Interview: Timothy Mo

by Claire Allfree / 26 May, 2012
Intellectually restless, fiercely contrarian three-time Booker Prize nominee Timothy Mo returns with his first novel in over 10 years.

It’s rather difficult pinning down Timothy Mo. An initial email request for an interview receives a curt no. Nor, he says, are any copies available of his new novel, Pure, an unpromising sign given Mo long ago broke with the conventional publishing industry and published his last two novels himself. A few weeks later, he changes his mind. “Sorry to sound unenthusiastic previously,” he emails. “I thought I had no connection with New Zealand – walking on the beach yesterday, it occurred to me that one of the most influential teachers of my life (primary school) was a New Zealander.”

We have Mrs Penman of Quarry Bay School in Hong Kong to thank for Mo’s agreeing to meet in London’s Tottenham Court Rd in one of his rare visits to the UK. Born in Hong Kong in 1950 to a Hong Kong Chinese father and a British mother, Mo moved to England when he was 10 and studied at Oxford, but now lives mainly in the East, flitting between Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia. Shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, he was once mentioned in the same breath as Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro, all three writers breaking new ground in the 1980s in postcolonial literature. These days, only literary editors and serious book-lovers remember his name. And yet those who do remember him – the odd blog crops up, wondering where the hell he’s got to – talk about him as one of the finest writers of his generation.

Mo would probably agree. In person, he is compact, athletic and more genial than his prickly emails convey. He is also eager to know what I think of Pure, his first novel for over 10 years. “I thought initially I’d flout all the rules of novel writing and see if I could get away with it out of sheer talent,” he says. “But it’s not like breaking the rules of tennis. It’s like trying to break the rules of gravity.”

Pure – set amid Thailand’s simmering secessionist conflict between the Muslim south and the Buddhist north, which to date has killed 4500 people – has received rave reviews in the British press, which is a bit of a relief, since Mo’s ego probably couldn’t take much less. It’s a typical display of technical fireworks from this abundantly talented writer, narrated in part by Snooky, née Ahmed – a cross-dressing, drug-snorting, huge-hearted Bangkok ladyboy and unlikely film reviewer from the Malay South who wears a tattoo halfway down her back: “Insert penis here.” Funny, surreally articulate and oddly guileless, she is also one of the most memorable creations in recent fiction. “Everyone thinks she is a woman,” says Mo. “But she remains a guy.”

Snooky’s story is a very modern parable masquerading as an extravagant slice of burlesque. Arrested in Bangkok for drug possession and facing 20 years in jail, she trades in her sentence for an espionage assignment: to infiltrate a jihadist terrorist group in southern Thailand. There, technically under the direction of a semi-retired old-school British intelligence expert called Victor, but increasingly drawn to Pakistani zealot Shaykhm, she is slowly seduced by the “purity” of the Caliphate ideology. Novelists across the world have taken on the subject of contemporary jihad in recent years, but few have got under its skin – or found a skin quite like Snooky’s – in quite the same startling, strange way as Mo.

“I’d wanted to write about southern Thailand for ages,” he says, admitting it took several years for the characters of Snooky and Victor to swim to the surface (perhaps part of the reason he has been quiet for so long, although he is evasive on this). “All the narrators in this novel are unreliable. I’ve never before messed around; I thought those Jamesian tricks were a bit old-fashioned. But for this particular book it suited the material. I worried I was glorifying them; glamorising terrorism. But I don’t think I did. I mean, if you read my book you can see why intelligent, brave, altruistic young men living in southern Thailand would feel that the only recourse against the north is to take up arms. I probably would myself.”

Inhabiting the souls of his characters has been a particular skill of Mo’s; his novels boast a fantastic cacophony of maverick voices and together serve as a flamboyant act of literary ventriloquism for the Anglo-Chinese experience. His 1978 debut, The Monkey King, opened the door on the domestic tribulations of a wealthy Chinese family in Hong Kong. He followed it with 1982’s Sour Sweet, a black comedy about London’s Chinese immigrant underworld in the 1960s, and then two career-defining epics: 1986’s An Insular Possession, a historical novel about the first Anglo-Chinese opium war on the China Coast, and 1991’s brilliant The Redundancy of Courage, an allegorical novel about the guerrilla war in East Timor.

