Forbes List – interview with Eric Forbes (8 January 2007)

Introduction

After I interviewed Lydia Teh, I thought it would be interesting to speak with her editor, Eric Forbes. Therefore, I plucked up the courage and sent Eric an email requesting an interview. He agreed and I’m glad for he is one of the people on my list of ‘people who should be interviewed’ for a long time. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you Eric Forbes …


Aneeta: Eric, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Eric: The pleasure is all mine, Aneeta.

Aneeta: Tell me a little about your background. Where do you live? Where were you brought up and so on?

Eric: I live right smack in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. I was born and raised in Kluang, right smack in the middle of Johor, many, many moons ago. I prefer living in the city centre than the suburbs. After reading economics at the University of Malaya, which I didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, I had a succession of jobs in Kuala Lumpur before working as a book editor with a Malaysian publishing house. Since then, I have been in bookselling and publishing for a little over 20 years now. One thing’s for sure though: I can’t imagine doing anything else. Believe it or not, I really do enjoy what I do for a living.

Aneeta: Yes, I can quite believe you do enjoy what you do for a living. Eric, why do you read?

Eric: Why read? Yes, why read? I’m often asked this question. I come alive when I read the really good stuff. I read because I have no choice, really. Was it not Gustave Flaubert who once said that reading is like falling into a deep ravine from which you can never, ever climb out? Moreover, I like to know about the world around me, I like to learn about stuff, and good books are the best way to do this. When you add to this a predilection for interesting prose styles and an interest in the human condition, what else can I do but read? Most of us lead sheltered lives, but books transport us to worlds we never knew existed. With books, we go everywhere. There’re lots of lessons we can learn from a lifetime of reading. Fiction opens up our emotional spectrum and makes us aware of emotions we didn’t know we had in us. It grips and engages us with the questions it asks, the people and situations it creates, the complexity of emotions it stirs. A world without books, I think, is unbearable.

Aneeta: What do you enjoy reading?

Eric: I enjoy reading novels, short stories, poetry and some nonfiction, especially biography, culture, literary criticism, memoir, social history and travel literature. From an early age, I read everything that came my way. I grew up in an environment where scholarship was nurtured and revered and the value of books unquestioned. My father was an English and History teacher who instilled in me a love of literature and history. From my father’s collection of books in the 1970s, I read the classics: the Brontës, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Alistair MacLean, James Michener, Ian Fleming, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, etc. I read them because they were there and part of my father’s collection, perhaps they were my father’s favourite books, and my father shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since; it was he who ignited my adolescent love of words. He had a great love of 19th-century British and American fiction which he passed on to me, and he was open to 20th-century fiction and fiction in translation of almost any kind; it was from him that I learned to enjoy the fiction of D.H. Lawrence, William Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen and the translated works of Alberto Moravia, especially his novel, The Woman of Rome (1949), and his collection of stories, Roman Tales (1954). On my own, I discovered the works of William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Colleen McCullough, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, etc. I enjoy Australian fiction too, especially the fictions of Kate Grenville, David Malouf and Tim Winton.

Of course, I went through my fair share of Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Those were wonderful adventures and mysteries.

At the moment, I am more into contemporary fiction and essays.

I also enjoy reading literary journals. I can’t live without regular doses of the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the Australian Book Review.

Aneeta: How did you get into the ‘reading-writing’ scene?

Eric: I guess it was a natural extension of my work as an editor.

Aneeta: I know you have a blog, eric forbes’s book addicts’ guide to good books, at http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com/. Please tell me a little about why you started this blog and what benefit you’ve derived from this blog?

Eric: It started out as a fun thing to do; something new to explore. I was cajoled into trying it. Through the blog, I get to share my writing with people who appreciate such things. The purpose of the blog is to encourage people who enjoy reading and writing to unleash their imagination and awaken to the joys and wonders of literature and the reading life. Professionally, it is also a wonderful way of sourcing for new book ideas.

Aneeta: I understand that you’re now an Editor/Publisher with MPH Group Publishing. What does this job entail?

Eric: I do enjoy the whole process of publishing a book: sourcing for manuscripts, typesetting them, editing them, packaging them, blurbing them, soliciting endorsements, printing them, etc. What I dislike most about the industry is the fact that good manuscripts are so hard to find. The editing process can be very monotonous. I hate the fact that I can’t say what’s on my mind most of the time. Also, the industry is more often than not commercial than creative. There are actually lots of wonderful ideas floating around, but we cannot do them simply because we are not sure if they would sell. Also, most manuscripts, in reality, are mediocre, and there aren’t many good ones to choose from.

Aneeta: As a publisher, what do you look for in a potential book?

Eric: Good writing, basically. However, there are several essential ingredients that make a book good. There are several criteria of what is considered good writing. Of course, personal taste matters, too, but only to a certain extent. When you feel something indefinable when you are devouring a sentence is one way of gauging wonderful writing. There are lots of good writers, and among these there those who shine. And there are of course lots of mediocre ones. But those that shine have been blessed with a special talent and they work hard on developing that talent. The great writers of the world struggle every day with what they produce. And they have doubts all the time. Talent’s one thing; you have got to work on it. Otherwise, it is just wasted talent.

If you are writing fiction, pay particular attention to the elements that readers normally look for in a good book. What makes a book good? What do we look for in a good book? We hope to find an intelligent mind behind a lively prose style, a distinctive point of view and pleasurable entertainment. Originality is always important, it must have an enduring quality, a distinctive voice, gripping plots, memorable characters, language, style, inventiveness, stories that tap into the contemporary state of mind, etc.

Aneeta: How do you see the future of Malaysian writers of literature?

Eric: We have excellent talents among us. But Malaysian publishers do not nurture good writers. The thing is, we need more readers too. The readership of novels and short-story collections is not big enough to justify the publishing of more such literature. Publishing of literature must be viable as a business.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give them?

Eric: If you are serious about pursuing writing, the best way to learn how to write is to read as widely, deeply and omnivorously as possible—and read both fiction and nonfiction. Sadly, most writers don’t think like a reader because they do not read enough.

Aneeta: Eric, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Eric: Writers must learn to develop self-editing skills. Most potential writers lack self-editing skills. Make sure you proofread and edit your manuscript before submitting it to a publisher. Most manuscripts are so badly organised and written that editors or publishers prefer not to look at them at all. Pay attention to your grammar, your punctuation, tone down on circumlocutious writing, overly long or dense paragraphs, avoid clichés or use them only sparingly, spellcheck the manuscript, use consistent spelling throughout your manuscript, etc. Remember what Isaac Babel said about punctuation: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a full-stop in the right place.” Read up on the basics of grammar if you have forgotten the rules of grammar. Or consult someone who is good at it. Of course, all these are easier said than done. Doing your best is simply not good enough. You have got to go beyond. Joan Didion, the author of The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), once confessed that it often took her a whole morning just to write a single paragraph to her satisfaction. Writing is hard work.

Aneeta: Once again, Eric, thank you.

Eric: I don’t usually talk about myself. But I did enjoy myself. Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you.


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