Interview: Malaysian thriller writer John Ling

Meet John Ling. He’s a particularly rare breed – a Malaysian thriller writer! – currently based in New Zealand. His second book, The Blasphemer, is scheduled to be out Christmas 2011 and touches on a potentially provocative topic – Islamic fundamentalism, among other things. It’s not the first time he handled anything this explosive. In 2005, John published Fourteen Bullets, an action-packed anthology of his stories set in war zones across the world. Marilyn Henderson, editor of PendulumPress.com, described John as “a powerful new voice in adventure stories.”

John and journalist Elizabeth Tai are some of the Malaysian writers or publishing veterans I’m interviewing to gain insight into current local perceptions of fiction writers, particularly genre fiction, in my country. Along the way, I hope to learn more about others in the industry and ask their views on the troubled state of literature, publishing and censorship in Malaysia today.

Tell me about yourself! And how did you end up in New Zealand?

I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, and not surprisingly, I had a wayward lifestyle as a child. I got into my fair share of vandalism and fights, which were often exacerbated by racial tensions between Malay gangs (who were the minority) and Chinese gangs (who were the majority). But after one too many bloodied noses and run-ins with the police, I decided that enough was enough.

I have always loved reading, both as an escape and a distraction, and it was only natural that I turned to writing. My early work was clumsy, a pastiche of Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens, but it helped me stay out of further trouble by the time I left high school. By then, I had graduated to writing thrillers. I first arrived in New Zealand in 2003 for university studies, and it wasn’t hard to fall in love with the country and its people. What I found really inspiring was the creativity and ingenuity of this small Pacific nation. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in sheer bigness of spirit, producing talent such as Booker Prize-winning writer Keri Hulme and Academy Award-winning film-maker Peter Jackson.

Yes, there’s more to New Zealand than sheep and pastures and mountains, and I decided to stay on. Being here has made me feel like I could be than just a lost soul, which is what almost happened to me back in Malaysia.

How did your first anthology Fourteen Bullets come about?

Between 2003 and 2004, I had several stories published in American and British periodicals. Believe me, this was a big boost for someone who had never considered himself all that good at wordsmithing. In 2004, I came across an indie publisher called Silver Lake Publishing. The editor was calling for submissions, and I thought it might be a good idea to compile my stories into a single collection and give it a go. She liked my pitch, offered me a contract and Fourteen Bullets was born. I went on a short Malaysian tour to promote it in 2005. Visiting bookstores and schools and community centres about the lessons to be learned from ethnic conflicts in places such as Kosovo and Bosnia. It was a memorable if short-lived experience. Silver Lake Publishing, which operated on a shoestring budget, soon went into financial difficulties and went insolvent. Fourteen Bullets, unfortunately, went out of print.

Looking back at it now, it’s amazing how I even got these stories published — by any standard, they were clumsy, unfocused and lacked depth and maturity. But it was a start, and it did lay the foundations for everything that came after.

Tell me a little about your novel, The Blasphemer.

The Blasphemer is a thriller that asks a loaded question, ‘How far would you go to protect one man’s right to speak?’

When Abraham Khan releases a controversial book with a liberal interpretation of Islam, his message ripples throughout the Muslim world. He condemns fanaticism. Raises the possibility of healing the rift between East and West. Ending the War on Terror once for all. Unfortunately, his message also rubs fundamentalists the wrong way. They see it as sacrilege. A threat to their entrenched authority. And they set out to kill him, bringing their war to the streets of New Zealand. It falls on Maya Raines and her team of close-protection specialists to protect Abraham Khan. But their task isn’t going to be easy. They not only have to contend with a constantly shifting threat level, but mounting political pressure from their government. A government that is unsure of just how far it should go to protect a man who is openly defiant and refuses to keep silent.

On your website, you mentioned concerns about the book’s subject matter. Could you elaborate?

When I first started work on The Blasphemer, I originally envisioned it as taking place in a world where Osama bin Laden had died of natural causes. In the aftermath, fundamentalists and progressives were scrambling to fill the ideological void; trying to sway the Muslim community in one direction or the other. This, I felt, was a realistic scenario. One that had true dramatic weight. To my astonishment, actual events caught up with my fiction. The American raid on Bin Laden’s hideout on May 2nd meant that he had died a most unnatural death. And Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s notably less-charismatic number two, is now indeed engaged in an effort to fill the ideological void. I’m therefore in the process of rewriting The Blasphemer and bringing it up to speed. Will it still be provocative? Incisive? I think it will be, but in a different way than I originally imagined.

You don’t hear of many Malaysians writing thrillers. Why do you think that is?

Thrillers, at their best, not only convey danger and menace, but do so in a way that comments sharply on the issues that concern us. Crime. Religion. Politics. International relations. These are difficult topics, and they take time to research, collate and understand. And when you are turning the microscope on reality, the last thing you want is for someone like a bona fide policeman to drop you a line and say, ‘Hey, I’ve read your work, and you really screwed up. That’s not how we operate.’

Here’s an example of how easy it is to fall into that trap. We are all familiar with the classic scene where a detective searches a house. Stumbles upon a bag of suspicious-looking white powder. He tears it open, dips his finger in and takes a taste. His eyes go eureka, and he says, ‘It’s cocaine!’ But wait. Putting aside the fact that he has just tampered with evidence, a cop would have to be foolish to actually take a taste like that. It could be rat poison. It’s such a simple and logical thing, and yet, we’ve seen this scene being replicated over and over, in one guise or another. So much so that it’s become part of popular culture. But what’s prevalent is not always authentic, and getting the details right does take a lot of time and patience and effort.