His Anglo-Chinese heritage gives him a unique window, but Mo isn’t interested in merely reflecting the world: his novels re-carve it through audacious, transfiguring acts of a strongly satirical imagination that rejuvenate old, tired perceptions between East and West. Pure, with its graphic descriptions of terrorism and its fleet-footed understanding of the new global culture wars, feels like a distillation of the complicated themes he’s been writing about all his life, pulled into a new contemporary urgency. “I’m writing about things I see as mattering down the line, and this novel gathers all those threads up,” says Mo. “People say Pure is similar to The Redundancy of Courage. Yet that’s a very straightforward novel; this one is quite surreal. But it’s my good fortune that I’m hitched to the China way. China is really coming up now. If you go to Asia, you see how seedy and rundown London is. And it’s not just China but the satellite countries. That’s the story for the next 50 years, explaining both cultures to the other. That’s my position. I know my books will be read for the next 50 years.”

If he can find someone to market them, of course. In the early 1990s, Mo became notorious for breaking with his publisher, Chatto & Windus, in a dispute over money. They offered him £125,000 for his next novel; he thought that insulting. Really? £125,000? “Actually, that doesn’t sound like that much money to me,” he says. “I mean, if you take four years to write a novel…” He insists it wasn’t just about the cash. “If I were interested in money, I would have become a barrister,” he says. “Lots of my friends from university are QCs and I’ve got just as quick a brain as them.”

He felt undervalued, and perhaps sensed his recalcitrant temperament was ill-suited to the new commercial imperatives of modern publishing. Instead, he set up Paddleless Press and self-published two subsequent novels, both set in the Philippines: 1995’s Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard and 1999’s Renegade or Halo2. Both picked up respectable reviews; the latter won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Few people bought them. Mo has no regrets. “Not even I can make people interested in the Philippines,” he says, blaming his dropping off the radar on his subject matter rather than on the inherent risk, in the early internet era, of going solo. “It’s just Imelda’s shoes and ferry catastrophes. The press slayed me at the time, of course. You think they’d support the individual. I’m hoping Pure [published by distributor Turnaround Publisher Services] will make me some money, because I could do with a few bob. But I bet it won’t. I can always go off and teach. But I prefer to be independent.”

Intellectually restless, fiercely contrarian and, when he wants to be, charming and entertaining in company, Mo doesn’t fit into any easy niche. He can come across as chippy, bearing grudges that are decades old, quoting a headline from a negative profile of him that probably no one else remembers, and believing – despite his three Booker nominations – that the British literary establishment has never fully recognised his talent. “I can write a novel such as Renegade or Halo2, one of my best books, and think, ‘Surely no one can do a hatchet job on me; the quality of this …’ But there is always a way.”

Mo tends to write about history from the perspective of the marginalised and I wonder if he ever felt an outsider in the UK. But he says no, never, and adds he is steeped in English culture and literature. He’s an unlikely admirer of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. He writes about race all the time, but in conversation happily – and knowingly – makes idle, pejorative racial generalisations. He feels uneasy in London, but admits to feeling even more uneasy in Asia, “where there are gunshots at night; people being mugged and officials can do anything to you”. Where does he feel at home? “That’s a good question. I have a strange, horrible sense of giddiness and rootlessness. I don’t feel I belong anywhere. But it’s good for me as a novelist.” Which, in the end, is the key to this brilliant, difficult writer. The work. “The novel is a moral instrument,” he says fervently. “It’s the only reason I write them. The bottom line is that I could only have ever been a novelist. That’s what I do.”

PURE, by Timothy Mo (Turnaround Books, $44.99).
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