On July 7, 2015, Singaporean writer Clarissa N. Goenawan was announced as the winner of the Bath Novel Award 2015. Her manuscript, Rainbirds, clinched the international prize for unpublished and independently published novels - chosen out of 806 manuscripts submitted by writers in 41 countries, including the United States and Britain.
London-based literary agent Mildred Yuan, who judged the competition, praised Rainbirds for "its unmatched combination of a lightness of style combined with a compelling story". The prize comes with
£1,000 and a trophy designed by artist Jessica Palmer.
Born in Indonesia, Clarissa moved to Singapore when she was sixteen. A graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course and a mentee on the WoMentoring Project, her short stories have won several awards, and been published in The MacGuffin, Your Impossible Voice, Black Denim Lit, Needle in The Hay, and Writing The City.
She has also been shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, for Rainbirds. The annual prize for debut novels, now in its 11th year, comes with a publishing deal with Cargo Publishing and £10,000, the largest cash prize for unpublished work in the UK. The winner will be announced during the Dundee Literary Festival in October 2015.
We Are A Website's co-editor Eva Aldea interviews Clarissa, days after her Bath Novel Award win:
Congratulations on winning the Bath Novel Award with Rainbirds. We are very excited that a budding Singaporean writer has taken home this prestigious award. Tell us a little about this as yet unpublished novel.
Clarissa N. Goenawan: This is the novel pitch. An apathetic young man, his enigmatic sister, and a precocious teenage girl, each with a secret of their own. Japan 1994: Twenty-four-year-old Ren Ishida’s humdrum life is shaken by his older sister’s murder. Guided by recurring dreams of a little girl, he discovers a painful truth that unearths secrets from his past.
What made you write this particular story and explore this subject?
The idea came when I thought of what would happen if someone died unexpectedly, and no one really knew what kind of life she had been leading. What would her family feel? Would there be any regrets? After that, the rest of the story grew organically.
The first chapter leaves us with a lot of clues and unanswered questions, wanting us to know more about what happened. Is it a detective novel?
While there’s a mystery waiting to be solved, it’s not really a whodunit novel. I personally think it’s a coming-of-age story masquerading as a murder mystery. My latest query says it’s a literary fiction with elements of magical realism – but to be honest, it keeps changing!
Why did you choose to set the novel in Japan?
I wanted an Asian country with four seasons and a wide range of backdrops, such as mountains, lakes, etc. I shortlisted a few options, and eventually decided on Japan.
I studied Japanese language in high school and still read copious amount of manga — so that helps, but I also did tons of Google searches and library visits. I even pulled out the historical weather data and the moon phase calendar of 1994. But, when it comes to research, I think it’s also important to know when to stop. Most of the data I gathered never made it into the book.
Describe your writing journey from idea to prize-winning novel.
It started as a childhood dream. I was an avid reader and always loved to write. But, growing up, I realised, it wasn’t a very feasible make-a-living plan. Sounds familiar? I kind of forgot about it, until a few years ago, when I decided to take a break from the workforce. At that time, I told myself I only live once; why not try doing something I really, really want to do? I decided to pick up writing again.
What did you do before writing full-time? How did it influence you as a writer?
I was previously doing sales and marketing (I majored in marketing). Once, I worked for a book distribution company. It gave me a lot of insights into how publishing works. I learnt that the success of a book depends not only on the book itself, but the team behind it.
Tell us about the writing process for Rainbirds.
I spent one and a half months writing the first draft (excluding the preparation time - for example, staring at the wall, looking for inspirational photos, etc.). Then I spent another one and a half years editing it, before sending it out to competitions and agents.
What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
Yes, I write every day! I use the term ‘write’ very loosely here, because I also count other writing-related activities, such as editing and researching. And I really mean every day - including Christmas, New Year's Day, and my birthday. The only period I don’t write is during the Chinese New Year. The visitation agenda is always very packed.
Obviously, this strategy wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me... and Stephen King!
I usually write in the morning or at night, approximately three hours per day. Sometimes, I’ll meet up with a writer friend who stays in my area and we’ll go to Starbucks to write.
How do you motivate yourself to write a long work such as a novel?
I’ve got plenty of cheerleaders! They are other writers also working on their own novels. We keep one another updated on our progress. I’m also a huge fan of NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. In fact, I wrote the first draft of Rainbirds during NaNoWriMo.
Who are your mentors and support network? How did you find them?
I’m lucky to have Jenny Ashcroft as a mentor. We met through The WoMentoring Project (http://womentoringproject.co.uk), which offers free mentorship for female writers. Jenny was actually the one who encouraged me to send my novel for BNA. I also receive plenty of guidance from Anna Davis and Chris Wakling from Curtis Brown Creative, which I attended thanks to a grant from NAC. My critique partners and beta readers come from various places. Some are ex-classmates, some are Twitter friends, some are fellow writing project collaborators, but I met most of them online.
How do you decide which comment from your “beta readers” to heed and which to ignore? Do you ever disagree with them?
If the majority of my beta readers say that something doesn’t work, they’re usually right. It gets trickier when I get conflicting feedback. At the end of the day, I think you just have to go with your gut feelings.
How do you create character? Is character driven by plot or the other way around, or is there a different process altogether?
For me, the character drives the plot. The story would have been completely changed if Ren had a different kind of personality.
So how do you go from character to plot? Is it organic or do you plan it? How do you decide if a plot direction feels right?
For Rainbirds, I didn’t really plot. I just continued to write and write, hoping that it would eventually lead to something. The first draft was a mess, of course. I left it aside for a couple of months. After that, I went through the manuscript as a reader and took note of every point that didn’t feel right, before addressing them one by one. There was a lot of rewriting and editing.
There is a thriving writing scene in Singapore, despite it being such a small place. Why do you think Singaporeans are such keen writers?
I would attribute it to the culture that encourages reading. Look at our awesome public libraries! Writing seems to be a natural progression for self-expression.
Is global reach important to you as a writer?
Even though I’m writing primarily for myself, I would love to reach as many readers as possible.
How easy or hard do you think it is for Singaporean literature to reach a wider audience? Why?
It’s never easy to break into the market, and the same holds true for writers from any country, whether Singapore, Malaysia or anywhere else. There are many rejections and the waiting time is extremely long. It’s very easy to feel dejected and throw in the towel.
Having said that, I see so many great talents in Singapore. It’s just a matter of time before Singaporean writers get more recognition. After all, readers everywhere are always looking for a good book, regardless of which country it comes from. And recently, there is an increasing call for more diversity in literature.
What are your plans now? What are you working on at the moment?
I’m crossing my fingers for the Dundee International Book Prize and also looking for an agent to represent me. In the meantime, I’m working on my next novel.
Do you want to reveal anything about that next novel?
Actually, I have two works in progress at the moment. One of them is a love story, and another one is a mystery. Both are still in the early stages.
Relief or pressure: Has your approach to your writing changed now you have one prize-winning novel under the belt?
I guess it changed slightly from ‘Nobody wants my first novel and I’m writing another one’, to ‘What if the next one is not good enough?’ But I take comfort from having a group of supportive mentors, critique partners, and beta readers. I can always count on them to say, ‘This doesn’t work because of blah, blah, blah. Please rewrite.’