Saturday, October 31, 2009


JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST thrilled Swedish readers with his 2004 début on the social aspects of a vampire, Let the Right One In. Come 2010, there will be an English remake of the film adaptation, and with more horror stories under his sleeve, this Swedish writer is set to thrill and chill more fans. TAN MAY LEE finds out more about his spooks

JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST has, without a doubt, the most interesting and unconventional CV you would ever come across. He worked as a magician and stand-up comedian before dabbling in horror stories. Let the Right One In was his début novel about the much-bullied 12-year-old schoolboy Oskar who befriends his next-door neighbour, Eli, a 200-year-old vampire. It became a Swedish best-seller and was later translated into other languages and adapted as a film. Director Matt Reeves will release an English remake of the critically-acclaimed movie in 2010. For now, this year sees the English translation of Handling the Undead, tackling undeads that have risen from Stockholm’s city morgue.

When you were growing up, did you feel destined for an unconventional career route?
I was 12 when I seriously started aiming at becoming a magician, and I suppose that is unconventional.

You were a magician, a stand-up comedian, and now, a horror writer. How do you juggle this very fascinating combination?
Performing magic tricks and writing are both basically about teaching yourself a technique for making the impossible believable. Comedy and horror aren’t so different either. It’s about creating and describing an everyday situation in which you place something abnormal, something which sheds a different light on the situation, be it horrific or amusing.

What kind of research goes into your writing?
Very little. I tend to try to write about things I already know. For my second novel Handling the Undead, I had to visit a morgue but that was the greatest length I have gone to for research.

Your début novel, Let the Right One In, was set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, where you grew up in. How would you describe Blackeberg to a traveller today?
My mother still lives there, so I go there every now and then. It is quite a nice, quiet suburb in Stockholm with lots of greenery and forests around it. Nothing threatening there ... anymore.

Although you write in the horror genre, there were universal issues tackled, such as the superior and the bullied; divides between rich and poor. Would you say these are the issues that will move readers to sympathise with the characters in all genres—whether horror, sci-fi, or fantasy?
For me, quite a lot of horror fails when it doesn’t make me care about the people to whom the terrible things are going to happen. Someone you don’t care about can be slaughtered with a chainsaw in a story and you don’t give a damn. Then someone you really care for steps on a nail and it hurts your own body. As for social or psychosocial comment, I find this to be an essential part of any story, otherwise you simply don’t take an interest, or you have bad taste in your mouth once the story is finished.

Is this your first trip to Singapore? What are you looking forward to experiencing at the Singapore Writers Festival?
Yes, this is my first trip to Singapore. I look forward to seeing how Singaporeans do things in a culture which I imagine to be quite different from my own. I am, for example, a smoker, and I realise that this can be something of a problem. Also, I am quite fond of skyscrapers.

This year’s theme for the Singapore Writers Festival is UnderCovers, aiming to promote alternative literature. Do you consider your books an alternative form of literature with a cult following?
I don’t consider my own writing to be alternative in any way, since I aim for readability. Only my subject matters can be considered “alternative.” And maybe the deep seriousness in which I write about absurd subjects. As far as a “cult following” I don’t see much of that. I live in the countryside, sit in my little house and make up my stories. I don’t go out much and do very few readings.

In Asia, we have our own versions of vampires and ghosts. European superstitions can be pretty new and foreign. Although you personally do not believe that any of the creatures in your books really exist, what are the Swedish beliefs in the supernatural that have been ingrained in your culture?
The best short story I have ever written is about trolls, and in my latest novel there is someting called a “spiritus,” a sort of magical insect that gives its owner supernatural abilities—both trolls and spirituses are taken from Swedish mythology. I tend to mix elements of Swedish folklore with more mainstream horror elements, such as zombies or vampires. But mostly I just write about people confronted with something they don’t have the mental tools to deal with—things from the other side. And I think this is a universal theme.

Could you recommend some Swedish literature to foreign readers?
Always start out with Selma Lagerlöf (the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature). Move on with Hjalmar Söderberg. For poetry, go for Tomas Tranströmer. If you want something more modern, try Kerstin Ekman. Sorry that so many of the names contain the letter “ö.”

Outside the world of horror and books, what interests you?
I like Abba, romantic comedies, Singstar and Guitar Hero. I do watch horror movies when something good comes out, but it so seldom does. I also look forward to playing Resident Evil 5. Otherwise my main interest in life is my wife and son.

What do you think of popular culture?
What a question! Well, my answer to the former question does give away that I prefer popular culture to that other, distant culture. I don’t really know what that is. I am a great fan of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Samuel Beckett. But they are also part of popular culture, aren’t they?

Do you travel widely on book tours and personally trips?
No. I have too many things that I want to write about, and I simply don’t have the time. Also, I only go to other countries when it’s possible to bring my family and when it’s possible for them to come. Singapore was irresistible, though.

Now that you have seen film adaptations of your work, has it made you more interested in screenwriting and films?
I have already written the script for Handling the Undead and it’s due to start shooting next summer. Tomas Alfredson and I also plan to work together on my third novel, as we worked together on Let the Right One In. I hope I can continue writing the screenplays of my own books, as long as people let me.

How far along are you on your new novel?
I’m at the moment on page 420 of Little Star, which has unfortunately turned out a little too horrific. I have only something like 50 pages to go, but then quite the tedious process of cutting the novel down to 400 pages will begin. I started out thinking I was writing a 200-page book, but it’s always like that with me.

Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Friday, October 30, 2009


Malaysia’s National Laureate MUHAMMAD HAJI SALLEH recounts the evolution of modern literature to TAN MAY LEE

IF YOU STUDIED ENGLISH LITERATURE for SPM (Malaysia’s equivalent of the British O Levels), you might have come across the poetry of Muhammad Haji Salleh. Unlike the English fascination with daffodils and autumn leaves dancing in the breeze, Muhammad’s reflections of padi fields and serene kampung [village] life would appear out of the usual round of things, yet at the heart of it, completely familiar, even nostalgic. He writes on Malaysian life and also champions the Malay language.

Currently, he is with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. He recently completed a translation of Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Legends of Hang Tuah) and the Anthology of Classical Malay Literature and hopes to publish three books he is editing in 2010. He also writes two monthly columns in the literary and cultural journals of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). His has been a lifelong dedication to the arts; and because of that Muhammad has played a significant role in developing the Malaysian literary landscape.

You have been a writer throughout your life. Has your writing journey taught you more about yourself?
Literature is at the heart of a culture, and a person without a culture has neither heart nor soul, however profitable or efficient their factories may be. They may turn out to be the machines they manage. Language is wonderful, and poetry is the jewel of the verbal arts. Writing is a talent that is given to everyone, and every nation has its own words for its own particular experiences. Personally, I, too, am part of a bigger community and language. But I think I can contribute to them in my small way.

As Malaysia’s National Laureate, you are often invited to become a Fellow at universities around the world. Do you enjoy these appointments?
I have been invited as a Fellow a few times, at universities in Berkeley, Michigan, Kyoto and Harvard. These are exclusive time when I can research and write without other demands. I get to meet and listen to renowned scholars, and camp in the best libraries.

As a poet, I get to meet famous authors and offer my perspective on issues. I often give talks and poetry readings during these stints. It helps put Malaysian literature on the map.

How often do you travel?
Quite often. Frequently to take up fellowships, embark on research, present papers and sometimes not-so-successful holidays. My life cycle is only two weeks long. After this period I must get out and go somewhere, if not overseas then to Kedah, southern Thailand or back to my house in Kajang, the town that smells of satay.

I notice that many internationally-acclaimed Malaysian authors (Tash Aw, Rani Manicka, Preeta Samarasan, Tan Twan Eng and Chiew-Siah Tei) are based overseas. Should Malaysian writers try to stay in their homeland or would you encourage them to explore so as to be observers outside looking in?
I do both: live overseas for periods of time, then return home. It’s a shared world now. Themes, languages and styles are shared. It matters not where a writer lives. Nobel laureate J.M.G. le Clézio lived in Africa, Europe and other places.

What are your best memories of places in Malaysia that have inspired your writing?
My memory is historical and also personal. For the historical, I dig deep into old texts like the Malay Annals, Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Legend of Hang Tuah), pantuns (Malay poems) and proverbs.

The personal ones mostly come from my youth in Penang—in Sungai Acheh, Bukit Mertajam and Seberang Perai. However my travels to Belum in Perak, Kuala Tembeling in Pahang, Semporna in Sabah, and Perhentian and Redang Islands are just as beautiful. I like nature in its most pristine state—these give me an exhilaration and poetic inspiration. There is a proverb: “If you want know about human beings, go deep into the forest.”

As a lecturer, you are used to presenting talks on literature to large audiences. When it comes to your own poetry, which can be quite personal, how much do you enjoy performing them? You once mentioned in another interview that you were a shy person and that’s why you were drawn to poetry. Today, poetry appears to be one of the most outspoken forms of literature. What are your views on this?
My poems have two faces: the quiet internal one with a personal face and fare, and also the external and public one. These represent the two sides of my own life. I do enjoy reading to an appreciative audience. Sadly, these types of audiences are quite rare in Malaysia. People tend to be engaging in extended conversation or political discussions when poets are reading here. My poems are fragile, and so are my moods for reading poetry. I am often distracted by these parallel presentations by members of my audience. And I go home quite depressed.

Some people today have it in their heads that they should write for money and not out of passion. Where does this mindset come from?
Unfortunately, we have been taught that the end result of education is money, and money is the stuff and matter of life. This is indeed tragic; we should make literature and the arts compulsory before all our future generations become wage slaves and moneybags. Our education system has created a few generations of unimaginative and quite illiterate young people—somehow the essence of life and education are missed but the junk and the rubbish are the ones that people go for.

The joy of life and education, too, is no longer around—what’s left are heavy, unwieldy schoolbags and drudgery. We need to teach our young that it is all right to think and have an opinion, and evaluate their own situations without quoting the newspapers or the ministers. To reverse this mindset, we have to reverse our education goals and systems. I am pushing for literature to be taught to all students—as they do in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English schools all around the world.

You have obviously witnessed the development of Malaysian literature over the decades. How has it evolved?
I think Malaysian literature is evolving slower than Indonesian or Filipino literature. We tend to shove it to the sidelines of Malaysian life. Luckily, there are some good talents like Wong Phui Nam, Baha Zain and Latiff Mohidin. There are also young non-Malay writers, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, besides those from the Peninsula. They are foregrounding their own communal experiences which have been under wraps for a long time. This is good. They also bring to the national language unique qualities of their own languages or dialects. Multicultural Malaysian literature is alive and kicking.

For awhile, you consciously chose to write primarily in Malay. Do you find that the level of Bahasa Malaysia is dropping or improving? Now that English, Chinese and French have taken over as the global languages of communication, what do you foresee as the future of the Malay language?
I took a long time to come to that decision of writing in Malay. We are all trustees of the language of our ancestors or of our country. English, though now an international language, was a colonial one that allowed little space for Malay to grow or maintain the prestige it had throughout the Malay Archipelago for almost two millennia. During the colonial years I was told that only English was the language of knowledge. But Malaysian language has a long history, from the times and kingdoms of the Srivijaya, Malacca and Acheh.

