Until recently, Singaporean writer O Thiam Chin has been best known as a craftsman of short stories.
His keenly observed and quietly affecting stories in 2014's Love, or Something like Love were shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize last year. The collection was also longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story award - as were his previous works Never Been Better (2010) and The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes with It (2012).
Then came the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, carrying a $20,000 cash prize for a Singaporean novel manuscript. O won it last month for his first novel The Infinite Sea. Four years in the writing, The Infinite Sea is slated for publication next year.
We Are A Website speaks to O in the wake of his win:
Still the same, actually. Though, at times, in my daydreams, I imagine different outcomes and possibilities: what if I have not won the prize? Maybe I’m still trying to come to terms with the idea of winning. Definitely a big milestone in my writing career.
What has changed, and what hasn't?
Nothing has changed; at least nothing tangible or visible in my eyes. More recognition, yes, but it has its own burdens. The work of writing remains the same: slow and painstaking, but always moving along, gradual and steady.
You mentioned to us at the awards dinner that you'll give your parents a treat with the prize money. Have you done so already?
They have been so busy with their work (they work on weekends) and taking care of my siblings’ kids, so it’s been postponed indefinitely. But soon, I hope.
Let's start at the beginning: What was your childhood like? What kind of imaginative life did you have?
My parents are hawkers, and have been for over thirty years. They used to clock super long hours, from 6am (with the preparations) to after eleven at night, but they have since cut down on the hours to take care of my siblings’ kids.
Perhaps, because we – my elder sister, my younger brother and I – were left alone at home most of the time, we had to find ways not to kill one another, and also to kill the long hours. Most of the time, we would be tearing the whole flat up, and keeping it a mess. We used to make “spider webs” from the reels of cassette tapes which covered the entire living room, and several times, we flooded the kitchen so we could pretend it was a (shallow) pool to swim in.
Occasionally, we would burn books and loose pieces of paper to make fires at the rubbish chute or open window. Why we never burnt down the flat remains a complete mystery to me. We might not have been the worst kids ever, but we were darn close.
When and how did you start to write?
Frankly, I don’t remember when exactly it was that I started writing – I wrote my first short story, in my early 20s to 'try it out', and the story was really terrible. At least I had the foresight to destroy/delete it then.
But I do remember making a conscious, deliberate decision to be a writer towards the end of 2004, during a solo trip to Redang, where I brought along my manuscript of short stories (the first draft of Free-Falling Man [Oh's debut story collection, published in 2006]) to edit. It was there that I knew (and convinced myself so) in my heart and gut, that I wanted to write very desperately, and that I was willing to do anything to write and to write well, even if it meant to give up most of the things that had made up my life then. It's a good trade-off, which I never regret, though there were hard times along the way.
I was working in one of the banks, in the marketing department, but I didn't quit my full-time job until 2007. I held onto my job, even after my decision, while writing my stories on the side. It was only after I published my second story collection, Never Been Better, that I quit my job and wrote full-time. By then, I had a small pool of savings to last me out for a couple of years; I was living with my parents at the time, so I only had to worry about my daily expenses.
What were some of the demons you wrestled with, early in your writing career?
The constant sense of inadequacy as a writer. Before I started writing short stories, the only pieces of writing I’d done are essays for assignments in the university, and a few freelance pieces on leisure and entertainment. That was the only writing experience I had, and it felt insufficient.
Plus, there was a very bad experience early on, after I’d completed the manuscript of stories for Free-Falling Man. An established local writer, who had seen the stories, had provided very discouraging feedback on my stories, basically telling me to reconsider my decision to become a writer. It almost killed me then, but I had managed to crawl out of it, eventually.
The self-doubt is always there, even now, and is actually useful in many ways, in how I approach and write each of my stories. I constantly ask myself: Is this the best you can write, and, if not, can you rewrite it again? This refrain, with its sting removed, is absolutely essential in shaping my craft in short-story writing.
How did the premise for The Infinite Sea evolve?
I knew I wanted to tackle the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, after it happened, and for a long while, I wanted to write a short story inspired/based on it. But somehow, in the shadow of my mind, I knew it “deserves” a bigger scope, and that I wasn’t ready to write it, yet.
At the start, I also knew the whole story would revolve around a small group of friends – which later became two couples – who had known each other for a long time, and how the disaster would test the strength and limits of their relationships, breaking and pulling them apart. The individual voices of the characters came to me, in drips and torrents, over time, each distinct and singular, and so, I gave each character a complete arc – their pasts, their unspoken histories, and the brick-and-mortar of their lives.
What was making the transition from short stories to novel-writing like? What was the hardest thing about it?
