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Tan Twan Eng
Tan Twan Eng

Five minutes with Tan Twan Eng

The Penang-born bestselling author has had both his books considered for the Man Booker Prize. Here Tan Twan Eng tells Su Aziz how he overcomes stress, what he remembers most about Penang, and the importance of bringing trousers


What do you do when you’re not writing, reading or buying a book?
Thinking about how to improve what I’ve been writing. Reminding myself to change a sentence or insert a description that had just occurred to me. Or doing the myriad chores all of us have to contend with – grocery shopping, paying bills, paperwork, and fixing things around the house.

What were you doing when you heard you were considered for the Booker’s List?
For the longlisting – I had just come out from the cinema that afternoon. I switched on my cellphone and saw my agent had left messages for me. Before I could call her, she rang again and told me the news.

I was in London a week before the shortlist was announced to do book-signings and interviews. I was walking in Oxford Street on the morning the judges were going to reveal the shortlist. My agent rang me at around 11.30am, I was reading the papers in a café. She told me I had made the shortlist. I looked at the people around me, a huge smile breaking over my face. I took the tube to my agent’s office. She already had a flood of requests for interviews for me to do. We had a celebratory lunch with her team and my publisher. That evening I attended the shortlist dinner to meet the judges, the media and the people connected with the prize.

How do you de-stress?
If I’m near a park or the mountains or the sea, I’ll go for a long walk. Otherwise I’ll go for a workout in the gym, or browse in a bookshop. Or read a book, or watch a movie.

In an ultimate dinner party, who are the five personalities you’ll invite and why?
Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, because I admire their writing; Anna Netrebko for her singing and vibrant personality; Somerset Maugham because he’d met so many interesting people and had travelled to so many countries in the first half of the 20th century.

Do you cook?
I do cook. Usually something that I can prepare in bulk so I can freeze it in small boxes – very convenient for times when I’m lazy or short of ideas, and all I need to do is defrost a box and tart it up with some fresh ingredients.

Do you eat to live or live to eat?

I eat to live in order to live to read.

What are the essentials you can’t travel without?
The clothes - especially trousers - I have to put on before I step outside my home. Don’t want the neighbours complaining now, do we?

What’s the most vivid thing you remember of Penang?

There used to be such a large number of beautiful old mansions and houses and shops; they gave Penang a distinctive character that is, sadly, now fast disappearing for good.

When someone says, ‘literary festival’, what’s the first thing that crosses your mind?
‘I hope they’re paying for my Business Class airfare and my five-star hotel!’

Do you experience writer’s block?
I don’t view it as ‘writer’s block’ but as one of the hazards of being a writer – it comes with the territory. You just have to keep working, either by editing or rewriting. Or by going for a walk.

How do you cope with a critical review of your book(s)?

Unless they have valid and intelligent points to make, I forget them within minutes of reading them.

How would you use the word ‘exsanguinate’ in a (mocking) sentence?
‘What does ‘exsanguinate’ mean?’

If you have your life to live over, what would you do differently and why?
I’d learn to play a musical instrument – the piano, the cello, or the violin. It must be enriching and fulfilling to be able to create music, and to give others the pleasure of music.

What’s next for you?
I’ve started researching [for a new book]. It’s about a group of friends whose relationships change when the lottery ticket they bought wins them the first prize. It’ll be called ‘The Rift of Gain’.

For more on Tan Twan Eng, visit In March 2013, he won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012 for 'The Garden of Evening Mists'.

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