Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Awang Goneng’s A Map of Terengganu

“Bok ning molek ddo’oh ...!”
DAPHNE LEE follows Awang Goneng’s map of Terengganu back in time to a place where people took their time with things, and gets the author to talk about his books

“BOK NING MOLEK ddo’oh, rekok wok!” That’s “This is a damn good book” in the Terengganu dialect. “It’s you, not I, who said it,” Wan A. Hulaimi stresses in his email reply.

We were supposed to meet but I wanted to read his books, Growing Up in Trengganu and A Map of Trengganu, before interviewing him. This took longer than anticipated because neither book can be read quickly. This is not to say that they are hard or unpleasant to digest, but simply that these are not the kind of books you flick through to get the gist of what the author intends to convey.

Well, you could, if you chose to, speed-read the books, but I feel you would then miss a lot. It’s more pleasurable to savour the descriptions of people and places, to allow the writer’s words to form pictures, scenes and faces in your mind, and to listen to the sounds and sniff the smells in his reminiscences.

Awang Goneng (Wan A. Hulaimi’s non de plume) writes in the style of my parents, who would be in their seventies if they were still alive. The pace is leisurely, the sentences long and complex. Young writers don’t write this way. These days there is little patience for long, involved descriptions and musings, whether you’re an author or a reader.

Growing Up in Trengganu grew out of your blog Kecek-Kecek, whereas A Map of Trengganu contains, I believe, more content that was written especially for it. Would you describe the difference between the compiling of the two books?
I would say that both books grew out of Kecek-Kecek. It was Monsoon Books that initially asked me, after looking at the blogs, if there was a book there. I sat down and rewrote and organised the blog posts into parts and like-minded bits and pieces, and Monsoon found this brilliant designer in Dublin for the cover.

When I was compiling A Map of Trengganu, I thought I should write a few long pieces, especially for the book, to give my regular blog readers something fresh. I have rewritten most of the blogs that I have selected for the book.

The blogs were trials, ideas at first blush, and were put there by me and then left there to simmer for a while. I read somewhere that every writer should put his or her work aside for a while and then come back to it with a fresh look.

When you agreed to publish Growing Up in Trengganu (and now A Map of Trengganu), did you have an idea of what sort of reader it would attract? Have those expectations been met or otherwise? Can you relate any interesting encounters with individuals whom you were surprised to learn were readers of your books?
I didn’t know who, outside Trengganu or Terengganu as it is now, would have the slightest interest in Growing Up in Trengganu. But let’s go back earlier than that: who’d be interested in Kecek-Kecek the blog? I wrote them as letters to my children, and then I wrote them to amuse myself. A man in New York read the blog and I Googled his name and found that he was a very big name in World Music. It drew some of the most unlikely readers, from Latin America, from New York, and one of the earliest orders I had was from Moscow. Here in Malaysia many people from other states wrote in to say how accurately I had described life in their village. And a lawyer from New York used it as his travelling companion in Terengganu. And then there’s an English lady living in Besut who wrote to say that she never travelled without the book. And another English lady from the north of England sent me a copy of her life story, written, after many years of prevarication, she said, after she read it. I feel now like a small cog in the movement of a greater machine and I am humbled by that.

You have said that this will be your last book about Terengganu. Have you plans to write other books and if so, what might they be about?
Yes, the phrase I’ve used is Terengganu-fatigue on the part of my readers. So A Map of Trengganu is probably my last book on Terengganu. Writing is a bug that bites you once and you’re hooked. I love writing and I still marvel at the power of words, not mine, but other people’s, so I write to emulate. Have I other books in mind? Well, there’s always the itch.

Reading your books, I was most reminded of Gerald Durrell’s descriptions of his boyhood in Corfu. How differently do you think you see or remember Terengganu now than when you looked at it as a boy?
I am not familiar with Durrell’s works but growing up in a place you love is a magical experience. And I believe many people have written about places where they grew up. Terengganu—as it is now—still holds its magic for me but it also saddens me because people have this urge to build and develop without looking at the general aesthetics. I am not necessarily anti-development as some people have said but I believe that change should not make us forget. We should build around our heritage, not on its rubble. The past should be incorporated into our future and there’s a place for both if the change has been well thought out.

If the Terengganu of your boyhood still existed, do you think you would be tempted to return to live there?
No, I’m not clamouring to return to the Terengganu of my boyhood but I treasure the memory of those wonderful, innocent times. I know that things have to move on but we must move warily into the future because not everything that’s new is good. We don’t need high-rise towers in Terengganu for instance, and that’s my belief. A low-rise city is always, to me, more beautiful than New York. And a civic city with a thriving, living community will always be better than a conglomeration of shops.

