquent chatter, and his rich clothes and colourful adornments. But there is no disputing his talent, even if I find his descriptions and settings a little overwhelming at times; irresistibly, my head still turns to look, and I am absorbed by his ability to conjure amazing tales of the Jazz Age, the “age of excess.”

When criticised for his focus on love and success, Fitzgerald had replied, “But, my God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” Yet the pose of being a writer of extravagance and pomp seems to have been forced, as an interview in the New York Post in 1936 reveals his insecurities and his own admission of having lost the confidence a writer like him ought to possess, what he called an “utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me.”

Fitzgerald died relatively young, at 44, when he succumbed to a second heart attack, but despite his self-deprecation, he left an important literary legacy that documents the truth behind 1920s American high society in the age of modernism and overindulgence.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 22, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Anita BROOKNER ... Strangers (Fig Tree, March 2009)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Yiyun LI ... The Vagrants (Random House/Fourth Estate, 2009)

Yiyun Li’s 2005 short-story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the 2005 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the 2005 Guardian First Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Plimpton Prize for New Writers, the Whiting Writers’ Award, among other awards and prizes. The Vagrants (Random House/Fourth Estate, February 2009) is her début novel. Not bad for a person who left China to become an immunologist, and ending up as one of America’s best young novelists! Heartiest congratulations, Yiyun!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Siew Siang TAY ... Handpicked (HarperCollins Australia, April 2009)

MALAYSIA-BORN Siew Siang Tay’s début novel, Handpicked, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2009. The novel is about an Iban village girl who escapes from her longhouse in Sarawak to become a mail-order bride to a fruit-picker living in Renmark, a town in South Australia’s rural Riverland area, some 254 kilometres northeast of Adelaide, on the banks of the River Murray.

Tay, who was born in Malacca to second-generation Chinese parents, worked for eleven years in the petroleum industry in Malaysia before leaving the corporate world and emigrating to Australia in 1992 with her daughter. She now works at the University of South Australia. Her short stories have been published in such literary magazines as Meanjin and Dimsum, among others. In 2007, she won the Varuna-HarperCollins Award for Manuscript Development which led to the publication of Handpicked. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia.

Heartiest congratulations, Siew Siang!

“A morning chill laces the air. Laila tightens her jacket. The pelican is now far away, paddling downstream, leaving behind a ribbon of the vaguest white. She follows the line of the Murray into the distance. Ahead it turns and the land makes a sudden stark outline against the disappearing glint of the water. She feels a pull, as if the river is taking her along with it, and at once remembers: that was what the Rejang River used to do to her.”

Here’s something about Handpicked:

Laila is desperate to escape life in the longhouse in her village in Sarawak. Desperate enough to travel alone to Australia to marry Jim‚ a fruit-picker living in Renmark‚ South Australia. Jim hasn’t had much luck with women—they’re always giving him a hard time. He pins his hopes on Laila changing all that. Marital bliss‚ a new life. But when Laila and Jim finally meet‚ they each discover the reality of the other‚ and things don’t go as planned. Handpicked is a subtle and sensitive exploration of the world of the mail-order bride. It is also a compelling observation of words and actions‚ expectations and consequences‚ truth and happiness.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book and Best First Book

ARAVIND ADIGA has been shortlisted for both Best Book and Best First Book in Southeast Asia and the Pacific for both his novel, The White Tiger, and Between the Assassinations, a collection of linked stories. The shortlists for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for both categories were announced on February 18, 2009. Helen Garner, Joan London, Chris Tsiolkas and Tim Winton have been nominated for the £10,000 prize, too.

Preeta Samarasan, who has been nominated for Best First Book, joins 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger) and 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize-winning Nam Le (The Boat) in the running for the £5,000 prize.

Among others who have nominated for these prizes are Uwem Akpan, Chris Cleave, Shashi Deshpande, Joe Dunthorne, Marina Endicott, Damon Galgut, Mohammed Hanif, Philip Hensher, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Lodge, Pasha Malla, Nino Ricci and Salman Rushdie, Murzban F. Shroff and Padma Viswanathan.

