Tag Archives: literature

O Thiam Chin : Writing away life’s mysteries


Sara Veal

O Thiam Chin writes stories because no one else can tell the stories he wants to tell.

“As in the story in my head, how I feel about things,” the Singaporean author says, remarking he sees stories everywhere.

The 32-year-old’s latest publication, Never Been Better, is a collection of short stories that comprise a unique portrait of modern Singapore.

Through distinctive individuals – a teenage runaway, a young woman grieving her sister, a Chinese immigrant hoping to find a better life in the nation-state – Thiam Chin effectively explores themes of love, loss and longing.

Never Been Better was preceded by 2006’s Free-Falling Man, another collection of short stories, and will soon be followed by a collection of micro-fiction later this year, and a possible novel, which would be his first.

Such literary dexterity and prolific output is all the more astonishing from someone who only realized he wanted to be a writer five years ago, following careers in telecommunications, the media and marketing, and even an afternoon of acting for Singaporean series Crimewatch, (“Really really bad” and “embarrassing”, he says).

Although Thiam Chin wrote his first short story at 21 while serving a compulsory two-and-a-half-year army stint – “that was because I had nothing to do” – it was almost a decade before he returned to creative writing.

He originally studied mechatronics (mechanical engineering) for three years due to a “herd mentality”, as all his friends were doing it.

“Plus my O levels results weren’t that great, so there weren’t many courses I could choose from. At that point of my life, it seemed like the right thing to do,” he admits.

Once he started working as an engineer, he “didn’t see a future in it” and turned to marketing and PR, which was “quite fun” and helped him develop his writing skills.

But it was only while pursuing a part-time graduate course in English Literature and Language that he realized he wanted to spend his life writing his own stories.

“I took the course to become a better reader… I didn’t realize it would make me want to write,” he says, explaining the exposure to so many good writers proved inescapably inspirational.

This was in 2005. His first break was a short story about gay prostitution for Best of Singapore Erotica.

“The editor loved it… so he asked me to write a second piece… so I wrote a second piece about orgies,” he says.

Since then he’s volleyed between writing full-time and media and marketing jobs, as well as writing for magazines and websites. Currently, he’s freelancing and tutoring high school students, to free up more time to realize his seemingly nonstop flow of ideas.

So many ideas in fact, that while Never Been Better was in the proofing process, he set himself a challenge to write 50 micro-fiction (500-word) stories in as many days, providing MPH, his Malaysian publisher, with another book in almost no time at all.

But it hasn’t always been so effortless. After he finished his first collection of short stories in 2006, he wasn’t able to find a local publisher, so self-published Free Falling Man using iUniverse, an online self-publishing company, in what proved to be a relatively “painless” three-month process.

“It was a good learning experience, for me as a new writer, to know what went into the whole publishing process so that I was more aware and appreciative of all the hard work that had been put to it when it came to my second book,” he says.

Thiam Chin describes the Singaporean publishing world as closed.

“You have to either be really, really talented, or outspoken or well-connected.”

He remarks that many Singaporeans don’t read local literature unless they’re doing a literature course.

“It’s because it’s boring. Talking about the same thing again and again, first generational drift, postcolonialism… I don’t feel a lot of that,” he says.

“My parents didn’t struggle with a postcolonial identity… so I don’t see the need for it in my literature. I prefer to escape from the reality I have… a land can be a fixed place, but it can also be imaginary, illusory, like Haruku Murakami’s Japan.

“But I think new works from new writers like Cyril Wong are good. He’s a talented writer who can write whatever he wants, with daring and originality.

“I like Alfian Sa’at and Claire Tham too. They write about many aspects of life in Singapore with a piercing but sympathetic clarity that appeals to me.”

Regardless of the lackluster Singaporean interest, it seems Thiam Chin’s work is beginning to reach a wider audience. A woman based in Sweden was so taken with one of his stories that she had it translated and managed to get it published in a Swedish literary journal.

“She’s a godsend,” he says, adding he’s hoping his stories will also be translated into Japanese.

In Never Been Better, Thiam Chin presents the perspective of several female characters, from a girl who attempts to commit suicide to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage.

He says he writes about women because he finds them much harder to pin down than men, and wants to understand them better.

“By writing, I write some of mystery out, some of my questions, doubts, some of my curiosity. To me women are the foreign land… I see women as friends, as foes, as so many things at once… I understand how a man would feel, their ego, their entity, wanting to be a provider… but a woman, I can never get it down right.

“I don’t think I can actually pin down 100 percent woman, one profile that fits everybody… that’s why I find it so interesting. Every woman has her own take on relationships. That’s why women’s magazines sell. I think there are only a few kinds of men.

“I also wanted to explore the kind of relationship where you have to stay together no matter what… is it love, is it poverty?” he says, referring to the domestic abuse victim in his story “Turning a Blind Eye”.

In addition to violence and suicide, Thiam Chin also addresses the fluidity of human sexuality. This attention to controversial subjects is unintentional, he says.

“I don’t choose to write with a particular theme or subject matter in mind. I simply let my story dictate itself and go along with it. It’s only when the story is done, and I take a step back and look at it, and it becomes clearer that it had done certain things, or addressed some particular issues. But I never side-step difficult subjects.

