NOW THAT IT'S OVER
A writer's life with O Thiam Chin
O Thiam Chin is accustomed to awards and accolades. He is the recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literary Art in 2012, was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award three times. Last year, he won the inaugural Epigram Prize — the largest literature prize in Singapore’s history.
This gave me high hopes for Now That It’s Over, and it did not disappoint. Having enjoyed it immensely, I met up with Thiam Chin over coffee and got a chance to talk about the writer’s life and the novel before its impending release.
What inspired Now That It’s Over? Was it the tsunami in Phuket? Was it the Ewan McGregor movie?
I love the movie and Naomi Watts was really good in it. But, the seed of the novel actually came a few months after the incident in Phuket. In fact, in the same month as the incident in 2004, a journalist friend thought I was holidaying in Thailand (he thought I was in Phuket but I was in Bangkok actually) and called to find out about my experience there. I said that I’m back in Singapore and that I have no idea what you’re talking about. But because of that, I became curious about something that happened very close to home. Not to Singapore, because we’re protected by the geographic impossibility but I thought it [Phuket] was very near. These are places that I go to, like Bangkok, Phuket, etc. It happened so close by that I might even know people who might be on holiday there, or even friends of friends on holiday. It felt close enough for me to feel something for it. But then, I took a break. The idea was there but I didn’t want to pursue it as I felt that I wasn’t ready. Some materials are just not ready. The seed was there but it takes time. So, I had it for a while. I gave myself another few more years. It was only a few months before heading to Iowa in 2010 that I realised I needed a longer project. I’ve been writing short stories since 2004. I self-published my first collection in 2005 and another collection in 2006. I felt that I needed to do something else. And you know as a writer, you want to sell a novel. Most publishers don’t want a short story collection, they want a novel. So, I felt the need to produce a novel. But, what story would have the scope? The magnitude? Of course! Disaster. Obviously, right? You can’t do a blockbuster about the interior life.
I thought this story would give me enough scope and wavelength to explore. And I did. I didn’t want to do a single narrative kind of story as I felt that something of this magnitude deserved multiple voices. Voicing about different aspects of this tragic disaster. So, I thought about couples. If I travel with you, how you see and experience the disaster will be different from me. I thought about doing a full spectrum of voices so - two couples and all of them become separated after the tsunami. They have to embark on a journey. An odyssey. When you face things like that, you are changed. And thousands of people lost their lives there. I’m only talking about four lives and this tiny, tiny aspect and the impact on them.
You started in 2010 and you finished in 2014?
Yes. I then put it in my drawer for a year.
Why did you put it away?
Don’t you cold storage things for a while?
Sure, but when did you know to take it out of cold storage?
I felt that when I completed the story in 2014, it was somewhat ready but it had not settled. There were certain things that I’m uncomfortable with. I knew there were certain scenarios, certain plots, certain things that were not tied up to my satisfaction. I felt that I needed some time. During 2014, I had this period of intensive revision and I needed a break to let my mind see other things. After I put it away, I got myself a full time job and became distracted with other things. I then went back and did another round of readings. I think as a writer you improve through readings. I went through this whole year of readings. When I came back and looked at it, I was like “Oh no. Oh no.”, you know?
Yeah. After a break, you come back and you asked yourself, “I wrote this?”
Yeah! There was so much room to just improve the basics, the foundational things, and so I took it out. I dismantled it. I moved things around. I did like ten versions of it before submitting it for the Epigram book prize. My editor Jason got back to me and took out another 30% off. From a 100,000 word novel, I now have about 75,000 words.
That’s about the right amount, usually 75,000-90,000.
Yeah, but initially, it was a 100k. I thought my cut was necessary, but his cut was essential. I’m glad that Jason took an outsider’s view of the script. He’s not shy about cutting of which I’m very grateful. You tend to be very precious about your own work.
It’s your baby.
Usually you take a hair or two off, but he was taking an ear off and then an eye for it to become a decent human being. He proposed a few points-of-view that should be changed. I was a bit apprehensive but after reading it a couple of times, I love the changes.
Now That It’s Over is your first novel. What’s your second novel? Did you already have it or are you still in the process of finding it?
Mackerel would be the first place that I’m sharing this with. I’m working through a story collection. One of the pieces in my story collection is this long piece, about 10,000 words, that talks about the fox spirit. I wrote that from one point of view and I felt that there are characters in the story that I can expand and branch out from. I was thinking of doing it from different accounts. I personally don’t like single narrative. It’s old and traditional. I was thinking of trying something new to me. Actually, it’s not new to me[laughing] because I did it for Now That It’s Over, multiple voices contributing to one core idea.
This new story is a fantasy, right?
It’s more of a mixed genre. Obviously, with the fox spirit, it can’t move into the realist. I want to do a bit speculative and a bit of crime. There will be a PI (private investigator) inside it. I want to try it because I’ve never tried the crime genre before. I want to have a little bit of fun.
How far along are you?
I only finished that one bit and I’m having a discussion with my editor about maybe taking it out of the collection. In my mind, it stands perfectly as a short story. I’ve been thinking what I should be doing with my next book. I want to move to another project as I want to keep my mind occupied. I was thinking of taking it out first and putting it in storage for a while. I’ll think of other characters that can support the story. I’m pretty excited. I estimate its going to be about 40,000-50,000 words.
I thought you were also working on a zombie story.
That’s already done. Still needs some work but my editor likes it. It was one of those stories that you write in a moment of inspiration. There are certain plots that aren’t explained but it’s a quiet kind of zombie story.
