By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
Writing has meant different things to me at different points in my life. Before the last ten years, I saw writing as something I wanted to do, as something that was key to who I wished to be, to be seen as. This has evolved over the last ten years. I have learnt that writing is not about who I am on the surface. Looking back, I see that writing has to do with my relationship with language. With everything I write, this relationship is affirmed and grows a little. The desire to write has been inside me since I learnt the alphabet but it took quite some time before I dared to press the “START” button. And it also took a bit of time before I realised that it was up to me to do whatever it takes to keep the machine going.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I’ve been working on my short story collection These Foolish Things & Other Stories for a number of years, so it seems a bit strange to think of it as my most recent project. There are ten stories in it. A few of them were first written nine or ten years ago when I first started writing fiction. What I have come to realise is that stories take time to come into their own. Each story has its own impulse, by which I mean that very first spark of interest that lights in me when I become conscious of an image or a sentence or a character that I would like to do something with. What happens next is a slow process of recognition and registering, whereby a story makes its way into language through me, and I have to be patient and vigilant, observing what is going on and noting down as much as I can. Though this process is a constant in everything I write, each story has its own internal chemistry, a life of its own. So to speak of the collection as a whole can feel a little like summing up a whole neighbourhood of different households in one catch-all propaganda statement.
Still, I did have to prepare a synopsis of the collection when I was preparing to send it out to publishers and this is what I wrote:
“The stories in These Foolish Things & Other Stories are about love, longing, and loss. Attachments to ideas, persons, places, and things can be as blinding as they are illuminating. My characters are ordinary women and men caught in mists of nostalgic yearning, attempting to make sense of the past even as they are conscious that the past is inescapably conditioned by the present. The world that we live in is not all that it seems. Nothing is ever fully erased, whether the loss is through time, breakdown or dulling of relationships, or through death. Whether it is the events of the past, or feelings and emotions that sometimes change from one day to the next, the sense that life is ever shifting, ever modulating, is something that the stories attempt to evoke. The title of the collection alludes to the visible and invisible things that people grapple to hold on to because they mean something to us; they are signifiers of desire, the “foolish” things that often make us look foolish, but also make us human.”
I write about things that I care about. This is why I write about relationships, about art, about failure, about the afterlife. Writing the stories has been a way for me to examine some questions that have been with me for a long time. Though writing is not a means by which these questions can be fully answered, it has been a way for me to attend to them.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I don’t work consciously to create an aesthetic. To answer your question, I will have to recall what some people have said about my writing. I’ve been told that my prose has a cinematic quality, that it’s highly visual and sensuous. Some have also said that there is a lightness and a litheness, underpinned by a darker edge.
Who are your favorite authors?
There are far too many to list! I admire different writers for different reasons. For the humanity and honesty of their writing, I love Penelope Fitzgerald, Julian Barnes, Amos Oz, Chimamanga Ngozi Adichie, Samuel Beckett.
This task of a selected list becomes even more impossible with poetry! The ones I can rattle off now are Christina Rossetti, Tomas Transtömer, Robin Robertson, Philip Larkin, Wendy Cope, William Blake, Alice Oswald.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
There are a couple of contenders in this category. I shall focus on a story I was trying to write five years ago about a man who was known to the outside world as a man of letters, someone who cared about books and ideas. His personal life was full of brokenness. Every relationship, from friendship with his peers to his relationship with his mother, was tarred and ragged. The story centres on this lonely and angry character’s relationship with a woman who is perfectly ordinary except she has a saviour complex. Their coming together was the start of a destructive chain of events.
Writing that story was challenging because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t love the characters. Even when they were at their lowest, I looked upon them with derision and harshness. The most vital thing in my relationship with characters is compassion. If the author doesn’t care about her characters, there is no way anyone else would. I might feel differently now if I returned to that story and give it a complete rehaul. But back then, after I’d finished the first draft, I was glad to put that sour story away and not look at it again.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Having time and space to read and write. Being with people who believe in the life of the mind, take good care of the soul, and treat all their relationships with a sense of humour and grace.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Cruelty. I abhor all forms of cruelty, but can be especially enraged by cruelty against animals.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Shakepeare’s comedies; Dante’s La divina commedia; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My dog Mister Max, a 12-year-old Japanese Spitz.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
Yeo Wei Wei is a Singaporean writer and translator. Her debut short story collection These Foolish Things & Other Stories will be published in October 2015. She is one of the 2015 NAC-NTU writers-in-residence and is currently working on a novel.