Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Madeleine Thien
By Phan Ming Yen
Readers coming across Madeleine Thien's novels for the first time would be struck by how often the word "beauty" appears frequently in reviews of her work.
It is a beauty laced with melancholy, ache, loss and poignancy, emotions that leave no reader untouched. As one of her characters says in her 2011 novel Dogs at the Perimeter: "I saw so many things. One day, I promise, I'll find a way to tell you everything."
It's no surprise the novel about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide was awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair's 2015 Lißeraturpreis, which recognises works of fiction from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Born in Vancouver to Chinese-Malaysian parents, Thien is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the City of Vancouver Book Award, Amazon First Novel Award, a Canadian Authors Association Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Ovid Festival Prize. She has one other novel Certainty (2006) and a short-story collection Simple Recipes (2001). A new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s, is forthcoming.
Having made her first public appearance here at the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) in 2007, she is back in Singapore as the current Nanyang Technological University-National Arts Council Writer in Residence (International).
She is a featured author at the upcoming SWF and will be involved in a reading session 'Stories from Islands, Songs from Islanders', and in a panel discussion called 'Outside Looking In: Overcoming the Risk of Exoticising' with fellow Canadian author Adam Lewis Schroeder.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
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?
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?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
12. Write a Singapore-based short-short story in three lines that include the following three items: pipa, lake, telephone.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Srinivasa Ramanujan, real and fictional from The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt, because math is a language I love.
J.S. Bach, real and biographical from Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner and Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James R. Gaines, because Bach.
16. Upon reading your first novel Certainty, a friend of mine remarked that the book was written by a writer "who had undergone loss". I later learnt that your mother passed away when you were writing the book. What impact did this have on your writing process?
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
Madeleine Thien will appear at two events at this year's Singapore Writers Festival. She will appear in Stories from Islands, Songs from Islanders' on Oct 30 at the Arts House at 8.30pm, and a panel discussion with fellow Canadian writer Adam Lewis Schroeder called 'Outside Looking In: Overcoming the Risk of Exoticising' at The Arts House on Nov 1 at 2.30pm. The reading is a free event while the discussion requires a Festival Pass. For more information, please see the SWF website.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015