You’ve written in a variety of formats — short story, novel, screenplay — which one is your favorite?
The short story. Always.
How do you pick which format for which story?
Most of the time, I usually perceive it as a short story. It’s only when I sit down and work out the ideas that it’ll feel like a novel. It takes a longer time to work out the ideas, how things flow, how things connect, and such. For a short story, I can just sit down at a desk. For the zombie one, I knew that I wanted to write a zombie story for a long time. For the story, I had an image of somebody attacking somebody and that’s the first part of my zombie story. For the vampire story, obviously, we’ll be talking about blood. Blood-sucking. So, my first thing will be somebody harvesting blood for a vampire. I don’t see it as a long drawn story for the zombie and vampire but only because I’m working towards that collection. For example, about the fox spirit story I mentioned, the more I wrote, the more I felt the need to justify the existence of the other characters that I have grown to love. The main character isn’t the fox spirit; it’s actually the person who knows about the fox spirit. It was narrated from the point-of-view of that character and the fox spirit felt secondary. But, I have grown to love the fox spirit and I felt that it deserved another story to justify it. Beyond that, I wanted to consider the fact that they really exist in order to inject a realist view. If I tell you that I am a fox spirit, would you believe me? You probably won’t but you’ll hear my story out, right? I, for one, would love to believe that there is a fox spirit in the world, or many spirits actually, and the person listening would have to take your word for it, right? I like that there is this possibility that I can explore, not just the short story but in a longer form.
Which genres so far do you like writing in the best?
Realist. I’m trying out speculative fiction just to try out new things. To get myself interested in different forms of writing. I don’t want to restrict myself to a particular genre. I prefer realist but I realise that there are things that you can tap on like vampires. The vampire tradition goes way, way back in prose and in writing. The vampire tradition has always been there. The zombie tradition too. We go through phases, and I’ve heard from my editor that zombies are on the way down. But these are things that always come back because they fire people’s imagination.
What do you ultimately want to achieve with your writing?
My fantasy is to write the perfect short story. I just need one perfect short story. Every novelist has that one perfect novel. I haven’t found that one perfect short story yet that represents all my work. I feel there’s this need to express myself in this one story. That story will be my swan song. I want to do a short story that represents everything that I have.
So you’ll keep writing for that one story.
Actually, one perfect short story and one perfect novel.
Isn’t Now That It’s Over your perfect novel?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s my first novel. I think my novel about the fox spirit will be my best novel yet. Then, I’ll move on to my third novel and that’ll be my best novel. My benchmark moves [laughter]. I’m thinking of [Kazuo] Ishiguro. His third book The Remains of the Day became his representative work. Then, I read Never Let Me Go and felt that this was his representative work. My benchmark shifted. I suspect his benchmark shifts. I would like to know that my representative work is never done.
That’s good. Are you afraid of running out of stories? I’m honestly afraid of running out of a good story.
Your goal post shifts, right? So what used to be interesting when you were younger might not be so interesting anymore.
Exactly, the ideas don’t work anymore. I’ll script it down and then pass on it later.
I’m worried that I’ll eventually run out. I’m not there yet, but I am worried. You’ve written five collections, over 50 stories, are you not afraid of running out of ideas or recycling ideas?
I don’t think that I’ll run out of ideas. I’m exposed to different mediums — films, graphic novels — and I read widely. I imagine different things. I’ve been watching The Walking Dead for five seasons and only at the beginning of this year did I start considering a zombie story. I didn’t know there was a zombie story inside me. I’ve been reading vampire stories since I was a teenager. I just realised that there was a vampire story inside of me somewhere. I feel that there is always something generating in my head. Sometimes, the idea may not be ripe yet. It’s churning and churning. So, I do something else like the fox spirit. I’m not afraid of running out of ideas because I keep myself open to inspiration. I never thought about doing World War II. Then, the other night as I was watching Son of Saul, I became very affected by it. It was devastating. I’m wrecked by the whole thing. I was thinking, why did they show me only one perspective? I’m filling in the blanks and my imagination creates a lot more horror. The writer side of me feels like there might be a World War II story inside of me. Before, I said that I would never do it. Now, I’m like I should have never said never. [laughter]
[Laughter] But given the relatively small market, I’m surprised that you’re not concerned about your livelihood as a writer.
I always have this fantasy that I can survive as a fiction writer. My bubble keeps getting burst.
You are surviving.
I’m surviving on grants and the SGD$20,000 from the Epigram prize. I’m very, very, very damned lucky.
I don’t think so.
I am, trust me. How do you judge a piece of work? I’ve judged competitions. It’s really just taste and preference. Advocates who fight for your work.
Your work is very good.
The test will come next month. I’m getting a bit anxious. I finished my final edit with Jason and the proofreader. I won’t get to see it. I’m fairly anxious because it’s my first baby. I have short stories to prove my worth but not a novel. If I get crushing reviews, I may start writing under a pseudonym. [laughter]
[Laughter] I’m sure fans of your short stories will read your novel.
They might get turned off.
It’s just your inner critic.
Even though I’ve won an award, I don’t get that sense of confidence.
But, every writer is like that. You always think that you’re a fraud.
I think I have the imposter syndrome. Or maybe I’m just faking it very well [laughter].
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This is the writer’s life, I guess, a lifelong affliction with the imposter syndrome. Here’s hoping O Thiam Chin never finds the cure.
Read Mickey's review of the novel here.
Now That It's Over is available for sale from Epigram.
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This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Photographs by Mackerel.