Launch of Loss Adjustment, Part 2: The process, craft & technique behind the book
For the launch of Loss Adjustment, Linda Collins and Akshita Nanda had an intimate conversation at The Moon about her debut book.
This feature covering the launch will be split into two parts—the first discussed the message Linda wants to convey through Loss Adjustment, looking at the lasting aftermath of loss, and the urgency of paying attention to issues of mental health and suicide prevention. This second feature focuses on the process of writing Loss Adjustment; the craft and technique behind the concept of the book, and Linda’s future writing projects.
(Below is a truncated transcript of the launch event; you can find the full transcript linked here and audio recording below.)
On Linda’s writing being like a ‘scalpel’
Akshita: (…) It’s a book that I’ve described the writing being as like a scalpel because it cuts so perfectly, and these are cuts that are made in the psyche towards a greater healing. (…) Every time I read the pages, the writing is just so simple but there’s deeper layers. Just because something is simple and accessible, doesn’t mean that it isn’t the culmination of a wonderful, powerful truth. It takes a lot of talent and a lot of skill to be able to write something like this when no word is extraneous and every word means something.
Reading Chapter 10 ‘Not Ash’
Akshita: (…) I read it and—I was employed for several years as a literary critic and I, after reading it, had no words. It is very rare that a piece of writing says everything that your reviewer can really find nothing to say, but that’s what this piece of writing did. And Linda if you’re up for it, will you read that?
(after reading ‘Not Ash’)
We need a minute. So it is after reading this that I decided to describe Linda’s writing as a scalpel. It cuts you really deep and you have absolutely no idea how deep. But it’s incredible, and I’m assuming this is one of the bits that just sort of flowed out of you? Or was it one of the bits that required more editing?
Linda: No that wrote itself.
Akshita: I imagine it would. The words are very fluid. The rhythm of the sentences, the way it just sweeps the reader away. And now after almost two years, more than a year definitely, I think I am able to sort of analyse the text in a way I couldn’t. Because I read this way before you guys and I have a bit of emotional distance from it. What’s absolutely amazing to me is how you’ve brought together so many different levels of questioning, belonging and identity. You’ve brought in the multicultural nature of this setting, you and Malcolm, the worker at the crematorium, the colleague who is also of migrant descent, and in so many ways, this book is a book giving a voice and a space to belong to somebody who felt like she didn’t quite have it here all the time. I just love how this particular extract encompasses everything Linda manages to achieve with the book. It’s absolutely incredible. Thank you for it.
On the meaning behind title, ‘Loss Adjustment’
Linda: (…) I had a house in Christchurch. There was an earthquake in 2011 and the house we bought there to be one day our family home should things go awry in Singapore—foreigners fall out of favour, kicked out, whatever, you live in fear, and then I’ve picked up on Lee Kuan Yew’s fear, we live on a house of shifting sands, boy was he right, but it was about Christchurch.
So that house was destroyed and so I had the process of many years dealing with insurance. I hope you never have the misfortune of dealing with insurance. It’s sort of boring technical thing but you might have had a car accident and experienced the difficulty of getting the insurance to honour your policy. They had 10,000 houses so they wanted to minimise the pay-outs. So they quite ruthlessly tried to destroy the claimants, make you have breakdowns so you’ll just go away and sign for a small sum. They did that to me, and being in another country, it was quite difficult.
The title for Loss Adjustment—just before Victoria died, a stress that I encountered was: we were assigned a new loss adjuster. A loss adjuster is a person who calculates what the insurance should compensate you for your house. The adjustment is usually to favour the insurer, of course I didn’t know that. So just before Victoria died we were assigned a new one, and when I googled her I just about died because she had a reputation for viciousness. In fact, a closed Facebook was set up by a person who had a mental breakdown dealing with her. She was known as the Rottweiler of loss adjustments. This really stressed me out that she was trying to minimise this. I don’t know anything about insurance! And I google the stuff I don’t know and I don’t know how to build a house. (…) So the house became a metaphor in the book; loss adjustment is about, you know, the financially quantifying the loss of a house, versus the loss of a person which you can never quantify. And both are nesting inside each other in the book.
How did the journey of writing Loss Adjustment begin?
Linda: When did I start writing the book—well actually I had no intention of writing any book. (…) So I was going about trying to find purpose in my life so I did a diploma in learning disorders management to try and understand my daughter’s problems and more—and my own issues. To try to find out who I was, where did I let her down, as a mother, as a person. I did a 6-month course. (…) So a lot of trying to discover some purpose. So I also was at St Ignatius Church and I was in the middle of a non-residential three-day retreat, dedicated myself to Mother Mary. That’s a lot of reflection and it’s under the De Montfort framework, the saint; so a lot of reading. But halfway through there was this bit about listening to the inner voice. And I’m one of these people who’d like to set goals and plan ahead, makes list, external focus. And I didn’t really listen to my inner voice, so I began to try again to listen to that voice.
