THE WRITING LIFE ... O Thiam Chin
A LONG-DISTANCE RUN THAT NEVER ENDS
JANET TAY talks to Singaporean writer O THIAM CHIN about his new collection of stories, Never Been Better, and the need to be pragmatic in pursuing one’s dream to write
O THIAM CHIN’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body, and his début collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006.
In this new collection of stories, O has created a series of unforgettable, deeply-affecting portraits of individuals whose intersections of loves and losses mark the dawn of awareness and longing in their lives. Never Been Better (MPH Publishing, November 2009) illustrates his literary versatility in the assortment of characters who occupy a world of ambivalence and false optimism, yet still persist in trudging on with strength and resilience. From free-spirited teenage runaways and a lonely child who collects dead animals to hidden family secrets and migrant workers who live squalid lives far away from home, these eclectic stories are heartbreaking, haunting, and rendered with a touch of grace, compassion and poignancy.
Tell us a little bit about growing up in Singapore and how you developed an interest in writing.
I’m a Singaporean born and bred and have lived in an old housing estate, Ang Mo Kio, for the last 31 years. When I was much younger, I spent my weekends in a kampung [village] in Choa Chu Kang with my grandparents and relatives. Growing up, I never saw myself becoming a writer at all; a policeman, yes, but not a writer—the idea never even crossed my mind. I think the first step towards my becoming a writer was my fondness for books since a young age. I got my first library card when I was eight years old. As I read more, I began to entertain the thought of writing my own stories.
Is your short-story collection, Never Been Better, your first book?
Well, it’s my first ‘official’ book published by a reputable publisher [MPH Publishing]. In 2006, I self-published my début short-story collection, Free-Falling Man, through an online publisher. This book is only available for sale online and at selected independent bookshops in Singapore.
Do you write full-time?
I did for almost seven months when I was writing and revising the manuscript for Never Been Better. Likewise for the last book, I quit my full-time job to write intensively for six months. When I started writing on a freelance basis in the early 2000s, I wrote mostly for parenting, lifestyle and entertainment magazines. I tried my hand at writing all kinds of stuff so as to expand my writing repertoire and experience. Every writer has to start somewhere to build his foundation and to learn the fundamentals of the craft.
Do you have a certain time or place when you write?
I used to write when I felt the need or urge to write, so my periods of writing were sporadic and irregular. But when I was writing Never Been Better, I decided to be more disciplined, to keep to a certain routine, and to put in a few good hours each day, no matter the state of my mind or mood. It was a struggle then and it’s still a pain now. Like what John Ashbery once said, “It’s important to try to write when you are in the wrong mood ... Even if you don’t succeed, you’ll develop a muscle that may do it later on.”
To me, writing is like a long-distance run that never ends—I can only hope to develop the stamina, endurance and, of course, the muscles to continue running for a long time. I write mostly at home, but when I need a change of environment or become too distracted, I’d head down to the Central Library to write. On good days, I can clock in a four- to five-hour stretch of writing, but on lousy days, I’d slow-crawl to meet my daily minimum word count of five hundred.
Death seems to feature quite prominently in your stories. Is this a theme that has always been of interest to you as a writer?
Since young, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of death, and more exactly, the process of dying. There is something very elemental and profound about this final human state, this exit from life, how it can be different for everyone. Nobody dies the same death, and the variety of deaths may seem copious. More than just dealing with death, I want to know how the death of a person—perhaps, more importantly, the act of dying—can have an effect on another. Death, in and of itself, has so much meaning not just for the dying but for those alive who witness this act of passing on. In this alone, beneath the experience of the living remembering their dead lies an ocean of stories to be told. It’s a common theme found in any short-story collection anywhere, and a great part of its timeless allure is its unpredictability, the unfathomable unknowns that exist that made writers want to explore it in their writings, to touch death and to get away with it; there are simply so many ways to treat and deal with this subject matter.
Your protagonists are male, female, straight and gay. How hard is it for you take on different points of view as these different characters?
Usually when I start a story, I begin with the vaguest of ideas, like an image lurking at the back of my mind, or a persistent voice that refuses to be silenced, and work with what I have initially and build on it. The voice of the characters in the story will grow stronger and clearer as I keep writing. It’s almost like the story is writing itself out, moving in a certain direction, taking a particular outline. I rarely think about the movement of the plot or how the characters are developing until I have to face it, like coming to a bridge that I have to cross to reach the other side. The strange thing is, I will only find out how to move on with a story at the exact point when the bridge presents itself, never in advance.
All of your stories are set in what looks like a modern society. Why is ‘Peach’ different in this aspect?
I wanted to write a piece from the perspective of a much older person, like a grandparent, and in this story I wrote about a grandmother who talks about a significant part of her history and the beginnings of her marriage. As I wrote it, I pulled in other story elements, like the mythology of Sun Wukong, the changing nature of woman’s sexuality, and the old traditions of a long-gone past. I like the fact that the oral tradition of storytelling contained many elements of hyperbole—not necessarily of falsehoods, or lies—but of a mystical, mysterious nature that are shaped by the belief and culture of a particular time and place.
‘Exodus’ is a story about the lives of migrant Chinese workers who come to Singapore in search of better livelihoods. I found the descriptions of the Chinese workers and their living conditions vivid. You were able to capture their emotions effectively, which led me to wonder how much research you had to do for this story. Could you tell us how you came to write this story and the extent of your research?
It’s a common fact that China is facing the largest population migration in history where millions of workers are leaving the rural villages for the cities, in China and overseas. Singapore naturally has its share of this influx of migrant Chinese workers, this exodus of people leaving their homeland to seek a better life elsewhere. At every turn, you see them, holding down full-time menial jobs or seeking further education, becoming part of the human landscape.
