PHOTOGRAPHY KATIE MARTIN-SPERRY
We invited ourselves over to the house of author Jo Furniss, to chat about her recently published novel, and find out why she and her family are back in Singapore for a second time.
Who lives here: Jo and Mark Furniss, and children Lydia and Frank.
Size and location of home: Two storey, four bedroom home near MacRitchie Reservoir.
Jo’s favourite room in the house: “The patio, from where I can see the trees and the kids jumping in the pool.”
Hidden between busy Lornie and Thomson Roads is Jo Furniss’s two-storey house, an oasis of calm – and deceptively big. The entrance hall leads to a huge open-plan living and dining area, then through to the outdoor seating spot, large pool and garden. Before settling down to chat, she prepares a coffee for me – a delicious Blue Batak coffee, in fact, brought back from Sumatra. Her husband Mark is in the coffee business, which has seen them live in Africa and Switzerland, with two stints in Singapore for good measure.
Leaving the UK in 2002, Jo and husband Mark first moved to West Africa. “When we met, he was studying for an MBA and I was working at the BBC in Birmingham. He’d just spent five years living in East Africa, and had told me all these glamorous stories about living there. We got engaged and then he was offered a job in Cameroon, which admittedly was far less glamorous, but an exciting start to our adventures abroad.” With no children at that time, they formed a close group of friends and were out every weekend. “There was nothing to do there but come up with these crazy adventures, like hunting for waterfalls, so it was a great experience.”
Jo continued to work as a journalist, freelancing mainly for the BBC. After a posting to Ethiopia fell through at the last minute, they moved to Singapore in 2004, choosing to live close to the Botanic Gardens. But their Singapore adventure only lasted two years before they transferred to Zurich, Switzerland, the location of Mark’s company’s head office. Both Lydia and Frank were born in Switzerland, and they spent seven years there before a relocation to Singapore was proffered in 2013. “I was happy to come back, to be honest; it felt easy as we knew what we were moving to, even though many of our friends had already left.”
Deciding at first on a shiny modern condo in Thomson, they took an apartment on the 31st floor, with great views (“my husband particularly loved it”). However, Jo and Mark are both what they call “country people”; “we love greenery, and I also prefer having my feet on the ground.” That’s why they then moved to this house close to MacRitchie Reservoir, in 2015.
The house is situated adjacent to Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery, and has the National Equestrian Centre literally behind its garden. Jo admits she’s become even more of a nature lover while living here. “We get so many birds in the garden and surrounds, I’ve pretty much become a twitcher! We went on an organised bird walk recently and learnt all about the different bird songs. The garden is full of different songs through the day and evening; it’s lovely to hear.”
Having to initially downsize from their large house in Switzerland to their initial condo in Singapore, the move to the house instigated a little more upsizing. Most of the pieces, however, are from their postings in other countries. “We’ve got pieces from everywhere; for example, the Bamileke side tables outside we got from Cameroon. At the time I bought them, they were quite rare to see; now you can spot them all over the place!” Jo’s also no stranger to picking up second-hand pieces, including the large Swiss cabinet in the hallway. “Second-hand shops in Switzerland are normally found in people’s barns, and I used to go quite a lot to pick up pieces. You never knew what you’d find.”
Despite the relocation from Zurich to Singapore, Jo has managed to write, and have published, her first fiction novel, All the Little Children. The book, which centres on a family camping trip that takes a dark turn, became a number one bestseller on Amazon soon after being released in August. Jo has now not only finished the draft of the second book, but is starting to think about a third.
Her move from journalist to author was an organic one. Having struggled to balance expensive childcare in Zurich with a desire to return to work, Jo decided instead to study a two-year Masters degree in Professional Writing by distance learning from Falmouth University. “At first I thought I would write non-fiction books, but I’d done narrative modules at the start and I just got really into it.”
As part of her course, she had to write a 1,000-word piece, which then formed the nucleus for her current book. “We lived on the edge of this forest in Zurich, and I used to walk a huge amount with the children, one in the carrier the other in the stroller. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head of being left on your own, having to look after your children; it kept going round in my mind.” At the end of the course, Jo had to decide between non-fiction, screen writing or fiction. “My tutor told me to do what would stretch me the most, and that was fiction. I did that and developed my book.”
Her book was also born partly from the frustration of motherhood, and the social dialogue around this.
“You’re never allowed to make a normal human being mistake as a mother, which is a terrible pressure. When my daughter was born, in 2008, there were all these celebrities and bloggers who present themselves as the perfect parents, and I just thought enough was enough. My book is provocative – the main character is not always likeable because she’s successfully running a business and household. She’s exhausted, and that shows. I wanted to write a character who epitomised the kind of woman that the Daily Mail will praise one week and slate the next.”
Jo’s second book, Trailing Spouse, is set in Singapore, and focuses on a “rather shiny woman”, living in a fancy condo on Sentosa. Her husband travels more and more and she has reason to suspect he’s playing around; yet, as she looks into it, she discovers something much darker. “This novel is more complicated to write because there are two narratives to weave together. It focuses on the way dependency on a spouse can make you feel vulnerable.” The book will be released in August 2018.
It seems unlikely she’ll be taking much of a break between books. “My agent is already asking me about book three!” Following the excitement around the launch of All the Little Children, Jo plans to pause to consider the next project. “Writing a novel is a huge commitment. Plus, I’m keen to spend the next half-term holiday enjoying Singapore with visitors and my kids. It was even nice to spend yesterday’s National Day tidying the house in readiness for the photoshoot!”
PLANTS AND FLOWERS
The British Club – (“I often write there outside the newly renovated Windsor Arms, plus their tennis camps and lessons keep the kids occupied while I work”)
73 Bukit Tinggi Road
6467 4311 | britishclub.org.sg
MacRitchie Reservoir – (“for walking, running, kayaking and wildlife spotting”)
Pasir Ris Park – (“for bike rides”)
Bishan Park – (“for running”)
Friends of Bukit Brown – (“join the Facebook Group for wildlife, history and culture tour”) facebook.com/groups/bukitbrown
Ho Chi Minh City – (“for interior shopping”)
Artbook on Le Loi Street – (“for vintage, kitsch and kids’ poster décor”) facebook.com/Artbookvn