Generally, I think the Malay language is now more sophisticated; however, this sophistication is limited to a few people. The general public is not very sensitive to the beauty of the language or its uniqueness and see it only as a means of (rough) communication. This is a worrying scenario. But there is a study that says in 30 years, Malay (and Indonesian) will share the fourth place among the languages of the world with Hindi and Arab in terms of the number of speakers. With Malay returning to schools now, we may still catch up with the other languages.

What literary aspect of Malay do people tend to miss out on that stops them from appreciating the language more? For someone new to Malay literature, what should they start reading?
People tend to come to the language with huge prejudices, not least created by English. This is the biggest hurdle. If one lets oneself go, one would find the collective genius of the pantun and the proverbs. The pantun is used in at least 40 languages worldwide, and our proverbs are as wise as any. One can start with the short stories of Keris Mas and the poems of Usman Awang. Then venture into the more international styles of Baha Zain and Latiff Mohidin.

As a bilingual writer, what can you convey in Malay that you can’t effectively do in English and vice versa?
A nation’s dream, and nostalgia in a language that smells of childhood, passage and growing up. The smell of flowers don’t seem to be the same if you use their English terms—somehow frangipani is not cempaka, water lily is not seroja. How do you describe the heavenly smell of the petai or the durian if other people insist that they are smelly or have an odour of cottage cheese? Many culture-specific words like keris, Peranakan, mee udang or laksa barely bring over their shape or looks but not their connotations and cultural meanings. Then the music of Malay is different from that of English—it’s more gentle, more emotive and decorous. You must have music and decorum to give your poems a fuller life in Malay.

Just curious—have you always wanted to be a writer?
My father told me that as a young boy I wanted to be a teacher. But I never wanted to be a headmaster, politician or businessman. In those days, there weren’t many choices. So I became a teacher, and stayed as one for almost 45 years! This is a job where you work for others—a generation’s future. When you are successful you can feel it at the end of the class or lecture. There is more light shining in the students’ eyes.

I never had idols to emulate in the 1950s. But when I was in the upper secondary school, I realised that being a writer could be quite glamorous—you are studied for your ideas, language and style. It was in England in the 1960s that I read the works of famous writers like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Somehow their dreams of writing as a career were unsullied by expectations of money. So I read their works and biographies, and wanted to be like them.

Literature now also depends on its marketability. In your opinion, will literature be consumed by commercialism one day?
It is being devoured by predatory capitalism now. The really good works that don’t follow the tastes (oftentimes superficial) do not sell well, and those that sell well do so often not because of their ideas or verbal quality. People like Kenzaburō Ōe, who writes about special children, are resigned to the idea that good literature will not die, but will only circulate among the chosen few.

Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Thursday, October 29, 2009


After the success of Lions in Winter, WENA POON is back with a new short-story collection, not to mention a sci-fi omnibus! TAN MAY LEE catches up with the feisty lawyer cum author

SINGAPORE-BORN American author Wena Poon created a stir in 2008 with her début, Lions in Winter, a collection of short stories on the migratory life of Singaporeans. Longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Poon was invited to read her stories at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, after which international rights for the book were immediately bought by Salt Publishing in the UK. Poon is now back with another collection, The Proper Care of Foxes, which has even more dynamic and diverse characters. The Proper Care of Foxes will be one of the 10 books being launched at the 2009 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. She also writes science-fiction and has self-published a sci-fi omnibus, Biophilia.

It’s been a while since we last met and since Lions in Winter. You’ve gone places since, including Ireland for the literary festival in Cork. What else have you been up to?
I practice law full time as a partner in a California law firm. Client and office matters keep me busy everyday. In the evenings, I review the proofs of my upcoming books and deal with editors, publishers, journalists and festival organisers. I travel a lot as a lawyer and writer. I was in Spain in July 2009 to meet a director friend of mine to work on a musical. Then I flew to the annual American Bar Association conference in Chicago, where I’m serving a two-year term as ambassador. This fall, I’m taking some time off work to go to Sweden, England, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ubud for literary events.

How can stories be versions of your own journeys?
I like stories that capture contemporary reality, yet acknowledge a solid intellectual debt to the past. In ‘Reuse, Recycle,’ one of the stories in the new collection, three siblings in a crumbling Victorian house in Texas sell off their dead mother’s things on eBay. In ‘Justin and the Cenotaph,’ an elderly Chinese Singaporean woman views the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on YouTube. These are not my own journeys. I create characters to illustrate my view of the world, but I take them down paths I’ve never taken to see what happens.

While Lions in Winter had very Singaporean characters and places, The Proper Care of Foxes travels far and wide. What binds the characters together in this collection?
They’re all part of the same universe. In college, I was influenced by writers like Voltaire and Antoine de Saint Exupéry. The Proper Care of Foxes is a book built around Voltaire’s famous yet enigmatic philosophy in Candide which is quoted at its beginning: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (we must cultivate our garden). I interpreted this to mean that we have to nurture and protect what E.M. Forster calls our “eternal springs,” but at the same time we have to work hard and constantly create in order to justify our existence.

Voltaire wrote that “l’homme n’est pas né pour le repos” (man was not born for rest). I believe in work ethics. But in the pursuit of work and of excellence, we must not forget to forge relationships and to love. This is the theme of the fox, which comes from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince. In my mind, the fox fits nicely in the intellectual tradition of Voltaire’s garden.

‘The Proper Care of Foxes’ is about a Malaysian girl meeting an old friend in Somerset, so she could get laid before marrying a man she doesn’t love. How did the story come to you? Why did you choose it as the title story?
The unexpected love story of Edward and Meg came to me during a time when a lot of London bankers were laid off. I was reading The Financial Times on the plane. When people are fired in the UK, they call the notice period “garden leave.” Garden leave sounds appropriate for laid-off bankers and executives who finally have time to cultivate their soul and reflect on their life choices. I put down the newspaper and turned on my laptop. As Virginia Woolf said in the movie The Hours, “I have a first sentence.”

