Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Anthony Koh Waugh
By Yeow Kai Chai
For many book lovers in Singapore, their first encounter with Anthony Koh Waugh was probably at Booktique – Where Writers Shop, an unlikely oasis for words which opened at the CityLink Mall in 2013. They may recall its minimalist set-up: wooden crates repurposed as display shelves, an idiosyncratic selection of titles, and occasional poetry and prose readings.
Since the closure of the brick-and-mortar unit in June 2017, he has returned to full-time freelance book-selling, busying himself with operating pop-ups at various places and events. In 2020, he birthed another pop-up concept called Chio Books (a pun on the Hokkien term for "pretty girl"), which is less literary-centric and more lifestyle-skewed.
Such is Koh's indomitable spirit – a chat with him reveals a life-long love for reading and an unwavering support for indie authors. Unsurprisingly, the self-confessed "obsessed reader" was also a freelance writer, who had written lifestyle pieces, celebrity interviews, self-help articles and investigative reports for various online and print magazines.
In a time when bigger, more established stores like Page One and Borders have fallen by the wayside, Koh's commitment to continue running Booktique (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year) is nothing less than admirable.
As he explains in an earlier interview: "Owning the bookstore means I can do things my way. By that I mean being mindful in selling books and not being swayed by market forces. This purity of purpose comes with a price and I'm fine with it."
1. What are you reading right now?
When it comes to books, I'm a polygamist. To complicate it more, I also desire Chinese-language books. But I will confine my answer to English-language books. I just finished reading Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa. It was the only fiction title in my stash of simultaneous reads. Here are the books I'm reading right now: Love, Henri: Letters on The Spiritual Life by Henri J. M. Nouwen; Insomniac City: New York, Oliver Sack, and Me by Bill Hayes; Life is Short: An Appropriately Brief Guide to Making it More Meaningful by Dean Rickles; and Alchemy: The Magic of Original Thinking in a World of Mind-Numbing Conformity by Rory Sutherland. I just started reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. My reading choices arise from my current state of life. I turned 50 and ended a 12-year relationship. For the first time, I'm living alone – six months seem a long time. Each book offers a different kind of companionship in my new, strange world. In these books, I found comfort and hope to replace reality with magic and love. I believe I will read more books as I chance upon them. Right now, I need to imbibe various life experiences from books.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
He has to be Roger Mifflin from Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. He is a highly articulate fictional bookseller who can set a non-reader's heart on fire for books. I wish I can speak as eloquently and convincingly like him.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
I used to think I was sociable because others said that to me. During my first job interview, I misled the interviewers to think that I had the aptitude in public relations. I didn't last two years in the job. Even in recent years, people frowned when I said I wasn't sociable.
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
Generally, I identify with every author who is an existentialist. Since 2006, the trajectory of my life has changed over the time as a result of my multiple existential crises. I'm drawn to authors who are/were tormented by life to the point that sometimes, I'm scared to read their works. I almost stopped reading Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. But I'm glad I persevered. No Longer Human by Osama Dazai remains unread on my bookshelf…
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I was a freelance feature writer for seven years before I became a bookseller. I remember once I'd barely written a paragraph after an hour or two sitting in front of the computer. I was far from my 5,000-word article, and the deadline was imminent. I suppose that was writer's block albeit a brief one. The panic made me feel so tired that I went right for my bed. After I woke up, I could somehow write more.
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
I like writers who can make a point with simple words and short sentences. Madeline Miller comes to my mind.
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
Writers who write more to hit the page count. Unnecessary sentences and paragraphs are just fillers.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Interestingly, this paragraph from Walden keeps me thinking:
"Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, or commerce, or literature, or art. There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
had anger management during my office days. I'd curse at a departing train that didn't wait for me. Thanks to the lemons in my life, I changed.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
I'd watch a tragedy because life isn't fun at all. Learning from fictional sufferings is much more bearable than experiencing sufferings in real life.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
"Love," and "money."
12. If (or when) you write a book, what would it be?
It has to be the life lessons that I've learnt from bookselling. This year marks my 10th year as a bookseller. I've gained more than I've lost throughout the years.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
I can't sit still for long. I need relaxing music in the background to focus on my writing.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Night time is conducive but not beyond the wee hours.
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I'd beg Roger Mifflin to lecture me on the power of books. If only David Foster Wallace could come, I'd give my all to keep him alive. Another wishful thinking is to have Oscar Wilde at the table. I want to hear all his gay adventures first-hand.
16. What is the one thing you would like to change most about the Singapore book-selling and publishing scene?
I wish to see an independent bookstore in every mall in Singapore. We should be as visible as fashion stores, restaurants and cafes. We need to be out there for Singaporeans to know our story because a good independent bookstore is more than its curation of books. It is more important to know why we are independent in the first place. That we value independent thinking and we uphold our independent spirit. These traits can impact our lives in a cookie-cutter society.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023
"Give what you can, take what you need." This was said by George Whitman, the late founder of Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Over the years, Whitman's ethos in life has influenced the way I run my bookstore. To anyone aspiring to open a bookstore, I recommend that you read History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. It is the only official book on the history of Shakespeare and Company.