Wednesday, 3 July 2019

O Thiam Chin Talks to Elaine Chiew about Vampires, Teenage Girls and His Sixth Book of Short Fiction, Signs of Life.

Photo courtesy of the Author and Alan Siew
O Thiam Chin is the author of five collections of short fiction: Free Falling Man, Never Been Better, Under the Sun, The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It, and Love, Or Something like Love. He was a recipient of the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2012, and has been shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. His debut novel, Now That It's Over, won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, as well as the Best Fiction title at the 2017 Singapore Books Awards. His second novel, Fox Fire Girl, was also shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016.

About Signs of Life (from the book jacket) (Math Paper Press, 2019):

A mysterious terrorising force hounding a group of schoolgirls at a campfire. A couple trying to conceive in a post-apocalyptic world. Two gay men, the last of their kind, getting acquainted in a laboratory for the purpose of scientific observation. A Christ-like figure raising the dead in the heartlands. Strange and suspenseful, these stories offer a whole other world of voices, plot and imagery that opens up new terrain in what is possible and imaginable. With wit, sensitivity and dexterity, O's characters slip from their ever-present reality into the surreal and unknown and find in the process their hungers, desires and pains coming fully awake, thrumming with exultant life.

EC: Welcome to AsianBooksBlog, OTC. Congratulations on your new short story collection, Signs of Life, your sixth! First, as one short story writer to another, the sense of affinity I had reading the stories was akin to the lifting of the veil on the preoccupations you’ve been working with. Do you also have that sense when you read another short story writer? Which short story writers do you read most?

OTC: Yes, exactly, it’s like peeling the skin off the brain of another writer and trying to decipher his innermost thoughts and ideas, how they congeal into stories, taking on its unique form and structure and rhythm. Every story has a heart of its own, its own life force, and how the writer sets about to achieve this, to give a story a life and all its dues, is really a marvel all on its own. Reading the stories of Mary Gaitskill, Karen Russell and George Saunders always feels like a short journey taken into the depth and folds of a strange, unremitting fever dream, thrilling and unsettling at the same time.

EC: How would you say this collection differs or tacks differently from the others you've written?

OTC: There are stories that I would not have imagined writing until I wrote them. Sometimes it’s because of an innate inertia, sometimes a preconceived bias, towards a particular literary genre. For a long time, I was comfortable writing the kind of stories that I have been known to write, these realist stories that revolve around themes of love and heartbreak and guilt and shame and identity. Yet, there is always something that nags at me to try different things, to adopt different voices, to have fun in my writing, and not be too staid or narrow-minded or uptight about how and what I should write. It’s perhaps in the spirit of fun that I’ve approached the writing of the stories in Signs of Life, that I could still focus on the themes that have always piqued my curiosity, and yet venture into new untested terrain, for me, to write certain types of stories, to filter these stories through the specific lens of certain genres, like horror or magic realism.

EC: The collection definitely has a gothic/macabre lens. What spurred you to take this road?

OTC: I have always loved any kind of stories that has a strain of the strange and macabre, whether it involves ghosts or monsters or vampires or zombies. I like how these creatures stand in for so many things despite the limitations of their commonly known traits and characteristics: rejection, oppression, alienation, persecution, fear of the unknown, fear of The Other. Through them, I get to see and examine the attitude and perception of how they are perceived and judged, how they are feared and cast out of society, whether it’s from ignorance or deep prejudice or even indifference. Their stories are the stories of the underdogs, the oppressed, the outcasts, and these are the stories that interest and fascinate me to no end, that keep me coming back for more whether in my reading or writing. The challenge then, for me, is to find the gaps in their stories to create my own fiction, to find new ways to write about them, to give these tropes a new blood.

EC: And blood, as well as vampires and the act of biting, are common motifs in this collection. You also remix fables like Goldilocks and The Three Bears with a stranger and more surreal fabulism. I was tempted, given your past volumes that deal more heavily with realism, to seek allegories, allusions and metaphors to Singapore society in these motifs. For example, in the story The Last Men, where a few last men are treated like lab rats in acts of sexual coitus, which are then recorded and physiologically measured, the clinical and scientific experiments feel like a hounding of a particular citizenry subset using sex as a weapon. Did you work with particular themes or metaphors in mind when you wrote the stories in this collection?

Photo courtesy of Haw Shing Yee and the Author

OTC: I work with whatever idea is alive to me at a particular time. When it comes to writing, it’s hard to think of a story in terms of themes and metaphors when you first approach it, well, at least for me. When I approach and enter a story, I think first and foremost of a character, the initial sketches of a person, and then slowly delve into a situation, a place, a setting, the background stuff. But the mind is a strange thing, an irrational creature, and it pulls in, along with that initial cell of an idea that sparks the story, a whole horde of other things, that is sum of all that I’ve been thinking and mulling over, be it books that I have read or the films and TV dramas that I’ve seen or the gossip or conversation that I’ve heard or the news headlines that I’ve gleaned—all these go into the cauldron that I stir and mix in a blind desperate hope that the end result is something that is alive, churning with blood and soul, not only in my own head, but also in the minds of other readers.

