From Ang Mo Kio to … the world!
By TAN MAY LEE
FROM HIS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS in the quiet neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio, Singapore-born and bred O Thiam Chin now finds himself going places as an author.
In early 2010, he dropped by Kuala Lumpur for a weekend book tour. In May 2010, he was a guest author at WordStorm, the Festival of Australasian Writing held in Darwin, and will return to Australia again for the Byron Bay Festival in August 2010. After that, he will spend three months at the International Writing Program in solidarity with other writers at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.
Book tours, festivals and residencies provide opportunities for an author to travel widely and meet other authors and book lovers. Thiam Chin made his first public appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2009 after releasing Never Been Better (MPH Publishing, 2009), a haunting short-story collection. He explains that the title captures the essence of the stories: “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 give it up or stick to it with the optimism and faith that each holds, whether it’s for better or worse.”
Never Been Better has since been longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It brings attention to Ang Mo Kio, the old housing estate Thiam Chin has lived in for the last 32 years, with honest revelations of the working class, and broken, despairing lives of people who don’t quite fit into guidebook descriptions of Singaporeans leading glamorous and dazzling city lives.
Yet despite finding himself in the limelight, Thiam Chin remains one of the most down-to-earth writers you would ever meet. Speaking to him is a joy, as he raves about books and other authors, every experience or idea that might serve as an inspiration for his next story. He is now working on a collection of microfiction, entitled Under the Sun (MPH Publishing, 2011). With such passion for his craft, you know his writing will go far.
Thiam Chin, I’m aware you are working on a new collection of stories, this time microfiction. Can you tell me more about it? Were these stories you’ve been working on for some time, or did you go on a roll writing these stories after publishing Never Been Better?
The new collection of microfiction, tentatively entitled Under the Sun, came about when I was wondering what to do with the few stories—all of them a page or two long—that somehow didn’t make the cut when MPH Publishing and I were selecting the pieces for Never Been Better. I didn’t want to cold-storage them so I started playing with the idea of creating a collection to house these stories.
To challenge myself, I decided to write one micro piece a day. It was challenging at first—there were some days when I woke up and the first thing I did was pray for an idea to hit me.
Thankfully, as I progressed with each story, I got better at it, and the ideas came naturally. I actually fell in love with the genre of microfiction as I was writing the stories.
What’s the difference between writing short stories and microfiction?
I liken a short story to a chain of moments, each moment linked to another to form a slice of life, a whole picture, like a pearl necklace, whereas a piece of microfiction is like a single pearl, full and complete, all by itself.
I’ve had a peek at your manuscript for Under the Sun and aside from the length of these stories, I also notice that the themes are darker, some even ghostly. There are dead bodies (“Lighter”), more despair, and the presence of past lives (“Brothers”), among others. Why is this?
Actually when I was writing these stories, I didn’t think too much about whether they were dark or violent or sexual. Usually I have a basic idea—a word, a person, an action—and as I write, the story becomes clearer to me, and by the time it’s done, it’d have taken the current form. As I write, and I’m gradually realising this, I do tend to focus on the darker, seedier realm of human existence, and draw my inspiration from it. But not to worry, there are also some “lighter” pieces in the new collection.
All your stories have a one-word title. Is there also a reason for this?
Since the new book is a collection of microfiction, short and concise, all around 500 words, I wanted the title of every story to fit into the overall tone and theme of the collection, to carry the absolute gist of each story. Each title, each word, holds the heart of the story.
Is there a novel inside you somewhere just waiting for you to give it life?
Yes, definitely. In fact it has been gnawing at me for quite a while, since the start of the year. I have been taking down notes and random sentences on the plot, scenes and characters of my novel. I have written a rough story arc—how it will unfold, the ending, and four pages of character development. The story revolves around two couples on a trip to an unknown island before and after disaster strikes, the memories they hoard and the losses they have to suffer.
You are so dedicated to your writing craft that you quit your previous job in order to write full time. You also once admitted that “writing fiction doesn’t pay at all.” This is quite unusual in our part of the world, where so many people are more keen to climb the corporate ladder. Tell me, what drives this passion of yours?
The compulsive need to write, to render life on the page. The pain of quitting a secure, stable job only started to sting six months after I left, when the savings ran out, and I had to look around for odd jobs to feed myself. But I never let myself lose focus on what I need to do: to write. When you take an eagle-eye’s view of life, a lot of unimportant things will fall away like fluff. It’s easier to write when life’s simplified.
Well, it looks like your hard work has paid off. Congratulations on getting longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award! How do you feel about that?
It’s really mind-blowing to be longlisted for this prestigious short-story award. Part of the excitement comes from knowing that a few of my favourite writers—Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li—have won this award in previous years, and now I’m in the longlist! There is a wonderful list of great writers on the list this year, such as T.C. Boyle, Sam Sheppard and David Means, and it’s such an incredible honour to be included amongst these writers.
Are you also a fan of the other previous Frank O’Connor winners such as Miranda July and Simon Van Booy?
