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.


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.

Interview with Lydia Kwa April 10, 2015 22:36

From its minimal, ostensible cover to the delicate slipknots that adorn as section breaks within the pages, the simple yet symbolic aesthetic is an extension of the layers one unravels as one burrows deeper into Pulse and its characters. An empowering tale of reconciliation replete with vivid scenes of a bygone Singapore, author Lydia Kwa crafts the past as an ambivalent letter that protagonist Natalie Chia has to perceive and peruse.

We speak to Lydia—who is also a clinical psychologist working and living in Vancouver—about Pulse.

Pulse was first published in Canada by Key Porter Books. What made you decide to publish this new and revised version with Ethos Books?

Since much of the book is set in Singapore, it seemed a fitting new start for it. Pulsewas published in Canada the year before Key Porter Books had to close, and didn’t really have much of a chance to get out there.

This novel deals with heavy themes of trauma and healing, of possessiveness and displacement. How did you research for complex characters like acupuncturist Natalie Chia and policeman Selim?

Although Pulse is a work of fiction, I draw on my own experiences for some of Natalie’s character, having lived in Singapore until 1980, when I left for Toronto to study. In the ensuing years, I’ve returned to Singapore many times. Sights and sounds of the city, growing up in Joo Chiat, scenes at the beach in front of Marine Parade housing estate in the early 2000s—these are all things I have had direct experience of. The details about acupuncture, and Kinbaku rope practice, for example, I gathered from materials I read. I have direct experience receiving acupuncture, but not the bondage! I am also familiar with psychological manifestations of trauma, since I work with many people in my private practice as a psychologist, so I draw on my experience, but I never use any client’s actual history in my writing.

One would notice that at the start of every chapter, the Chinese character 脈 appears. What does this refer to and why this motif?

That is the character for the word “pulse”. I seem to recall that it was the suggestion of the Key Porter editor, and I agreed, that it would be lovely to echo the title of the book that way.

How much of real life bleeds into the characters or narratives you create?

Bleeding, oh no, not blood!  :D

Of course, some of my own experiences have been transformed, borrowed, and altered. An author writing fiction has to be good at lying in order to create alternative narratives. That said, there is definitely truth in fiction, if not fact.

A line from your novel reads, “So. To be closed is to be vulnerable. Openness and vulnerability, these aren’t the same thing after all.” Do you agree with that? (Just asking!)

Thank you for asking. I do believe in that. It’s a central idea in Pulse. I wished to circle around that notion, by building narratives to explore those differences between vulnerability and openness. Many of us, when we are hurt or traumatized, become weakened psychologically and subsequently, begin to hide aspects of our experiences. Not only from others, but also from ourselves. These acts of vulnerability are done unconsciously most of the time. We then might associate “openness” with being vulnerable to attack, particularly in relation to others who might have power over us. But to pull away, to be silenced, to disconnect from what is true, is also to re-enact and embody that victim position yet again. I am not advocating being open when the situation calls for a more careful and self-protective strategy, but I am positing that a willingness to be open with oneself, is also going to possibly lead to greater psychological strength and integrity. The truth—if we are willing to hear it from ourselves—could set us free.

Many creative references are used throughout the story, such as a lyric from Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”. If Pulse had a soundtrack, what would it be?

Love the question! Haven’t been asked this before!

The soundtrack would be quite a diverse mix since the book has quite a range of musical references. There would be British punk rock from the 1970s—David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”, Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi Is Dead” and Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug”. A short clip from the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Then there would the Bee Gees’ tune, “Run To Me; the song “Aquarius”; a recording of “Desiderata”. Some Chinese ballads, most definitely, such as 忘不了, 等著你回來, 得不到你的愛情, 我有一段情。

Pulse would make a great movie!

Lastly—are you afraid of needles?

I love a good acupuncture treatment!

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


Interview with Russ Soh March 12, 2015 17:05

The essential Singaporean stories have an element of specificity, of particular names thrown into prose and poetry to create an immediate sense of native comfort. In this collection of stories set within East Coast Park and the East Coast Parkway, we see scenes all too familiar for us, but Russ Soh is a keen observer of details of everyday life that we miss all too often.

We talk to Russ Soh to find out more. 

In what ways is Tales From the ECP different from your previous book, Not The Same Family?

Family is an examination of complex and often difficult relationships involving Singaporean families. ECP celebrates the park and its vicinity while capturing unique stories of individuals: east siders and park visitors.  

Which story in Tales From The ECP do you feel most satisfied with, having written it?

Every one. I wouldn’t have included any story in the collection if I hadn’t felt that way about it.