“Writing allows me to explore the mystery of man and humanity in all its profoundness, depravity and loves.”

While his style is often realist, he’s become more interested in magical realism, recently completing a story about a girl who falls in love with a bird boy, a story of first love that apparently resonated deeply even with friends who aren’t fond of reading.

“It’s difficult… my voice said you’re going to suck at that, you’re going to make a mess… I ignored the voice and kept writing,” he says.

His next challenge will be a novel, which he hopes to complete this year. Inspired by a story by Jhumpa Lahiri, he plans to use the 2004 tsunami as a backdrop, against which he’ll explore the dynamics of two couples, one straight and one gay.

“Initially I planned to set it in Phuket, but I realized I may not be very strong on the details, the places… so I’m thinking of setting it in a nameless country, in a nameless island… it’s easier for me to work with,” he says, adding a strong sense of setting might distract from the psychological exploration.

“*The tsunami is the perfect backdrop to talk about loss, to talk about memories.”

Despite this ambitious premise and the constant challenges he’s been undertaking with considerable success, Thiam Chin remains humble, acknowledging he still has much to learn.

“As a new writer, I’m still not sure about my voice… to me, when you read my stories, it’s very different from one to another, you can never tell if its O Thiam Chin, or O Thiam Chin’s brother.”

Never Been Better is available to buy online at www.mphonline.com.


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Author Notes: Brunonia Barry


Sara Veal

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Brunonia Barry’s passion for storytelling has taken her all over the world, from Dublin to Hollywood. She currently lives in Salem with her husband and her dog Byzantium, who lent his name to one of the characters in The Lace Reader, her first original novel. Originally self-published, The Lace Reader was a local success and eventually became a New York Times bestseller. Her second novel The Map of True Places will be out later this year.

What gave you the inspiration for The Lace Reader?

My husband and I had just moved back to New England after living in California for 15 years. We had purchased an old Victorian house and were in the process of renovating, which included knocking down some walls to enlarge the kitchen space.

Since this promised to be a dusty job, I didn’t unpack many of the boxes that we had shipped, just the bedroom things, which included a small piece of Ipswich lace that my Irish grandmother had given me and that I had always kept on my bedside table.

The first night in our new bedroom, I had a dream that I was holding the piece of lace up to the wall that was about to be removed in the kitchen and looking through the lace in an effort to see what the new kitchen would look like when completed. (Only in the logic of dreams would this make sense.)

But instead of seeing new cabinets and counter tops, I saw a field of horses. It was an odd vision and one that was alarming to me because I am very allergic to horses.

So it was an anxiety dream of sorts, though I had no idea what it meant. The next day, our contractor came in with his crew, and just as they were putting on their masks in preparation for the wall demolition, he turned to me and said, “I hate this old horsehair plaster, it gets into the air and you can never get it out.”

Evidently, New England houses in the late 1800s had horsehair in their plaster. Needless to say, we didn’t knock down that wall. The dream, my first lace reading, saved me from a trip to the emergency room. I assumed that lace reading was something I had heard about and then forgotten. But, after looking for lace readers for the last eight years, I have come to believe that it is something I dreamed up. Though now, since the book came out, the new Salem witches have started to do lace readings.

What are your views on magic and witchcraft?

Well, there certainly has been a lot of magic in my life, particularly in relation to the book and its success. I think, as a general rule, I believe more in intuition than in magic. I am from a long line of very intuitive women, my mother was so good at predicting events that we called her “The Oracle”.

In my research for the book, I have learned a lot about modern day witches from Salem’s pagan community. I think the old religions like Wicca are not well understood in our modern society. For that reason, I think they are too often maligned, which is a shame. I hope The Lace Reader paints a more realistic and understandable picture.

Which of your characters do you most identify with?

Probably Eva. She was based on my grandmother, though my nieces are certain she was my mother. Eva is the closest to my heritage. But there are certainly elements of me in all the characters. I often say I have a tenuous grip on reality, so it was not difficult for me to imagine the same in Towner, though her experiences in no way match my own. And there’s an element of me in May as well. As a writer, I have a reclusive side, so her life on the island was not difficult to imagine.

Together with your husband, you co-founded a puzzle company. The Lace Reader is like a literary puzzle for the reader to solve. Will all your tales include a puzzle?

My second book, The Map of True Places, which comes out in the US this May, deals with some of the same issues but in a very different way. The common element is that the reader as well as the protagonist must find the truth in a situation that is clearly masked. So, in that way, the stories are similar and do contain some elements of puzzle. I don’t know what my third book will bring.

What is your next novel about?

The Map of True Places
is about navigating your way in the world when you don’t have a map. The main character is a psychotherapist who believes she may have caused the death of a patient. The incident throws her into emotional turmoil causing her to doubt all the choices she has made in her life so far. The book is about her journey to a place she can finally call home.

Although this is your first original fiction novel, you’re clearly a writing veteran. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

The advice I would give them is to stay with it. I started out in my 20s with a bit of success which was not repeated until my 50s. There are many times I might have given up the dream, but, if I had, The Lace Reader would not exist, and this bit of magic would not have happened for me. Another piece of advice would be to write what you want to write and not be attached to the results. If you start thinking about selling a piece, you make all sorts of choices you shouldn’t make. That’s a mistake I made early on and one I would be very careful not to make again.