I began with the dialogue between Edward and his mother. In London, Edward calls his mum and says he’s been laid off. His mum tells him to visit her in Somerset. Edward’s been a busy banker all his life, so he hardly sees his mum. While visiting her, an email from Meg, an old classmate from Malaysia, hurtles like a blazing meteor into his life and changes it forever.

In my collection, I was keen to explore the forces shaping our contemporary morality, such as global recessions and the ubiquitous Internet. That’s why Edward’s story became the title story.

Your characters are flamboyant: an Asian sex tourist, a depressed transvestite, even the son of a Japanese man turns out to be Caucasian. What draws you to these characters?
I’m interested in taking Asian stereotypes and turning them on their head. In ‘Vanilla Five,’ a white baby is adopted by a Japanese couple in New York. In America, a lot of Asian babies are adopted by white couples, so what happens when it’s the other way around? I want to see what happens when you upset the applecart. It’s exciting for a writer to explore these roles. I hope it’s exciting for the reader as well.

The infamous “Are these stories based on people you know?” question: where did the colourful characters come from?
It’s easier to explain where the visual models for the characters come from. I don’t have a favourite character, but my readers love Siegfried, the cross-dressing hero of ‘Siegfried & the Avalanche.’ I have an old video of Brian Eno in Roxy Music and three trannies in Austin, Texas, to thank for the visual cues for Siegfried.

Apart from literary fiction, you also write science fiction. Tell us about the creation of Biophilia’s sci-fi universe and the female protagonist Imogen!
Biophilia is the summer blockbuster movie I have been waiting for. In action movies, women continue to be just the girlfriend or the mother. That’s not reflective of reality in America. Women are now running for President, leading multi-billion-dollar corporations and flying military airplanes. You can think of Biophilia as the new J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek movie, except that the leading role of Kirk is a woman, and the supportive role of Spock is a man. Imogen, the heroine, is impetuous, sassy, cool and brave. She’s not just a pinup—she actually fights. Kai, the hero, is like Q in James Bond—he builds machines for Imogen so that she can do her thing. The surprising thing is that both men and women love female action stars. Hollywood’s got it all wrong. I must fix it!

Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


2008 Man Asian Literary Prize-winner MIGUEL SYJUCO talks to ERIC FORBES about his unconventional début novel, Ilustrado, which begins as a murder mystery and evolves into a meditation on Philippine history and society

MIGUEL SYJUCO (pronounced as ‘see-hoo-co’) was born in Manila in 1976, and has lived in New York, Paris and Adelaide. In 2008, the manuscript of his début novel, Ilustrado, won the US$10,000 Man Asian Literary Prize and was awarded the Grand Prize at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, a significant literary award in the Philippines. He lives in Montreal, Canada. Ilustrado will be out in the late spring of 2010.

Syjuco was born in Manila and lived most of his life there, but left the Philippines to become a writer. “I now live and write in Montreal, which is a wonderful city, because it is a place where I can make a living as a writer, and I can also be free to write what I like,” he says, although he constantly wonders if he should return to the Philippines to do more. He quit working as a copy editor for the Montreal Gazette in February 2008 to focus on writing full time. He also hosts a weekly radio slot called The Biblio-File on CBC’s Radio Canada International where he discusses a book a week, and he tries to do two Canadian books and two international books a month.

Syjuco’s comfortable background as the son of a politician led him and his classmates to engage in “justifications and rationalisations for why we’re not doing more than we’re doing.”

Growing up in Manila was both complicating and frustrating. “I found living in the Philippines to be very confusing. I think that we as a people are constantly beset by collective puzzlement because the country’s problems are so complex, the solutions so elusive, and the morality so skewed.” The Metro Manila traffic is the perfect metaphor for this state of confusion and he points out that one cannot “drive down the street without seeing beggars, street children, environmental rape, and the guarded and gleaming convoys of the rich and powerful parting traffic on their way to congress, or the golf club, or the mall, or home.”

He did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps although it was expected of him. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to stomach the compromises or hypocrisies necessary to succeed in Philippine politics.

Syjuco failed his economics major in college, which led him to pursue English literature instead and he started writing short stories and some “very bad poetry.”

After graduating, during the dot-com boom, he started a city guide and lifestyle website with some classmates, which helped him learn with the rigorous trial and error of the self-taught. “As the editor, I had to teach myself how to be a reporter and reviewer, and my only teachers were newspapers, books and magazines.”

To him, a writer is “an interpreter of different truths.” He later left Manila in 2001 to do a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University, an experience he enjoyed tremendously “because they gave me a community of people as lost and as dreamy and as ambitious and as curious as I was.”

On formal creative-writing training, he doesn’t believe someone can be taught to write, “and that’s a good thing, because it proves that writing is still an art and craft. But you can indeed teach people the skills they need to learn how to work their material into something formidable.”

He then stayed overseas and worked some very odd jobs, which include being a bartender, Ebay powerseller of overrun ladies’ handbags and medical guinea pig. He also interned in the fiction department of The New Yorker, worked as a research assistant at Esquire, and served as a fiction reader for The Paris Review and managed to “make some sort of life” as a writer.

In 2005, “sick of hustling,” he went with his girlfriend to start a life in Adelaide, Australia. There, he worked as a reporter, copy editor, and then online editor at The Independent Weekly newspaper. He later obtained a full scholarship to do his PhD in English literature with a focus on creative writing. “So I quit my jobs and put all my eggs in one basket, and started writing Ilustrado.”

Syjuco, though familiar with the constant flow of rejection slips, nevertheless carried on writing. “So I wrote a second novel, a short-story collection, and was halfway through a third novel when Ilustrado was picked up,” he recalls.

