Hi Elaine Lau, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed! Tell us about yourself and what you did before this?
I’ve always loved words and inhabiting the world of words thanks to my late mother, who cultivated in me a love for books and reading. This love of words and stories is why I went on to study journalism and build a decade-long career in it prior to starting Lit Books with my husband, Fong Min Hun.
What made you decide to open a bookshop? Was there the “aha” moment in your life when you knew you wanted to point your career in this direction?
Starting a bookstore was my husband’s dream, something he had talked about for many years. When he decided to finally turn it into reality, I was at a point in my career where I was ready to move on to a different challenge, and the idea of running a bookstore intrigued and excited me. Hence, I decided to join him on this (ad)venture! We opened in December 2017 with a vision to not only sell books the old-fashioned way (personal approach with recommendations) but to also be a cultural hub and community space for literary events. Our store is built with hosting events in mind, and we’ve held meet-the-author sessions, book launches and discussions, literary quiz nights, and even literary jazz nights here.
What’s your role at Lit Books and what do you enjoy most about it? Any challenges or surprises you’ve encountered in your years of bookselling?
In addition to the day-to-day running of the store together with Min Hun – yes, we are very much a mom-and-pop store! – I curate the children’s titles and non-book merchandise. I also take care of social media marketing and content for our blog.
It’s been a pleasant surprise to find that there is indeed a great community of readers in Malaysia, contrary to popular assumptions. And I enjoy interacting with our customers, many of whom have become friends who would just drop in to say hello. The most satisfying aspect of bookselling has to be when someone comes back and tells us they loved our recommendations.
It has been a steep learning curve – and we are still learning – as both my husband and I are new to the retail business. There are of course, other challenges, but nothing that’s perhaps unique to us in the sense that we face competition and are affected by a lukewarm economy just like other retail businesses.
What types of books does Lit Books typically stock and specialise in?
Our largest section is literary fiction, but we consider ourselves a general bookstore in that we have a little bit of everything: sci/fi fantasy, crime/mystery, poetry, classics, memoirs/biographies, graphic novels, Malaysian interests, children’s books and a wide selection of nonfiction that covers topics from history to business and economics, psychology and self-help to food and travel. What sets us apart is our curation – we handpick each and every title in our store. While we may not have read everything – we’re constantly playing catchup in that regard as there are so many new books published each month! – we do know what the books we carry are about and can recommend them to customers accordingly.
What are you reading currently? What book do you most want to read that you haven’t yet?
I am reading two books at the moment that are about with famous bookstores and their founders: Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart by Krista Halverson, and The Face Pressed Against a Window: A Memoir by Tim Waterstone. One can always learn from those who have gone before us.
There are many books on my TBR (to be read) list, but there isn’t one in particular that I most want to read – I want to read all of them!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookshop as a child?
I grew up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, which to be honest, didn’t have very good bookstores – I vaguely remember one bookstore that I went to and got cheap paperbacks of western classics. I do have fond memories of going to the state library every week, though. And what I looked forward to the most growing up was the floating bookshop onboard the MV Doulos that would make a stop at KK port every few years. It was always such a treat to be able to go onboard a ship to buy books!
Name at least 3 Malaysian authors that you think deserve more attention than he or she currently receives
I have to admit I haven’t read very many Malaysian authors (other than those that I believe are already well-known like Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw, Hanna Alkaf, Yangsze Choo, and Bernice Chauly). Brian Gomez has written only one book so far called The Devil’s Place, and it is about a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets caught up in a diabolical plot. Brian has a wicked sense of humour and has written a thriller that one can say is “truly Malaysian”. Then there’s Zen Cho, a UK-published fantasy author with several books under her belt who seamlessly weaves Malaysian folklore into her stories. There’s also Dato Dr. M. Shanmughalingam’s debut collection of short fiction, Marriage and Mutton Curry, which sheds light on the Jaffna Tamil community in Malaysia.
3 books that changed your life and why
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the following titles “changed my life” but they definitely left an indelible impression.
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – This was my first taste of the magical realism genre and Latin American literature, and I was completely awestruck by Márquez’s storytelling prowess. Ambitious in scope and thematically and symbolically complex, it paints the rise and apex, and then subsequent decline of seven generations of a family in a fictional Colombian town.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk – This complex and profound book blends historical fiction with a beguiling mystery and expositions on art and aesthetics, tradition, and love. It’s an absolute masterpiece.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee – This “biography of cancer” is narrative nonfiction at its best, and one of the most important books I’ve read. It is an expansive, comprehensive and multi-perspective investigation of the disease: scientifically and medically, of course, but also historically and from a human-interest angle as well.
Lit Books profile at Listing at emakayah.com