Where I live, there are many Chinese workers who live together in small groups in tiny flats, scraping together a kind of living, a temporal community of sorts. While they have somewhat assimilated themselves to the Singapore culture, prejudices and discrimination still exist, on some levels, against them, formed mainly out of ignorance and fear.
Through the life of Yichang, the protagonist of ‘Exodus,’ I wanted to see the ‘new world’ through his eyes, so to speak; the excitement of leaving his hometown to seek employment in a different country, the joys of new discoveries, of new sights and experiences, the limitations of his abilities and skills, and the painful dawning of his newly-forged identity set against changing times.
I believe there’s a story to be told of a life of a man who chooses to leave behind his country, his place of origin, a safe and secure environment, and to seek a life somewhere else, the hopes and anxieties he brings and the reality he has to face. While I’m tempted to include snippets of real-life stories and scandals gleaned from news reports and my personal observations into this story, in the end I decided to just let my imagination dictate the story.
There are many social aspects considered in your stories. ‘Moths’ mentions a boy’s brother being sold because the family is poor. ‘Fireworks’ is about the lives of girls in a juvenile home. ‘Turning a Blind Eye’ deals with domestic abuse. Do you feel that these issues are important for you to discuss in your stories?
I never write with the objective of incorporating these social elements into my stories; it’s just integral to the overall storytelling. I guess it’s only natural since life, culture and society are made up of these components. It’s hard to dig into life without these issues surfacing somehow. When I write a story, I never seek to bring up an ‘issue’ or to address a ‘social concern’ in it; all that matters to me are the tiny details that make up the story that I’m writing. It’s only when I finish a story and take a step back and read it from a detached, discerning perspective that I realise a larger, more complex being has taken shape, possessing its own attributes, carrying a certain ‘agenda.’
Why is your new collection titled Never Been Better?
These words are spoken by one of the girls in ‘Fireworks’ at the end of the story when they finally decide to head back to the Home, where they were previously incarcerated, after escaping from it. By uttering these words, she expresses a barely-concealed, shaky sense of optimism, even as she battles with her fears of the unknown. I like the title for its ambiguity and subtlety. In a way, all the protagonists in the stories in this collection experience a certain, revelatory moment in which their choices, whether good, bad or ambivalent, are revealed for what they are, and they have to live it up or stick to it with the optimism and faith that each holds, whether it’s for better or worse.
Do you see yourself writing another collection of stories or will you be considering a novel as your next project?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing short stories. I enjoy writing them and there is a lot I would like to explore through this wonderful genre. In fact, I’ve just completed my first draft of a collection of 50 micro-fiction pieces, each story only 500 words long. The idea of this collection came to me as I wanted to create a holding vessel to house the few orphan pieces that I’ve been hoarding over the years.
Also, when I was backpacking through Japan in early 2009, I outlined 10 new short-story ideas that I want to write once the time is ripe. For this new collection, it has a more fantastical, mythical bent as I want to break away from the hard rules of realism, and from what I’ve been comfortable writing.
I can’t deny that I’ve been itching to try my hand at a novel for some time now. In fact, I’ve been treading slowly, working out the characters and plot in painfully small steps, and have completed three chapters so far.
What is your advice to would-be writers who have difficulty juggling their full-time jobs and writing?
Stick to your full-time jobs if you need a stable source of income, because writing fiction doesn’t pay at all, financially speaking. But if you want to write fiction on a full-time basis, be prepared to have sufficient savings. You have to be practical and pragmatic about these issues. It’s a cliché to say this, but you have to make sacrifices when it comes to writing, because, let’s face it, writing well demands a tremendous amount of effort and time. For me, I wrote while I was still holding down a full-time job, but it became too tiring after a while, and I knew that if I really wanted to write at all, I needed to choose, and so I did. I quit my job and I wrote.
What more do you think can be done to encourage writing and publishing fiction in Singapore and Malaysia? How important are competitions, creative writing courses and competitions in cultivating an interest in writing and publishing?
I think there’s now greater awareness of the resources that are available to any writer, be it writing workshops, mentorship programmes, or application for grants. For a new writer, I think it’s very advantageous if he can make full use of these resources and see what works for him and allow him to develop his potential. Each of us comes to the table with different abilities and talents, and it’s important to know what one wants at the end of the day because these resources can only do so much to spur you on, but the rest, seriously, is up to you. I’ve never attended any writing courses, but I can see the merits of them.
It’s always very hard for new writers to break any ground when they first start out, but one good way for new writers to get some exposure is to submit their works to the literary journals that are open to good quality writing, like the Asia Literary Review (ALR) or the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). I’ve been very lucky as the editors were willing to take a chance with me and publish my stories. Also, I think it’s important to keep in hand some strong pieces that can be submitted when there are writing competitions—two pieces of my micro-fiction won prizes and recognition in this aspect.
Photograph of David Mitchell courtesy of Miriam Berkley
Who are your greatest literary influences?
It’s impossible to deny the kind of influence that Haruki Murakami’s works has on me—the worlds he create and the spells he cast over me. Because of the genre I write in, I draw inspiration from the short-story masters: Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders and Alice Munro. I also have a deep admiration for writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell.
Who do you read for leisure?
I usually juggle a few short-story collections in one go. Now I’m reading the stories of Mary Gaitskill from her new collection, Don’t Cry, Michael Arditti’s Good Clean Fun, and the collected stories of Carson McCullers. When I travel, I usually bring along short-story anthologies like The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories—the diversity of stories and writers, new and old, in these annual anthologies make each reading a pleasurable experience.
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).
Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine