Alice Pung’s first book Unpolished Gem won the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year 2007, and was nominated for numerous other awards.
What authors/books did you read as a child? When did you first discover your love of books?
I first discovered my love of books when I started reading Judy Blume in Grade Four. I loved authors who wrote stories about children, teenagers and young adults who were entirely believable characters - with real thoughts (as opposed to ‘right’ thoughts and actions all the time), and yet a certain turn in circumstances would catapult them into making difficult decisions or take them to dangerous fantasy places. I read John Marsden, Sonya Hartnett, Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry and Paul Zindel.
When did you first realise you were a writer? What do you hope your readers will take away with them from reading your books?
I wrote when I was young as a way of taking myself away from a life I didn’t particular understand. Popular culture, and television, and even most of the books I was reading - aside from the authors mentioned above - were putting forward a certain vision of what things were like for young adults - it was either extremely depressing or peppily gleeful; nothing like growing up behind a carpet factory where you return home from your private school every day to an entirely different sort of world, populated by another language and set of rules and responsibilities. To me, books were an ultimate escape.
At that time, before the internet, I didn’t realise that books reflected only a small microcosm of the world. I thought they were the world, more real than my real life itself.
So I kept very long and detailed diaries to help me through certain quagmires. Most of my stories now are about small joys and disappointments, and I focus on characters more than anything else. What makes a person the way they are? I am interested in writing about families, because they are often the biggest influence on you before you have any sort of real power or independence of your own; and yet our nuclear lives are kept so private.
In my next book Her Father’s Daughter, I hope that readers will reflect on a generation that does not speak about the past and that hides things from their children to protect them. I hope that no one sees my work as ‘ethnic literature’ or reads every sentence I write as a reflection on ‘culture’, because I write about people, not concepts. And I hope that people can identify with the quirks and fallibilities of my characters, because I write about people I love.
That can make me feel very vulnerable at times, but what is the point of doing otherwise? Anais Nin once said: “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.”
Do you find it difficult to read purely for pleasure? Does everything you read come under your ‘writer’ microscope?
I love reading for pleasure. And I like to get carried away in a story, just as I did when I was younger. I try not to analyse other people’s work so much. It ruins a good story. It’s like being at a dinner party and someone is telling you a terrific tale. You don’t dampen it by interrupting, questioning or forcing them to follow a certain narrative track. It’s their tale and the reason it works so well is because it’s in their voice. However, if the voice is smarmy or if it’s annoying you, then you tend to nod politely and tune out after a short while.
Do you have to avoid reading certain types of fiction while writing your own? Does what you read while writing have an effect on what you write? In what way?
For my recent book, I read a lot - not literary works, though I did do that too - but psychiatric studies, history books, newspaper archives, personal narratives. Although my book is about my father, I wanted to get the historical context right. And what I read, I then had to transform from its discipline (history, psychiatry) into a relevant and personal story.
So for example, I learned that the carpet bombing operation on Cambodia was called ‘Operation Breakfast’. Why on earth would Nixon call the death of tens of thousands something so innocuous? Because it was meant to be a secret to be kept from the Western world. I remembered my father telling me about seeing a school bombed and going to see the bodies afterwards. And then I wondered what that would look like if we were imaging it through the lens of Nixon’s ‘Breakfast’: Fried eggs, fully cooked, inside the womb of a female teacher. A thin strip of meat hanging of a boys arm like Prosciutto ham.
So of course, everything I read in the research and planning of a book affects what I write.
Name five authors or books that have influenced or inspired your own writing in some way.
I love Anne Tyler for her magical evocation of domestic scenes which are so miniscule and yet so loaded with that familiar admixture of love and annoyance. I love Elie Wiesel for his personal narrative about the Holocaust. Helen Garner for not flinching from bad sights and yet finding that tiny dust mote of beauty and truth in sordid happenings. Toni Morrison for her strong voice with its undercurrent of anger at injustice.
If you were travelling and were told you could only take one book with you, what book would it be and why?
It depends whether I am travelling to do some writing or travelling for fun. If I was travelling on a holiday I would take a Jodi Picoult book. I think she’s an excellent writer and a page-turner. Or an inspiring biography (the last one I read was ‘Still Me’ by Christopher Reeve. It was beautiful). But if I was travelling as a writer, I would take my Collins Dictionary, as heavy as it is.
What makes a book ‘too good to put down’?
When I care about or am intrigued by the characters and want to know their ultimate fate. I don’t care if they are holy saints or unpleasant tossers. If the characters are struggling with something that matters to them, than that’s worth reading.
What makes you put down a book without finishing it?
When characters come to quick and easy epiphanies. That pees me off.
Do you have a favourite author? Who is it and what is it about their writing that draws you to them?
I have many favourite authors! I can’t narrow it down to one. It would not be fair.
If you had to list them, what would be your ‘top ten’ reads of all time (excluding the classics) and why?
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Marcus Zuzak, The Book Thief
Elie Wiesel, Night
Ajahn Brahm, Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung
Shaun Tan, The Red Tree
John Pilger, Tell Me No Lies
Primo Levi, If this Is A Man
Dr Suess, Hop on Pop
Paul Zindel, A Begnolia for Mrs. Applebaum
Robert Cormier, Fade
You’ll just have to read them to find out why I love these books. :-)
What was your 2010 ‘best read’? What was it that made it number one?
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I should have read it ages ago.
And of course, Shirley Shackleton’s The Circle of Silence, which won the Walkley Book of the Year last year.
What do you think of the non-traditional publishing methods – eBooks etc? Do you think the new technology will encourage more people to read? Do you think there’s a future for print books?
Although I hope new technologies will encourage more people to read, I think people will always love the feel of real books printed on trees.
Also the danger of new technologies is that people now don’t have to actually read a book to be able to write a review on it online or offer their opinion, which was once confined to your circle of friends. Literary criticism is a real skill (many writers, including myself, lack it) and I hope people will become more discerning before they misjudge a book by its real or e-cover!