And also De Montfort spoke about making the most of your God-given talents so I had to try to think, well what am I good at? Writing. The inner voice. Various things happened with that inner voice which I won’t go through here. But one of them was: it was either my inner voice, but it sounded a lot like my daughter Victoria, and one day that voice said to me, “Mum, Google creative writing New Zealand”. So I did, and up popped this quite well-respected course at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. And it said that it had just closed for their May applicants but something said go on apply. So I messaged them and they messaged back straight away saying, “It’s so strange you just messaged now, we’re just choosing our applicants. If you send us 5000 words by tomorrow morning we’ll look at that and consider it.”
I had ‘Not Ash’, which was just 500 words, so I sat down and the stuff just poured out, and I sent it off. And the next day I got an email—“You’re accepted for this course”. It’s quite a difficult course to go into; and it means going and living in New Zealand. I hadn’t any plans or thoughts but I thought I must do this. Luckily The Straits Times was helpful and I can still work remotely for them 3 nights a week. I went and lived in student halls at my age, late 50s, which was great actually! Noisy but great. In a little room, like kind of a monk room or nun or something. So I went to these workshops, and my book was the MA Thesis.
On writing technique in Loss Adjustment
Akshita: You said something earlier about the books that you read, that they taught you technique. And the thing is, I know you as the person who teaches technique to writers. So being an editor—and honestly an editor of amazing calibre, The Straits Times is lucky to have her—what was it like being a writer? Were your worst critic? Did you have to switch brains?
Linda: (...) I am my own worst editor. And now I feel very sorry for journalists who are edited by me (laughs); I cut them a lot more slack. Yeah, I think I was very hard on people before. That’s a really difficult question to answer, because for the writing—creative writing—the workshops I did at the MA were very good. I was with a bunch of poets. There were only 2 memoirs in the course. The rest were poets—three had already gone on to publish poetry books and be hailed as poets in the Poetry Foundation. So these were people who gave me a new way of looking at words. (...) To write well, you have to get rid of the editor. It just destroys you, in fact I wish I could walk away from my editing job because it really is a handicap to writing well. You wanna get that little pesky critic, you want it to just go away, then just get it on the page then see how you can… what bits are interesting, that leap out to you. So one of the things that’s helping me now is that I’m trying a new genre of poetry. I got into that about last year. First of all, doing a course at de LaSalle, and then doing courses with Gotham in New York, online.
So about your question of technique—I didn’t want to write it in conventional narrative. You know, I’m just so sick of writing to newspaper formula, the way they suck you in, you have a snappy intro, then big broad statement, then a quote! Ugh! Yeah I hate that! I never want to write like that again. I’m sorry, people who still do. (laughs)
And it’s the killing of creativity, and it’s also the moulding of your minds to make you think a certain way, to make you not question things. Whereas the creative writing process you are allowing room for the reader to come in and you’re allowing them to make their own interpretation of bits. So I know that when you read my book there are things you will see in a very different way to me. Things that will anger you, or think “How could she not see?” or “Oh I didn’t know that...” and that’s what I want.
And the book is also written not as a conventional narrative structure. You can read it all the way through if you want, but I also realised it’s too harrowing in parts. It’s too raw. You might have to just put it down. And that’s okay. You can skip straight to the end if you like, which you should never really tell readers to do, but apparently no, I’m fine if you do that. When you find a bit in the book that has a message for you, or there are some bits in the book that sort of are slightly humorous. My colleagues all laughed at the reference of Yoga as Yoda, who’s not like the Star Wars character at all.
I have been criticised by some people and on some courses for not having a wow-look-at-me intro. So I deliberately did this to say—if you’ve ever been to creative writing class, the first thing you’ll be told is never open up a book or short story with someone being at home and getting up in the morning. So that’s exactly what I did. Just gives me a little vision to start the bit, you know, and that’s how things unfolded.
But in terms of the actual book, so I didn’t just want to be just an outpouring just meant for family, I wanted it to be a book, to stand on its own two feet, to go out to the world, to honour Victoria, to give her voice, but it also had to work as a book. So I read a lot of memoir during that year. So books that influenced me were Joan Didion, The Year Of Magical Thinking and also Blue Nights, about her daughter. (…) And the other one is All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead. Her husband drowning while swimming with her son. So the things I learnt from that which was technique for example. Like with things, what you leave out as well as put in. (…) It’s this delicate dance of what you leave in and what you leave out.
