The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Neil Humphreys
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I started when I was around four or five and haven’t stopped since. It’s not a job. I no longer have a say in the matter. I am never allowed to stop writing. I think writing. I sleep writing. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I can never switch off.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
There are several. My latest fictional work – Marina Bay Sins – is a psychological crime thriller. I’m fascinated by our ongoing ability to do extraordinarily profound and stupid things, to be knowingly selfish and selfless, to be kind and cruel, often at the same time. That’s the character bit. As for the plot, well, I find the hypocrisy of Marina Bay and all it represents rather nauseating. I’d have more respect for the place if it held up a sign that read: “We’re here to take money from the addicted, the desperate, the vulnerable and the incorrigible, and we don’t really care where the money comes from.” At least that’s honest.
My latest non-fictional work – Saving a Sexier Island – is a funny/poignant tour around the island’s finest and weirdest heritage and historic sites and it’s an unapologetic call to arms. Save it or risk cutting the umbilical cord to our nation’s soul.
Third, my children’s book series, Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase, is in the process of being adapted by an international TV network. The children’s books involve characters that are cheeky, irreverent, inquisitive, funny, clumsy and often wrong – i.e. they are REAL children, not one-dimensional archetypes. And children have related to the characters, which is wonderful. Plus there are distinct environment themes in the series that are very important to me, but are presented in a subtle fashion without battering the kids over the head with them. As with most audiences, if you make them laugh, you might make them listen.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I get up. I write. I edit. I publish. I leave the pretentious, flowery interpretations to those with far too much time on their hands. I’m too busy writing to indulge in narcissistic navel-gazing!
Who are your favourite authors?
I have always been drawn to no-nonsense, working-class writers, heavy on the social verisimilitude and light on the ego. Pretentiousness drives me to distraction and god knows this industry has more than its fair share of self-important types, many of whom gather at festivals to remind each other of their own state-sponsored brilliance. So my favourite writers, in entirely random order, are Alan Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Trevor Preston, Dick Clement, Royston Tan and Ian La Frenais, Philip Larkin, Spike Milligan, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Nick Hornby, John King, David Peace, Bill Bryson, Jake Arnott, David Mamet, David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, Aaron Sorkin, Caroline Aherne and, the single most influential writer of my own work, Sue Townsend. Her work was the first that made me think: “I could do that.”
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
The next piece. Because the self-doubt always threatens to overwhelm the work, the same self-doubt that will eventually, hopefully, propel the work along.
What’s your idea of bliss?
On the rare occasions when the work writes itself, when it becomes an almost out-of-body experience and I act as a sort of conduit, and the writing just flows through me. It doesn’t happen often – maybe half a dozen times perhaps in a book – but it’s a glorious feeling. Like a songwriter who hits a chord or a footballer who makes a clean connection, when it happens, you know instantly, in real time, while it’s happening. And you’re desperate to hang on to it, to keep writing and not be interrupted, ever, in case the train leaves the tracks. And then, the next day, through no fault of your own, the writing becomes more workmanlike and the euphoria gives way to exasperation. That’s the intoxicating/maddening frustration of writing as a profession. I fully recognise and appreciate why it has driven far better writers than me to the brink of insanity.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
On a professional level, when the writing just isn’t soaring. I don’t really get writer’s block. But when the juices just aren’t quite flowing – and you know they’re not – it’s hard to explain the frustration to anyone who isn’t a writer. Look. My father is a plumber. Someone says, “fit a shower unit” and he fits a shower unit and does a good job of it. Job done. He could be having a bad day and feel a cold coming on, but he can still install the shower unit. But when an internal voice says to me, “write a great chapter today”, I can’t make the same guarantee. I’m not sure any writer can, not on any given day. But then, that’s what editing and rewriting is for!
On a general level, the contradictory nature of the idiotic human condition makes for great satire and material, but it still drives me mad. The list is endless. We know that recycling is better for all of us. We know this. But we don’t do it. We know that taking 25 wild dolphins from the wild and sticking them in a glass case for bored casino gamblers to look at is a monumentally stupid thing to do, on every level imaginable, but we still do it. We know that an exam-obsessed, rote-learning, textbook-centric education culture makes it almost impossible, utterly inconceivable, to produce a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs, let alone a JK Rowling or a George R.R. Martin, yet we persist with it. No one questions it, so we continue to produce too many middle managers and not enough mavericks. We wonder why our kids’ English/Mandarin isn’t up to standard and spend fortunes on tuition to rectify the perceived deficiencies, glossing over the fact that the same kids spend much of their time with domestic helpers who are fluent in neither language. We still persecute people because of their choice of sexual partners behind closed doors. We actually criminalise people for falling in love. I could go on forever! Climate change is slowly killing the planet, one drought and melting ice cap at a time, and we get angry over a consenting adult we don’t know sleeping with another consenting adult we don’t know. As human beings, we do daft things every day, and often know we’re doing daft things every day, but still go ahead and do them anyway. It’s mindboggling.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
The complete works of George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Sue Townsend and Spike Milligan, just for the eclectic variety.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My family photo albums. Everything else can burn. Personal memories are irreplaceable, something that more Singaporeans are realizing as the world around them constantly transforms into something unfamiliar and foreign. It’s a problem that my new book, Saving a Sexier Island, seeks to address!
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Get it done.
Neil Humphreys is Singapore’s best-selling author. His works on Singapore – Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006), the omnibus Complete Notes from Singapore (2007) and Return to a Sexy Island: Notes from a New Singapore (2012) – are among the most popular titles in the past decade. His book Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international bestseller. Humphreys has penned two novels – Match Fixer (2010) and Premier Leech (2011) – to critical acclaim. Premier Leech was selected as the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year in the UK. For TV, he wrote and hosted the series, Return to a Sexy Island, for Channel NewsAsia and has been a panelist on the weekly Singtel Mio Premier League football show Game On.
To keep his daughter happy, he has written the Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase series of children’s books. His latest children’s book – I Really Rescued a Goat to Save Chinese New Year – was an Apple iBooks exclusive that went to No.1 in eight Asian countries and hit the top 10 in China, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. His new novel, Marina Bay Sins, was also an international indie ebook best-seller in the UK and Australia. The print verision was launched in Singapore in March 2015 and Malaysia in April 2015.
In June 2015, Saving a Sexier Island: Notes from an Old Singapore was released. The book follows Humphreys on a quirky tour of the island’s important heritage sites as he fights to save them all. A popular columnist, Humphreys also writes extensively for newspapers and magazines in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the UK. He is currently working on an Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase TV series.