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Life and death beyond the looking glass


Sara Veal

Audrey Niffenegger’s literary smash debut The Time Traveler’s Wife is a hard act to follow, but her second novel proves she’s not a one hit wonder.

Her Fearful Symmetry
, a modern ghost story involving twins and family secrets against the backdrop of London’s historic Highgate Cemetery, is absorbing and addictive – a high-brow page-turner occasionally reminiscent of Henry James and Charles Dickens at their most macabre.

Julia and Valentina Poole, 20-year-old American “mirror” twins, indolently while away time in their parents’ comfortable home, undecided about what to do with their lives.

They’re finally given direction when their estranged Aunt Elspeth – identical twin to their mother Edie – passes away, bequeathing them all her worldly possessions.

The one stipulation is they have to live together in her London flat beside Highgate Cemetery for one year.

What they don’t know is that Elspeth’s ghost also comes with the flat, a fact that will change their lives forever.

Once again, Niffenegger inserts a fantastic element into a tangible setting, making the uncanny seem plausible without over-explanation. This succeeds largely due to her precise, visual way with language, painting images in the reader’s mind.

Elspeth’s ghostly development is imaginatively expressed – she contains herself within drawers, short-circuits electrical appliances, uses dust as a mode of communication and touches the squirmy souls of the living.

But while The Time Traveler’s Wife centered on the titular characters’ romance, Her Fearful Symmetry is very much an ensemble piece. It’s driven by intense love between the two generations of twins, and several couples, in more or less equal amounts.

In what seems to be a trend for Niffenegger – and doubtless reflective of her own bohemian literary circle – the novel is populated with peculiar but brilliant and articulate characters, which add to its graceful tone.

Julia and Valentina, despite being consecutive university dropouts, are bright autodidacts. Julia, the dominant twin, is endlessly curious while the shyer, frailer Valentina is a whiz with the sewing machine. Although they perform many activities in tandem, they have individual voices, and command empathy in distinct ways.

Their aunt Elspeth, formerly an antique bookseller, was reportedly caustic and witty in life, although her ghost self is a lot more mysterious, even to the reader.

Robert, Elspeth’s younger, compassionate lover and neigh-bor, is writing a doctoral thesis on Highgate Cemetery as well as acting as a voluntary cemetery guide.

He’s an awkward romantic hero, a prize that two generations of women quietly tussle over, and almost as directionless as the twins.

Martin, who occupies the third and final flat in the twins’ building, sets the crossword puzzle for The Guardian and deciphers ancient artifacts for the British Museum.

He also suffers from severe obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition that drives his Dutch wife Marijke, a radio journalist, back to Holland.

Niffenegger portrays his disorder believably, finding both humor and pathos in it. His self-trapping echoes the twins’ impasse and Elspeth’s haunted confinement.

Niffenegger exploits the twin aspect in myriad ways, weaving symmetry into the characterization, using it to explore notions of identity and sibling love. The characters all have an echo or shadow, whether in situation, personality or appearance.

She subtly plants seeds of foreshadowing throughout the narrative, which lends the story a mirror structure that is evident only in hindsight.

This mirror craftily conceals the mystery that propels the tale on – the deeply buried family secret that tore the first set of twins apart. Thankfully, the twist’s unveiling does not deflate the power of the story, which is bolstered by careful character studies and elegant details.

The best of these details and observations are the ones that breathe life into Highgate Cemetery, the core around which many of the characters’ lives revolve.

Through Robert, Niffenegger shares her painstaking research into the historical grounds, educating the reader with gems about famous occupants, such as Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, muse and wife of master painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

With an artist’s eye – her other occupation – she describes the unusual beauty of the grand, mossy graves, conveying the graveyard’s metamorphosis throughout the seasons.

The cemetery may be a place of death, but it is envisaged as soothing and peaceful rather than horrific, for the most part.

Once, in a scene that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, the cemetery finally becomes sinister, casting a gothic glow on those complicit in a horrific act.

A strong sense of contemporary London and all its nooks and crannies also comes forth, through Julia and Valentina, who are new to the city, and have differing responses to its confusion and bustle, further hinting at the fundamental divisions between them.

The colors of the city contrast with the grays and greens of the graveyard, emphasizing the contained universe atmosphere of the latter.

Befitting the graveyard-centric setting, a sense of melancholy pervades, building toward further devastation. Many of the characters deal with grief and regret: Edie for her lost sister, Robert for his lover, Martin for his separated wife, Elspeth for a life tainted by secrets. When the worst happens, the reader too will share a sense of loss and revulsion.

Yet the bittersweet finale is somehow also uplifting. Niffenegger finds beauty in the horror, and grants all her lovingly rendered characters the endings they deserve, ones that ring true within the novel’s context.

It’s an ending that admittedly felt unsatisfying the first time around, but develops over time, particularly with the benefit of a reread, which, as mentioned, highlights the careful mirror construction below the surface.

Niffenegger has once again proved herself as a formidable and distinctive author, one that will hopefully continue to deliver this kind of sublime, easily digestible reflection on the human condition for a long time to come.

Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger
Jonathan Cape Ltd, 400 pages

Special offer Present this page at Aksara Kemang to receive a 10% discount on an imported fiction title

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Write your own happy endings


Sara Veal

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series wrapped up in 2007, but for Dian, a 40-year-old housewife in Bandung, the story continues.

While her kids are at school and her husband is at the office, she finds time to craft tales about her favorite characters, sharing them with fellow Indonesian Harry Potter fans on www.fanfiction.net, the largest and most popular fan fiction online archive.

The Bandung mother of three is just one of many Indonesians involved in the genre of creative writing known as fan fiction, which involves fans of an original work – be it literature, cinema, comics or even video games – writing their own stories revolving around original characters and settings, often adding new characters and extending the author’s world.

Dian, who has been involved in fan fiction since 2001, also writes about Japanese manga series Naruto, American television series Supernatural and American animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. She enjoys that the characterization is ready-made, enabling her to focus on plotting and take a beloved tale in new directions.

“Like, if someone dies in the book, and we could write that they didn’t die, or something like that. Or, if the writer didn’t tell us about something, we could write it ourselves,” says Dian who often writes about Severus Snape, Harry’s grumpy and conflicted teacher.

Works of fan fiction are rarely professionally published, although a few highly popular fan fiction writers have attained publishing deals, such as Cassandra Clare, who wrote The Very Secret Diaries, using J.R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings characters.

Her bestselling The Mortal Instruments trilogy has attracted its own fandom, a term that refers to the subculture that gathers around a particular work.

Although fan fiction is largely associated with the Internet – and certainly exploded with its advent -the form has likely been around as long as stories have, and has much overlap with re-tellings, parody and homage.

In the 17th century, unauthorized sequels to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote appeared, to which the author fiercely responded. Earlier forms of fan fiction can be seen concerning King Arthur’s tale in the 8th century and in medieval Arabic fiction, especially in the case of Arabian Nights, which inspired and encompassed many parodies of existing tales.

Clare follows in the fantastic footsteps of Frances Hodges Burnett (The Little Princess) and E. Nesbit (The Five Children and It), who both wrote their own versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland at the turn of the 20th century.

Modern fan fiction has its roots in 1960s Star Trek fanzines, which bred many of the conventions and terminology used today, although the fast interplay of the Internet leads to many new terms.

A new fan-fiction enthusiast might feel a little lost with the jargon, but most of it is intuitive shorthand. “Slash”, for examples, refers to same-sex-relationship-focused fan fiction, linking to the slash (/) symbol between the pairs’ names (Spock/Kirk), while “fanfic” is a shortening of fan fiction, and “ship” or “shipper” is a shortening of relationship, referring to a writer’s interest in pairing characters not involved in the canonical work.

Fan fiction can arguably be used as a barometer for popular culture. Dian’s favorite Harry Potter currently has one of the most thriving fan-fiction communities in the world. A search on fanfiction.net reveals 2,700 related communities and 47,000 stories, while harrypotterfanfiction.com boasts that it hosts 60,000 stories and podcasts.

In Indonesia, the boy wizard’s fandom is relatively small. The most popular is Naruto, accompanied by other popular manga and anime, with Indonesian fans writing mainly in Indonesian and English.

Involvement in fan fiction seems almost inevitable for those passionate about storytelling, if only subconsciously.

Melissa Chandra, 22, a recent English graduate from Atma Jaya University, says even before she encountered fan fiction in 2003, thanks to her newly installed screen-reader – she is sight-impaired – she “used to dream about tweaking the story” she knew (at the time, The Lord of the Rings) “into a different ending or lengthening the story beyond its “official’ end”.

“I saw it just as the creative part of my mind being too mischievous. Until now, I still see it like this: The story unknowingly ‘invites’ me to play in its *sandbox’ to challenge my own creativity,” says Melissa, who participates in fandoms related to Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle, Harry Potter and Tolkien’s writings.

“The only reward from that ‘game’ is when I can pull out a story alike yet unlike its original from all the mess I have created.”

Duckie, 40, a secretary who lives in Jakarta, mainly writes Supernatural slash fanfic, and first became involved in 2002, when a friend set up a website for anime/manga Gensoumaden Saiyuki.

“She asked if I could fill in the ‘fan fiction’ section. I had no idea; I just wrote what came in my mind.”

Eve, 34, Jakarta-based freelance translator, has participated in fan fiction since the late 1990s, when she first learned how to use the Internet. While she had written her own fiction beforehand, she found in fan fiction a twin opportunity to write about her favorite characters and hone her writing skills, developing a stronger authorial voice.

“Writing fanfic helps me practice my writing, and comments from those who read my fanfics help me recognize my strengths and weaknesses,” says Eve, who is currently writing an anime/manga/wuxia fan fiction.

Duckie agrees, revealing that before writing fan fiction, she had never dared to write in English. Like Dian, she also feels relieved to bypass character building, her weakness.

“Writing fan fiction I don’t have to worry about it. The characters are there, shaped and ready. All I have to think about is what kind of situations I want to put them in,” she says.

“It’s challenging as I learned on the way that there are rules I should follow to be able to make the story interesting and bearable to read. And if you write really well, lots of fans do read the stories and appreciate them.”