Reading your books is the closest many of us will ever come to experiencing the dialect of Terengganu. Would you be able to write an entire book in the dialect? After all, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit (as well as other classics) have been published in Latin so why not a book in Terengganu dialect?
I have actually written a whole detective story in Terengganuspeak. My Terengganu Private Dick is called Mat Sprong and I have left him there among my blogs. Well, you’re quite right—the whole Bible has been rendered in Pidginspeak.

And finally, any advice for young writers?
I have done workshops for students at schools and universities. What I tell them is, “Look, I come from Terengganu where facilities were few and books were scarce. If I can do it, so can you.” How do you start? Well, just do it.

DAPHNE LEE is the editor of Malaysian Tales: Retold & Remixed (ZI Publications, 2011)

Reproduced from the July-September 2011 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Changing the World

CONOR GRENNAN talks to JANET TAY about his book, Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, and the life-changing experience that inspired it

CONOR GRENNAN was born and raised in a peaceful suburb of New York City, but when he was 10 years old, he moved with his parents to a very poor and dangerous urban neighbourhood in Jersey City, New Jersey. “It was a challenging place to grow up, but I think it taught me a lot about resilience and the need to place your trust in others to help you get through the tough days,” he says. Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal is his first book.

As a child, what was your answer to the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I think I always wanted to be in government—not as a politician, but as somebody who helped the process, who learned about the issues that would affect people, who would try to make the best decisions possible for everyone else.

Did you always envisage yourself working for a non-profit or non-governmental organisation of some sort?
I worked for the EastWest Institute (EWI), a US-based public policy think-tank, in Prague and Brussels for about eight years before going to Nepal. It was much different work from where I ended up, though—I was focused on security policy at the top levels of government in the Balkan countries. I loved that kind of work, but I never thought I would ever be interested in really grassroots-type work.

In your book, we see that although setting up Next Generation Nepal (NGN) seemed to be a natural progression from your volunteer work there, it was nevertheless something that was on a much larger scale, and perhaps something that you never expected—from browsing brochures to choose volunteer work to creating an actual home for over twenty children. Did you ever imagine that your volunteer work would result in such a big commitment?
No, never! It really was a complete surprise. I knew that I loved the kids and wanted to help, but I never thought I could make a difference. But when seven children disappeared, I realised for the first time that I was maybe the only one who could save them. That’s how it all began.

You have a great sense of humour and this is reflected in your writing style as well as how you communicated with the children in Nepal. Do you think it’s important to have a sense of humour in this sort of volunteer work, it being emotionally taxing and all?
I really do, yes. I think that sometimes volunteering seems scary because it seems so daunting, so serious. The truth is that working with kids is really pretty hilarious, because kids around the world are naturally funny. I wanted to make sure that made it into the story, that you could hear the children’s voices come through, because they make each day possible.

What traits do one need to possess to volunteer for NGN?
We partner with a great organisation to accept volunteers—mostly, people just need to have an open heart and be willing to accept the people and the culture for who and what they are. And of course, you have to really have a passion for kids, or at least suspect that you might!

Do you think volunteer work with children is different from volunteer work with adults? Does one require any particular sensitivities or special knowledge?
I think that the level of responsibility is greater. Kids are so impressionable, so if we come in with our own ideas about what their culture should be like, or what their needs should be, we run a risk of really having a less than positive impact on these young lives. We have to remember we are not just helping, we are taking the place—at least temporarily—of parents.

How dangerous is the work? In your book, you described many close shaves—do you think you were very lucky to have come out of them unharmed? Would volunteers have to be very vigilant and constantly on the lookout for child traffickers or any other similar threats?
Thankfully, Nepal is a much safer place now than it was during the civil war. There was very little law at the time. And now, the trafficking problem persists, but the traffickers themselves do not threaten us as they used to. I think I definitely got lucky a few times when I was in the mountains searching for families—we don’t have to worry in the same way these days.

Does NGN still face physical threats from child traffickers like Golkka? How do you ensure the safety of your volunteers?
Golkka is still active, but he doesn’t threaten us as he used to. He’s now the head of a political party in Nepal, so he wants to appear legitimate. He doesn’t threaten us because he has too much to lose.

How long did it take you to write this book? Was it difficult to write? Do you see yourself writing more books, opening a path to a career as a full-time author?
Little Princes wasn’t too difficult to write, only because I had done a lot of the heavy lifting over the past several years. I had written many of these stories in blogs, taken a lot of notes, and thought a lot about the story. Even with all that, it still took almost a full year to put the book together. And writing for a living, as well as working on NGN, would be a dream.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?
Most of all, awareness. Nepal is not a part of the world we know much about. We don’t hear much about this type of child trafficking. I mostly want to raise awareness for the work we are doing with NGN, since there are so many children still out there who need help.