The shortlists are:

Best Book
1. Between the Assassinations (stories) (Picador India, 2009) / Aravind Adiga (Australia)
2. The Spare Room (Text Publishing, 2008) / Helen Garner (Australia)
3. The Good Parents (Random House Australia/Vintage, 2008) / Joan London (Australia)
4. Forbidden Cities (stories) (Penguin New Zealand, 2008) / Paula Morris (New Zealand)
5. The Slap (Allen and Unwin, 2008) / Christos Tsiolkas (Australia)
6. Breath (Picador, 2008) / Tim Winton (Australia)

Photograph of Preeta Samarasan courtesy of Miriam Berkley

Best First Book
1. The White Tiger (Atlantic Books, 2008) / Aravind Adiga (Australia)
2. The Boat (stories) (Hamish Hamilton, 2008) / Nam Le (Australia)
3. The Year of the Shanghai Shark (Penguin New Zealand, 2008) / Mo Zhi Hong (New Zealand)
4. Misconduct (Victoria University Press, 2008) / Bridget van der Zijpp (New Zealand)
5. Evening Is the Whole Day (Fourth Estate, 2008) / Preeta Samarasan (Malaysia)
6. The Shallow End (Clouds of Magellan, 2008) / Ashley Sievwright (Australia)

The shortlists for the other three regions are as follows:

Best Book Award
1. The Other Hand (Sceptre, 2008) / Chris Cleave (United Kingdom)
2. The Country of Deceit (Penguin, 2008) / Shashi Deshpande (India)
3. The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate, 2008) / Philip Hensher (United Kingdom)
4. Unaccustomed Earth (stories) (Bloomsbury, 2008) / Jhumpa Lahiri (United Kingdom)
5. Deaf Sentence (Harvill Secker, 2008) / David Lodge (United Kingdom)
6. The Enchantress of Florence (Random House, 2008) / Salman Rushdie (United Kingdom)

Best First Book Award
1. The Consequences of Love (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Sulaiman Addonia (United Kingdom)
2. Broken (HarperCollins, 2008) / Daniel Clay (United Kingdom)
3. Submarine (Penguin) / Joe Dunthorne (United Kingdom)
4. A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / Mohammed Hanif (Pakistan)
5. Breathless In Bombay (stories) (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008) / Murzban F. Shroff (India)

Best Book
1. Good to a Fault (Freehand Books, 2008) / Marina Endicott (Canada)
2. Blackstrap Hawco (Random House Canada, 2008) / Kenneth J. Harvey (Canada)
3. The Origin of Species (Doubleday Canada, 2008) / Nino Ricci (Canada)
4. Pynter Bender (Fourth Estate, 2008) / Jacob Ross (Grenada)
5. Chef (Véhicule Press, 2008) / Jaspreet Singh (Canada)
6. The Great Karoo (Doubleday Canada, 2008) / Fred Stenson (Canada)

Best First Book
1. Cleavage (NeWest Press, 2008) / Theanna Bischoff (Canada)
2. Silver Salts (Cormorant Books, 2008) / Mark Blagrave (Canada)
3. Blackouts (McClelland and Stewart, 2008) / Craig Boyko (Canada)
4. The Sherpa and Other Fictions (Sumach Press, 2008) / Nila Gupta (Canada)
5. The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi Press, 2008) / Pasha Malla (Canada)
6. Reading By Lightning (Goose Lane Editions, 2008) / Joan Thomas (Canada)
7. The Toss of a Lemon (Random House Canada, 2008) / Padma Viswanathan (Canada)

Best Book
1. The Impostor (Penguin) / Damon Galgut (South Africa)
2. My Life with the Duvals (Umuzi, 2008) / Tim Keegan (South Africa)
3. Beauty’s Gift (Kwela Books, 2008) / Sindiwe Magona (South Africa)
4. The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Picador Africa, 2008) / Mandla Langa (South Africa)
5. The One That Got Away (Umuzi, 2008) / Zoe Wicomb (South Africa)