Studies, such as one by Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic Sharon Cumberland (“Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture”), have repeatedly demonstrated that women dominate fan fiction.

Melissa theorizes this is because “women have more knack of creativity to see what men have not seen”.

“And, well, who have ever heard the term fan-boys?” she asks.

“Usually girls are more insecure than boys too… That is why there are many *Mary Sues’ [idealized characters standing in for the author] littering the fan-fiction world.”

Eve guesses “it’s because women are usually more willing to spend time doing their hobbies”.

“Maybe because there’s some kind of romanticism in writing fan fiction,” Duckie suggests.

Community is another important aspect of fan fiction, with fellow fans sharing stories and offering constructive criticism, on sites such as Livejournal and fanfiction.net.

Duckie describes her own community as “bat-s**t crazy” but notes her favorite fan-fiction authors include one of her closest friends and her beta reader, someone analogous to an editor for a professional author. A beta reader reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, offering suggestions for improvement, before the work is publicly shared.

Eve appreciates getting to learn how others interpret canon and having the chance to discover good writers.

Melissa describes herself as a “loner” on the sites she posts on, but adds she has a few online friends who share her addictions.

“In a way, every site is like a very large, very diverse community, because often times we recognize the authors’/reviewers and their stories and/or the style of their reviews. Almost like meeting them physically.”

Alongside their devotion to fan fiction, creating their own stories remains a priority.

Dian says writing fan fiction encourages her to write original stories, although “sometimes writing non-fan fiction also encourages me to write fan fiction”.

Eve, who recently completed a non-fan-fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009, says she’s since been working more on original fiction, some of which is shared on her personal site athousandsakura.net.

Returning to her sandbox analogy, Melissa says that “the sandbox never grows bigger, while one’s mind does, especially when given a lot of stimuli”.

“The longer I try my hand on an original story, the cleaner it is from outside influences.”

Duckie has similar sentiments and aspirations.

“Original fiction has always been my passion,” she says. “Writing fan fiction helps my writing style and what I really want to write about.”

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Neil Gaiman: The prince of stories


Sara Veal

He’s transformed Death into a likable young woman and conjured a happy childhood for an orphan raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Unsurprisingly, Neil Gaiman is unafraid of dying.

“If my plane goes down tomorrow, I’m in great shape, I’m not going to go down going, god, wouldn’t it have been good if I’d just had cool kids, or written a good children’s book, or made a movie or something like that, because I’ve done all that stuff… I’ve had this amazing life.”

The 49-year-old British author was at the last Singapore Writers’ Festival, along with American rock star girlfriend Amanda Palmer, of Dresden Dolls’ fame, where he treated more than 1,000 fans to three Q&As and two mammoth signing sessions, and spoke with The Jakarta Post about his creative collaborations, including the project with Palmer that resulted in their romance.

With his dishevelled hair and all-black clothing, Gaiman resembles the Sandman, the graphic novel character that brought him to public consciousness, setting the stage for a career writing about myths and magic across several media: comics, novels, short stories, poems, film, music and theatre.

He also sounds like his stories, which include Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust. Not horrific and creepy, as they can be, but like the tone in which he conveys such horrors and creeps – his voice is melodic and friendly.

These soft, trans-Atlantic tones – a blend of his southern England upbringing and decades of living in America – can transform convincingly into those who feature in his anecdotes, from the nasal American accent of David Lynch (Blue Velvet) to Alan Moore’s (Watchmen) gruff Midlands brogue.

As befitting a man who has made his fortune “making things up and writing them down”, he pulls stories from thin air, like one about his Singaporean hosts’ possibly insidious motives for feeding him so well.

“There is a Singapore snack called Stuffed Author… it is produced by taking a visiting author and feeding them good things until they can eat no more, and then cutting them up into delicious slices and serving them to the people of Singapore.”

Since his first book, a 1984 Duran Duran biography, Gaiman has been prolific, winning countless literary awards.

Several of these award-winning projects have involved collaboration, his knack for creative teamwork honed during his Sandman days, with artists like Dave McKean.

“The great thing about collaborations is that they are always accidental and they’re always organic if they’re going to work,” he says, singling out Terry Pratchett (with whom he wrote Good Omens, his first fiction novel) and Palmer as his favorites.

Who Killed Amanda Palmer
consists of images of Palmer in a range of death poses, taken by photographer Kyle Cassidy, accompanied by “very short stories, at the end of which there’s always a dead Amanda Palmer”, written by Gaiman.

“Nobody had ever written to me before and said, I have lots of photos of myself dead, and in some cases naked, and would like you to write some stories to accompany them,” he says, explaining why he agreed to work with a person he had only so far met by email, through a mutual friend, musician Jason Webley.

“I thought, this is one of those projects that you do that’s definitely never going to have an impact on the rest of your life… a tiny little goofy thing that I’ll do for a few days and will be funny and fun… so I said yes,” he says smiling at the woman he describes as the “world’s coolest girlfriend”.

The couple reteamed for Gaiman’s directorial debut, Statuesque, a short, silent film about human statues – Palmer was a former human statue – that stars Bill Nighy and screened on British television in December.