EC: One of the things that most intrigued me is the number of stories using ‘we’ as POV, and in stories like Cut and Campfire ‘we’ is a flock of teenage girls. What fascinates you about the use of this POV and specifically, teenage girls?

OTC: One of the fascinating uses of a ‘we’ is that you get to subsume the individual into a group, the singular voice into the organic body of a ‘us’. What a single eye can see is now broadened to a more universal, catholic spectrum of seeing and feeling and acting, which gives the dimension of living and experiencing something a greater heft and weight. It’s more than herd mentality or groupthink, though the experience of a ‘we’ treads along the perimeter of these concepts, since there are other voices—still parts of a whole—that speak out from the seemingly unified mass, to give varying shades and degree of vision and consciousness to an otherwise uniform group identity. Why teenager girls? To which I can only add: why not? They are highly impressionable, very responsive to different kinds of stimuli—emotional, social and situational—as well as being articulate and expressive and richly imaginative. They perceive things more acutely and astutely than boys at that age, which makes them a more sensible choice when you want to tell stories that require a deeper range of perception and observation. Think ‘Carrie’, think ‘Nancy Drew’—which I read and loved at a young age—think ‘Katniss Everdeen’.

EC: Several of the stories too take on a female POV, e.g. in the story Depth and Weight of Things, a woman, who sews skins for a living (surreal and metaphoric job!), talks about her miscarriages. Did you ever worry that someone might say this isn’t how a woman feels or thinks?

OTC: To reframe the question: how does one know another person, truly? How does one look at another person and know a single true thing about that person, every in and out of that person’s life? By imagining perhaps, by slipping into and under the skin of the person. I always want to live other lives, different lives, more exciting lives, than the one I have; how much more can I see or experience or feel? Perhaps it’s a consolation that as a writer, I get to create the imagined—it’s always an act of imagination really -- lives of other people, worlds that build on other worlds, through the words I breathe into them. The only work I need to do, as a writer and a person, is to listen and observe and understand anyone that comes into my life, man or woman or however you choose to identify. And from there, I distill and sieve out and select what I need to create a distinct voice, a specific character.

EC: I’d like to switch gears to a broader look at your oeuvre and process. Now that you’re into your sixth volume of short fiction, how has your process changed over the years, or has it?

OTC: Things, more or less, stay the same, after a while, and it’s harder to get an old dog to try new tricks (haha). You put in the hours, you stay focused, you fulfil the word count, and you get out, you enjoy the rest of your day. Rewind, and repeat. The satisfaction and contentment are in the details, in the flow, in that private solitary act of putting one word after another, day after day, which only you can appreciate and savour. Once you find your sweet spot, you never want to give it up.

EC: You have also written two novels. How is the process of writing a short story different from constructing a novel for you? Do you ever test out novel ideas using the short story form?

OTC: The only difference I can think of is the length of time required to write one or the other, nothing else. The conceptualisation of ideas that goes into a story or a novel is the same: you take one decent idea, you try it out, you go along with it, you find a form that sticks, and you continue. Some ideas find life in the structure of a story, other thrive better in the novel form. I wrote the first part of Fox Fire Girl, as a short story, intended for Signs of Life, but I grew to love the character of Yifan, the female protagonist, so much over time, and it got harder to let her go, and that’s how that novel came about: I want to know more, and also to know her more. I’m generally more open to how ideas are formed and how they stick around long enough for me to act on them, you know, survival of the fittest.

EC: Every few years, a major literary giant pronounces the death of literature. Countless articles are put out on Medium, LitHub etc exhorting us to read more, because it helps the empathic journey. Because of the weight of your words, it’s a rare opportunity for me to ask a literary aesthete: do you worry about the relevance literature has for our digitalized contemporary lives?

OTC: Literature will always matter to those that have been touched by it, to those who couldn’t imagine a day without it. Yes, there is a constant salvo from the digital front that seems unavoidable, even inevitable, now, but I think literature has risen more than adequately to the changing tide, adapting itself to different forms, to different mediums, to make itself relevant to an ever-changing landscape of readers, whether it takes the form of an e-book or an audiobook. How and what we make of literature, the values we put to it, its merits and benefits it embodies, really depends on the sort of readers we are, and the kind of people we want and aspire to be, individually and as a society, a community.

EC: Thank you for this wonderful honour to host you on AsianBooksBlog.

NB: Signs of Life is available in print and ebook format (
from Books Actually and Kinokuniya bookstores at local prices.