Best First Book
1. Say You’re One of Them (stories) (Abacus, 2008) / Uwem Akpan (Nigeria)
2. Porcupine (Kwela Books, 2008) / Jane Bennett (South Africa)
3. Random Violence (Umuzi, 2008) / Jassy Mackenzie (South Africa)
4. Shepherds and Butchers (Umuzi, 2008) / Chris Mamewick (South Africa)
5. Boston Snowplough (Human & Rousseau, 2008) / Sue Rabie (South Africa)
6. Till We Can Keep an Animal (Jacana Media, 2008) / Megan Voysey-Braig (South Africa)

Friday, February 20, 2009

SINI SANA Travels in Malaysia

Call for Submissions

The diverse cultures of Malaysia (both East and West Malaysia) invite travellers both local and foreign to marvel at towering cityscapes where modernity dazzles with luxury or go through old trunk roads surrounded by oil-palm plantations to get to breathtaking mountains, caves, beaches and the tropical rainforests. And, of course, every traveller is amazed by food that can be exotic or a fusion of everything you know!

Perhaps during a jungle trek, you stumbled upon an enchanting place, or had a non-fatal swim with wild animals. Maybe you once spent an afternoon befriending villagers who had never met an urbanite off the beaten track before. If you were a journalist invited on a ‘famtrip,’ did you encounter something outside the usual itinerary of visiting the most popular marketplaces, skyscrapers and restaurants? You might have enjoyed the tranquillity of a hideaway before it was discovered and destroyed in the name of progress and development. Here is a chance for you to recapture those moments.

MPH GROUP PUBLISHING is looking for true travellers’ tales, preferably on places outside the tourist hubs of Malaysia. (Yes, Malaysia, and that includes Sabah and Sarawak.) Stories should be in the form of travellogues with rich, firsthand descriptions of sights and sounds and even tastes. We want engaging stories that will move us to visit the places for ourselves and also to understand why we should preserve the beauty of such places. This is not a travel guide; we do not want to know just where to visit and how to get there. We do not want photographs; the words in the story should capture all the wonders. We want the literariness in travel writing. Tentatively entitled Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, we aim to publish the book in 2010, depending on the number and quality of submissions we receive.

Travel stories must be original, nonfiction, between 3,000 and 5,000 words, must not have been previously published and must be in English. We invite submissions from both emerging and established writers. Manuscripts must be edited, typed double-spaced with a 12-point font and emailed to Please include your name, address, telephone number and email address. You may submit as many pieces as you wish. Faxed or handwritten submissions will not be entertained and manuscripts will not be returned. We will contact you only if your piece has been selected for inclusion in the collection. Writers whose submissions are selected will be expected to work with the editors to fine tune their stories.

Deadline: September 30, 2009
Payment: A small flat fee and two copies of the published collection

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lydia TEH ... Do You Wear Suspenders?

The Wordy Tales of Eh Poh Nim
Lydia Teh

This is a collection of anecdotes about the everyday life of Eh Poh Nim, a loquacious woman who launches into explanations of words and phrases at the drop of a hat.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the English language will find this book appealing and amusing. Phrases like “bake a tit,” “Mrs. Malaprop’s nipples,” “pie in the sky,” “bananas and fruitcakes” and “satay mushrooms” may sound deliciously naughty or vulgar, but none of them are what they seem.

Eh Poh Nim, a punctilious wordsmith, enlightens readers on idioms, hyperboles, metaphors and other figures of speech with delightful humour and an insight into Malaysian life and its complexities and peculiarities.

Lydia Teh, the best-selling author of Honk! If You’re Malaysian and Life’s Like That, has no Masters in English, but she is a master at spinning yarns to make learning English fun.

