Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Claire Tham
By Yong Shu Hoong
Recognition arrived early for Singapore writer Claire Tham. At the tender age of 17, she won two second prizes in the 1984 National Short Story Writing Competition for 'Homecoming' and 'Fascist Rock'. In 1990, she released her debut collection, Fascist Rock: Stories of Rebellion, which received the Commendation Award (Fiction) at the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) Book Awards in 1992. Her 1993 story collection, Saving the Rainforest and Other Stories, was "Highly Commended" at the same awards in 1995.
Winner of two Golden Point Awards, in 1999 and 2001, she has authored other books such as the novel, Skimming (1999), and The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories (2003). Her latest novel is The Inlet (2013), which examines the current social and cultural changes in Singapore's society under the guise of a crime mystery. Loosely based on an actual incident that made local news, the story develops from the drowning of a young female Chinese national in a swimming pool of a posh private residence in Sentosa Cove.
Having read law at Oxford, Tham is currently a partner at a Singapore law firm.
1. What are you reading right now?
I'm midway through Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford. His earlier novel, The Good Soldier, is a favourite of mine, but Parade's End is very hard-going, with its stream of consciousness and abrupt time-shifts. I finished watching the TV series and still haven't made much headway with the book.
I'm also reading Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes. It's high-class punditry but some of its observations seem very relevant to Singapore.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
Probably Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. They're both essentially observers (like most writers) and have a ringside view of some very interesting characters.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
I'm not aware of any misconceptions.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I don't really identify with any author. I identify with particular books.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I'm not quite sure what writer's block means. I do know that, once I've completed something, it can take a long time to move on to another project, especially if I'm emotionally invested in the characters.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things… and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together…" This is how I remember the quote (from The Great Gatsby) and even then I had to look it up. I find it really hard to remember quotes.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
I usually avoid romantic comedies and Hangover-type comedies. Of all the film genres, comedy is the hardest to pull off. The comedies that I've enjoyed are a mixed bag: early Woody Allen, Bridesmaids, Shaun of the Dead, Fargo, A Serious Man. Talladega Nights was hilarious but now I avoid anything with Sacha Baron Cohen or Will Ferrell in it as they've both become unbearably self-indulgent. I don't know of any film that's specifically marketed as a tragedy, as the audience will probably stay away in droves. Anyway, the distinction between comedy and tragedy in the question seems a bit suspect, as a lot of your interviewees have pointed out. I'm probably inclined towards the Jewish comic's point of view that life is a tragedy so you have to laugh, because what else is there to do?
I'll watch an action thriller any time, especially political thrillers.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
When I was 12, my favourite word was "fathead", but I haven't had a favourite word since then. My least favourite words are anything resembling management jargon ("bandwidth", "runway", "footprint"), although they can be quite amusing. I was working in a bank when "bandwidth" first became widespread and I remember the Head of Compliance asking, with a very worried look, "Is it some kind of frequency?"
12. Write a Singapore-based short-short story in three lines that include the following three items: ark, karma, curse.
This is really tough. "When sea levels started rising due to climate change, the Singapore government decide to build an ark, the inhabitants of which would be selected through winning captions of 20 words or less. One entrant wrote, 'This is karma for your environmentally unfriendly policies.' With a curse, the Official Ark Coordinator threw aside the entry."
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Usually afternoons on weekends. Also slow days in the office.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
If it was really a last supper, I'd be in no frame of mind to entertain literary figures.
16. Have you read fiction by new talents in the Singapore literary scene, and what are your observations of their works or advice you'd give to them?
The last local work I read was Dave Chua's collection of short stories, but he's not "new" talent. I wouldn't presume to give advice because literary tastes are so subjective.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014
"Et in Arcadia Ego". This is a bit of a strange question though, given that, like most Singaporeans, I'll probably end up in a columbarium.