With The House of Doors longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Tan Twan Eng about beginning with the book’s final sentence – and why it’s harder to write fiction about real people

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning mean to you?   

It feels wonderful, especially when my last book was published almost eleven years ago. The House of Doors was an extremely difficult book for me to write, and there were many occasions when I wanted to abandon it. Nothing would work, nothing was cohering. But I felt driven by the characters and the story, and I refused to give up on it.

Winning would mean much, much more than something personal for me: no writer from Malaysia – no writer from South-East Asia – has ever won the Booker Prize. When people talk about ‘Asian Writing’ and ‘Asian Literature’, they’re talking about China, Japan, Korea. South-East Asia is often barely even acknowledged. Winning would create a wider, more global awareness of writers and literature from my small but culturally rich corner of the world.     

This is the third nomination you’ve received for the Booker Prize, and you’ve been nominated for each of your three novels - a 100 per cent strike rate. Does it feel any different this time?  

I told a friend recently, ‘I should stop writing now, to preserve that 100 percent strike rate.’ 

It feels just as exciting as the first and second time, because each book is different, and each longlist is different. But there’s more intense social media attention now, compared to when my first novel was nominated.    

There’s a gap of 10 years between the publication of The House of Doors and your previous book - did you always anticipate it would take a long time to write this one?  

I did not. There were various reasons for this lengthy period of time: I had a knee injury which did not improve with surgery. I put aside another novel I had just started working on, as I felt it was too big, too demanding a writing project. Instead I decided to write another novel, something which I envisaged would be easier to accomplish. Imagine my dismay when I realised that this novel – The House of Doors – was evolving into a complex and complicated story. 

Tan Twan Eng

I begin with the main characters. I work out what is it that they are seeking. I always know the ending, although getting there is another matter entirely

What does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, or sudden bursts of activity?  

I begin with the main characters. I work out what is it that they are seeking. I always know the ending, although getting there is another matter entirely. With this novel, I even knew what the concluding sentence would be; every other word and sentence preceding it was directed, like an arrow fired from a bow, towards that final sentence.     

I type on a laptop because it just looks more official to me, more real, more professional – I convince myself that I’m doing actual work and not just messing about.   I rewrite countless times, as the final work has to be as near perfect as possible. I try to maintain a consistently long stretch of writing, because it’s so hard to sink back into the trance of writing again if it gets interrupted for too long.   

Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like?  

At my desk in my study.  I try to keep my workspace organised, but inevitably and very quickly the desk would be overrun by stacks of books, papers, and other research materials.  There’ll also be a big cup of tea – I drink incessantly when I’m writing.    

The House of Doors is based on true events, and is partly drawn from a Malaysian murder case in 1911. What was it about the story that captivated you, and made you want to base a novel around it?   

In my teenage years, when I first read Somerset Maugham’s The Letter, I was intrigued to discover that he had based it on Ethel Proudlock’s trial in Kuala Lumpur in 1911. She was the first white woman to be charged with murder in Malaya. She claimed that the man she had shot dead had tried to rape her in her home.  

The House of Doors is about many things, but at the heart of it all, it is really about the acts of creation: how Maugham had come to hear about the trial, and how he had transmuted it into his story. It’s about the power of stories, how they can transcend cultures and borders, transcend even time itself.    

I see The House of Doors and The Letter as mirrors of each other. How you read The House of Doors will affect your reading of The Letter, which in turn will then change how you view The House of Doors, which in turn will then alter your impressions of The Letter, which in turn will … and on and on it goes, a pair of mirrors, reflecting each other into infinity, the patterns of the reflections changing every time you look at them.

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng

Somerset Maugham is a key character in the novel. What research did you conduct into his life and times, and what drew you to him in particular? Is it easier or harder to bring real people to life in fiction, and to develop them as characters?   

I read most of his short stories, paying close attention to those that I knew were autobiographical. I read his essays and journals. I read many of his novels, and I’m sure I read every Maugham biography that’s ever been published. I read books by and about his contemporaries, mining them for any mention of their interactions with Maugham.  He was a fascinating man: world-famous and immensely wealthy, but at the same time also, due to his lifelong stammer, insecure, shy, prickly and sensitive. But most of all he was a supreme storyteller.   

It’s much, much harder to write about real people: To start with I had to bring them back to life again, make them authentic and convincing. The direction of my story, the scenes I set, the interactions between these characters also had to be subservient to their characteristics and personalities; they had to be emotionally and psychologically true. I found it very constrictive. I felt much more free writing about Lesley and Robert and the other fictional characters.   

The House of Doors is set during Britain’s colonial rule of Malaya, and your other novels have been located in the early or mid-20th century. What is it about that time period that interests you?   

The dynamics of power of that period: between men and women, between the ruler and the ruled, between people of different races and cultures. I’m fascinated by how East and West clashed, merged, pulled apart; how they enriched but also damaged each other. Sadly, all these issues are still very relevant today.  We did not know very much about one another then, and I feel we still don’t today.   

The Booker judges described The House of Doors as ‘historical fiction at its finest’. Were you inspired by any other writers of historical fiction while writing the book?   

Because I was writing about Maugham writing his stories, I felt I had to follow his lead. But I found that restrictive and it just did not work for me. Eventually I abandoned that idea, and then the writing just opened up.      

Which book or books are you reading at the moment?   

Masquerade: The Lives of Noel Coward by Oliver Soden, Homer and His Iliad by Robin Lane Fox, and Papyrus by Irene Vallejo.   

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why?  

Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. I think she’s an underrated writer and should be more widely known. Her shifts of time and viewpoint (the two often happening simultaneously) are seamless and masterful. A person dies in the final scene in Moon Tiger, but Lively doesn’t describe it. All the reader senses is that something has depleted from the room in the nursing home, and that something is… life. And yet… life still goes on.    

What are you working on next?  

I haven’t been able to sit down for an extended period of time to work on my new novel. The past year I was one of the judges of the International Booker Prize 2023, and that involved reading 135 novels in nine months. This year has been and will be taken up with promoting The House of Doors

Tan Twan Eng