“My! How Eh Poh Nim has grown since she made her début in Mind Our English a few years ago. For a fun and easy way of learning the meanings of words, phrases and idioms, make your acquaintance with Eh Poh Nim in this book!” Kee Thuan Chye

“Learners of English cannot be said to have a mastery of the language until they are able to use colloquial expressions with ease and familiarity and have a wide vocabulary. Lydia Teh’s very clever Word’s Up, Eh Poh Nim? column in the Mind Our English pages of The Star not only helps learners build up their stock of language, but does it in a fun, humorous way and with a decidedly local flavour through the accounts of the adventures and misadventures of the eponymous protagonist.” Sharon Bakar

“In these stories, Lydia Teh introduces readers to the origins and meanings of some interesting English words and expressions, through the conversations of her main character, Eh Poh Nim (a pun on ‘eponym’), a compulsively showy wordsmith. Eh Poh Nim meets various characters in various situations in the course of these stories, thus allowing the words and expressions to come up naturally, in context, and her explanations to spill out, in character. Students of English from secondary school-level onwards will find this an enjoyable alternative to a book of idioms or proverbs, and a complement to their dictionaries.” Fadzilah Amin

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Keith DONOHUE ... Angels of Destruction (March 2009) & The Stolen Child (2006)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Joan LAU ... On what she's reading

Sharing a feast of words

WHAT WAS THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? I know the question sounds like one of those National Reading Week ad campaigns, but, seriously, what was the last book you read? Mine was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. My eight-year-old nephew lent it to me. And yes, it is a children’s book. The thing is, both of us are huge Roald Dahl fans but I had not yet read Matilda. He, of course, was reading it a second time when we were in Ipoh over the Chinese New Year holidays.

I read bits of the book while he was busy doing other stuff—playing with his toys, watching TV, etc.—and in the end, he just said, “You can borrow the book.” It’s a fabulous book with some dark themes—a father who is a crook, a headmistress who tortures her students, poverty—but that is the beauty of Dahl ... He knows his young readers can take it.

And, of course, it is very funny. The descriptions, the situations. Ethan actually laughs out loud when he reads it. Never mind that he already knows the jokes. I loved it. I dare say it is even more fun than the movie.

Yes, while reading is an activity that involves only one person—you, the reader—it can very often bring people together. How often have you sat next to someone on a plane and struck up a conversation with the person because he or she was reading something you had read before?

I even dated someone once because he had read a book I was reading—Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. I must admit it made me look at him in a whole new light. I was a snob back then and didn’t think I would ever meet someone who had read Helprin in my office! I don’t remember the story now but I can still recall the feelings it evoked in me. I was completely transported into the world of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn. Pete and Bev. A tale of magic realism, I remember it was also about New York City. Maybe I should read the book again.

So yes, books can bring people together. I guess they call them book clubs! But these remind me too much of my years studying English literature in varsity; sitting in small groups discussing a book’s merits, its themes and what the author is trying to say. Much like what they do in book clubs, right? I guess I like my connections to be more organic and less structured.

My best friend Melanie is a much more generous and adventurous reader. While I very often judge a book by its cover, she is kinder and will give it a chance anyway. She has even struck up a friendship with someone in the office over books and they lend each other books they think the other person will like.

Generally, I am not into lending or borrowing books. I tend to be territorial. I want my own book. When I come across books I think friends will like, I buy extra copies for them. Over the last year or so, my favourite “to give” books have been: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love; Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day; and Tawfik Ismail and Ooi Kee Beng’s Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations.

Of course, giving them those books meant yet another connection being made with them. Never mind that we were already friends. They SMSed, called or emailed me about particularly evocative passages in these various books.

Then there are the introductions to authors I would not have tried otherwise. Example: a good friend loves Haruki Murakami and thought I would, too. He recommended that I start with Dance Dance Dance even though that was not Murakami’s first book.

It worked and I am now in turn recommending that people read this strange, surrealist writer who used to run a jazz club in Japan and came upon writing quite by accident. He simply wanted to try his hand at it—much like how we might want to try mastering baking or cooking—and is today one of the great masters.

Coincidentally, I am now reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On the surface, it’s a book about Murakami’s other love—running—but really it is an observation of life, writing and, of course, running.

I find myself reading quite a lot of food-related books as well: all three of Ruth Reichl’s (the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine) memoirs—Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise; Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry and anything by Nigel Slater, Jeffrey Steingarten or Anthony Bourdain.

I think these books dovetail with my other great love: watching the food shows on the Asian Food Channel. And they remind me of the meals I have with my foodie friends where we eat and talk about ... what else, food!

My foodie friends love the same food-related books as I do and we get excited when we find new books. Some of us are now lusting after iconic chef Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Yes, it’s a recipe book and we very likely will not be able to replicate the dishes but heck, it will be fun to look at the book anyway.

So what’s the next book you’re going to read?

Reproduced from the New Sunday Times of February 15, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

Josephine HART ... The Truth About Love (2009)

JOSEPHINE HART, the author of The Truth About Love (Virago, February 2009), on being Irish, poetry and death. Hart is best known as the author of the novel, Damage (1991), which was made into a film by Louis Malle, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.

ON BEING IRISH: “It’s a huge advantage. People have a reaction to the Irish which is usually positive. When I hear my voice on tape I die, but people are always saying how much they like an Irish accent. It’s undeserved—a card for life.”

ON POETRY: “The poet in Ireland is an iconic figure, partly because in our history we have so many poets who involved themselves in politics—the Easter Rising proclamation was signed by poets—so that’s very much part of our culture and it’s one of the reasons I started doing poetry readings in London more than 20 years ago. I want to make poetry a real power in people’s lives.”

ON DEATH: “We are born to die, but within that fact is also something of great beauty. Because life is a terminal experience, therein lies our reverence for it and for the lives of others and that, to me, is almost the beginning of moral behaviour towards other people.”

Source: The Scotsman

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Behind the scenes at the publishing house

I HAVE NOT DONE THIS for quite some time. Perhaps this is as good a time to do it. Here are a couple of exchanges I was engaged in recently:

Writer: Why’ve you rejected my manuscript?
Editor: I’m afraid it’s just not good enough.
Writer: But I thought you said you support local writers and will help us get published.
Editor: So sorry, by “support local writers” we meant to say that we will only publish good local writing, not any local writing. If you believe in your work, you should rewrite it.
Writer: Wah, so much work-lah!

Mother: My 15-year-old daughter has written a fantastic novel. It’s much better that Harry Potter. She could be the next J.K. Rowling.
Editor: Another mother told me the same thing about her 15-year-old daughter the other day. What a coincidence!
Mother: She’s really good. In fact, she has written a couple of novels. I am behind her all the way. Would you like to publish her novels?
Editor: If they’re good, of course.
Mother: I’m rich, you know. I will do anything for my daughter to get published.
Editor: Then why don’t you buy a publishing house and get her published!
Mother: So you are not interested.
Editor: Why don’t you just show me her work? Don’t just talk about it! (And, seriously, we don’t need to know about your bank account!)

Before submitting your work to a publisher, edit and fact-check your manuscript thoroughly. I have received manuscripts that are full of grammatical, spelling and factual errors. Also make sure you have the right number of word count. Believe it or not, I have received a manuscript for a biography (or a novel) with a total word count of 30! Yes, 30 words!

We have an overabundance of so-called writers who are just too lazy to edit (and rewrite) their own work, but they always want to know when they can launch it (and whether we could ‘package’ the manuscript in time for the launch). Could I book the hotel or restaurant now for the launch? is a constant refrain I hear. Could we, like, serve curry-puffs and onde-ondes? I just love curry-puffs and onde-ondes! Don’t you?

Is this some kind of Malaysian thing or what? (It is, believe me.)

Let’s not forget that a society is judged by the literature it produces. Publishing is a business; there’s no doubt about that. But it is also a legacy for the future.

“It must be some kind of karmic thing.” An ancient sage once told me that I must have done some really, really bad things in my past lives. And that’s why the sins of my past lives are here to haunt me in my present incarnation. Because there’s just no explaining why I’m going through what I’m going through. Of all the people on this planet, I have been forced to ‘do’—yes, do, not edit, mind you—a horrible book by a bloody lazy clump of turd! One of the most horrible books on this planet of ours! I must be so lucky!

You know, it’s so easy to get published in this country. What you don’t need is writing skills. You don’t even need basic grammar. Throw a tantrum, call up some bigshot, among other foolish antics, and you get published. Just like that. Let the editors clean up my work. And it’s never about the work; it’s always about egos, personalities, launches, seating arrangements (who sits with who), what people think, and other such stuff that matter. Never about the work.

It’s times like these that make you wonder whether publishing has really progressed in this country. It’s times like these you die again. Hell, I’ve died a thousand deaths editing bad books. Has it all been a waste of life and time? I ask myself, time and again. Most of the time I wonder whether people actually gain wisdom as they grow older. I seriously don’t think so. And education does not make one a better person.

Editors are not magicians or alchemists; there’s no sleight of hand involved in the editing process. They are not reading or correcting machines. Nobody sees them working. They labour long hours. (Your eyes are watering and you have another two hundred pages of horrid prose to clean up.) It ain’t a nine-to-five thingy. They are not practitioners of the art of public relations. And they get insulted all the time—sometimes from people you don’t expect that from. Perhaps passion can only get one so far. I do wish things would improve, but I know it won’t. Most of the typescripts I receive are not only badly written but lack content or substance; there’s not much in the way of depth or breadth or width in the writing. It’s rare that I receive one that I can sink my teeth into. I always jump with joy when a good manuscript lands on my table, something I can work with. But that’s rare.

Perhaps the better books that come along once in a blue moon make it all worthwhile, I console myself. But I seriously doubt it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Friday, February 13, 2009

Quotable Quotes ... Books

saws, gags, aperçus & other ephemera

“GOOD BOOKS are your friends, not your masters. Take one out for a drink every now and again.” Dave Morris

“THEY WERE SO LONELY and silent, these flat acres stretching to the rim of the sky, single men and small family groups working alone on their own banks, their voices carrying clear and far, the tiny purple bloom sprinkled on the dull heather, long acres of sedge as pale as wheat and taller, the stunted sally and birch trees rising bright as green flowers.” John McGahern, in The Barracks

“FOR ME, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever—including the jug—there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?” Julian Barnes, in Nothing to Be Frightened Of

“THEY WERE SO LONELY AND SILENT, these flat acres stretching to the rim of the sky, single men and small family groups working alone on their own banks, their voices carrying clear and far, the tiny purple bloom sprinkled on the dull heather, long acres of sedge as pale as wheat and taller, the stunted sally and birch trees rising bright as green flowers.” John McGahern, in The Barracks

“READING, after all, is not merely an intellectual exercise, but a matter of emotional connection, a place where art reflects our lives. We change, and our relationships with the books we’ve read change also; ‘If a book read when young is a lover,’ Fadiman writes in Rereadings, ‘that same book, reread later on, is a friend.’ ” David L. Ulin

“WHAT SAVED ME as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books ... To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck.” Susan Sontag

“A WRITER is first of all a reader. It is from reading that I derive the standards by which I measure my own work and according to which I fall lamentably short. It is from reading, even before writing, that I became part of a community—the community of literature—which includes more dead than living writers.” Susan Sontag

“A CLASSIC is simply a book that people read generation after generation, because it continues to speak to us.” Michael Dirda

“A SHORT STORY is like an egg: when the beginning comes to me, I have the end. It’s complete. It’s got its white and it’s got its yolk and it’s got its shell containing it. I have it there complete, as if in the palm of my hand.” Nadine Gordimer

“THE CRUNCH OF THE GRAVEL, the buzz of the bees, the scratch of the hoe or rake in the garden—since those summers at my grandparents’ these have been summer sounds; the bitter scent of the sun-drenched boxwood, the rank odour of the compost, summer smells; and the stillness of the early afternoon, when no child calls, no dog barks, no wind blows, summer stillness.” Bernhard Schlink, in Homecoming (trans. from the German by Michael Henry Heim)

“WRITING is like magic tricks; it isn’t enough to pull rabbits from a hat, you have to do it with elegance and in a convincing manner.” Isabel Allende

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” Joseph Conrad

“WITHOUT WORDS, without writing and without books there would be no history, there would be no concept of humanity.” Hermann Hesse

