Tuesday 14 April 2020

Talented Ivy Ngeow dishes on her recent book Overboard: research, characters and the time it took to write her book

Courtesy of Author
Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is the author of three novels, Cry of the Flying Rhino (2017), Heart of Glass (2018) and Overboard (2020). A graduate of the Middlesex University Writing MA programme, Ivy won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Prize and the 2016 International Proverse Prize. She has written non-fiction for Marie Claire, The Star, The New Straits Times, South London Society of Architects’ Newsletter and Wimbledon magazine. Her short stories have appeared in Silverfish New Writing anthologies twice, The New Writer and on the BBC World Service, Fixi Novo’s ‘Hungry in Ipoh’ anthology (2014) and 2020 anthology. 

Thailand. An epic storm. A shipwreck. A white man has been found. Alive.

But who is he? Suffering horrific injuries and burns, he is taken to a local hospital. He is mute. Everything is a blank. They tell him his name. That is all he knows. When his Chinese wife arrives, he has no choice but to return to London to her family. He starts getting better with care and more surgery until one day… he’s assaulted. And he knows why. The blow brings back a dangerous memory. But he’s crippled, disfigured and penniless… and he’s living the life of the man they think he is.  What will he risk to uncover the truth?

Courtesy of author
EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Ivy. Congratulations on your third novel, Overboard. Tell us how this project began, and how long did the writing of it take.  

IN: I started planning Overboard in 2018, just after Heart of Glass was launched. I know it sounds so incredible now, but the writing only took about 2 months. I don’t work well on a methodical daily word count routine. I am too distracted by work and family life. What I do is commit 2 months and lock myself like I am on a project deadline. I wrote the first draft without doing anything else. The editing took almost a year as the re-writes and the structure had to move around quite a bit, followed by two more final rounds by editors.

EC: The protagonist in this story, Greg, tells his story from the 2nd POV throughout.  It’s an interesting choice: can you share why you chose this POV and whether you experimented with others before settling on 2nd

IN: I was first intrigued by the second person POV when I was doing my MA in Writing and discovered experimental short stories by early 20th century Polish Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz. Normally it would be considered a no-no, as would be writing from the POV of a cat or something. However, in this case, I intended the narrative to be restrictive, like in a tunnel looking up. The interrogative POV is perfect for Greg because he is mute. He can only be spoken to. He does not know who he is and all he knows is what they tell him, including his own internalisation.

EC: There are multiple character-POVs in this novel, and one of the ones I really enjoyed reading was Przemek the plumber who is Polish and owns a pet snake. Elsewhere, you said the snake is a motif in all your novels. What does the snake signify for you, and which character did you most enjoy writing about?

IN: The snake has dual symbolism. At once depicted and vilified in Judeo-Christian tradition as the source of sin, darkness and temptation, in Eastern mysticism it is also treasured in folklore as a representation of transformation. No matter what, we will change, we will shed our skins, our past. Nothing will stay the same again. Our old self becomes young again, all the more as we age. We are constantly being renewed and regenerated. Like you, I enjoyed Przemek’s character very much. As I was writing, he constantly surprised me to the extent that I myself did not want his story to end. He was so well-formed from the start. I saw and heard him clearly as though he was in front of me. The snake, the clothes and music he was into, his voice, his basic “landlord” Ikea furniture. Every detail popped out and shone. His intellectual and emotional side became apparent through his visually and sexually charged role. He could be so cold and yet kind. Nobody could ever get in his way. He plays an instrumental part in moving the plot along.

EC: The story arc opens in a hospital in Southern Thailand and then takes us to Cambodia, London, Dubai, Singapore.  Your first two novels also span disparate geographies. What role do you see ‘place’ playing in your stories, and what draws you to these far-flung geographies in your novels?

IN: As a reader I have been motivated to read to escape the mundane, my kitchen sink, my own four walls. As a Malaysian writer writing in English, I feel responsible in drawing attention back to South East Asia. My settings are both East and West because as someone who has spent more than half my life outside Asia, I am now neither East and West and still I am both. I am writing about Asians who are not Crazy or Rich. I am writing about white people who are Crazy and Rich. Although I am not specifically interested in travel in itself, I am inspired by the discovery of other countries, cuisines and cultures. We are more similar than we realise. I want to bring that diverse experience to readers. Books bring people together.

EC: What are three interesting facts about research for Overboard that you can share with readers?

IN: Firstly, after I researched owning a luxury yacht sailing and medical and rehabilitative treatment, I realised that too much technical information can be dense and dull. I threw out 100% of the research and started writing as a “layperson”. After all, the patient or the main character is a layman himself and it would be in character to narrate without in-depth knowledge. 

Secondly, I surprised myself as I was about to research luxury lifestyle but found that I knew it all already, not because I was living the high life myself but because Dominique the city lawyer was just like any of my clients in my day job as an architect. I know the value and the price tags of their Holland Park mansion, a vintage Mercedes, vitality injections, a Gucci bag and top private education already without a stroke of research. These are the people who hire people like me, Andreia, the interior designer, and Przemek the plumber. I did not research a thing about London, interior design, plumbing and heating as I knew these subjects intimately. 

Thirdly, I did a ton of research about volunteering in Cambodia but an amazing thing happened. As I started writing, the character of Phoebe actually steered me. She guided me away from Cambodian local life. In retrospect, I now see that it’s because Phoebe is very stressed and distracted by the time she receives the news of the accident. The Cambodian research simply faded and disappeared from her focus and that of the narrative.

All three facts about research point to one thing: if you listen carefully to the characters, they will tell you what research is or is not required. Know your characters.

EC: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: how long have you been writing, your biggest literary influences and what led you to writing?

As I am 50 this year, I would have been writing for 42 years. I began writing and illustrating stories as an 8 year old or shortly after I started reading. At first it was to entertain my toddler brothers as there were very few children’s books around at the time. I remember being frustrated by the lack of books as I consumed them quickly. I have always loved the art of storytelling and escaping the mundane. You’ve got to understand that I grew up somewhere grim and industrial (Johor Bahru) and there was little or no cultural stimulation except for the library and my upright piano. At 16, I won my first national commendation for a short story I submitted to the New Straits Times short story competition. The prize was going to Kuala Lumpur to attend a weekend writing workshop. After that I felt encouraged and “endorsed”. 

I am a fan of stylish but dark modern literature. My literary influences include Sarah Waters, SJ Watson, Tracy Chevalier, John Lanchester, Patricia Highsmith. But my favourite author has to be David Szalay.

NB: Overboard can be purchased at  Amazon (USA)Amazon (UK),Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, 24 Symbols, Angus & Robertson, !ndigo, Mondadori StoreGoogle Play Books.  Her writing, blogs, Overboard signed copies and fan merch are available from the author's website.  http://writengeow.com