His first novel, Ilustrado, starts out with the death of Crispin Salvador, a former lion of Philippine literature who is found dead in the Hudson River in New York. Suicide is ruled as the cause of death. His young acolyte, Miguel, is suspicious, because missing from Salvador’s apartment is a long-awaited manuscript that was to have been an exposé of the corruption of the Philippine ruling elite. So Miguel returns to Manila to investigate, but discovers that the story is as much his as it is his mentor’s.

“That’s the summary of the book, but the murder-mystery construct allowed me to pull the reader in so that I could attempt a broader meditation on Philippine society. The book collects the fictional Salvador’s oeuvre, and I therefore created his work: excerpts of a memoir, short stories, poetry, interviews, jokes, notes, biography, etc.” This allowed him to expand the novel’s scope to include Philippine history, without coming off as didactic, as he believes that the problem with a lot of Philippine literature in English is that they are often weighed down by self-conscious explanation to Western readers, or self-exoticisation to sell books to the West.

Syjuco’s criteria for good fiction is complex. “For fiction to be more than mere entertainment, it needs to have some weight to it. For it to have weight, it needs to tackle important quiddities. For it to approach quiddities, it has to have its grievances, because a world with grievances is just reality. But for it to be good and be read, it needs to be carefully written and beautiful and entertaining. To me, it needs to be all those things. The best fiction teeters on the fine line between being too simple and being too obscure—it has to challenge the readers, but it also has to reward them. And to understand that relationship with the reader, the writer needs to be engaged with the world.”

Like any life, writers are filled with “profundities and superficialities.” Syjuco enjoys “never, ever having to wake up to the shriek of an alarm clock ever again” amongst other things, such as reading good books being a required exercise to improve his craft. His flexible schedule allows him to take a week off whenever he wants to think about his work, and everyday life is potential material. “More than anything, I love being able to see how things connect and work out, and seeing my skills grow before my eyes,” he says.

“But like anything, there’s the flip side,” he warns. It takes tremendous amount of discipline to abstain from watching TV or simply dreaming of great novels, not to mention working long hours to meet deadlines. Books are either for review or study because there is no time to read books for pure enjoyment. Despite being an acclaimed writer, he has many issues: “Am I hamfisted? Am I relevant? Is my work worth reading? Have I lost touch with the world while I was at home sequestered at my desk? Am I pigeonholing myself into an ethnicity? Am I misguided in my experiments and theories about how my fiction works? Should I just quit and do something else?”

After working on Ilustrado, which will be published in 2010, Syjuco will work on his second novel, “I Was the President’s Mistress,” the biography of the Philippine starlet Vita Nova, as told to her ghostwriter, ironically named Miguel Syjuco. “It is a collection of her interviews as she talks about her rise from a very simple country girl as she slept her way through Philippine society to ultimately become the mistress of the president.” It has already been sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton.

It was and still is an “incredulous experience” for Syjuco, a début novelist who was up against such published writers as Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Kaveri Nambisan, Yu Hua and Alfred A. Yuson. “I’m still stupefied that they gave me the prize, because I was up against some very strong and seasoned competition. This is my first novel. I’ve never even tried to write a novel in my life, so I was shocked that anyone finished reading it, much less liked it.”

Having struggled for years in getting agents and publishers to pick up his manuscript, he welcomed the big break. “I spent years sending my stories to competitions, my novel excerpts to agents and publishers, but nobody bit. It was many years of constant return to the proverbial drawing board, to rethink, revise, redo my work. Winning the prize was also reassuring that perhaps my ideas of how fiction can work—how the novel can function differently from usual—weren’t entirely daft. It’s still a very scary thing to have the literary world looking at me and my work.”

Syjuco’s novel will be published in 15 countries and 11 languages. “But now I deal with the fear that I only have that because I won the prize, and not because the prize got the book into the hands of the right people who would appreciate it,” he says. “Ultimately, the real test will be whether readers like it. If the book can make them think, feel and laugh, then I’m happy.”

Like most writers, Syjuco’s literary diet was insatiable since a young age. He read almost anything he could get his hands on. He read the Hardy Boys series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and The Bible, which all had a profound effect on him when he was young. So did comics—Marvel, DC, and later the works of Neil Gaiman. Fantasy and science fiction were his “gateway drugs into the addictions of literature.” In high school and college, he read a lot of American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever.

“Roberto Bolaño has been very important to me because I discovered him after I wrote Ilustrado and saw that here was someone also trying something unconventional and getting away with it,” he says on the literature he reads today. “I love Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sadly, I’m very Western-centric in my reading, though I’m changing that more and more.” He says that Patrick O’Brian’s work “is like crack to me” and his favourite novel is still Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “It’s got everything—deep and shallow—to keep a pseudo-intellect like mine interested.” For inspiration, he goes to the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski. He tries to finish even those books he doesn’t like out of respect.

As for genres, he reads everything, but mostly fiction, because fiction is what he does. “I’m trying to read romance novels and crime writing, because I know there are many things—like plot development, sustaining readers’ suspense, etc.—that I need to learn for my own craft. But I’m finding it hard because I learn from their structures but I can’t get past the uninspired writing.”

The state of Philippine literature has always been complicated and therefore very interesting. “We’ve had a very rich literary tradition, in English and in our native languages and dialects, but we’re not a country of readers.” However, bookshops in Makati still bustle with business, where people snatch up Harry Potter, The Alchemist and The Secret.

But then the Filipiniana sections of bookshops are usually overlooked. “If a Filipino writer publishes abroad, then usually that book will be displayed prominently in the bookshop, no matter how badly written it may be compared to those languishing in the section of local books.”