“THE HISTORIAN can tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” E.L. Doctorow

“BOOKS are the carriers of civilization.” Barbara W. Tuchman

“BOOKS are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“BUT in my opinion, literature does something much more important—it changes us. It makes us more human, more tolerant and less judgmental.” Alaa Al Aswany

“... BUT the essential excitement of a book—its curious, inimitable and irreplaceable mystery—is its capacity to enchant. Look at the thing you take down from the shelf and begin to read. Consider the enigma. It is, of course, physically present. But its words may take you anywhere, across the room, the city, across continents, centuries and worlds. It is a form of magic. And you cannot kill magic.” Jeremy Paxman

“LITERATURE, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves, if he doesn’t court disapproval, reproach and general wrath, whether of friends, family or party apparatchiks... the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.” Michael Chabon

“DIXON woke up. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again.” Kingsley Amis, in Lucky Jim

“A BOOK is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.” John Steinbeck

“IT’S like fish. Fish swim about all day finding food to give them energy to swim about all day. It makes me laugh. These people who hurry about all day making money to sell each other things. Anyone with eyes to see could tell them their lives are meaningless and they aren't getting any happier.” William Nicholson, in The Society of Others

“WHAT interests me as a writer is ambivalence and uncertainty—they’re rewarding for readers too, I think. If a writer withholds answers, the attentive reader seeks them out. That provokes a form of dialogue with a book—it's what true reading is about.” Sally Beauman

“IF any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“THE final purpose of art is to intensify, even, if necessary, to exacerbate, the moral consciousness of people.” Norman Mailer

“A GOOD book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” John Milton, in Areopagitica

“BOOKS are our only beacons, our imaginative guides through the labyrinths of human experience.” Edward Hirsch

“ON a spiritual level it's as though with my sighted eye I see what's before me, and with my unsighted eye I see what's hidden. It's illuminated life more than darkened it.” Alice Walker, on her blind right eye

“IT’S a bit like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. You can look at the same scene but find it different every time you turn the viewer. Writing is what I’m talking about. Writing as a way of life. It's a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A requirement to keep trying different ways to describe something that urgently needs describing even if you aren't entirely sure what it is.” Jenny Diski

“A NAME is the first story that attaches itself to a life.” Michelle de Kretser, in The Hamilton Case (2003)

“REAL literature is about something else entirely .... [I]t’s not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It's not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem it’s usually talking about what its owner is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. The point is that the voice is unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you.” A. Alvarez, in The Writer’s Voice (2004)

“ORIGINALITY is like charisma. It’s hard to define, but we know it when we find it. In literature, it’s often associated with obsession. Books that are written out of the author’s unquenchable desire to communicate his or her subject are the ones that stand out. Originality plus obsession equals that little touch of madness that can make a book truly outstanding.” Robert McCrum, in The Observer

“I’M beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.” Nick Hornby, in The Polysyllabic Spree (2004)

“IF history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling

“ONE reason the human race has such a low opinion of itself is that it gets so much of its wisdom from writers.” Wilfrid Sheed

“ARE you really a Roman Catholic?’ I asked my aunt with interest. She replied promptly and seriously, ‘Yes, my dear, only I just don’t believe in all the things they believe in.’ ” Aunt Augusta, in Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt (1969)

“ONLY two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst.” Ford Madox Ford

“FUNNY how some people think libraries are obsolete. To me, they are places pulsing with passion and life. The past comes leaping back, leaping up out of books. Dead writers aren't really dead; just pretending. They talk to us and we talk back.” Michèle Roberts

“YOU will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Albert Camus

“... WRITING is like coal mining. You work in the shadows, aided only by instinct and the dim lamplight of technique. Some days (or so my father told me) when the coal refused to come out, you’d hack at it and swear. Other days you might tug at a little straw in the wall and the lovely stuff would come clattering down, gleaming where it fell, ready for the shovel. And so with writing.” Graham Joyce

“THERE is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

“WRITING is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” Graham Greene, in Ways of Escape (1980)