As a nation, Malaysians are hardwired to expect immediate results and quick turnarounds. So the idea of spending a year or more to research and write something without an immediate financial windfall is tough to stomach, and that may be one reason why we find so few Malaysians willing to tackle the thriller genre.

Another reason may well be a lack of willingness to directly tackle topics that are taboo or incendiary. The thriller has always served as a contemporary morality tale on what a society should or shouldn’t be; what it should or shouldn’t do. And perhaps Malaysians are apprehensive about tackling a genre with a text and subtext that can often be read as anti-establishment. What you’re more likely to see, I think, are Malaysians making tentative forays into the mystery and suspense genres instead of full-blown thrillers. Even then, they hold back and don’t necessarily write what they actually have in mind.

As far as you know, how is genre fiction perceived back in Malaysia these days? Do you keep track of what’s going on there?

I don’t think the Malaysian public necessarily makes a distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’. What’s more likely to happen, though, is that they tend to overlook a local writer until he or she has achieved success overseas.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the average Malaysian only reads two books a year. With an unconscious quota like that, there really isn’t much room to play with. Given the choice between a local genre novel and an international one, the Malaysian reader has a tendency to go for the latter. In that sense, public perception hasn’t changed all—local material is almost always perceived to be inferior in quality compared to their international counterparts.

You do a lot of research on world conflicts and war. What draws you to this topic?

Ever since the first human being discovered the killing power of a lump of rock, violence has always been a form of communication. A forceful of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It is, if you will, the ultimate accelerant; the ultimate stressor. It pummels and strips a person bare and reveals his and her character. Most people, thankfully, will never have violence visited upon them. So it’s hard for them to fully appreciate the weight of it, the consequences. What they think they know about violence is often gleaned from movies and games created by people with cavalier and blinkered attitudes. People who have no real appreciation of what violence actually entails. So, as a writer, I’m always conscious of the fact. I want to deconstruct violence. Dissect it. Deglamourise it. And understand the why and how of it. Why, for instance, despite our thousands of years of civilisation do we still revert back to violence as a way of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

My day job at Television New Zealand offers me the chance to dig deep and gain insight. I’m most fascinated by the men and women who call themselves ‘quiet professionals’. Operators who work in the front lines of law-enforcement and intelligence and counter-terrorism. You get a sense, when you sit down with such people, of how intimately familiar they are with violence. They know what it means to shoot someone in anger and to be shot in anger, and they are very frank about what violence is and what violence isn’t. Multiply that many times over and you’ll see that Violence — or even the threat of violence — is the single biggest arbiter of geopolitical power today. And yet the general public seems to understand so little about it, which leads to flawed and uninformed choices on so many levels within society. But I always believe that before you can understand global stories, you have to first understand individual stories. Which is where fiction comes in. It’s an excellent vehicle which I can use to explore a complex topic without sounding draggy or preachy.

What are your views on censorship to preserve the racial harmony of a country? Some might argue this is necessary to prevent ethnic conflicts as seen in certain Asian nations, after all.

There are two issues at play here. One, the idea that you can totally eliminate criminal activity. And, two, the suggestion that any response, no matter how extreme, is justified in pursuit of that goal. But let’s stop for a moment and actually think this through. Do the ends really justify the means? Is it feasible? Is it desirable?

North Korea is a good real-world case study. There is no terrorism there. Why? That’s because the government has completely and utterly eliminated terrorism by, ironically enough, taking on the role of the terrorist. It locks its citizens down tight. Shuts them off from the outside world. Imprisons them with impunity. Executes them profusely. Censors and manipulates all information. Promotes its own pervasive brand of propaganda. As Nietzsche so aptly said, ‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’ The role of government is to regulate and minimise criminal activity to the point that it doesn’t threaten our way of life. And it has to do it in a fair and balanced manner. Go beyond that and a government risks going beyond the point of no return. It ends up becoming the very thing it set out to eradicate in the first place.

What issues are most important to you?

(1) Freedom of speech, (2) Freedom of religion, (3) Freedom from want, (4) Freedom from fear.

Now for a break 😀 What do you do for fun or to relax? Any geekish interests?

I’m a news junkie. Can’t get enough of global events.

What titles are you reading nowadays?

I’m currently revisiting Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. (Chris: See? That is geekish 😉 ) It’s a delectable masterwork, and ample proof that comics and fantasy can be literature. Anyone who says otherwise must be dense!

Chris: Thanks for reading!

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6 Comments

Filed under Books, Malaysia, Publisher, Thriller, Writing

6 responses to “Interview: Malaysian thriller writer John Ling

  1. Pingback: Interview | John Ling

  2. What an interesting interview. Notice the bit about Malaysians are hardwired for a quick turnaround and immediate results! That’s why you are so hard on yourself Chris!!!

  3. Haha, I didn’t notice! Yes, bless you 🙂

  4. Thanks, Chris, for asking all the right questions. It really prodded me to think deep and open up, which is not something I usually do. =)

    Belledelettres, good point there!

  5. Why, of course we arel. 😉

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