Most people are either apathetic or ignorant of the sufferings of numerous communities and developing countries in the world. When you live in a comfortable, urban environment, it is easy to forget that some people in the world do not even have basic necessities such as running water, food or transportation. How would you convince people to leave their comfort zones to see for themselves the suffering of others and to volunteer their time in these places?
I’m guilty of this myself—every day I take what we have here for granted. The only thing that jolts me out of it is to actually return to Nepal. So I’m very understanding of this! I do believe, though, that we enrich ourselves tremendously by seeing these parts of the world. I went out really just to impress people, so I believe whatever the reason—adventure, bragging rights, or really helping disadvantaged people—the result can be the same: seeing life in these poor areas can change your life.

What would you say is the biggest change you experienced after your experience in Nepal and subsequently setting up NGN?
For the first time I really understand that there is a large group of people out there, children, who need help. I see it clearly. I think of these kids as I think of my son—if he was in danger, how desperate would I be to have somebody with resources step in and try to help? Now, I am that person who can help. That changes everything.

As much as the children learnt from you, what did they teach you?
Mostly, exactly how resilient children really are. This has helped me with raising my son, and knowing that he can survive so much. It also helps me understand that you don’t need much to have a joyful life—just the basic protections. That material things are not the key to happiness as I always thought they were.

Do you feel even more strongly about rescuing children in Nepal, now that you’re a father yourself?
Definitely! I put my son in that position, and I keep my mind focused on helping that next child. That’s somebody’s son or daughter, and that child is somebody’s entire world. It changed my perspective completely.

What would your advice be to a potential volunteer at NGN?
Mostly to just try to get to know the children, what really drives them, what their dreams are, how they see life. You can change their lives for the better, and they will change yours, too.

Are you still working on NGN full time? Are you working on any other projects at the moment?I’m now on the Board of Directors, but I work with our team in Nepal daily. I’ve really stayed focused on Nepal, they need so much help.

How do you like being an author and going on book tours? What’s the best part about recalling your experience in Nepal and telling people about your work there?
I love it! I love spreading the word about Nepal and the kids. My favourite part is definitely seeing people react to the stories of the kids, to see people so touched by them because of the book. It’s a wonderful experience.

Do you have plans to expand your volunteer work beyond Nepal, i.e., to other countries, or to focus on other causes, for instance, other areas of volunteer work involving children or other volunteer work that are non-related to children?
I think that might be down the road, yes. But for now, we know that the world still doesn’t pay much attention to Nepal, and we believe it is up to us to continue to make a difference.

Do you have a favourite author who inspires you in your writing?
I love the great storytellers, like Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, What is the What). He take complex stories and makes them simple and human. He’s a great inspiration.

Reproduced from the July-September 2011 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rooted in Malaysian Soil

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH speaks with down-to-earth PAUL CALLAN who travelled all over Perak panning for nuggets of history for his début novel, The Dulang Washer

PAUL CALLAN can tell you why reading the book is always better than watching the movie. “When you watch a movie, you’re being told how to be entertained, but with a book, you have to use your own imagination.” Callan elaborates: “If you read about Aisha from my novel, you’ll have an image of what Aisha looks like straight away. If there were 10 people sitting at a table together, every single one of them would have a different image of Aisha, and that’s the creative power of the imagination.”

Aisha is the protagonist in Callan’s first novel, The Dulang Washer, a historical novel set in Malaya in the late 19th century, when tin was as good as gold. “It’s a love story involving a miner who was a rogue, an overseer from Britain who becomes an opium addict, and a recovering opium addict,” he explains. All three characters are enamoured with Aisha, the lovely Malay dulang washer.

Although Callan’s story essentially revolves around Aisha and the men who pursue her, The Dulang Washer is not just another love story set in an exotic locale. “It’s also the story of the Chinese coming to Malaya, and it tells of the brutality and deprivation they endured and their commitment to Malaya and Malayan culture,” he says.

Digging into history
The first-time author says he specifically set out to capture a snapshot of Malaya in the 1890s. “I spent about two and a half years just doing the research for this book,” Callan states. “I must have driven up to Ipoh about a hundred times—day after day after day.” He was seeking an old tin mine to get a feel of it for his story, but discovered much to his dismay that the Kinta Valley is now devoid of mines. “I couldn’t find a real tin mine because there aren’t any, but I did find a life-sized replica of one in a little museum in Ipoh.”

Callan’s meticulous research also led him to the vast halls of the National Library in Kuala Lumpur, where he spent hundreds of hours poring over old history books about Malaysia. “A lot of the stuff that’s in my book is not on the Internet. I spent months on end at the National Library. The librarians looked through their archives time and again; without the National Library, the story would not have been written.”

Callan’s painstaking research unearthed some fascinating facts that many Malaysians will find surprising, even shocking. “I found out that over a period of 80 to 90 years, a great many Chinese men died in the tin mines. They couldn’t cope with the terrain,” he reveals. “You go up to Perak today, there’s no jungle, it’s all gone, but a century ago it was nothing but jungle. There were also other problems like malaria and beriberi which were particularly nasty diseases then.”

He also discovered that tin mining involved not just the Chinese but the Malays and Indians as well. “I discovered during my research that Malay farmers used to augment their income by working in the tin mines. The dominant labour force were the Chinese (comprising the Cantonese, Hakkas and Hokkiens), and all the transportation in and out of the mines through the jungles were controlled by the Indians.”

Callan’s determination to write an account that is as accurate as possible about old Malaya rises from his passion for the country that it has become today. “I adore Malaysia; I think when God created the world, he took a little rest before he finally put his thumb on Malaysia. I think it’s the most beautiful country on earth,” he declares, without reservation.

Destined to write
It might seem a little odd for a blue-eyed Irishman to admit such love for a country that is half a world away from the one he grew up in, but then, Callan is nothing if not unusual. The youngest son of a father who was a successful Irish painter and a mother who was a tapestry artist, Callan seemed destined, from the very beginning, for a life involving some sort of creative art form. “By the time I was nine, I was reading a book a day,” he says, blue eyes lighting up with the memory. “I read all the classics—I couldn’t put them down! My favourites were Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty.”

It’s easy to assume that Callan enjoyed a charmed childhood in Ireland, a childhood that was filled with the comfort of books and the love of talented parents, but things are not always what they seem. “My father was a drunk—an alcoholic. He was a successful painter and exhibited in places like Paris and so forth, but he was a rogue—a charming rogue and my mother had a hard time with him,” he evenly admits, his expression giving nothing away. The avid reader, who enjoys reading and writing books that feature strong emotions, doesn’t believe in dramatising real life. “Whenever people ask me about my childhood, I can give a very dramatic story which would be true, but I wasn’t born hungry in Ethiopia,” he says. “I could have been born with far less, so I don’t feel a right to complain about my early childhood.”

Callan is forthright about more than just his childhood; he is not afraid to share his true feelings on other matters as well. “I hate literary snobs,” he states, wrinkling his nose. “I have a real anger towards snobbish writers who come up with all the rubbish under the sun.” He offers an example: “Why do some writers use the word ‘bourgeois’? Why not just say ‘middle class’? It’s snobbery like this which makes young people think they’re not good enough to read books.” He does admit that good writing sometimes requires stylish language and complex words but believes that some writers take it a little too far. “If writing was just plain simple words, one following the other, it would be very dull and boring. You must have a mix of simple and complicated words but the mix has to be controlled. Otherwise, it’s just absurd; no wonder young people don’t read!”

A people person
While Callan’s feelings for—or rather against—literary snobs are unmistakably strong, the writer, who also owns a successful healthcare centre for the elderly in London, generally exudes an easy-going charm. He is the type of person who will enter a room full of strangers and leave it a room full of friends. “I love people, I love interacting with people, and I’m always talking to people. If I walk past someone and they smile, I have to respond, I just can’t walk away,” he says, flashing one of his quick grins.

Even substantial obstacles like language barriers don’t stop the self-confessed ‘people lover’ from making friends. The Dulang Washer is peppered with Hakka, Malay and Tamil words, which he learned during impromptu conversations with strangers. “I started learning Tamil from people I met around Kuala Lumpur. Now, when I say Kaalai vanakkam (‘good morning’ in Tamil) to Indians, I get lots of smiles.”

Callan, who is married to a Malaysian, says one of the reasons he chose to write a Malaysian story was because of a strong urge to show his gratitude for being allowed to live long-term in a country he loves so much. “I’m very serious about this, I’m not being corny. I want to say ‘thank you’ to Malaysia for letting me live here and that’s why I wanted to write a book about Malaysia for Malaysians—a book that they would want to read.”

So, what does the Irish writer want his readers to take away from his book? “The desire to read another book,” he says, without hesitation. “I want them to get so much pleasure from reading The Dulang Washer and from being able to opt out of this pressure cooker we call life that they’ll want to go out and read more.”

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH is a great Enid Blyton fan. She was inspired to become a writer after reading her mother’s early edition of The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island when she was nine. Life, however, had other plans for her, and she ended up becoming an engineer, but the call of the written word proved too strong. Through circuitous and unexpected circumstances, she eventually became a journalist and then an independent writer. She loves nothing more than to spend hours seeking out words that will perfectly convey what she wants to say.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Of Deceptions and Dark Secrets

Novelist SAMANTHA BRUCE-BENJAMIN talks to ERIC FORBES about the inspiration behind her first novel, The Art of Devotion, a story set on a sun-drenched island in the Mediterranean from the turn of the twentieth century to the late 1930s

SAMANTHA BRUCE-BENJAMIN was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lived until she completed her master’s degree in English Literature at The University of Edinburgh. Then she moved to New York City. Growing up, she was fortunate to spend her summers in the Mediterranean, the landscape of which provided the inspiration for her first novel, The Art of Devotion. “I absolutely adore European culture, and I am perpetually homesick for it.”