Can I confess I love the works of all the winners? I picked up Van Booy’s book last year and was practically copying entire chunks of it in my notebook. It’s an achingly beautiful book, with prose that’s as smooth as silk. I love the off-kilter, quirkiness of July’s stories and the strong, robust style of Li’s. I look forward to the future works of these writers.
Looking back, any regrets with Never Been Better?
After the book was published, I had to read some of the stories at public readings, and with each read, I always felt the need to cut a word here, edit a bit there. I guess this comes with the gradual awareness of my own shortcomings as a writer. But any major regret about the book? No, definitely not. I love it the way it is now, with its strengths and its flaws.
Most of your stories are set around Ang Mo Kio, the neighbourhood you live in. Would you say your stories are moving away from Ang Mo Kio with Under the Sun or are there just too many stories you’re waiting to tell about your neighbourhood?
I guess I have moved away from Ang Mo Kio for a while in the new collection, to take a break and to gain some fresh perspectives. But the thought of it has never really left my mind. In the new stories that I’ve written this year, I have returned to my estate again, the geography of my inspiration, my muse; the mood, energy and character of Ang Mo Kio never fail to enliven my stories.
You recently returned from the WordStorm festival. How did it go?
It went very well. I gave three public readings and sat on a panel discussion at the Botanic Gardens in Darwin where WordStorm was held. I read some of the pieces from Under the Sun and was quite encouraged by the enthusiastic response to these stories. Plus, I got to hang out with a few writers from Australia, Indonesia and Timor. I even managed to talk to Germaine Greer—she recommended an Australian short-story writer I should check out, and autographed my copy of The Female Eunuch.
You’ll be heading down to Australia in August for the Byron Bay Festival. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes, I can’t wait! I heard many good things about this festival, that it’s somewhat like a literary “rock concert,” and in fact more than 50,000 people turned up for the festival last year. I guess the highlight of the festival, for me, will be to meet one of my favourite American writers, Bret Ellis Easton, who will be headlining the festival. Besides that, I’ll be giving a few readings and sitting on some panels to talk about the art and craft of writing short stories.
I met you for the first time at the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2009. What are your thoughts on literary festivals? How much do you enjoy them and do they encourage you to become a better writer?
I like the atmosphere during literary festivals, the solidarity, and a sort of shared bond between writers. I get to take a peek into how another writer works, the long hours he spends, the sacrifices he has to make. During WordStorm, I stayed with a fellow Singaporean writer, the Cultural Medallion award-winning writer, Isa Kamari, and he was sharing with me his own journey in writing, the ideas behind his books (he has written seven novels!) and his utmost devotion to his writing is really unquestionable and it’s very infectious.
I know you’ve met some famous people. Who are the authors you’ve been starstruck by?
Miguel Syjuco (Ilustrado) and Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress); the former for his easygoing, humble personality despite his current accolades, and the latter for his willingness to share his own experiences writing in French, his adopted tongue.
Congratulations on getting onto the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme! When will you be heading to the U.S.? In your opinion, do you think residencies, retreats and workshops matter for writers?
The three-month residency will begin at the end of August and I’m looking forward to attending this famous writing workshop. Based on the schedule and types of activities that are lined up this year, it’s going to be very rewarding and fulfilling. I strongly believe that residencies and retreats are important as they allow a writer the time and space to focus on developing his craft, more so than just spending time to write, though the latter is fundamentally important to the working out of one’s craft. To build a good foundation, to find your own voice, to develop a distinct style; these are the cornerstones of what makes a writer.
What are the most useful tools for you as a writer?
A quiet place to write, that’s for sure, and the simple belief that you want to write. Also it’s very important to read as much as you can, specifically and widely. What you are as a writer depends on what you read.
What are you currently reading?
I usually juggle a few books at the same time. Short-story collections are a must in my reading diet, and right now, I’m reading the earlier works of Alice Munro. Her latest book, Too Much Happiness, was phenomenal, and I’m slowly devouring her other works, not hurrying so I can get full pleasure from them. It’s an extremely humbling experience to read her, and to know how far I fall short when it comes to writing a short story. I’m only just starting out, a novice. I’m also digging into Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights; his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was a tour de force.
What continues to inspire your stories?
I get my materials from all over, be it from current news, gossips, personal anecdotes or books. I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open for anything that may stir or fire me up, to make me want to write stories about them. Sometimes I get flares of inspiration from reading works of fiction by writers I like, and I’d write a piece that may revolve around a similar theme or issue.
With two collections out (Never Been Better and Free-Falling Man) and another on the way, how can you tell that your writing is improving?
I do hope my writing is getting better over the years, as more of my stories are being accepted for journals and anthologies, though this is hardly a gauge on their improvement or quality over the earlier ones that I have written. The more I write, the more conscious I am of my own shortcomings, and sometimes it can be quite frustrating when I just can’t seem to break through to another level when I write a new story. But I have also learnt to be more patient and forgiving with myself. There are fewer bumps now as I write, but it never gets any easier.
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of June 5, 2010