“Philippine literature,” Syjuco continues, “is freighted with so many issues. We ask: why doesn’t the world read us? I think the honest answer is that not all that comes out is of a high quality, and those that are of a high quality don’t have access to the agents and publishers that can get the book out into the world. I think we Filipinos need to work together to help each other refine our work and to push that work to a global audience. But sometimes—not always—we suffer from a crab mentality, pulling each other down.”

Syjuco provides an anecdote: “I’ve been working on my novel for nearly four years now, and after it received attention I had many from the Philippine literati asking to see it, saying they wanted to help me edit and revise it so that we could have a good showing internationally. Naive as I am, I sent out my manuscript to about a dozen fellow writers. Either they hated it, or something else deeper is going on, because I haven’t received a single bit of help from any of my countrymen. As I revised over the years, I’ve had Western editors, writing programme colleagues, and literary friends go line by line, poring over my work through multiple versions. But not a single Filipino has helped me. And yet, they are so proud of the book having won, and hope it will help shine a light on Philippine literature.”

His favourite Filipino writers “have always been Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos, Nick Joaquin and Gregorio Brillantes.” Of the more contemporary authors, there’s Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Antonio Hidalgo and Lourd de Veyra. “One fantastic writer is Clinton Palanca, whose prose is probably the most beautiful in the country, though he is between books right now and I do hope he’ll be coming out with something new soon.” He also names Jose “Butch” Dalisay, whose Solidad’s Sister was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, a “wonderful stylist.”

“And we can’t forget the Filipino-American writers, who are an integral part of our national literature as chroniclers of the Filipino experience.” Names that instantly come to mind include Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters), Han Ong (The Disinherited) and Bino A. Realuyo (The Umbrella Country), amongst others.

“And if we’re talking about poets, there are just too many to mention. We’re a culture of poets, though not enough people read poetry.”

Illustrado will be published in 2010 in Canada by Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton, in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in the UK by Picador, in Australia and New Zealand by Random House, and in the Philippines by the University of Philippines Press

Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Monday, October 26, 2009


Japanese novelist TAICHI YAMADA tells TAN MAY LEE that he looks forward to soaking up Singapore’s melting-pot ambience at the Singapore Writers Festival 2009

TAICHI YAMADA, whose real name is Taichi Ishizaka, is an acclaimed Japanese screenwriter and novelist. He worked at the Shōchiku film studios before beginning his career as a freelance scriptwriter and novelist. His novel, Ijin-tachi to no Natsu, first published by Shinchosha, Tokyo, in 1987, won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize for the best human-interest novel. It was later translated into English by Wayne P. Lammers as Strangers. His other translated works are In Search of a Distant Voice and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While.

Are you looking forward to visiting Singapore? Coming from Japan, how do you find Singapore’s unique multicultural and multilingual society?
It is very difficult for me to comment on this subject because I am from a monolingual country. We use only Japanese as the national and vernacular language. We have a lot of different dialects in each region until a few decades ago. Some are very different, but all the dialects still originate from Japanese.

We do import some words from other languages though. We see a lot of English, Korean and Chinese on names of stations and town guides nowadays. The population of foreigners in Japan has also increased over the years. However, we still do not get much opportunity to communicate with them in our everyday lives.

Thus, I am very curious to visit a place where four languages coexist. I’ve never been to Singapore before. I cannot even speak much English, so I’m a little worried about how well we can communicate, but I’m really excited about visiting a place I’ve never been to.

What are your thoughts on language in general?
I feel that literature can never be detached from its native language.

The recent years have seen an influx of English-speaking foreigners in Japan, and English-language schools are flourishing. What are your thoughts on the inflow of other languages—particularly English—into Japan?
The Japanese language consists of three letters: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji was brought from China, and Hiragana and Katakana were created from Kanji. We inherited a lot of words from China when we adopted Kanji.

During the Meiji era, Western influences flowed into Japan. Our ancestors learned English, German, French, Russian and so on to absorb Western culture. Many books were translated into Japanese and translation has become a Japanese specialty.

The common people may not be able to read or speak other languages well, but they’re still able to enjoy foreign cultures by reading translated material and gaining the knowledge from these cultures. Japan has been successful in using these influences and knowledge effectively to its advantage. English has greatly influenced Japanese culture today. It is a good thing for locals to learn English for work. However, I do not think English will ever be a vernacular language in Japan.

You write scripts as well as novels. What’s the difference between screenwriting and writing novels?
All screenwriting for movies, television dramas and stage plays are collaborative efforts with directors, actors, actresses, cameramen and other staff who are involved in the creative process. I enjoy both the risk and fun of creating a show with a lot of people.

Writing novels gives me joy, and also the difficulty of having full responsibility of completing every detail, such as the placement of every comma. Stylistics is in screenwriting also, but it is much more important in novels. Scenes in novels can also be spectacular. There are no limitations in creating storms or floods due to a tight budget, which screenwriters must consider. Television dramas and movies must also incorporate the schedules of actors, locations, studios and other factors.

What are you currently reading? How much time do you allocate to reading Japanese books and books in other languages?
I am currently reading Kiyoko Tamura’s I Will Leave This World Together With You. I am also reading a translation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up. What I read constantly changes. I read about 50 per cent Japanese and 50 per cent foreign literature.

Have you been to Singapore before? What are you looking forward to experiencing at the Singapore Writers Festival?
I am afraid I have never been to Singapore before. I cannot even speak much English, so I am a little worried about how well we can communicate, but I am really excited about visiting a place I have never been to!

Reproduced from the special issue of Quill produced for the Singapore Writers Festival 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009


TOM SYKES on the invasion of the new wave of British science fiction

WHEN I WAS ONLY 11 YEARS OLD, I was introduced to Michael Moorcock’s novels by a schoolmate’s devout hippy parents. At their house, I worked my way through the Elric series as the smell of incense and marijuana wafted under my nose.