Author photograph by Jirair Tcholakian

You now live in New York. What made you move there?
I was accepted to study drama at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA), which was an ambition of mine at that time. I had studied with the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama since I was a child, and thought it might be interesting to explore further learning opportunities in New York, rather than London, as I had lived in America for several months when I was seventeen and loved it. Alas, after only a term, the harsh realities of the acting world deterred me from continuing along that path, as I found that I was far more interested in how plays were constructed from an authorial perspective—why the lines were written, what they meant, the motive of the pieces—than in the actual performance of them. I then decided to put my degree in English Literature to use and applied to Random House for a job in publishing.

You began your career as a book editor at Random House. Did you enjoy your stint there? What kinds of books did you edit?
I was very lucky in that my first job as an editorial assistant was at a prestigious literary imprint, Doubleday Broadway, where I came into first-hand contact with such authors as Gore Vidal and Muriel Spark, who were being published there at the time. When you’re in the presence, however removed, from writers who have, justifiably, been lauded as geniuses, you learn an awful lot about how things should be done. I am grateful for the experience: it subsequently informed everything I ever attempted as a writer.

As I moved up the editorial ladder, I edited a cross section of novels: literary fiction, historical fiction, commercial fiction. A little bit of everything crossed my desk, which was unusual as editors usually have a specialised field, but I was fortunate to be able to dabble in different areas. As a consequence, I learned a tremendous amount about what makes a story work and how to position novels to their respective audiences.

What is it like when an editor becomes an author? Do you find difficulty adjusting when the shoe is on the other foot? What are some of the most important things you learnt as an editor that has benefited you when writing your first novel?
I think that what any former editor who becomes an author brings to the editorial desk, albeit from the other side, is an acute understanding of how difficult the process of being published actually is and, as a consequence of that, a determination to be as easy as possible for an editor to deal with! I was so happy that, despite a challenging publishing climate, I had managed to get my foot on the authorial ladder, that I simply wanted to enjoy the path to publication.

The greatest lesson I learned as an editor that may have benefited my writing was the art of ruthlessness in terms of characterisation. A fundamental—and I believe crucial—awareness of how to realise a novel to its maximum potential that begins, and arguably ends, in a negation of the ego on the part of the author and cold-blooded, dispassionate ruthlessness in terms of characterisation. Too often, I witnessed books with great potential fail and, in returning to the reasons why, a familiar cause would present itself: the hero or heroine was often a thinly disguised, invariably exalted, depiction of the author him- or herself. I witnessed many authors ruin their work by succumbing to authorial preciousness, interpreting editorial suggestions made to balance the character as a personal attack. The objectivity necessary to remedy the flaws in characterisation proved lacking because they could not separate their own personality from the equation. In short, they believed the character and, by extension, themselves, to be flawless, despite idiosyncrasies that would ultimately prove off-putting to readers. Coming up against this dangerous perception time and again ultimately proved the cautionary lesson I have never forgotten, which is why none of the characters in The Art of Devotion bear any relation or resemblance to me. I am entirely dispassionate about all of them, and approach them as a reader might, judging them accordingly.

What made you decide to leave publishing and pursue your literary ambition? Do you write full-time now?
I found myself working so closely on certain novels that it was almost as if I had, in fact, written them myself, which gave me the confidence to attempt to write a novel from scratch. I took a year off from work and wrote two pages a day for five months, and at the end of that period I had a first draft of my novel. That was the beginning of it all. I’m lucky enough to be able to write full-time now, which is a dream come true.

Was writing something you had always set your heart on?
I had no designs whatsoever on becoming a writer. During my university years, I truly wrestled with my prose style and was consumed with self-loathing, ripping up half-written essays and starting all over again all the time. In my final year at secondary school, however, we were called upon to submit four short stories for our English exam, and they attracted some attention from the teachers. And that was the first time anyone had ever complimented me on my writing, but it didn’t register with me, beyond a nice thing to have happened. I adored reading, but I had such admiration for my favourite authors that I had no confidence to try it myself, and, in fact, I wrote nothing creative until I arrived at Random House four years later. It’s very surprising to me that I ended up pursuing this career path because now I cannot imagine ever finding such fulfilment in any other profession.

What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
Those “Robert Redford” moments that can occur from time to time. When I truly hit a high note with my writing and it settles on the page, just so, into something that I consider perfect, it’s like watching Robert Redford seamlessly execute one of those intoxicatingly memorable scenes of his career; something simply beautiful to behold. I aspire, daily, to such moments and am in a glorious mood when they do arrive, if only so that I can acknowledge his influence anew.

