Interview with Leonora Liow May 03, 2015 22:26

Reading through her manuscript from the early stages of our editing process,
Leonora struck us as a skilful storyteller precise about finding the exact right word for a particular context.

Thus, whenever we introduce Moth Stories to students and teachers at schools, we compare her treatment of her short stories to how a gardener tends to their bonsai with care.

It is because of such attention paid to her craft that we cannot help but feel empathy even for a passing side character with dialogue of no more than two sentences.

A few months after the launch, we speak to Leonora again to find out more about her and how she writes her stories.

Moth Stories is your debut collection. Describe it in one word.

Humanity.

We understand that you like to have your stories sit for a while and “macerate, like wine”. How did you choose which ones to publish when you were piecing together Moth Stories?

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I should say, it was, “ …laid down, like wine.”

I let my stories go after I cannot see how I could further improve on each, short of a major fracturing and recasting of plot or character.

This collection, Moth, might be said to have the common theme of being at the mercy of life’s vagaries, like the creature of the title story, even the ones who think they have all the answers to life: Elizabeth the super-successful mother; Clara the living saint, Li Hwa of Majulah Singapura, so full of good yet short-sighted intentions.

Yet there is also the volition they possess: (a) are they aware of this quality in themselves? (b) do they have the insight to see where it lies? (c ) finally, even if they do see it, do they have the courage to pursue it, even if it means a good hard look at themselves and jettisoning the values that have dictated all their choices and compelled them to a certain fate?

How different would your book be if you had published it earlier?

What do you mean by “earlier”: when I was in my mid-twenties? Thirties? Forties?

If you mean by this then I would say you are addressing them to a different person, not the one who came out with this collection.

If by earlier you mean had I sent them out, say, as and when they were ready, collecting each one after the other in turn, never looking back on the last in the manner of a runner who does not retrace his steps, this would be most uncharacteristic of me, and entirely speculative.

By nature and instinct I am unable to put the last fullstop on the first draft and pronounce it “done.”  Ernest Hemingway’s famous saying, “The first draft of anything is [expletive]”, rings very true. Perhaps not entirely an expletive, for it often contains the essence of what one means to say, but that is far from saying it is the perfection that one instinctively seeks in creation.

Some of your stories are that of people whose backgrounds many are not familiar with, such as migrant workers. How do you research for these?

For stories I am not familiar with, for example, the foreign worker, I go and speak with people who know more than me.

I should say though that these inquiries would pertain to the circumstances of the “outer” life: with this life coexists the “inner life” of emotions and reactions. It is this life, which is the writer’s concern, which is expressed in a universal language. Suffering, joy, hope, despair, are the universal language of the human condition.

Out of all the characters you have given life to, who do you think is the most relatable?

When you say “relatable” the word as I understand, can be applied in 2 senses:

(i) relatable for a reader – for example, ‘can I empathise with this character, or that other’;  (ii) relatable for the writer – ‘which protagonist/ character did the author empathise with/relate to most?’

As this question is directed to me I presume you mean (ii),“relatable” from the point of view of myself as author.

As a writer it is difficult for me to write a story of any protagonist(s) I was unable to relate to. Any factitiousess of empathy/ comprehension would have resulted in a certain one-dimensionality, a “hollow,” where there should have been the essence of a character, that unity of strengths and weaknesses. This lack or inadequacy, for me, would have smouldered through the sentences like the fumes from a burning stove.

No good story can come out of factitious writing; and I believe a writer must write above all for himself. If it does not ring true for himself, he has no right to inflict it on anyone else.

That being the case I should have to say it is impossible for me to pinpoint which of the characters were, for me, the most ‘relatable”. I could not have written “Rich Man Country” without feeling about the plight of the unfortunate construction worker, who remains nameless, consistent with his state of anonymity. Similarly the great-grandfather would not have gotten far in his story had his needs and perceptions been alien to me.

So to have to choose one protagonist over another would be akin to asking a mother to pick the child that most expressed herself.

As for the other sense of the word, (i) above, relatable from the viewpoint of the reader, that is a question I am not qualified to answer. Each reader comes from a different place. So, for example, a brisk-minded no-nonsense reader would have found Clara extremely irritating; another reader would have felt the flaw more in the father, in “Tell Me”, than in the son; yet another, informed differently, would have said, the wife was the cause of the problem . A woman who comes from a perfectly happy & healthy married life, and arrived there from a childhood of unsullied innocence, would have been appalled at  “Falling Water.”

One would notice your word choice for stories can be rather particular. Do you have a favourite word in the entire English language?

If I did, I would be extremely worried. It would mean I don’t have enough vocabulary. 

If you were caught in a fire and you had space in your hands for just one more book, what would it be and why?

The Bible, King James version: its beauty, majesty, perfection and spirituality.


Moth is available for purchase at Kinokuniya, BooksActually, Booktique and our online store.

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