Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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Mammon and the Discipline of Writing
Page 3

THM: Yeah, thereís that one frame in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Jessica Rabbit is caught with her pants down, literally... Anyway, youíve had the good fortune of winning support from writing communities overseas Ė for example, you won a writing fellowship at NYU, where you took your MFA. How do Singaporean writing infrastructures stack up?

THH: Oh, very, very badly, and Iíve been making a lot of noise both in my position as a journalist at the Business Times, and by complaining endlessly to the NAC. Writers Ė and Iíve written about this in BT Ė if you look at the funding for theatre as opposed to writing, the NAC spent $6 million on the Arts Festival, and they spent $200,000 on the Writerís Festival. Of course they say, blah blah blah, it costs a lot more to bring in a theatre group than to hire a writer, but the budget was very small, letís put it that way. Also they donít know how to support writers. They donít have any writing grants for writers, which England has, and America has, and Australia has. America has things like the Guggenheim, which offers US$250,000 Ė twice the budget for the Writersí Fest. And they award that quite regularly; I have friends who've won the Guggenheim. The only thing that they have in Singapore, which is very frustrating, which shows that they donít understand how publishing works, and you probably know this, they have grants where after you finish the manuscript, they can give you a grant to go and help out your publisher. That's really not a writing grant, thatís a publishing grant.

THM: And they label it as such.

THH: Yeah, and you donít have grants which would enable writers to letís say go off for a year, at least buy them time; and remember what I told you about the Arvon Foundation course, the most important thing for writers is to be able to have that block of time where you can actually focus on your art, especially for young writers. Now I have a full-time job, itís not that difficult just because Iíve had experience of writing full-time, I know the discipline, Iíve had time to sort of develop my methodology. But if youíre a young budding writer, you really need that good two, three years when you can focus on your art and really think about your pedagogy and all that kind of stuff.

THM: So you have a regular schedule for writing then?

THH: Basically weekends. I cycle in the morning, do something social either in the afternoon or in the evening, but in between that time I slot in my writing work. Now Iím working on a screenplay as well, Iím trying to slot in maybe some of the weeknights. At the moment Iím finding itís okay, because certainly one of the things I found when I was writing full-time was that I couldnít write every day anyway, because itís too exhausting emotionally and mentally; I was finding the best is to write alternate days, you have time to give your brain to recharge and to go out and do social things and... can I complain more about the NAC?

THM: Well, if you want to.

THH: What they really need to realize is that they do have to set up a proper grant, a writing grant for writers, to give them time off, and to do things like writersí residencies Ė theyíre very successful in the States and the UK. You can let someone be a writer-in-residence for a year, and they can go and teach and put things back into the community. And I think thereís a definite lack of training, you donít have any proper writing programmes set up in Singapore; if the NAC or NUS could actually get together and set up a writing programme that would be very beneficial for the writing community.

THM: There is a mode of writing in both books that I shall call evangelical, but that a harsher critic might call polemical. This tends to be attached to subjects you feel strongly about, such as Christianity or child abuse. How do you see that fitting in with the general style of your work?

THH: I try very hard not to be polemical or evangelical, but what I try to do is to adopt a structure where I can deal with certain topics which Iím interested in. For example, in terms of structure Mammon Inc. follows the temptation scene of Jesus, thereíre allusions to... like sheís being brought up to the pinnacle, sheís being shown all the sights...

THM: Thereíre three tests...

THH: Yeah, thereíre three tests, so itís actually more taking the principle of Biblical narrative, which, you know, a lot of authors, whether theyíre Christians or not, do. Ultimately Mammon is the basic myth of the struggle of good and evil, the devil tempting the pilgrim, in a sense. Even in terms of Christianity, I try to choose perhaps narratives and themes which have a more universal application, so whether youíre Christian or not I think thereíre things that you can identify with. The endings of my books tend to be very, very dark, so I donít think they can necessarily be seen as specifically Christian endings.

THM: You donít do happy endings.

THH: Yeah. And I think Foreign Bodies, even though there are a lot of passages which might be seen as promoting Christianity or certainly talks very well about Christ, the ending itself is very post-modern in the sense that I did want to choose an ending which was very, very open.

THM: I didnít think that was so much post-modern as realistic.

THH: Yeah.

THM: So, for a final question, a realistic one: what would you advise Singaporean writers who want to go international?

THH: First you have to write a good book, and you have to write an international book, in the sense that you would have to write a book that would be able to cross cultures, mostly in terms of themes. And the cultural mustnít be too localized, but you have to know what can be explained and what canít be explained, but you must do that kind of explanation in a way thatís seamless so it doesnít look as though itís explanation. I think itís woven in fine in Mammon Inc., because itís set up in a structure where the whole book is about explaining; e.g. that section where she has to train Steve to be Singaporean. But even the explanation part isnít that damaging if you donít do it well, because for most parts itís the literate readers or the writers who worry more about the craft of fiction. I think most general readers Ė if they read an explanation and itís exotic and interesting, they donít care about stuff like that. So thatís on the craft side. On the business side I think you have to realize that itís an international business, and the market is in New York and the market is in London, and you have to go out, you have to network, you have to get your name out there. One way you can do that is to find a good agent, whoís based overseas.

THM: And you have one.

THH: Oh yeah, yeah.

THM: She was the one who landed you Foreign Bodies?

THH: Yes and no. She sent it out to a lot of people, but in the end Penguin heard about me just through someone else, and she negotiated the deal. But certainly all my other deals Ė my German deal, my Swedish deal, my Dutch deal, my American deal Ė that was all done totally by my agent; I wouldnít even begin to know how to sell my book in Germany, you know. Itís like the basic principle of diversification; as a writer, youíre useless at the business side, so you need an agent. I know that Gopal Baratham has gone on record saying that he doesnít want to get an agent because theyíre expensive and whatever, but theyíre definitely worth it.

THM: They generate the income for you anyway.

THH: Yes but itís a big cut, sometimes they take from 15 to 20%. The irony with agents is that the more successful you are, the less you need an agent. I mean, if youíve reached the stage where youíre like John Grisham, you really donít need an agent, you just need a lawyer to look through your contract. Because once publishers know that youíve got a book, theyíll be flocking to you!

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

The interviewee's views and opinions are entirely her own and must not be construed as the views and opinions of QLRS and/or its sponsor organisations.


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Tan Hwee Hwee goes in search of the Lotus Land

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