Not all of his collaborations have turned out well, he notes, recounting his attempt to work with hero Lynch on a film, who wished to end their mystery film on the moon.

“And that was the moment. I said, this is not going to work… I can’t start a detective story and then end it with *we are on the moon, end of story’.”

Adaptation is also integral to Gaiman’s work. Coraline and Stardust were made into films, and he wrote the English version of Princess Mononoke and Beowulf screenplay.

The key to adaptation, he says, is to “*translate’ and not *transliterate'”. For his own work, he either selects a director he admires, as he did with Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who will film The Graveyard Book, or allow a filmmaker to “get on with it”, as he did with Henry Selick, who made Coraline.

Despite his stratospheric success, Gaiman remains accessible for his millions of fans via the Internet, which he considers “the best communication tool that humanity has ever come up with”.

On www.neilgaiman.com, he offers insight into his daily activities and answers readers’ questions, and regularly Twitters (@neilhimself). He also used the web to promote The Graveyard Book, which he read in nine parts in as many American cities.

He recommends aspiring fantasy writers put their work on the web, as “you’re an email away from any agent in the world” and will “learn, when you see it printed… how people react to it”.

Fantasy is just one genre Gaiman has been associated with; he has also been tarred with “sci-fi” or “horror” brushes, reflecting his indefinability. He discounts the stigma others might see in genre fiction, pointing out that graphic novels with which he started have only lately become “hip and cool”.

His genre-crossing writing, noted for its unpredictability, reflects how he sees the world.

For example, short story “Snow Glass Apples” came about when he read a version of Snow White, and was struck by the peculiarity of a prince falling in love with a dead girl in a coffin, especially one with “skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood, and hair as black as coal”.

“So suddenly I have this version of Snow White in my head in which she’s a vampire and he’s a necrophile and I think right, I’ll just tell it from the point of view of the wicked queen, and I’ll demonstrate that the big problem with history and folk tales is that they’re written by the winners, and the problem with the wicked queen was not that she was wicked, it was that she didn’t go far enough. Obviously, trying to cut out Snow White’s heart was a very sensible thing to do.”

His current project is based on Monkey: Journey to West, and will be his first nonfiction book since 1988’s Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion.

Monkey has fascinated Gaiman since childhood. His father bought a “beautiful, hardback, illustrated edition” before he was born, but could not locate it when he was ready to present it to the seven-year-old Gaiman, leading it to seem like “this glorious magical book with everything in it”.

He pitched the project to his publisher following a trip to China in 2007, after being surprised by many facets of Chinese culture, and because Monkey came up in every conversation he would have with people about China and literature.

“It’s historical, its mythic, it’s about stories, it’s got demons in it, and it also has me, doing a wonderfully inept journey to the West, and running into interesting problems, and having strange things happen to me.”

Such things include exploring a disused Monkey amusement park, which contained a Buddhist hell of people being “ripped apart and crushed”, chatting to the last of several generations of Monkey actors, and a man trying to sell him a human elbow outside a ruined temple.

Writing the book, he expects, will take up most of 2010, and it “will probably be published extremely shortly after it is finished”.

While he’s satisfied with his achievements to date, he preferred writing when he was younger, because it was as if he got to “invent the wheel every time”.

“Even when I start something that I think I’ve never done before, I can perceive echoes of previous ways that I’ve done things… it’s harder for me to go this is the first time.”

Still, he’s unlikely to quit writing anytime soon.

“There are so many stories I have to tell, set all over the place, it’s just a matter of how many I can fit in, before I forget to look both ways crossing the street, or get turned into snacks by Singaporeans.”

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A not-so grave coming of age


Sara Veal

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman’s tale about a boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard, will delight and spook readers of all ages.

Liberally sprinkled with the master storyteller’s inimitable blend of humor and horror, this coming of age story with a twist will stay with you long after the final page has turned.

One night, a sinister figure murders a family, with the exception of the fourth and final member, a baby boy. The child manages to elude his would-be killer, and is unusually granted refuge in the nearby graveyard. His ghostly adoptive parents dub him Nobody Owens, Bod for short, an inconspicuous name they hope will keep him safe from the man who still wishes him dead. While the murderer lurks in the background, waiting to finish his ghastly task, Bod attends to the serious business of growing up, encountering adventures and friends along the way.

A child raised in a strange environment is a concept we have encountered many times – Gaiman confirms his debt to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in the acknowledgements. Yet he makes this rendition all his own, subverting traditional elements with extraordinary details, and including the trademarks fans have come to expect: an unassuming protagonist; a quirky but truly threatening villain; a weird world that borders reality; and lashings of mystery, horror, fantasy and comedy.

Gaiman’s prose is typically poetic yet precise, with even the fancier words comprehensible through context. His distinctive voice compels the reader to flip each page. Although the novel’s opening is a master class in horror – “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife” – nothing is graphically described, but the absence of specifics allows the imagination to run wild. The text is littered with insights (the feeling of making a new friend, losing a father) that ground the supernatural tale in reality, making the fantastic feel familiar.