It was daunting, to say the least. Half of the time, I’m battling with myself—the doubt, the incessant questioning, and the misery of the long road—and mostly it’s about my ability to write (this doubt is always there, trust me). I know I had a good idea for a novel; I just wasn’t sure I had it in me to fulfil the scope and ambition of the novel in my head then, and I really hate the idea that the novel I would be writing would be a paler, lesser version of what I’ve envisioned it to be (of course, the story in one’s mind would never match up to its final version; it’s a completely different beast all together, and it’s not a bad thing at all).
Because I structured each chapter in the novel as a short story, in episodic form and taking turns with each of the main characters, I was able to dismiss the fear of writing the novel. My years of short-story writing saved my ass, so to speak. I strove to pack each chapter/story with as much as I could, so they could each stand alone.
How do you balance the desire for experimentation with form, with the need to tell the story?
Story always comes first, for me.
Once I have the gist/whiff of the story, I would consider the form, and also how I would like to tell it differently. At the start, I would try different structures and ways of story-writing, which can sometimes be exhausting and derivative, but it’s a useful process of trial and error. You know what you’re capable of, and what you’re good at, and what best serves the story.
But, sometimes, you just want to toss everything up in the air, and plunge in headlong – that’s what makes writing fresh, alive and novel.
We had a conversation about your rewriting of the wuxia form in English (in a story in Love, or Something Like Love). How did that come about?
I grew up in the early and mid-90s, and it was the renaissance of HK swordfighting/wuxia films, and I swear I watched every swordfighting/wuxia film that was ever screened in the local cinema. My all-time favourites are 新龙门客栈, 笑傲江湖, and 笑傲江湖之东方不敗. I knew, of course, that there are swordfighting novels in Chinese, but I was so terrible at the language that I knew it was impossible to read any of them. So I decided to write one myself, and I had a fun/insane time coming up with the plot, intrigue and twists-and-turns that are the backbone and fundamentals of a great swordfighting film/story, I feel.
How do you think your Singaporean identity and bilingual background manifests in/influences your writing?
I don’t think it has any significant influence or impact on how and what I write, at least not from what I can sense from my writings. When I write, I bring all of myself into it, and it’s really hard to distinguish or separate different parts of my being – physical, emotions, psyche, tics, background, identity – from one another. If this does come up in my writings, well, so be it – it could easily be a conscious choice, or an unmediated decision, but I would usually let the story dictate its own needs, and to find ways to fulfil, or overcome, them. I very rarely like to force my hand on the story that I’m writing.
What is your writing routine like? Do you have quirks - lucky charms you must have on your desk, secret writing places, etc.?
Now, I write in the day, for about three to four hours. And because I live on my own, and have a writing room, I write there all the time. Usually, it’s breakfast, and then writing; most of the time, I have to coax myself into the study room to write. When I lack the inspiration or desire to write for the day, I would read a short story from a writer I like or respect, and hope/pray/beg that it would trigger something in me to start writing.
The whole process of getting started all over again every day never gets old. And no, there’s no magic to writing for me, unless it’s all imagination.
Who is your first reader?
I don’t have a first reader, though sometimes I would show early drafts of some stories to a close friend, but not all my stories. Some stories, which are usually the tougher pieces, are only out in public, and available for all to read, when they are published.
I get very self-conscious with the earlier drafts, and always try to be merciless with these drafts – rewriting them again and again – before I send them out into the world.
Who are your favourite authors, and who are you reading right now?
Some writers whom I’ve grown to love recently are: Hanya Yanagihara, whose A Little Life, totally devastated me—how is it possible to pack in so much beauty and cruelty and kindness and sadness into one novel? —and Tessa Hadley, whose short stories are truly ravishing, meticulous and shot through with wry, penetrative observations.
Of course, the perennials: Alice Munro, George Saunders, Karen Russell, Yoko Ogawa, and Li Yiyun.
Right now, I’m reading Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare. She’s a writing goddess; I’ll read (and study and make notes about) anything she writes.
What are you working on now/next?
I’m working on a new story collection that will consist of speculative fiction pieces, titled Signs of Life. And I’m hoping to start my second novel next year; the idea for it seems ripe for reaping.
How does one stay financially viable as an author?
Marry up! Find a rich sponsor/patron! Apply for the mother-father scholarship! :P
It's the question I ask myself all the time, back then and even now. My solution: when I'm broke and need to survive, I find a full-time job and work for a couple of years/months. Save enough (and when I get bored and restless with full-time work), and I quit and write. Repeat.
Along the way, I look around for freelance writing/teaching jobs, which help just a tiny bit. My resume is a tattered patchwork of jobs - you can imagine what the HR of the companies I worked at previously had to say about this! But we do what we can to survive and write.