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Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng finds the human in the monster

Lawyer-turned-writer Tan Twan Eng's literary debut and sophomore effort were longlisted for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize

Whether he is writing at his desk or teaching in class, the award- winning Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng is always in a neatly pressed suit, with a matching tie to boot.

Of his attire, the 44-year-old tells The Sunday Times: "I'm more comfortable in this. To me, being a writer is a job and you treat it with respect.

"To get into the mindset of writing, I have to dress the part."

Tan, who was born in Penang and worked as an intellectual property lawyer before becoming a novelist, says his professional background gave him a leg-up in the literary world.

He says: "The years I worked at a law firm taught me how to deal with clients professionally, reply to e-mail on time and gave me discipline. One reason that my agent signed me is because of how professional my submission letter and CV looked."

He wrote part of his first novel Gift Of Rain while studying for a master's in shipping law ("It was just a bull**** reason to take two years off work") in Cape Town, South Africa. He now splits his time mainly between South Africa and Malaysia.

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"My agent was trying to send it around in London, but there wasn't much interest from publishers, so I went back to work. I wanted to cry on my first day back at the office - it was the same clients and cases from when I left," he recalls.

Luckily, he did find a publisher eventually and won acclaim soon after his literary debut. Both Gift Of Rain (2007) and his sophomore effort, The Garden Of Evening Mists (2012), were longlisted for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize. The Garden Of Evening Mists was also the dark horse entry that claimed the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, besting that year's hot favourite, Bring Up The Bodies, by British writer Hilary Mantel.

Both his evocative works of historical fiction - one set on the lush, tropical Penang island; the other in the misty mountains of Cameron Highlands - probe the scars of war-time trauma and loss left behind by the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

But Tan does not paint the foreigners as villainous caricatures. In Gift Of Rain, the protagonist, a Malayan boy of mixed heritage, learns the martial art form of aikido from a Japanese diplomat and grows close to him.

"I show the Japanese doing what history told us about them, but I also show their human side. I'd like to understand why they did what they did and find the human inside the monster," says Tan, who is an avid aikido practitioner.

The self-confessed "fat kid" says he took it up because he was bullied as a child and wanted to learn a form of self-defence.

He adds: "I looked at karate and taekwondo, but they involved kicking and jumping, so I decided on aikido instead. Also, Steven Seagal had just come out with his fantastic Above The Law movie at the time.

"I soon became obsessed with it. It was an eye-opener that you could avoid conflict by deflecting and harmonising energy. I found that it spoke more to the mental element than other martial arts."

Tan, who is the international writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University this semester, is staying zen about his upcoming third book, whose first draft is completed. He does not feel any pressure to perform, despite the success of his previous works.

The bachelor says: "I'm more concerned about getting rid of the bad writing and making it as perfect as possible so I don't cringe later on. If it gets any prize attention, that's a bonus."

During his time here, Tan, who is a featured speaker at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival, hopes to start work on his fourth book, which is likely to be set in 19th- century China. He also declines to say more about his third book.

He says with a laugh: "I'm reluctant to talk about books before they're published. It's like a chef telling you what he's going to cook before the meal. I'd rather he just show it to me and let me taste it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Finding the human in the monster'. Print Edition | Subscribe