The graveyard, an overgrown historical site that is now a nature reserve, is at once Bod’s home, playground, school and sanctuary. Gaiman fully exploits the setting’s potential, filling the imaginary space to the brim with admirable invention and memorable inhabitants. Bod learns his alphabet from tombs and headstones, and history firsthand from graveyard residents that span the centuries. There, the lad witnesses marvelous sights, such as the mysterious danse macabre and the stately Lady on the Grey. This land of death is sometimes very scary, but most of the time, it feels safer than the unknown world beyond its gates, which contains menaces both mundane and mystical.

Bod is a winning creation, simultaneously likable and creepy. He’s kind, curious and brave, and never hesitates to set right what he sees as wrong – a friend without a headstone, bullies who extort pocket money from smaller children – but his methods are sometimes ruthless. Thanks to his graveyard lessons, he can instill fear into his foes’ hearts and direct their dreams into nightmares. His development throughout the book is palpable, and when the tale ends, it feels there’s more ahead for our hero.

The motley, mostly dead, folk who populate the graveyard ring with a cacophony of unique voices. With rhythmic dialogue and neat turns of phrase, Gaiman breathes life into an array of characters, from an 11th century witch (“Never stole nuffink, not even a handkerchief”) to a gruff Eastern European historian (“A nickname. I do not approve. I will call you *boy'”).

Mr. and Mrs. Owens, dead for 300 years, are warm and firm parents, despite their insubstantial forms. Bod’s beloved guardian Silas, who is neither dead nor alive (it’s never stated explicitly, but you should be able to guess exactly what he is), is enigmatic and fearsome, and destined to become a literary favorite. Scarlett, Bod’s only living friend, is as bright, confident and as vivacious as her name would suggest.

The villains include the murderer, Jack; a mercenary pawn shop owner; monkey-like ghouls, with strangely grand names – the 33rd President of the United States, the Bishop of Bath and Wells – and adolescent bullies. These grim characters both tickle the funny bones and incite shivers, in varying doses, to excellent effect. In the best tradition of children’s storytelling, Gaiman never shies away from the horrible, understanding that young minds can handle being scared, and often thrill in it. He knows that the real world is much more intimidating than anything even the finest writer can conjure between the pages of a book – and his judicious use of reality successfully increases the scares.

Aside from the obvious tribute to Kipling, Gaiman’s tale is rich with pastiche and allusion, revealing surprises upon each reread. Robinson Crusoe and Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat appear as Bod’s reading material, to name a few literary cameos. A sequence in which several characters seek to protect Bod would not be out of place in a comic book, as does Bod’s dream-walking excursions, calling attention to Gaiman’s graphic novel roots, without distracting.

As an added bonus, the Harper Collins edition of the text is illustrated by Gaiman’s longtime collaborator Dave McKean. His watery black-and-white etchings echo Gaiman’s descriptions, clarifying the images you are likely to have already conjured.

Dark, wonderful and astute, The Graveyard Book definitely wins a place on the shelves next to the great classics of children’s literature. It’s the kind of story that your children will read again when they’re older and want to share with their own children.

Special offer: Present this page at Aksara Kemang to receive a 10% discount on an imported fiction title. Offer valid until Saturday Jan. 9, 2010.

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Bloomsbury/Harper Collins, 320 pp.

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John Ajvide Lindqvist : Monsters, magic and Morrissey


Sara Veal

John Ajvide Lindqvist doesn’t like vampires, and hasn’t the slightest idea why the fanged ones are so in vogue.

“There’s such an immense amount of rubbish,” says the Swedish writer. “It’s so sad because when you go to the bookstore, in the horror section, half of the books are about vampires.”

Yet his own debut novel, Let the Right One In, features a romance between a vampire and a boy – and is an international bestseller that has been translated into 28 languages and adapted into a multi-award-winning film.

The 40-something novelist was speaking at the 13th Biennial Singapore Writers Festival last month, at a “Meet the Author” Q&A and to The Jakarta Post.

In person, he belies his novel’s disturbing tone that deftly mixes the socio-realistic horrors of bullying and alcoholic fathers with supernatural ones such as zombie rapists and bloodsucking children – as well as the beautiful melancholy of the film, for which he wrote the screenplay.

He punctuates his speech with lively gestures, emphatic sounds and a reverberating laugh that competes with the Hammer-horror-worthy thunderclaps outside.

When he began Let the Right One In in 2001, he had no idea vampires were going to be so popular. He simply wanted to portray his 1980s adolescence in Blackeberg, a Stockholm suburb, but with the addition of a fantastic element to see how this would affect the suburb and its inhabitants.

“I wasn’t even sure that this thing was going to be a vampire, but as it turned out, I decided I wanted my protagonist Oskar [based on himself] to befriend the monster or the horrible thing … a vampire was the most suitable monster.”

Becoming a horror writer – let alone the foremost Swedish horror writer today, dubbed his country’s Stephen King – was similarly unintentional.

Although he is a lifelong “horror aficionado”, devouring books by King, Clive Barker – his favorite – and Dean Koontz and obsessively watching horror movies (“as soon as I could sneak in . you had to be 15, but I was 13”) – his original “great purpose” in life was to be a magician.

At 18, he came second in the Nordic Card Championships, but realized he enjoyed speaking on stage more than performing tricks. He then turned to stand-up, but found he was more interested in creating new material than honing jokes, and began writing for “more famous” comedians and television.