“I FOUND that while I prefer writing, I see all work as pretty much the same, and approach it with the same ethic: come early, stay late, and focus on the details.” Mark Spragg

“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” Charlotte Brontë, in Jane Eyre (1847)

“AS one ages one acquires the ability to perceive the world with an increased sense of perspective. It becomes increasingly evident that one is not, after all, the centre of the universe. It's quite a liberation actually, when one's own ego no longer blocks the view.” Anne Stevenson

“THERE is a story to it the way there is a story to all, never visible while it is happening. Only after, when an old man sits dreaming and talking in his chair, the design springs clear. There was so much we never saw and never knew.” Nanapush, in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (1988)

“I LONG for a day of judgment when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear. We take to fiction, I suppose, because no such thing is going to happen, and at least on the printed page we can observe beginnings, middles, and ends ...” Fay Weldon, in Auto Da Fay (2002)

“TO go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.” Wendell Berry

“I ALWAYS think of an apple tree—a stock and a graft. The stock—the bit with the roots, the bit that draws water and nutrients from the soil—is my life; and the graft—the sections that produces flowers, fruit, that is home to birds and insects—that is the novel. Both bits are dependent on each other.” Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers (2004)

“HOUSES are like books, split into chapters, filled with stories that are linked by setting. When you live in an old house, you are not just living with plaster and floorboards, but with stories. Histories you know nothing of occurred in the rooms in which you live. Someone fell in love in your kitchen, died in the spot where your bed is placed; someone did cartwheels across your lawn, had her heart broken one night; someone survived smallpox, influenza, childbirth. Someone else lived here.” Alice Hoffman, writing about her collection of stories, Blackbird House (2004), in the New York Times Book Review

“DOCTRINAIRE opinions are anathema to art, and history has shown us that any artist who bows to pressure, political or otherwise, is a lost soul.” Edna O'Brien

“I WRITE because I have to and want to. It's as simple, or as complicated, as that. And I write novels specifically because I am curious about my fellow creatures. There is no end to their mystery. I share Isaac Babel's lifelong ambition to write with simplicity, brevity and precision. It was he who said `No steel can pierce the human heart so chillingly as a period at the right moment.' I hope one or two of my fullstops have done, and will do, just that.” Paul Bailey

“THERE are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham

“DON'T tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“THINK of the novel as lover: Let's stay home tonight and have a great time. Just because you're touched where you want to be touched, it doesn't mean you're cheap; before a book can change you, you have to love it.” Jonathan Franzen

“A NOVEL is in its broadest sense a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression.” Henry James, in The Art of Fiction (1885)

“READING is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.” Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

“IS the purpose of fiction to engage with or escape from the here and now? It's surprising so little fiction takes up the challenge of the former. A novel can't change the world. But a great novel opens the mind like nothing else. And when the mind opens, so too does the future.” Tim Pears, author of In the Place of Fallen Leaves (1993), In a Land of Plenty (1997), A Revolution of the Sun (2000) and Wake Up (2002)

“THE novelist's task is to make his readers so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creations of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living human creatures. This he can never do unless he know these fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them well unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy.” Anthony Trollope

“MY task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” Joseph Conrad, in his Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897)

“WORDS, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.” Joseph Conrad

“READING may be the last secretive behavior that is neither pathological nor prosecutable. It is certainly the last refuge from the real-time epidemic. For the stream of a narrative overflows the banks of the real. Story strips its reader, holding her in a place time can’t reach. A book’s power lies in its ability to erase us, to expand or contract without limit, to circle inside itself without beginning or end, to defy our imaginary timetables and lay us bare to a more basic ticking.” Richard Powers, from the Introduction to The Paris Review Book of Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms (2004)

“WELL, it’s bread and it’s food, and if I spend a day where activities of various kinds have impeded my ability to read, I feel enormously melancholy and will ... instead of going to bed, just stay and read in order to make up for that sense of loss and waste or, I guess, sheer hunger. I can't go without reading. I can’t live without reading. And I suppose one of the problems with being a writer is that you have to write and that means you have to stop reading.” Cynthia Ozick, on describing her relationship with a book in City Arts (1997)