At that age it was the post-Tolkien high adventure that drew me in, but as I got older I saw new and more sophisticated things in Moorcock’s writing. I learned that in 1963 he had become editor of the trailblazing New Worlds magazine which published the early stories of J.G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, Barrington J. Bayley and M. John Harrison. These writers were all zealously committed to finding new ways of expressing the increasingly strange world they espied around them.

The genre they created was an avant-garde form of science fiction characterised by philosophical enquiry, experimentation and controversy. This would become known as the ‘new wave’ and, I would submit, its influence lives on in such modern writers as Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis, Will Self, William Gibson, China Miéville, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore.

Thus it was with great interest that I learned that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Brian W. Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, key texts of the new wave. I first encountered Ballard’s anti-novel on the cusp of the new millennium while studying at the University of East Anglia. I continue to be shocked, impressed and influenced by it today.

Originally published as a series of vignettes (which is almost certainly too pleasant a description) in New Worlds and other journals, perhaps its most memorable section is ‘Why I Want to F— Ronald Reagan,’ a parodic scientific report on how images of the future US President induce psychosexual fantasies in people. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it became the subject of an obscenity trial when it appeared in pamphlet form. One imagines that the establishment was piqued by lines such as: “In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection.” Aside from his shock tactics, Ballard’s point about the aestheticisation of politics by the mass media was prescient and certainly meant a lot to me when I came across it in the wake of Tony Blair’s heavily spin-doctored election victory. Amusingly, pranksters distributed the story at the 1980 Republican Convention that was to approve Reagan’s presidential candidacy. According to Ballard, the less clever delegates missed the irony and took the story to be an endorsement of their nominee!

So what was the historical context of the new wave? In Conversations, Ballard describes post-war Britain as “the triumph of bourgeois values and conservatism ... a sort of deadness in the air.” The writing of that period—whether parochial social realism or the commercialized last gasps of modernism—was, by the 1960s, unable to comprehend the immense changes sweeping through society. A new technological landscape was being formed by the advent of space travel, Concorde, colour television and video conferencing. Relations between young people were altered forever by the legalisation of abortion and the contraceptive pill. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s claim that “You’ve never had it so good” ushered in an era of social mobility and the expansion of university education which exposed a whole new generation to progressive ideas, political and otherwise. The use of psychotropic drugs amongst the youth also became widespread.

Travel, for me, has always been something of a mind-expansion project. So it was apt that while I was in Bali in 2007—the furthest I’d ever been from home—I discovered Brian W. Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head in a backpacker’s bookshop. The novel is set in a near-future Europe that has been carpet-bombed with hallucinogenic drugs. The experience of those affected is aped by the very fabric of the novel, its language slowly breaking down into a kind of fragmentary poetry. I thought it interesting that I was reading this while all around me full-moon parties and round-the-clock debauchery was going on.

However, Barefoot in the Head isn’t just a frenzy of flip hedonism; it was written at a time when there was a great deal of faith in the intellectual possibilities of drugs. Aldiss suggests that those affected by the drug bombs have attained a fuller, more nuanced picture of reality than was previously possible. For example, in one sequence, the protagonist Charteris is able to perceive alternative futures for himself playing out all at once.

Although this article focuses on the British scene, at least one American new wave writer must be discussed: Philip K. Dick. I first became aware of him after falling in love—at a (probably) inadvisably young age—with the film Blade Runner, which was based on his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Formally, Dick was very much the pulp storyteller, but his ideas were just as outré as his British counterparts. As Emmanuel Carerre’s excellent biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, explains, Dick suffered from paranoia all his life caused by mental illness and compounded by external events such as McCarthyism and the later FBI surveillance campaign COINTELPRO. Unsurprisingly then, if there is one recurring theme throughout his fiction it is a constant obsessive questioning of the nature of reality.

In The Penultimate Truth, American citizens have relocated to an underground city in the belief that they must build armaments for a world war that is happening above ground. In fact, that war ended a long time ago but it suits the cynical aims of the elite powers to sustain the fantasy of its continuation.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, another world war has wiped out almost every living thing on Earth. As a result, businesses have begun manufacturing robot simulations of animals for human survivors to keep as pets. However, there are also simulated humans (androids) who are out of control and pose a criminal threat to society. Extremely dark and, in places, extremely funny, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? explores what it actually means to be a human or indeed any kind of being. In this novel as in his others, Dick toys with the reader’s expectations, setting up a situation or presenting a case which at first seems absolutely convincing but is later revealed to be a conspiratorial lie or subjective misperception.

Although I wasn’t around at the time, I am certain new wave transformed science fiction from a generally conservative and melioristic genre into one of the truly progressive movements in modern letters. Over my lifetime I have seen the literary profile of science fiction rise to a point where it can no longer be criticised for low-brow escapism, mainly because it tells us so much about our inner and outer lives. As our world becomes weirder, more volatile, more unpredictable, the visions of Ballard, Moorcock, Aldiss and others seem more powerful today than ever before.

Reproduced from the October-December 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Saturday, October 24, 2009


ERIC FORBES talks to former lawyer M.J. HYLAND who has made a courageous leap to fiction with three critically acclaimed novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Photographs by Rory Carnegie

M.J. HYLAND was born in London to Irish parents in 1968 and spent her early childhood in Dublin. She studied English and Law at the University of Melbourne, and practised as a commercial lawyer for seven years before taking the leap to fiction.

Her first novel, How the Light Gets In (2004), was shortlisted for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book, Eurasia Region), the 2004 Age Book of the Year Award, took third place in the 2005 Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and was joint winner of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award.

Carry Me Down (2006), her second novel, was winner of both the Encore Award and the Hawthornden Prize in 2007. It was also shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best Book, Eurasia Region).

