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'The House of Doors' by Tan Twan Eng explores frustrated love on a diverse island

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The author Tan Twan Eng writes historical fiction set in Malaysia, the country where he was raised. His newest novel, "The House Of Doors," revolves around a famous British author who spent time traveling in the region, the short story writer W. Somerset Maugham, known to his friends as Willie. "The House Of Doors" has already made the longlist for this year's Booker Prize, and Tan Twan Eng is here to talk with us about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TAN TWAN ENG: Hello there. It's very good to be here to talk to you all.

SHAPIRO: This is the second novel that you have said on the island of Penang, off the west coast of Malaysia. And you live there part time. For people who've never been there, give us a sense of what it's like to walk through the streets of George Town, Penang's main city.

TAN: It really feels like you're walking in Penang a hundred years ago. The old shop houses are there. They've got the original names of the streets. A lot of the tradesmen and craftsmen are still being - are still working there, carrying on the jobs that their grandparents did. A lot of the food stalls, the street hawkers, they are still continuing the tradition started by their grandparents. So there's a sense of timelessness when you walk in the streets of Penang. And the only way you can really absorb and appreciate Penang is to walk there. I always tell people, don't drive, don't take the bus, don't - just walk.

SHAPIRO: And because Penang for centuries has been such a hub of international cross-currents, as you walk through the town, it's like you see the influences of Thailand and India and China and Japan and the British Empire and on and on and on.

TAN: Yes. It's - as I mentioned in my first novel, "The Gift Of Rain," you can cross worlds and cultures just by crossing a street. You've got the Little India quarter, and as you take the next street, you're coming to the Malay quarter and then the Chinese. And it's so wonderful. And all of these cultures are mingled and merged. And they've created a cuisine which is uniquely Penang as well, Peranakan food, so many variations of that food. And I think it's one of the most delicious foods in the world.

SHAPIRO: It's the only place I've ever tried nutmeg as a fresh fruit or a juice.

TAN: So refreshing.

SHAPIRO: So what makes Penang such a good vein for a fiction writer to tap, and specifically a writer of historical fiction?

TAN: Well, because it's so rich with stories. You know, if you walk down the streets of the town, every house behind the doors, you wonder, what are the stories there? Tales of love and death and disappointment and fears and hopes. There's so many stories. Every street has a wonderful story. It's really a rich mine for any author to write about Penang.

SHAPIRO: Well, this story, "The House Of Doors," revolves around a few events that actually took place in the 1910s and '20s. The great Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen visits Penang, so does the British writer W. Somerset Maugham. And in another part of Malaysia, a married woman is on trial for killing her lover, which I take it was a case that captured the world's attention. So what do these events have in common that you thought could make them work together in one novel?

TAN: The one thing they had in common was that these events are slowly being forgotten by readers today, especially the younger readers. For instance, the murder trial of Ethel Proudlock in Kuala Lumpur, which - taken place almost a hundred years ago, almost nobody today knows much about it. And I first - even I, I first came to know about it through "The Letter," Somerset Maugham's short story.

SHAPIRO: Which was - he wrote a short story about that trial.

TAN: Yes. He based a short story called "The Letter" on the trial of Ethel Proudlock. I read the story in my teens, and I found it very compelling. But I was even more interested when I found out that he had based it on this real-life trial, which had happened in the town I was growing up in. History is alive in Penang. It's not dusty and dry. It's living. All you have to do is just look for it.

SHAPIRO: I think any time a novelist writes a character who's a fiction writer, readers are going to wonder about parallels. And W. Somerset Maugham, who's known as Willie, does not come off very well in this book. Do you see similarities between yourself and him?

TAN: I think he comes up quite - I try to make him human. Yeah. I try to make him have a lot of weaknesses and flaws. And a lot of his problems as a writer, I face as well, you know, the problems with finding inspiration, the problem with finding time to write...

SHAPIRO: But he solves those problems by kind of betraying the confidences of the people around him who trust him, and then he skewers them publicly in his stories.

TAN: He does. And yet people are aware of this tendency of his, and yet they still feel inclined to spill their guts to him. In one of his nonfiction writings, he mentioned that, after he wrote some of his short stories, a lot of people were very angry with him for writing about them and not even bothering to change their identities. But there were also a lot of people who were even more angry that he did not write about them.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) The ones who were included were offended, and the ones who were not...

TAN: They were offended, yes. Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Were offended they didn't make the cut. I love it.

TAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That must make it easier to write about events that happened more than a century ago. You don't have to worry about offending the people you're writing about.

TAN: I'm quite careful about offending their descendants.

SHAPIRO: Really?

TAN: Well, you know, in a way, I don't want to make people unhappy or create a lot of misunderstandings. I want to present the character as authentic and accurate. So I don't go out of the way to just highlight the negative parts. But I also try to create a fair representation of the character.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever heard from the descendants of the people you've written about?

TAN: Yeah, you read my mind, because a few weeks ago, I had an email from a lady in England. And she wrote and said, my name is Syrie, and I'm the great granddaughter of Somerset Maugham. I'm writing on behalf of my mother as well, Camilla (ph), who is the granddaughter.

SHAPIRO: And?

TAN: And they thanked me for - they really enjoyed the book. They enjoyed my depiction of Somerset Maugham because it brought back a lot of good memories for them, especially for Camilla, the granddaughter who used to spend her summers in Somerset Maugham's villa in the south of France. And they said that he was such a doting and loving and kind grandfather, this despite the public perception of him as sour and grumpy and irritable, you know.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

TAN: But they loved it, and they thanked me for bringing back Somerset Maugham to the readers' awareness again. So it was...

SHAPIRO: (Inaudible) treasure.

TAN: Yes. It - a very moving email, a very revealing, very open and very frank. And I was very moved by it when I finished reading the email.

SHAPIRO: We've talked about what a rich place Penang is, where so many different cultures intermingle. And this story is mostly told from the perspective of the Brits, the British people who live there. What do you think we see by looking at the world through that particular lens?

TAN: Well, we see how they felt, that they were morally superior to the people they were ruling over during that time. And that was the - one of the weapons they used to justify their power, because we are - we're morally superior. We're much advanced technologically. That's one of the reasons why, when the Ethel Proudlock case happened, so many British people were upset by that trial because Ethel Proudlock showed that the white man and the white woman was not morally superior. So she was involved in an affair, and she shot her lover. And she was the first English woman to be charged with murder in Malaya. And that trial showed everyone that the rulers, the Brits, were not in any way superior to anyone.

SHAPIRO: Tan Twan Eng. His new novel is "The House Of Doors." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

TAN: It's a pleasure chatting with you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.