THE WRITING LIFE ... LAU Siew Mei
THIS IS THE STORY SHE SINGS
ERIC FORBES talks to LAU SIEW MEI in conjunction with the publication of her second novel, The Dispeller of Worries
LAU SIEW MEI is the author of Playing Madame Mao (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2000), which was shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2001 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Her second novel, The Dispeller of Worries (Marshall Cavendish, March 2009), is a concoction of Slavic and Malay myths, folk tales, dreams, shadow theatre and the drama of everyday life.
Tell me something about yourself.
I was born in Singapore in 1968, studied at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, National Junior College, National University of Singapore and Murdoch University. After graduating from Murdoch University, I worked as a journalist in Brunei and Singapore and obtained an Australian permanent resident visa in 1993. I visited a friend in Melbourne as my first point of entry and migrated to Australia on my own, arriving in Brisbane on January 1, 1994.
My father was born in Singapore and my paternal grandparents came from China while the maternal side of my family are Malaysians or former Malaysians. My mother, maternal grandmother and great-grandmother were born in Penang.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
When I was a child, I would make up and tell stories to other children on the school bus. A group of little ones used to ‘chope’ a seat for me so that I could sit with them and tell them stories on their way home from school. I also entertained my classmates with my storytelling. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age, although at that time I was transmitting my stories mostly through my mouth; however, I did have a special book where I wrote my early poems and stories.
Was it difficult getting your stories published in literary magazines? Was it difficult getting your first and second novels published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your books?
When I was growing up in Singapore, I don’t think there were any literary journals around apart from Singa and I don’t think that came out regularly. I entered stories and plays into the few competitions around and the newspaper as it had a section devoted to poems and stories at one time but they were all rejected. However, I did win one of the top three prizes in a National Essay Award at the secondary-school level and one fiction competition—the National University of Singapore’s short-story competition—but they gave me the second prize and said, “No first prize awarded this year.” The story was published in The Straits Times.
When I arrived in Australia to do a Graduate Diploma in Journalism at Murdoch University, I submitted my stories to several Australian literary journals and the BBC World Service and started getting acceptances. However, I had difficulty getting my first novel, Playing Madame Mao, published. I had heaps of rejections from agents and publishers. Some publishers weren’t interested in a novel about Singapore. One editor of a newspaper later commented to me that my novel was unique in Australian publishing. Playing Madame Mao was perhaps oddly for a first novel not about me but about a country or the impact of a country on my psyche. I didn’t have the same level of difficulty with my new novel, The Dispeller of Worries. I also didn’t have too much trouble getting my first illustrated children’s book, Yin’s Magic Dragon (Black Dog Books, 2007), published but some other stuff I’ve written have been rejected. So I believe no author ever escapes rejections. You have to be bloody-minded and believe you’ve written something worthwhile. Now I have an agent.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors?
I remember reading the Anne of Green Gables series, the Narnia series, the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden series, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Madeleine L’Engle, E. Nesbit, Joan Aiken, Noel Streatfeild, Agatha Christie (although I may have been a bit young to be reading her because the books used to give me nightmares). I would also dig among the books on our bookshelves. I remember reading bits of Shakespeare. My parents used to go to book sales and we would pick up all kinds of books, not just literature. I used to be left with my father in the bookshop for hours while my mother went shopping.
Some of my childhood favourites were Charlotte Sometimes, Tom’s Midnight Garden, For Love of Seven Dolls, Carrie’s War, Ballet Shoes, Jane Eyre, I Am David, Frankenstein and To Kill a Mockingbird. Then in my mid- to late teens, I read Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Harold Pinter, T.S. Eliot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I read anything and everything I find interesting. No particular genre. I read both fiction and nonfiction. For fiction, it can be literary, crime, fantasy, romance, horror, children’s, thriller, whatever. For nonfiction, the topics range widely as well.
Could you tell me a bit about your first novel? What are some of the themes you dealt with in Playing Madame Mao? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story? What about The Dispeller of Worries?
Playing Madame Mao is the story of the actress Chiang Ching, who is playing the role of Madame Mao Tse-tung on stage, whose husband is arrested and detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act for taking part in an alleged Communist conspiracy. I guess the themes are oppression and the effects of oppression. The Dispeller of Worries is the story of a woman, the two men in her life, the looming presence of a dead sister and a beloved house.
Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
At the moment, I’m reading J.M. Coetzee’s Dusklands and a series of romance novels by Marion Chesney (who also writes the very funny Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth crime novels under the name M.C. Beaton).
Do you read short stories? Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I do read short stories. One of my all-time favourite short stories is J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme With Love and Squalor.” One of my all-time favourite short-story collections is Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. I was impressed with Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder, although that was described as a “cumulative novel in sixty-four parts,” it was like reading a series of short stories. I have also enjoyed reading those great big collections of the best horror, sci-fi and fantasy short stories.
Do you write short stories? Where have you published them?
Yes, I do. I’ve had short stories published in various journals, anthologies, newspapers and broadcast on radio, including the BBC World Service, ABC Radio National, Asiatic, Hot Iron Corrugated Sky: 100 Years of Queensland Writing, Diaspora: Negotiating Asian-Australia, The Courier Mail, Difficult Love: Twenty-six Intimate Stories by Contemporary Queensland Writers, New Letters, Scrivener Creative Review, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, Westerly, Imago, Australian Short Stories, Idiom 23, Overland, Northern Perspective, Redoubt, Australian Book Review, SPAN (South Pacific Journal of Commonwealth Literature), Hecate and The Straits Times.
Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
I haven’t tried selling my short stories in a collection, so I can’t really say. Some people prefer reading short-story collections to novels simply because it takes a shorter amount of time to finish a story.
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
Well, someone else has remarked that history is written by the victors, which leaves out half the stories. Ancient historical writings are interesting because they would meld facts with myths. It depends on who the historian is but while fiction writers may draw upon history, they have the liberty to insert between the lines, fill out details, colour in the atmosphere and create an even better story.
“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
Good fiction lingers in the mind and colours one’s thoughts and psyche. Some good books leave a reader with questions or make a reader think but I don’t think a good book has to follow a formula so although it is a wonderful quote, it should not be taken in such a way as to dictate the criteria for a good book.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
A short story offers a glimpse; a novel offers a world. I like writing short stories, but I think I prefer working on a novel.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I think more than anything a writer needs time and headspace. I think it’s best not to expose a fledgling idea or story to the light but feedback may be useful in later stages.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
Some novelists don’t start with writing the short story, but it’s how I began, so for me I’d say it was good training ground. I find the short story useful in trying out something—an idea, an atmosphere, characters, style, etc.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
Good fiction has the ability to transport the reader into its world; it is imaginative, it has feeling, an individual way of thinking or looking at the world and people; it is beautiful and here beauty can be harsh as well; it has interesting characters; it tells a fascinating story and it leaves the reader with an impression or an imprint of its soul.
What was it like growing up in Singapore?
I thought Singapore was the centre of the world; and then I realised it was really small.
What do you miss most about Singapore?
Family, friends and food.
What’s life like in Australia?
Like life anywhere, with its ups and downs, but with more space than in Singapore. I like space. I like having a garden, looking at trees and quiet streets. I sit on the verandah with a cup of tea looking at the paperbark trees in my garden. There’s a park behind my house and bushland within walking distance, where I can go for bushwalks or I can sit on the swing I put up for my two children years ago.
What do you do for work in Australia?
I am a public servant.