1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I’m from Malaysia, but because of my dad’s job, I lived in lots of different countries when I was a child, such as Thailand, Germany, Japan, and Singapore. Then I went to university in America, at Harvard. I remember I was always so sad to say goodbye to my school friends every time we moved, yet incredibly excited to be going to a different country.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I was very keen on animals, and wanted to be a vet or a cartoonist. By the time I’d turned eighteen, I’d amended that to becoming a doctor, because I was too puny to be a vet. In James Herriot’s books, he’s always wrestling with cows and I didn’t think I could manage that without being squashed. When I was thirty, I wanted to be a mother. Of course, now that I am one, I sometimes wonder what I was thinking!!
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When you’re eighteen, you feel that you’re physically invincible. You can’t really imagine what it’s like to be sick, or facing decline – or at least, I had a hard time imagining that when I was that age. Now that I’m older however, I’m definitely aware of my aches and pains!
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
When I was a child, I saw a piece of artwork in a museum in Germany. It was a single, realistic wax arm, with a few feathers stuck in it. I couldn’t understand it and it haunted me for a long time. Years later, my dad told me that it was supposed to be Icarus’ arm.
John Singer Sargent’sThe Glass of Port. It’s a small oil painting, yet very atmospheric. It perfectly captures the mood at the end of a good dinner with friends.
Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. Such an unusual, beautifully written novel that’s told in a deceptively simple manner.
What all three of these have in common is that they’re mysterious glimpses into another world. They have a curious quality about them, which makes me wonder what happened and how they were created. At times like these, I really feel inspired to write.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Actually, I never thought I’d be able to write a novel – they seemed so complicated and hard to finish! I’d mostly written short stories before but somehow, this story kept unfolding and surprising me.
Li Lan, a young Chinese woman, lives in 1890s colonial Malaya with her quietly ruined father, who returns one evening with a proposition – the wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son. The only problem is, he’s dead.
After a fateful visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir. Night after night, she’s drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, burned paper offerings, and puppet servants. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s dark secrets, before she’s trapped in this ghostly world forever.
(Editor’s Note: The Ghost Bride was recently chosen as Oprah’s Book of the Week.This evocative and spellbinding tale has the feel of a fairytale retelling. Rich in historical detail and Chinese tradition, it paints a beautiful picture of Malaya in the late 19th century. Dragons, ghosts and demons run amok in this hauntingly lovely tale – perfect for fans of Seraphina by Rachel Hartman and Eona by Alison Goodman.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
SE Asia is a part of the world that’s very dear to me, and that I feel I can write about with authenticity. There are so many fascinating stories still to be told; so many tales of strange incidents. I’d be very happy if readers could take some of that wonder away with them.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are many wonderful writers that I admire, but two of my favourites are Haruki Murakami and Isak Dinesen. They have very different styles, but both of them have the ability to captivate the reader into the worlds of their making.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d love to be able to write more books and keep being published! That would be wonderful.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write what you find to be deeply interesting to you. And keep on writing!