What’s a typical day like in your writing life?
I start writing at around 7:30am, and that’s where I remain until around one in the afternoon, if not longer. For me, it’s all about discipline, although I do dither about a lot—pacing figures quite prominently in my routine, as does indulging my loathing of the Internet with its manifold distractions. As I’ve written more, I have learned to be more forgiving of myself, and I recognise that some days are more creative or productive than others. Even if I cannot find a thing to write, I usually generate an idea or feel so frustrated that I am impelled to try even harder the next day. What I have found, however, is that I am always, to some extent, writing, because I never stop thinking about the story I am working on. Even when the computer is switched off and I’m officially “finished” for the day, the work continues, mentally.

The Art of Devotion was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What is it about this classic that inspired you to write your first novel?
I find it funny—but extremely flattering—that reviewers have drawn this comparison. The simple truth, however, is that I did not consider the literary classic during the entire process of writing The Art of Devotion. It was only later, when I had to conceive an epigraph for the front matter that I thought to include the final line of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, which seemed to encapsulate perfectly one of the central themes I had attempted to explore in my novel, that is, each character’s inability to escape their respective past. On publication, however, I was given an extraordinary review by The Examiner, which favourably compared me to Mr. Fitzgerald, and, as a consequence of that, many have suggested that I was influenced by him. Obviously, as he is my favourite author, and The Great Gatsby is my favourite book, he is an inspiration to me, but I did not make a conscious decision to attempt to replicate his narrative style: I would never have thought myself capable, for a start! It is fascinating to me, however, how an author’s influence on a writer can filter into the work, quite unwittingly, almost by a process of osmosis. All authors, it seems, are the sum of the parts of their predecessors to which they add their own unique voices; it’s a wonderful debt to owe to our literary forebears. I am certainly, very happily, indebted to Fitzgerald.

Was it difficult getting your first novel published?
It did take around three years to find a publisher, but I wrote another novel during that time, so I never felt as if I was sitting still. Initially, I was represented by an agent in London, who sent out a first draft that was very nicely received, but a near-miss in terms of securing a publishing deal. I then proceeded to write another novel, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that I had not served The Art of Devotion well by putting it aside. I returned to it two years later, and completely revised the story over the course of the summer of 2008. At that point, the manuscript went out on submission, and was sold to Simon & Schuster shortly thereafter.

Did you know where you were going with the novel as you were writing it?
From the beginning, I had an unformed thought that kept playing in my mind: “For each of us, there is a moment. What we see at the last ...” Yet, what it meant, and how it would translate into a story, mystified me. It was three years until that sentence evolved into a theme unto itself, and became the opening line of the novel: In the first draft, I didn’t even include it. The original title, “The Art of Malice,” however, was in place from day one and guided me forward thematically. Alas, the title was changed for the American edition, which, sadly, sometimes happens. When I think of the novel, however, I always allude to it as “The Art of Malice”: I suppose because the title was with me for such a long time.

What are some of the themes you explore in the novel?
The two themes that dominated my thinking as I wrote The Art of Devotion were “perception” and “exile.” As a European living in New York, I often feel as if I am writing “in exile,” in that I am so far removed from the landscape of my youth, which I dearly loved. As much as I enjoy living in New York, I have never considered it home, although I have lived here for over a decade. So, in conceiving The Art of Devotion, I indulged in a game of mental travelling: I wanted to revisit that Mediterranean locale, and re-examine its culture through a prism of detachment, which is why the four female protagonists narrate their experiences in the present, looking back to the past: all are exiled from the lives they once led. In addition, I have a long-standing love of the sea, and islands, such as I have known in the Mediterranean, have always struck me as being governed, to some degree, by the whims of the Gods; there’s something precarious about their unparalleled beauty, almost as if they could be consumed by the sea at any moment. Onto that stage, I wanted to place characters who, by their very nature and existence, inhabit a world in the late 1930s, from our contemporary perspective, that we know is inherently fragile; a world so rarefied and refined—of grace and favour and privilege—that no longer exists. Most crucially, I wanted to present an idyll into which any reader could escape, almost like a holiday itself.

Yet, within that brightly lit framework, I wanted to examine the shadows founded on two further themes: the nature of gossip and idolatry, which, I believe, are inexorably linked. By creating a novel around four distinct voices and examining the same set of events from each different perspective, I was able to play with the idea of unreliable narrators and readers’ allegiances: the characters present themselves without authorial interference, in a sense, because there’s no third-person narration. All the reader knows is what they are told by the characters themselves, in their own voices, and it is entirely up to the reader to decide whom they choose to align their sympathies. There is a quote by Anais Nin, that I found myself thinking of often during the writing of the novel that asserts: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” I think it’s a very powerful and compelling insight.