Hyland lives in Manchester, where she teaches a class in creative writing at the Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester. Her latest novel, This Is How (2009), is a psychological exploration of an outsider at odds with the world, described by The Times Literary Supplement as “a devastating portrait of a mild-mannered psychopath.” The New York Times called it an “an unflinching, absorbing, morally complex portrait of one life gone suddenly and terribly awry.”

Hyland wrote from her home in Manchester:

You were a commercial lawyer for seven years before making the brave leap to fiction. Tell me something about your legal career and why you left it.
That’s right, but I was a mediocre lawyer at best, and I took a half-hearted approach [to the profession]. I knew I wanted to write stories and my consciousness was torn, split, divided. When I was in the office, writing letters of advice, or letters of demand, or preparing witness statements for court hearings, I wanted only to rush home to finish reading Kafka or Flannery O’Connor. However, I loved studying the law and if I’d stayed in the profession, I’d have taken the academic road. I taught law briefly—criminal law—and, of the seven years I spent in the law, this was the most enjoyable time. I liked teaching law very much. But I quit not long after my first novel, How the Light Gets In, was published.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I had my first short story published during my final year in high school—one of my teachers typed it up and sent it off to a magazine—and I knew then that I would be a writer. But I didn’t have any sane or rational grounds for knowing this. I had very little discipline and my character wasn’t compatible with the job. A writer, especially a novelist, needs extraordinary patience, a supreme doggedness and, of course, the writer must stick to a single idea for a long time, and hold his nerve. He must sit in one place and assiduously move words around on the page, and he must do this hermetically. When I was in my late teens, and through all of my twenties, I was far too distracted, too drunk, too stupid, too jumpy, too impatient, and worse, I had no stamina for the craft.

You teach creative writing at the University of Manchester. In what way does teaching influence your work as a writer?
I’m not sure that teaching influences my writing in any direct way, but I’m sure it doesn’t do it any harm. While this isn’t true for many writers, I like the way talented students remind me why I bother; the way their unabashed passion, their excitement, reminds me that this is a pretty blessed way to spend a life. To read, to love the art of conjuring vivid fictional worlds, and to write stories, and get paid to do it.

Can you tell me a bit about your latest novel, This Is How? What was the seed of the novel? How did you go about creating a protagonist-narrator like the murderer Patrick Oxtoby? Did it evolve into a work different from what you imagined it to be? If so, how? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
The idea for This Is How comes from Tony Parker’s wonderful book of interviews, Life After Life: Twelve Interviews with Twelve Murderers. I read the interview—upon which the novel is loosely based—in 2004, and I made a note in my notebook: Must write next novel about a gratuitous criminal act, and must set the story in a seaside boarding house (however, there’s no seaside boarding house in the original story). And then, in late 2005, I began writing. I wanted to write something in the territory of Albert Camus’s The Outsider and Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and, of course, André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars.

It took me three years of slogging it out to get Patrick’s voice in tune, and for a long time the book didn’t work at all. It had no traction, no pulse, the images were too dilute and fancy; there were too many characters, too many redundancies and it was full of falsehood (both in terms of character motivation and movement). For several years, Patrick wasn’t credible.

As for the themes, there are too many to set out here, but one of my abiding preoccupations at the time of writing, was to argue with (and perhaps against) Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of radical freedom, and to explore Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s response to Sartre. Of course, none of this thinking is apparent on the surface of the story. It shouldn’t be.

I was also keen to see how much emotional effect I could create with seemingly unaffected prose. The impulse here was to create a fictional world stripped of artifice; a plain authenticity of tragedy; an apparently artless and ‘true’ first-person account, and I wanted to make the author invisible. I wanted, also, to explore moral confusion and I wanted to resist diagnosis or pathology. I wanted to skate on the very thin ice of an unsympathetic narrator and yet find a way to make it difficult for the reader to judge Patrick, to round him off, to make a sensible neatness of his world. I wanted a moral mess. Like life. I wanted to make both condemnation and pity difficult.

I also wanted to evoke an idea—in vivid and dramatic terms—of platonic love between men, and the nature of our neglect of freedom, and loneliness and ... well, the list of themes is too long [to go into].

In This Is How, you explore the relationships between prisoners in a claustrophobic environment, and the fact that many convicts are much happier within the cloisters of the prison walls than without. What attracted you to the idea of setting your story in this enclosed world?
If it can’t happen in a cave, then I’m not interested. I’ll always put my characters in close proximity, and the prison cell is a fantastically claustrophobic and appealing set for drama.

The death penalty has been a subject of much debate and controversy over the years. What are your thoughts on the death penalty?
I think—if you’ve read the novels—you’ll know that I’m not only against the very idea of the death penalty, but I want to show, in dramatic terms, how easy it might be for somebody to be falsely accused, and how it pays to see the shades of grey; to stretch to compassion. Have you seen Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line? It’s a wonderful documentary, a case study, a case in point. And I’m very pleased that organisations like Reprieve do what they do. If I had more guts, if I was a little less selfish, I’d take a year or so out of writing and go to the US and work for Reprieve. Small, guilty donations and my feeble attempts in fiction to make my point against the absurd absolutism and futility of the death penalty don’t seem enough.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their early or formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes, so to speak? Have they, in any way, contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
There’s a play, which I first read when I was about 16 (it’s still amongst my favourites) and it’s called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. I saw the film by chance not long after I’d read the play—the film based on the play—and the effect of this film was so strong it seemed to rewire my brain, to rearrange me. Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie had a similar effect, as did Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Gogol’s short stories and Kafka, and much later, Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever.

The most difficult part of my job now is to face knowing that I’ll never come close to writing as well as the writers who caused me to want to do it in the first place.