THE WRITING LIFE ... Shamini FLINT
ONCE UPON A CRIME
ERIC FORBES talks to the feisty and rip-roarious SHAMINI FLINT about crime writing and why she’s drawn to the who- or whydunnit
SHAMINI FLINT writes children’s books with cultural and environmental themes including Jungle Blues and Turtle Takes a Trip as well as the Sasha series of children’s books. She also writes crime fiction; the first three books are Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul and Inspector Singh Investigates: A Singapore School of Villainy, all published (or to be published) by Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown in the U.K. Check out her website at www.shaminiflint.com
Tell me something about yourself.
I am a Malaysian currently living in Singapore. I am, for my sins, married to an Englishman I met at university and I have two impossible but gorgeous children, Sasha and Spencer. I began my career in law in Malaysia and also worked at an international law firm, Linklaters, in Singapore. I travelled extensively around Asia as part of my job, before resigning to be a stay-at-home mum, writer, part-time law lecturer and environmental activist, all in an effort to make up for my ‘evil’ past as a corporate lawyer!
Why did you give up your career as a lawyer to pursue writing? Do you miss being a lawyer?
I started writing in 2004 after quitting my day job as a lawyer to be at home with my daughter. The high tide of maternal hormones ebbed fairly quickly and I found myself looking for something to do that I could combine sensibly with motherhood. At about the same time, I noticed that children’s books were almost as Western-centric as when I was growing up, so I began writing children’s picture books set in Asia.
I absolutely do miss being a lawyer. The law is such an interesting, surprising and occasionally amusing subject—besides being the means by which humanity seeks to maintain a standard of individual and social behaviour. I try to incorporate my fondness for the law into my crime fiction books—there’s usually a legal angle somewhere! I still have this idea that I might go back to practice sometime—although it seems more and more unlikely.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on? When did you first try your hand at fiction?
I always thought that I would like to write a book someday, but I think that is a fantasy that many lawyers have. It must be because the stock in trade for both professions is the same—words! When I found myself stuck at home after having kids, I turned my hand to picture books. I began with a series of factual children’s picture books about a little girl visiting different places in Singapore and Asia (the Sasha series), expanded to a range of picture books with environmental themes (Jungle Blues and Turtle Takes a Trip) and a miscellaneous selection that I wrote for fun (A T-Rex Ate My Homework).
I began writing full-length books with two children’s novels—The Seeds of Time (which should really have been called ‘Harry Potter and the Inconvenient Truth’ but I feared the litigation!) and Ten. This latter book is about growing up in Malaysia and perhaps the book closest to my heart. I have also written a nonfiction title, How to Win a Nobel Prize: A Stay-at-Home Mum’s Guide, which looks at issues like fair trade and climate change.
Next came the crime novels! I look back now and feel it was a strange but almost inevitable journey from Sasha Visits the Botanic Gardens to the Inspector Singh Investigates series.
Was it difficult getting started as a writer?
Not really. I enjoy words and playing with words and reading; writing is the natural next step. I did not find it difficult to sit down and write a book; the challenge was to write a good book! My original plan—when I decided to write an adult novel—was to write some sort of coming-of-age tale in small-town America. My husband (when he had stopped laughing) said to “write what you know.” Hence the crime series with legal twists!
Was it difficult getting your first book, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first book?
Well, as I had started a publishing company to publish my children’s books (on the basis that there was not enough demand for niche Asian picture books to bother with a big publisher), I published the crime fiction myself immediately and it was fairly successful in Singapore. I then wrote the second book and decided that the time had come—now that I had proof of my idea of a crime-busting copper wandering around Asia!—to look for a publisher. I didn’t bother with an agent. A number of publishers showed interest (which I thought was amazing), but I went with Little, Brown, partly because they were the first to put money on the table and, even more so, because they were a friendly enthusiastic bunch. I felt very comfortable with them from the word go.
How was the editing process like?
Very straightforward on the first book, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder. We had to work much harder on the second (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul is due out in September 2009) and I was tearing my hair out. Even though I had doubts at first, I must say my editor was spot-on in her criticism and the book is much, much better for it. Criticism is hard to take but I know I just have to bite my tongue and do my best!
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? Did you have access to all the wonderful books?
I read everything I could get my hands on. All the children’s classics as well as a lot of inappropriate (I now realise) adult fiction from the shelves of any house I visited (I didn’t nick them, I borrowed them!).
I grew up in Kuantan and there wasn’t even a bookshop in town. My father used to travel to the U.K. once or twice a year and I would give him an enormous list of books that I had copied from the back of every book I had read or borrowed. He would go to Foyles in London and hand it over to them and they would pack the lot for him. When he came home it was like Christmas come early. On my first trip to the U.K. when I was fifteen, I went to Foyles and it was like a pilgrimage: the shelves stacked high with books and that wonderful musty smell. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is probably in Foyles right now, lurking somewhere on a back shelf. I get goose bumps at the mere thought of that.
Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? Who are some of your favourite classic and contemporary crime writers? Why?
The iconic book from my childhood was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I could never decide if I was Scout or Atticus Finch but one of the main reasons I am a lawyer is because of that book. It defined my ideas of justice and courage and it always bothers me that I am not doing enough to live up to those ideals.
I was actually a very general reader; I remember loving the classics from Hardy to Austen and reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I read thrillers by Tom Clancy and Wilbur Smith. I loved Tintin and Asterix and those wonderful cheap Indian comics about the Mahabharata. I read a lot of history and biographies—Nehru, Lincoln, Gandhi. I think it is safe to say that I never walked past a book without reading it!
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I still read pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I love my Jane Austen, Philip Pullman, Arundhati Roy (both for her books and her social activism) and any number of crime writers. I prefer English crime writers like Ruth Rendell and P.D. James to the more hard-boiled American-style crime writing. My feeling for crime is that it is just an excuse to write about the relationships between people and that’s what I try and do. The genre allows for the interaction between people of different social stratas, races and religions to be explored at length. The fact that the starting point of the book is murder allows me as a writer to really shine a clear light on people and how they behave when they are under pressure or in atypical situations. Furthermore, Asian destinations make a wonderful backdrop to a story—it is almost like having an extra character for ‘free’! I find the idea of reflecting contemporary Asian society in crime writing exhilarating. Every single country is so distinct and compelling!
Could you tell me a bit about your first two books: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder and A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul? Have you completed the third instalment: A Singapore School of Villainy?
The protagonist of each book is the cantankerous Inspector Singh. His investigative methods are dubious, his relationship with his superiors fraught and the junior policemen are terrified of him. But when the Singapore Police Force needs success—or a scapegoat—they know to send for the overweight, chain-smoking Sikh policeman in the snowy white, double-knotted sneakers. Hence, his difficult missions to Malaysia to handle a politically sensitive case with religious overtones (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder) and to Bali to combat terrorist activities (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul). Singh loves good food and drink, especially hot curries and ice-cold beer. Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to be the policeman with the best solve rate in the police force to work that out. His overhanging gut and creased belt—buckled through the last hole—are evidence enough. As he likes to say to his doctor, “Pursuing justice is my only form of exercise.”
Who is your inspiration for the portly, loveable and cynical Inspector Singh?
As I am sure you have noted from the above, I am very keen on the law and therefore have no intention of provoking a libel suit! Suffice to say that he is a composite character but has a few distinct traits that I adopted from people I really admire. The beer gut belongs to any number of my male relatives.
Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
I am deeply interested in politics, so I tend to read a lot of newsmagazines (I’m sorry, I know you expected me to say I have a Salman Rushdie on my bedside table!) from The New Yorker to Aliran. Otherwise, it is either an old favourite (I have no difficulty rereading books that I love) or new crime. Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson are two writers I enjoy very much. However, broadly speaking, it is fair to say that I rarely take a break from writing! Trying to keep my own publishing company on track with the children’s books while also meeting Little, Brown’s deadlines is keeping me on my toes.
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
If only they were just stories. I fear history is a very unpleasant, blood-spattered work of nonfiction. I do believe that an understanding of history is essential for writers. It is impossible to understand the present without knowing the past. We certainly are not in a position to record the present or write stories about it without a working knowledge of history (as told by victors and vanquished). How is Malaysia, for instance, in any way fathomable without a working knowledge of its history of immigration, colonisation, World War II, the Emergency, etc.? Most of George Bush’s most egregious errors are a result of his profound ignorance of anything that happened before 9/11. Actually, I am so obsessed with history that I have just finished a draft of a World War II epic set in Malaysia and Singapore!
“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
I am not sure about the quote (it seems a bit self-important! Who said it?)—but I do agree that a work of fiction should be thought-provoking, informative, but most of all enjoyable!
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 in Malaysia and Singapore?
Not really. Good writing comes from extensive reading, organised thinking and a willingness to take huge amounts of rejection and criticism on the chin. I think courses, etc., can teach a few skills and develop the confidence of the writer, but the only sure way of developing a unique voice and finding a story to tell is to try and try again—at home, in private, behind closed doors and for long concentrated periods at a time! The real problem is that we do not bring up our children to read and we disdain any subject that is not examinable. I believe that writers emerge from dynamic civil societies where ideas are being exchanged and explored—not from a vacuum!
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction regardless of genre?
Interesting plots, believable, sympathetic characters, a command of language so that a lot is conveyed with the minimum of words.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am editing Inspector Singh Investigates: A Singapore School of Villainy (due out in March 2010), preparing Sasha Visits Tokyo for publication and researching the fourth instalment of Inspector Singh Investigates which will be set in Cambodia. I’ve read a number of thoroughly unpleasant books on the Cambodian genocide of late which might be the reason I am especially fixated on the lessons of history right now!