I also wanted to examine universal emotions with which readers would readily identify: grief, love, devotion and each character’s divergent approach to them. Most crucially, there’s no authorial judgment throughout the story: I want readers to believe what they choose, to align their affections accordingly, to agree or disagree with the characters, based only on their own perceptions. Yet, in subverting every single thing the reader believes to be the truth at the end of the novel, I also wanted to cast doubt over the blithe assumptions we ritually make: do we believe what we hear or trust what we know and, if so, why? That is the question that dominated the writing of the book and I asked it as much of myself as I would of any reader.

Was there much research to do?
Only daydreaming!

What do you think are the essentials of good fiction?
The writing, that is all. I can forgive any flaw of plot if the author’s voice or narrative style proves compelling. I once had somebody rather influential counsel me, “Don’t bother about the writing. It’s not important. Just concentrate on getting the story right.” I’ve never disagreed with anything more viscerally in my life. For me, everything is about language. When I look back to my most beloved books, it’s not the artistry of the novel’s architecture or the facts of the story that spring to mind when I consider why I love them, but those sentences, that, when recalled, seem to encapsulate the entire book and what it conveyed on first reading: the final sentence of The Great Gatsby, “And so we beat on, boats against the current”; A.E. Housman’s “Rose-lipped maidens, lightfoot lads”; and E.M. Forster’s sublime metaphor, “Only connect” in Howards End. Immediately, on hearing or reading such sentences or excerpts, I am transported back into the life of the story all over again. It’s like music, almost.

What kinds of literature did you read when you were growing up?
I sometimes feel that I was so lucky to have read so many magnificent books during my teenage years that I subsequently ruined my reading life forever afterwards. Nothing has ever truly compared to To the Lighthouse, The Great Gatsby—well, all of Fitzgerald’s works—Mrs. Dalloway, A Handful of Dust, Howards End, The End of the Affair, The Age of Innocence, Portrait of a Lady, Lord Jim, Vanity Fair, The Palliser Novels, A Tale of Two Cities. I could go on and on! In many ways, I wish somebody had told me to spread these classics out over a thirty-year period, so that I could have something to which to look forward. That said, thank heavens for Kazuo Ishiguro, Colum McCann, Alan Hollinghurst and Louis de Bernieres; they keep me going.

Who are some of your favourite authors?
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louis de Bernieres, Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Françoise Sagan, François Mauriac, Honore de Balzac, John Cheever, Graham Greene, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Colleen McCullough, Alan Hollinghurst, Maggie O’Farrell, Zoë Heller, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan and Gore Vidal, among others.

And do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
I used to. Those were the days! Now, I’m afraid that I have very little time for reading. So, I am selective in what I do read, as I have to be careful. I usually choose a classic novel, nothing relatively modern or written by a contemporary author, because I find it terribly difficult to have another author’s voice in my head while I am working on something. It’s actually one of the things that I have not enjoyed about becoming an author—my inability to concentrate on reading. I was never without a book in my hands, prior to becoming a writer, and I have probably read about ten novels in the past three years. I do feel the lack of having that outlet. I buy books, however, all the time, so I have a huge stack to work through if and when such an opportunity ever presents itself again!

What are you reading at the moment?
Currently, I’m very much in a Bloomsbury state of mind, probably because I’m homesick: I’m dipping in and out of Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey: The New Biography and Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s Carrington: A Life. I’m also rereading Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, which is too divine for words, as ever. I’m deep in the throes of editing my latest novel, The Last Party, so reading is something like the promise of a ship on the horizon to a castaway, an awfully long way off and no guarantee of rescue.

In your opinion, is creativity or imagination something that can be taught, or is it inborn?
As a former editor, I think that you can possibly teach the tenets of plotting and pacing—the architecture of a novel—but the language, the ability to find and express ideas in unique and memorable ways, is something that I don’t believe can ever be taught. The interplay between the life of the mind and the way in which it translates itself into language on a page is, for me, an innate gift, unique to each writer. I think there comes a point where language and plotting can be overworked, especially in workshop settings, hitting formulaic marks that, counter-intentionally, detract from a piece of writing’s originality. Sometimes flaws are necessary to convey the author’s intent; sometimes they are what make a novel interesting: I don’t think any author can score a perfect ten every time they set out to write a book, which is why, when it does happen, it’s such an extraordinary feat.

Are you working on a new novel at the moment?
I have just finished writing The Last Party, which focuses on the ‘last party’ of the summer season, held by a fabled society hostess in the Hamptons, as it unfolds in the moments leading up to the Great Hurricane of 1938.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
Not having to think about writing! In all seriousness, if I have the opportunity, I could watch the sea for hours, and all of my favourite films, over and over again. Beyond that, I very much like to eat. Especially meringue!

