American author Patrick Maher immigrated to Asia nearly twenty years ago and has written two successful international novels. His most recent book, Pleng’s Song, has been featured in major newspapers around the world. The book chronicles the life of a young girl’s adventure in the 2011 Great Floods of Thailand. Cybersansar recently had the privilege of chatting with Maher through emails. Our interview reads as follows.
You grew up in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, a small community known for its affluence and lakefront mansions. Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing?
I grew up in a large Catholic family and was the sixth of seven children. My father was a very successful pediatric allergist who always immersed himself in his private practice. He was a very good man but spent most of his time working. This left me in the care of my mother who suffered from emotional problems that often expressed themselves in hysteria. When I was a teenager, she casually told me that she had had postpartum depression after my birth and never bonded with me, so my eldest sister, who had her own set of issues, looked after me. As a kid, I coped with this emptiness by escaping into daydreaming and I guess this naturally led to storytelling. As far as East Grand Rapids, it was a fine place to grow up and I was always very comfortable financially, but I also could not wait to grow up so I could leave to find a happier life.
Could you tell us about your educational experiences?
As a boy, I was a very poor student because I didn’t have support at home. This led me to not believe in myself and I struggled badly all the way through middle school. Then my father decided to send me off to boarding school and I was accepted into The Hill School that is a very prestigious academic institution. While there, I excelled and was profoundly influenced by Thomas Eccleston, one of my teachers. He was the first person who made me truly believe in myself. After spending nearly two years at boarding school, I left and returned to East Grand Rapids High School because I wanted more of a social life. Back then, The Hill School only accepted boys and once I went through puberty, I really wanted female companionship.
How did you fair at university?
I spent a year at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York when the school was transitioning from a women’s college to a coed institution. The student population was comprised of seventy percent women and thirty percent men. Needless to say, I made up for the time I lost socially at The Hill School but my partying got out of control. The only course I did well in was creative writing. The rest of my academics suffered badly and I dropped out of Skidmore within 10 months. I ended up finishing my university education at Albion College, a small private school in Michigan. Eventually, I went on to get a teaching credential at California State University, Northridge and a master’s degree of anthropology from Western Michigan University, but quite honestly, I never shined as a student.
What life experiences have influenced you the most?
I spent five years working in psychiatric hospitals as an orderly and I met a lot of interesting characters in that line of work. That’s something I’ll never forget but deep down I’ve always been addicted to adventure, so all those times I packed a small bag and went to places where I really wasn’t prepared to go hold the fondest memories for me. When I was 19, I hitched a ride to Alaska with just a few hundred dollars in my pocket and ended up working on a commercial fishing boat on the Bearing Sea. That was a great experience. I also loved my vacations from college when I’d drive to Key West, Florida and live out of my car for weeks on end. I got a big thrill out of the survival aspect of times like these so when I immigrated to South Korea without any money, I was all fired up. I admit I suffered a lot in my early days in Asia but it’s turned into a successful experience for me and I’ve loved every minute of my life in this part of the world. It’s been a great period of my life that’s lasted nearly two decades and I just wish I could make time stop right here and now.
Have you had any bad experiences living in Asia?
Certainly living as a minority isn’t always easy and everywhere there are people who are prejudice against others who look differently. I found this to be more prevalent in Korea and Japan than in SE Asia but quite honestly, the most threatened I’ve ever felt was when I was living in Pusan, South Korea and headed to a bar near Camp Hialeah, a US Army base. Even though I am a US citizen, the soldiers weren’t happy to see me and this almost led to an ugly altercation. Luckily, an officer stepped in and stopped me from getting badly beaten.
There were other bad experiences like when I was denied housing in some apartments in Japan because they were Japanese-only buildings, and I was refused entry into certain bars in Japan and Korea because foreigners weren’t allowed. Getting rejected really made me angry back then, but I’m over all those things now.
Candid Confessions, your first novel that reached #1 with Amazon Japan, tells a story of an American who struggles in Korea and Japan. Pleng’s Song focuses on a girl reaching for her most primal of instincts to survive.
Is it fair to assume that you’ll continue with a theme of struggle in your future work?
All stories have an element of struggle within them but I know I tend to take this theme and carry it to an extreme. My next publication will be Memories of Gaslight. It’s a book that I’ve been working on for many years and it tells the story of an American who suffers from a psychiatric disorder but he still manages to survive living as a foreigner in Asia. The novel is written as a narrative in the voice of the main character, a person who suffers from acute psychosis.
The theme of struggle is clearly synonymous with resistance. Does your work hold any symbolic messages of resistance, either politically or socially?
I’m just a storyteller and my stories are meant to carry readers on an adventure. I’ve never intended my work to hold any type of hidden symbolic messages.