Meanwhile, he strove to be “a Writer with a big W”, trying to write plays, novels, short stories and poetry, without much satisfaction.

Eventually, he tried his hand at horror, attempting a short story, which he says was “not really a good story” but was “quite exciting”, petrifying himself and his wife as he read it out load.

The experiment prompted him to pen Let the Right One In, an exhilarating, seven-month process.

“When I was trying to write *serious’ literature . I was like sweating over every sentence . But while writing *Let the Right One In*, it was like, I know how to do this, I know what’s going to happen, this is easy!” he says.

“Horror is the maximum open genre; you can basically write about anything … you just have to make it believable.”

Let the Right One In was initially rejected by several publishers, leading Lindqvist to shelve it and start another. It was finally published in 2004, and quickly became popular, assuring a new career.

Lindqvist’s feverish productivity seems to have found the ideal outlet. Since 2004, he’s published two more novels, Handling the Undead and Human Harbour, and completed a fourth, Little Star, in October; three more are planned, in addition to a short story collection, Paper Walls, and several screenplays.

Yet his magical and comedic past still seeps into his present.

Magicians figure in Human Harbour and a recent film script. While signing books, he performed card tricks for fans, and exudes a natural stage presence.

Comedy and horror are similar, he says, as both involve explorations of the unexpected, and his experience performing for an audience informs his writing – he is always aware of his readers.

With the horrible and the fantastic, Lindqvist prefers to part with clich*s and consider how to apply such elements to reality.

In Let the Right One In, he depicts vampirism without “sparkle”, glamour or sex appeal.

“It would be an impoverished, disgusting existence … Basically, being a child living with a terrible disease, and having to kill people in order to survive,” he says.

However, Lindqvist doesn’t discount Stephenie Meyer’s romantic creations.

“My 12-year-old son is reading *the Twilight Saga books and really likes them so I will read the first one, at least.”

In Handling the Undead, he explores the concept of peaceful zombies, monsters he prefers to vampires.

“Because that’s a staple of almost every zombie story, they’re aggressive and there tends to be a war in the end … Also, every zombie is someone’s sister, father, brother … you would have a relationship with these dead people.”

Human Harbour
features vengeful ghosts, Little Star has shape-shifting wolves and there are trolls in Paper Walls. This supernatural theme will continue for at least his next three novels, as will the Swedish setting.

His devotion to British singer Morrissey and The Smiths is another ingredient he weaves into all his stories. Let the Right One In refers to Morrissey’s song, “Let the Right One Slip In”, as well the myth of vampires needing to be invited into homes.

“I need them as emotional equipment for what I’m writing … I know that this chapter should sound or have the feel as this song by Morrissey or The Smiths … it somehow sets the pace with the quote … I use it to push myself on,” he says, adding he includes quotes from his poet wife too.

A real-life encounter doesn’t appeal though.

“*A Swedish newspaper* wanted me to interview him and I said yes, because I couldn’t say no, but I didn’t really want to do it … you shouldn’t meet your idols.”

He is more interested in his upcoming interview with King. While he feels they’re very different writers, he acknowledges King has likely influenced him subconsciously, and lauds the other author’s “no-nonsense attitude towards writing”.

“He’s not a writer with a big W… *His approach is, ‘I hope you like them, I try to make them as good as I can, and make each new one better’.”

He has a similar literary approach, writing chronologically for about a year at a time, and says his strength is stubbornness.

“Stories for me are much more ways of creating bridges and pathways to images that I simply can’t let go of … this gives my stories a certain amount of intensity, because I believe so much in these images.”

Lindqvist aims for high-quality popular culture, citing Pan’s Labyrinth as the epitome. He has been hands on with adapting his novels, all of which seem destined for the screen, insisting on writing the screenplays himself.

“If someone else f***ed it up, I would hate this person for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to feel that way towards anyone,” he says.

Fifteen directors wanted to adapt Let the Right One In
. He chose Tomas Alfredson, whose film Four Shades of Brown he considers “very funny, very dark, perfect, melodramatic, wonderful, heartbreaking”.

He was moved to tears by the result – “for me the book and film feel almost exactly the same” – so he and Alfredson plan to team up again to film Human Harbour, after Kristian Petri directs Handling the Undead.

“I really want to make Swedish movies … I had to fight a lot with the Swedish production companies because they want to sell it to American production companies as there would be more money in the project,” he says.

However, he is looking forward to Hollywood’s version of Let the Right One In, renamed Let Me In, which Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves will direct.

“It can’t possibly be better because I love the Swedish version, but it will be different, and I think that’s good.”

With so many projects on the go, and his recognition on the rise, one wonders if it challenges his writing process?

“No, I don’t let this affect the way I write or what I write . the story takes me in. This problem might apply to writing a series … but I still haven’t written a series,” he says, adding the nearest thing is a 10-page epilogue to Let the Right One In, called “Let the Old Dreams Die” (the next line of the song), to be included in Little Star.

Lindqvist confesses he always wanted to be famous, although he does not aspire to being a “literary rock star” like fellow SWF attendee Neil Gaiman.

“But it would sadden me if I couldn’t at least keep this level of fame,” he says, with a twinkle.

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