Friday, July 01, 2011

July 2011 Highlights

1. The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown, 2011) / Megan Abbott
2. The O’Briens (House of Anansi Press, 2011) / Peter Behrens
3. The Gap Year (Knopf Doubleday, 2011) / Sarah Bird
4. A Death in Summer (Henry Holt/Mantle, 2011) / Benjamin Black
5. You (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Joanna Briscoe
6. A Small Hotel (Grove/Atlantic, 2011) / Robert Olen Butler
7. Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton, 2011) / Bonnie Jo Campbell
8. After the End of the World (Sceptre, 2011) / Chris Cleave
9. The Inverted Forest (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2011) / John Dalton
10. Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud (Doubleday, 2011) / Bruce Duffy

11. Next to Love (Spielgel & Grau/Random House, 2011) / Ellen Feldman
12. Breaking Away (trans. from the French) (Gallic Books, 2011) / Anna Gavalda
13. Iron House (Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s Press, 2011) / John Hart
14. Love Child (Penguin USA, 2011) / Sheila Kohler
15. Ghastly Business (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Louise Levine
16. A Dance with Dragons (Bantam, 2011) / George R.R. Martin
17. To be Sung Underwater (Abacus/Little, Brown, 2011) / Tom McNeal
18. House of the Hanged (HarperCollins, 2011) / Mark Mills
19. Tender Hooks (Chatto & Windus, 2011) / Moni Mohsin
20. A Good Hard Look (Penguin USA, 2011) / Ann Napolitano

21. I Could Love You (Soho Press, 2011) / William Nicholson
22. Dublin Dead (Sphere, 2011) / Gerard O’Donovan
23. This Burns My Heart (Simon & Schuster, 2011) / Samuel Park
24. Waterline (Viking, 2011) / Ross Raisin
25. Conquistadora (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) / Esmeralda Santiago
26. Northwest Corner (Random House, 2011) / John Burnham Schwartz
27. The Emperor of Lies (trans. from the Swedish by Sarah Death) (Faber & Faber, 2011) / Steve Sem-Sandberg
28. Everyone’s Just So So Special (Big Finish Productions, 2011) / Robert Shearman
29. Burnt Mountain (Grand Central, 2011) / Anne Rivers Siddons
30. Agent 6 (Simon & Schuster, 2011) / Tom Rob Smith

31. Stone Arabia (Scribner, 2011) / Dana Spiotta
32. The Oriental Wife (Other Press, 2011) / Evelyn Toynton
33. Genus (Corsair/Constable & Robinson, 2011) / Jonathan Trigell
34. Everything Beautiful Began After (Beautiful Books, 2011) / Simon Van Booy
35. The Lovers (Atlantic Books, 2011) / Vendela Vida
36. Close Your Eyes (Random House, 2011) / Amanda Eyre Ward
37. The Warsaw Anagrams (Overlook, 2011) / Richard Zimler
38. The Whispers of Nemesis (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Anne Zouroudi

First Novels
1. What They Do in the Dark (Virago Press, 2011) / Amanda Coe
2. All the Materials for a Midnight Feast (Old Street Publishing, 2011) / Gary Dexter
3. Turn of Mind (Atlantic Monthly Press/Harvill Secker, 2011) / Alice LaPlante
4. The Butterfly Cabinet (Simon & Schuster, 2011) / Bernie McGill
5. The Devil All the Time (Doubleday, 2011) / Donald Ray Pollock
6. The Return of Captain John Emmett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) / Elizabeth Speller
7. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake (Random House, 2011) / Jenny Wingfield

1. Stolen Pleasures: Selected Stories (Counterpoint, 2011) / Gina Berriault
2. I Knew You’d Be Lovely (Broadway Books/Random House, 2011) / Alethea Black
3. Collected Stories (Penguin Modern Classics, 2011) / Isaac Bashevis Singer

1. Midnight in the City of Clocks (Salt Publishing, 2011) / Tobias Hill
2. Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press, 2011) / Troy Jollimore

1. Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Janine di Giovanni
2. White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia (Portobello Books, 2011) / Jacek Hugo-Bader
3. On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft (Writer’s Digest Books, 2011) / David Jauss
4. Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011) / Arthur Krystal
5. Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion (Henry Holt, 2011) / Michael Levy
6. Tretower to Clyro: Essays (Quercus Publishing, 2011) / Karl Miller
7. Hancox: A House and a Family (Viking, 2011) / Charlotte Moore
8. Street Fight in Naples: A City’s Unseen History (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Peter Robb
9. Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey Into the World of India’s Godmen (Arcade Publishing, 2011) / Tahir Shah
10. The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities (Crown, 2011) / Katharine Weber

11. Orpheus: The Song of Life (Jonathan Cape, 2011) / Ann Wroe