My First Writer Interview!

In my quest to speak to various Malaysian writers and publishers about the industry back home, I got hold of Elizabeth Tai. Besides being a close friend, Elizabeth is a voracious reader (her library definitely trumps mine!) and she has also been a features and entertainment journalist for nearly 12 years. She claims to get dizzy flying to exotic locations like Japan and California (I hate her), and has interviewed local and international authors, celebrities, and a dizzying array of personalities both weird and diva.

Give her a hand, and more interviews to come, I hope!

Tell me about yourself.

I’m a journalist @ The Star newspaper, a national English daily in Malaysia. I’ve always been a writer; I created my first graphic novel when I was 11, wrote my first non-fiction booklet about astronomy when I was 12, started writing short stories when I was 12 and later novels in my teen and young adult years. Ironically, when I started writing professionally as a journalist, my fiction endevours fell on the wayside…

What sort of books did you read as a child?

The Johor Baru public library had a curious children’s section. It only had biographies, non-fiction books and Shakespeare (children’s version of course), so that’s what I read as a child. My first book was a book on Mathematics. Loved it on account of the colourful pictures. I only read Enid Blyton in my teen years!

What genres do you read and why?

Well, I’m an omnivore. I read EVERYTHING. Which makes it difficult sometimes to make a choice. But if I were to pick a favourite, fiction = sci fi and fantasy. What I read depends on my moods. Right now I’m reading lots of non-fiction books, especially on languages and religion. Studying Christian theology is fascinating to me.

What do you write for enjoyment?

Fanfiction. Because it’s effortless and all the characters are there already for you to play with πŸ™‚

Tell me what you think about the state of literature in Malaysia nowadays.

It’s growing, I suppose. Though the quality of the writing and packaging (I’m big on fonts and covers, being a former subeditor) ranges from good to abysmal. I feel that writers need to put more quality into their work and also be able to take criticisms more!

As far as you know, what is the Government doing about it?

Nothing as far as I’m concerned. Much of the initiative to encourage writing comes from private enterprises or companies such as Silverfish and MPH.

Are there any suggestions or measures you think Malaysia should be doing to promote literature and reading?

For God’s sake improve the libraries! We need to have more libraries – at least one library in one suburb area etc, not one library per city. There should be more funding to create writer’s festivals in Malaysia.

In 2003, the National Library reported that Malaysians only read two books a year on average. In 2010, Deputy Information, Communication and Culture Minister Heng Seai Kie said Malaysians read an average of eight to 12 books a year. Are you surprised? Glad? Sceptical?

In the urban areas, the figures are probably better. If you visit book warehouse sales or bookstores, you’d notice it packed with people. The concentration of reading Malaysians differ from rural to urban areas and this is simply due to the availability of books, methinks. I think in rural areas, the availability of books is simply dismal. We’re really spoiled in KL (Kuala Lumpur).

Tell me your views about Malaysian authors today.

There are some that are really enthusiastic about the craft, but I’m a perfectionist … I feel that they can improve their craft more. Some can’t even take criticisms, and feel that just because they’re Malaysian writers, Malaysians should support them. There are also some who are elitist … who believe that “literary” fiction is the only fiction worth considering. This is just my impression, however.

Do you believe they are being given enough Government support or encouragement? Eg Book festivals, grants, literary events?

NOPE.

How do you think this could be improved? As a developing nation, the priority for the Budget seems slanted towards infrastructure and urban development, after all.

Well, they could stop using the money for rasuah for one. πŸ™‚ (Chris: *Coughs* Rasuah means bribes)

Do you think Malaysians have greater respect for literary fiction than, say, genre like crime, fantasy, science fiction, romance?

I think Malaysians in general do not think that way; the tastemakers, however, seem to. But this is a question that’s hard to answer with any certainty as I can only glean from what I read from their blogs etc.

Here is your soapbox! What is the one thing would you like to see changed, or done differently when it comes to writing and literature?

My needs are simple. I just want a library for each residential area. I want more Malaysian publishers like Amir Muhammad (through his publishing house Fixi) who will publish genre fiction. People look down on Genre fiction, but it actually takes great skill to write one as they need to keep readers entertained. Also, genre fiction is literature for the masses; Malaysians will find it more easy to digest. I want the glorification of literary fiction to stop – it’s highly annoying and obtuse.

What was the last book you enjoyed and why?

I would say Sergei Lukynenko’s urban fantasy series (Day Watch, Night Watch, Last Watch etc). I wept when I read the last book because I knew there won’t be anymore.

And last, but not least, what titles are you reading at the moment?

Gee. Like I said, mostly Theology books. πŸ˜‰ I tend to read several books at once, so here goes:

1. God is nearer than you think, John Ortberg

2. Shadow Prowler – Alexey Pehov

3. May want to attempt Shantaram. Because it’s just sitting on my shelf scolding me for ignoring it.

4. Unlocking the Bible by David Pawson

5. The Bible. πŸ˜‰ Book of John, to be specific.

6. Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer (starting this week!)

Thank you for reading πŸ™‚

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9 Comments

Filed under Books, Malaysia, Matahari Books, Publisher, Silverfish, Triumph, Writing

9 responses to “My First Writer Interview!

  1. Excellent interview, Chris. Very frank and very true.

    I’ve encountered two extremes in Malaysia — those who don’t respect writing at all, and those who think writing as a sacred religion closed off to the unwashed masses.

    The latter really hit home for me I encountered someone who refused to shake my hand because I wrote in the thriller genre, which was, in his words, ‘Childish.’

    When I challenged him on that point and said that Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and even Homer wrote thrillers, he brusquely denied it, saying there’s a clear and distinct difference between thriller fiction and literary fiction.

    Oh yes. Just like there’s a difference between ‘magical realism’ and ‘fantasy’. =)

    What grates, enough, is not the literary purists. It’s the regular folks who pour scorn on it and say it’s not worth pursuing because there’s no big money to be made in writing. Which is just sad, really.

    • Good grief. Refused to shake your hand? That is unbelievable! Ouch.

      Perhaps it is an Asian thing? The same way how some of the older generation look at you strangely for pursuing the arts when you should be taking up a ‘decent’ profession like lawyers, doctors, accountants etc..

      You DO realise you’re one of my next victim–ahem, interviewees, don’t you? πŸ™‚

  2. Elizabeth Tai

    Wow, you make my job sounds more glamorous than it is πŸ˜‰ Most of the time I’m hunched over my keyboard, staring blankly into the computer screen while munching on forbidden carbs.

    John, usually I ignore the folks who say that writing is a career not worth pursuing. If I had listened to them, I wouldn’t have gone into journalism but into accounting!

  3. Elizabeth Tai

    Damn the grammar mistakes in my post … ugh. πŸ˜‰

    • Bah. Isn’t that the way of most journo jobs? Hunched over the keyboard, then you’re chasing after politicians, going to places with dead bodies, staying up till ungodly hours for some accident or last minute assignment…or in your case flying to see hunky actors or whatever πŸ˜› People think that sounds glamorous while I’m going Meh-I-Want-My-Sleep! πŸ˜‰

  4. Very apt, Elizabeth.

    A number of years ago, Stephen King was asked why he wrote. To which he replied, ‘What makes you think I had a choice?’

    Best answer I’ve heard in, well, forever. We writers write because we can’t not write. It’s what we do, inconvenience or not. πŸ™‚

  5. Some very good questions here!

  6. Pingback: Interview: Malaysian thriller writer John Ling | Chris Kouju

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