3 time Man/Booker shortlister Timothy Mo’s new novel, Pure, is set within the battle for secession in the Muslim regions of southern Thailand—covering epic expanses of time & told through multiple narrators who range from fanatical zealots to decorated Oxbridge dons.
Our email conversation covered, among other things, why so long between books?
Timothy Mo: Funnily enough, it seems like yesterday to me. The older you get, the quicker time appears to go by. The answer is that this isn’t a standard novel and it was difficult to come up with even for this non-standard author. Storyline is very easy to come up with, if you want to do that kind of thing. It’s quite mechanistic. Character is difficult and I had to render all kinds of voices and do justice to all kinds of people that I don’t necessarily like. I went to various uncomfortable and dodgy places and rubbed shoulders with strange people. Picking up stories in the way that Maugham did can be done in an evening. Understanding an individual and their culture is an absorptive process over months, if not years. Once you have the material, your imagination has to transform it beyond recognition. I have learned not to be too hasty about this. I don’t do several drafts—the book comes out perfectly or not at all. And somehow once you’ve tried and failed, the magic goes out of the characters. I was only sure about the viewpoints and personages say three years ago but had been pondering it for many more years previously. In short, you have to stand back and let the subconscious do its work.
Q: It is a non-standard novel, with odd characters. How can you interest a Western audience in it?
TM: One of the most important people in the book is Victor, who is English. But I take the point. Look, a novel can be a mirror or a window. That’s to say, it can reflect the society of the reader—the characters can be very similar to people he/she knows. Or it can be a window on to the strange and the unfamiliar. Even before I started writing, I read window novels. The truth, however, is that the vast majority of people buy, borrow, and read mirrors. The novelist purveying a looking-glass not only is read more but acquires greater critical esteem; in the short run, anyway.
Market research shows the American book-buyer lives on the East Coast, is college-educated, female, and very likely Jewish. The American book buyer wants a mirror. I don’t want to write about anorexia nervosa or collegiate delinquency or the adulteries of financiers. As a reader, I found the novels of the late John Updike cold and empty. As a writer I found them sloppily executed—but as a novelist I greatly admired him for setting a book in Africa. He didn’t have to do that. I salute him for it. For their part a certain portion of the affluent British public dream of owning a rustic holiday property in Languedoc or Tuscany. Or having afternoon tea at Brown’s Hotel or The Ritz. Novels set in a vineyard or among the tinkle of teaspoons on Wedgwood crockery will do well. Still better, make it the genteel ‘thriller’ by the English gentlewoman, with a body in the vineyard next morning or arsenic in the next table’s Earl Grey. No thanks.
Australia is completely different. Increasingly, Australians realise they are tall, conscripted Asians whose feet are already in thongs. There is interest in their neighbour, Indonesia. Australians realise their prosperity is tied to China’s development. Australians are the least mono-lingual of all the Anglos.
Q: What about China? Your first novels dealt with themes inspired by China. Have you abandoned that as a subject?
TM: Not necessarily. Like it or not—and on the whole I don’t—my contribution to the canon rides on the China wave. I know my readership is an elite one. How many clever people are there in the world? Very few. And you need heart as well as brain to read a novel. The author is inviting you to see the world from a different point of view, to challenge you to a moral judgment. The novel is an inherently inculcative medium and the great fictions of the masters are instruments of moral improvement.
Q: Well, that’s all very high-minded but you didn’t answer my question about China. And your last few novels don’t seem manuals of good behaviour.
TM: I’m trying to make something beautiful and classical out of street language. I’m trying to show redemption is possible. You know, it’s easy to attain a kind of fake profundity in the novel. Write in oracular or flat tones with absolute seriousness and not a glimmer of humour. Portray the powerful as grave and deliberate. I will not make more of human beings than they actually are. The riposte to this is that it is surely worse to make less of them than they actually are. No, it isn’t, not for the novelist.
Now for China. At the moment I’m not interested in setting a book there, but that could change. You don’t really have any choice in the book you write. It swims up from deep down and you’re stuck with it. On China, it gives me a constituency—the one thing I absolutely lack as an author. My concerns, settings and themes are marginal, even if the style and techniques I employ are right from the heart of the English tradition, but the rise of China brings them closer to the centre with every decade that passes. People with a mixed cultural heritage, having to choose between loyalties, there will be more and more of them. And the fiction that dramatises their predicament will be the quintessential fiction. My misfortune is to be ahead of things a bit but it is also my inordinate good fortune as a writer. Having said that, why the hell couldn’t I have been a golfer or a tennis-player? I mean, why am I in a game where the practitioners are materially rewarded in inverse proportion to their skill? Incompetent sportsmen don’t win trophies and cheques but for writers the big money lies in the lowest common denominator. You can see I write novels as a compulsion, not a job.
Q. Well, they gave you a nice cover for this one. Rafa or Roger could wear it on court.
TM: Looks more like the latest gizmo from Apple to me. But it is a lovely looking tome. Long live the physical book.