What were some challenges that you faced when you wrote Tales From The ECP?

Identifying and naming the flora and fauna, and the birds and fishes in the park, which are not my forte. Describing the physical motions – such as those of the old man preparing to take a swim or the young boy trying to save the fish – in ways that the readers can actually picture them.

What do you hope to draw readers’ attention to in reading your stories?

The allure and charm of the ECP and its surroundings. The unique individual stories – of east-siders and park visitors – which might otherwise be lost and buried under the seeming mundaneness of daily life.

If you can spend a slow afternoon with any writer at your favourite café , who would it be and what would you ask him or her? (Where is your favourite café?)

Ernest Hemingway. I’ll ask him how I can further shorten my stories without adversely affecting the story-telling. Carvers and Co, 43 East Coast Road.

Finally, can you describe Tales From The ECP using an acronym?

Sure – TFTE!


Tales from the ECP launches tomorrow from 7PM onwards at The Pod, National Library Building. Details here

Interview with Felix Cheong January 14, 2015 12:48

The covers of these books are as local as it gets. Strip away the glitz that is reflected into Singapore River from the metallic thorns of Esplanade, and the polished glass of Marina Bay Sands, dig deeper, and what you’ll see is… us, writing our own stories, while drowning in all-familiar cups of tea (served in cheap, ceramic mugs that have stood the test of time)—siu dai, of course.

Felix Cheong, well known for his poetry packaged in elusive, brooding colours, is the man behind these lively, witty Singaporean conversations. In the 50th year of our nation’s independence, it is only apt that we find out more on the Singapore Siu Daiseries. 

How did you decide to enter the realm of satire & humorous fiction?

You have to blame Facebook and the haze. They were responsible for this foray into discomfort territory!

It was June last year and, thanks to friendly fire from a neighbour, Singapore was shrouded in its worst haze since 1997. Everyone and his dog saw the disparity between the official PSI reading and what we experienced with our own eyes (and nose).

Instead of posting a rant on Facebook, I wrote a flash fiction story, a noir tale about a clueless detective, NEA-L, and a femme fatale, Vivian (after the Environment Minister). Something clicked into place and before long, I was polluting Facebook with these story posts, day after day, often written on the bus ride to work and taking on themes as varied as Singaporeans’ obsession with Hello Kitty and our genetically-codified kiasu-ism. From the number of likes, I could tell which story worked and which didn’t. Soon enough, I had enough stories for two books!

And so an accidental satirist was born.

You joke about some pretty serious things. Is there a “serious” message or belief behind the Siu Dai series?

Any satirist worth his salt knows laughter is the best way to lessen the pain of having salt rubbed into your wounds. After the laughter dies, you suddenly realise just how much the sting hurts.

That’s what I wanted to achieve with the Siu Dai series. To get readers to wake up to who we are as a people, why are we the way we are and who do we want to become. The title alludes to this, with siu dai meaning “less sugar” in coffeeshop talk. The stories thus portray Singapore that is not coated with the artificial “Look, honey” sweetness of the Singapore Tourism Board. And the subtitle, too, opens up the SG Conversation (to which I was not invited!) that is not run and endorsed by the government.     

What are some new areas that you touch in Siu Dai 2?

Some of the Siu Dai 2 stories poke fun at our politicians (gently, ever so gently, because their skin is fair and thin and they bruise easily). Others take a long, hard look at our national hang-ups with elitism and exams (you can’t dissociate one from the other) and how we (mis)treat migrant workers.  

What was your favourite part about creating this book?

The strangest (and by extension, my favourite!) part was how these characters assume a life of their own, sometimes from just a silly name. For instance, Latte Teh, the wannabe politician in “The Lim Kopi Round”, sprang into life, fully formed as a nerd with a propensity to twisting language to his service, once I came out with his name.

The other part of the process I enjoyed was revisiting the KS Tan family and putting them again in situations where their kiasu-ism could reach its finest hour.   

What were some difficulties faced?

The main difficulty was two-fold: because the stories were often inspired by topical issues, I had to fully realise the stories as stories in their own right, without hoping that readers could recall the issues. For instance, “Affair Thee Well”, which spoofs the government banning the Ashley Madison website, has to stand on its own as a funny story. If readers get the allusion, that’s fine but if they don’t, it should still hold its own.

The other difficulty was being able to suggest political follies without landing myself at the wrong end of a defamation suit. The jabs had to be clear and pointed but, at the same time, vague enough not to pinpoint anyone.

Is there a personal favourite of yours in Siu Dai 2?

All the stories are my favourites. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let them out into the world!

The Singapore Siu Dai books are available at good bookstores, and on our website.