Also Suning, my editor, raised some very good points about how it’s kind of presumptuous to speak for the dead because they can’t really speak for themselves, so it was a real ethical thing I wrestled with. But in Victoria’s case, I wanted to give her a voice and I felt like she guided me with her journals but it was a very good point that you made, thanks.
On the perception of writing (trauma) as therapy
Audience member: I know, obviously, what you’ve been through, and … I do wonder whether at some stage, you saw the writing of the book therapeutic in some way. Was it a distraction from the grief you went through, or did it help you get through it? Was it a process that you found beneficial, or was it just a task you had to do?
Linda: Yeah, that’s an interesting question, and if any of you ever write a similar book like this, I wonder if, like me, you’ll get so annoyed at being asked: was this cathartic or helpful? I know it’s a good question, because people really want you to get better. It’s not something you can get better from.
And it didn’t heal me in any way—in fact, writing of the thing in the MA was in a way a complete ordeal. I was trying to still work for The Straits Times, I was living in a different country. That was the year 68 Oxley Road happened. So it was all that stuff happening; more to do—again, property rears its head! (…) So it wasn’t healing, but I’ve now come to realise, now the book is written—actually, what does healing mean? It’s the book going out into the world, and doing its own healing.
Linda’s future writing plans—some fiction, some poetry
Audience member: Loss Adjustment is all about loss and tragedy; now, could there be a sequel about the person Linda who has been alive for 15 years and the joy of having her? Would you write it? I would love to read it.
Linda: I’m still trying to deal with stuff. There is a book that I want to write: so one of the people who helped me get through this time was my mother-in-law, Malcolm's mom—Sheena—who was an extraordinary person, who showed me what real love is. Sadly, she died last year in October. But I was lucky enough to go back and spend 3 months with her—Straits Times let me work remotely in New Zealand, and she was living in a small town in Oamaru and we had what we called a crim—the holiday home cottage nearby. So, it was my provision to visit Malcom’s mom just about every day.
She was 92 and so I was 59—so quite a big age difference between us. And from her I learnt about her fierce love for the family and I also learned—I didn’t know back then—about her poverty stricken background, of her very difficult youth and how she somehow climbed her way out of that to be a nurse and to go on to have a very successful life.
Also, she was very close to Victoria, and they shared certain things. I don’t know if you have this in your family, not just genetics looks, but mannerism. She and Victoria used to flex their hands the same way and they both love the same colour of flowers. So, whenever I walked into Sheena’s place, I saw the lavender and white—these are lovely—purple flowers that both people love. I would like to explore that.
One thing that I have learnt is that, writing a non-fiction book has been extremely difficult. I have to get approval from the ethics committee of the university. I lost a month’s writing time just travelling the country and skyping around the world, and getting people’s permission, consent forms, and having to give them information and pull out the social sciences-oriented ethics approval forms. This nearly killed me, because I’m not very good at forms, and also it was excruciating going to people who I have already spoken to and then having to get their consent. Though actually the nice people who were good about it, and I also discovered new things in the process.
So, the next book I want to write will be fiction, and it will probably be an intimate portrait of two women of very different ages in the last stages of one of their life. On the face of it, it doesn’t actually sound interesting—where’s the dramatic conflict? But there was a lot of conflict for me because I often resisted such messages of what she had to say and do the opposite. Both of us were quite stubborn. Also, the teasing out of the reality of Sheena’s life was quite poignant for me.
But for now, I’m writing a book of poetry. So, we’ll see how that goes. I don’t know about poetry, sometimes I mention poetry to Singaporeans, their eyes gloss over. Is it because it’s seen as something dilettante and flippant or is it seen as something that’s sort of highbrow? Because I don’t want it to be inaccessible. And there’s some good … performance stuff happening now.
But I’m kind of moved by the way the maintenance men in Singapore have cut off all the branches off the trees around where I live. I just feel the trees pain—do you know what I mean? They seem to be overzealous in cutting the branches. And Hungry Ghost months—some strange things keep happening to me during Hungry Ghost Month. So, I’ve explored that in my poetry. So, we’ll see what happens.
Linda Collins has an MA in Creative Writing. Journals in which her work appears include Cordite Review and The Fib Review. With her late daughter, Victoria McLeod, she has poetry forthcoming in Voicing Suicide (Ekstasis Editions, Canada). Her memoir, Loss Adjustment, is published by Ethos Books Singapore. She copyedits for The Straits Times.
Akshita Nanda is the author of Beauty Queens of Bishan (Penguin Random House Southeast Asia, 2019) and Nimita’s Place (shortlisted for the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and adapted for the stage by TheatreWorks, 2019). A journalist at The Straits Times since 2007, she is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.