ENCOURAGED by his parents to read whatever he chose from a young age, Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng was a teenager when he decided he would be capable of writing better books than several that came his way.
It took more than 20 years but, having had his debut novel, The Gift of Rain, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and winning the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and this year’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan has more than proved the point.
It is the first time the Walter Scott Prize — worth £25,000, it’s one of the UK’s richest literary awards — has been awarded to a writer from outside the UK. Tan faced stiff competition from established authors such as Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain and Pat Barker.
After studying law at the University of London, and working as an advocate and solicitor for a large law firm in Kuala Lumpur — "My parents encouraged me to read, but insisted I get a proper job when I said I wanted to be a writer" — Tan finally got around to writing his first novel about 10 years ago, when he left Malaysia to study for a master’s degree in shipping law at the University of Cape Town. But he does not regret his training and experience in law.
"With law, you work closely with language as well," he says. "You have to evaluate every word and the nuances of every word. You have to be so careful about what you write and say. It’s good training for a writer."
It was while in Cape Town, freed up somewhat from normal routine, that Tan finally began writing about the two characters — 16-year-old half-English and half-Chinese Philip Hutton and Japanese diplomat Hayato Endo — who had been "knocking about" in his head for some time. The degree took longer than originally planned and the year he thought he would spend in South Africa became two, with the novel increasingly distracting him from his studies.
"The first draft of The Gift of Rain was pure rubbish, but then I began refining it, which took hours and hours," says Tan, who has a first-dan ranking in aikido and used the martial art form to illustrate philosophical elements of Asia in his first book, which is based in Penang, where he spent much of his youth. He sent the manuscript to several agents whose details he found in The Writer’s Handbook: "I selected those that specified they’d accept e-mailed manuscripts because I didn’t want to print and post multiple copies of the (500-plus-page) manuscript around the world."
The first agent to get back to him was Jane Gregory of London-based agency Gregory & Company, who took Tan on at the urging of the company’s submissions editor, Mary Jones.
But that was not the end of it: it took Gregory several years to find a publisher for the book.
In the interim, Tan was obliged to head back to his desk and practise law in Kuala Lumpur, where he toiled on reluctantly until he learned that, having finally found a publisher, The Gift of Rain had been long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize.
"When Jane told me Myrmidon Books of Newcastle had agreed to publish the novel at last, I had never heard of the company, didn’t know where Newcastle was, and wasn’t sure about the prospect.
"I realised later that being published by a smaller, independent organisation means that, when it comes to entering books in competitions — publishers receive a quota for each competition — new writers like me have a better chance of being entered. That’s what happened with the Man Booker listing, which essentially put me on the map in 2007."
Before the release of the list, The Gift of Rain had caught the attention of only a few reviewers. Some major book retailers had not even included it on their shelves: "I guess the reluctance was the result of a combination of me being an unknown author, the subject matter being unusual, and the book not really fitting into any obvious genre."
This changed almost immediately when the long-list of the Man Booker Prize was released. Invitations to literary festivals and requests for interviews began flooding in, and Tan realised he would have to leave his job if he was ever to make a real go of being a writer.
More than 60,000 copies of The Gift of Rain have been sold to date.
The book has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech, Serbian, Korean and French. And, having taken the decision to become a full-time writer and with his first book enjoying high praise in literary circles, Tan, who now lives primarily in Cape Town, began working on his second novel.
It was then that he felt the full weight of his decision to become a writer.
"I saw then how much fun I’d had writing the first book because I’d had the freedom to write whatever I wanted in whatever way I wanted. That sort of freedom doesn’t come again. After The Gift of Rain, I wanted to evolve as a writer and refine my style. The Garden of Evening Mists is much less descriptive, more pared down — not necessarily a great deal compared to other books, but definitely compared to my first one — and there’s a change in style, which I think has to happen if you are to evolve as a writer and get better. It’s about growing.
"But the second-novel syndrome is, in my experience, very true. I found The Garden of Evening Mists much harder to write than the first book. I wanted it to be better and often I’d write a sentence and then worry I’d written it before and have to check it against the first book. It was hard. So, if you are writing your first book, enjoy it because that sense of freedom never comes about again."
Like The Gift Of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Malaysia but 10 years have passed and it’s the aftermath of the Japanese occupation.
This time, the narrator is a woman, Yun Ling, who is a sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where her sister died. And, instead of aikido, Tan uses the fine art of Japanese gardening to carry eastern philosophies.
It is possibly one of the richest, most layered novels you will read this year.
On announcing Tan’s success in the 2012 Man Asian Literary Awards in March — with its prize money of $30,000 — event director David Parker said of The Garden of Evening Mists: "Achieved with the seemingly effortless poise of a remarkable fictional artistry, Tan Twan Eng’s winning novel will be prized by all those who cannot resist the mastery of language."
But the author laughs: "It’s not effortless. It’s hard. In my writing, I want to create sentences so true and yet so elegant in a way that hasn’t been written before.
"It’s hard. It takes time. I want to leave a body of work that endures. That’ll be my legacy. But easy, it is not."