Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz is now a Singapore-based literary agent, though she spent over a decade at the Writers House agency in New York, where she specialized in young adult fiction. Her clients regularly made the New York Times bestseller list, and some won critical acclaim. She says: “I had a lot of success with series writers and that afforded me the time to work with more literary writers like Chris Lynch who went on to win many awards and was a U.S. National Book Award finalist.  Another N.B.A. finalist, Jack Gantos, won The Newbery Medal, presented annually for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.”

Fran’s husband is a copyright lawyer, and when his job started bringing him frequently to Asia, the couple decided to move their family to Singapore. Fran wasn’t too worried about continuing her career. “I figured: I'll just find Asian writers!"  She says, “But it took me twelve years to find the sort of writers I feel are ready for the big markets.” Why does she think it took her so long? “Competition here hasn’t so far been fierce enough to produce the sort of commercial titles which can withstand the scrutiny of the world's larger markets.”

To help her clients reach those lucrative overseas markets, Fran has now joined forces with Kevin Mulroy and Amy Shields, both of Potomac Global Media, in Washington. What genre is she most excited to present to her international partners? “Graphic novels are where I see the talent, if not necessarily the buyers.” She says. “Singaporeans are really good at graphic novels.  I think it’s because they provide a sort of sneaky way to reveal one’s thoughts, taking up less air space than a full-blown novel. It's the abbreviation; Singaporeans weren't brought up to vent and gab.”    She mentions two graphic novelists in particular, Troy Chin, and Sonny Liew. “They’re both inventive and witty, but never self-indulgent. They never forget the story, their characters or their audience.” However, she warns, “I like graphic novels, but I’m not inviting a flood of submissions from potential clients.”

Many of Fran’s clients are expats. “That's not by design, it's simply what I think I can sell.”  Beyond the purely commercial, does she think expats have a positive contribution to make to the local literary scene?   “I think their influence on the types of conversation people are having will lead to a greater focus all across the nation on story telling and articulation. New York didn't start out being the publishing capital of the U.S. it happened because crowds of people from all sorts of different backgrounds created a place where stories would be told and read or listened to if and only if they were better than anyone else's. I think expats can help turn Singapore into a similar sort of incubator of excellence.”

You can contact Fran at flebowitz@yahoo.com; her unreliable memoir Tales From A Broad is available as an e-book from Monsoon Books.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Shi Cheng / Ten Cities

Shi Cheng, Short Stories from Urban China, edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu & Ra Page, published by Comma Press in both paperback and e-book format, is a sort of mind map of both modern China, and also of what it’s like to be human. Shi cheng means ten cities, and the collection contains ten short stories, each set in a different Chinese city, each by a different contemporary Chinese author, and each translated into English by one of a small team of translators.

A sense of place is never absent. The ten cities are rendered in all their specificity, from the weather, to the food consumed, to the traffic patterns, to the toilet arrangements, but Shi Cheng is not a geography textbook, and the characters take precedence over the settings.

Many of the stories are funny. Squatting, written by Diao Dou, and translated by Brendan O’Kane, uses comedy to mock both municipal bureaucracy, and also ill-judged interventions in municipal affairs by well-meaning (self-styled?) intellectuals. When discussing crime rates on summer nights, the author writes:  “In principle, I believe, the overall mainstream big picture situation of our city at the macro level is hardly different from Paris or Warsaw, Pyongyang or London, Tokyo or Beijing, Baghdad or Port-au-Prince, Canberra or Kabul, Sarajevo or Caracas, Addis Ababa or Buenos Aires.” 

As for crime rates, so for emotions: people from Pyongyang fall in and out of love as surely as Parisians; jealousy provokes shameful behaviour in Warsaw just as in Beijing; rejection hurts whether you’re living in Tokyo, or in Caracas.

Shi Cheng highlights these similarities between people, rather than their differences. Granted, the settings are all in China, and most of the details are specifically Chinese, nevertheless the struggles of the various characters are universal.

In Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu, by Jie Chen, translated by Josh Stenberg, love, jealousy and the complexities of friendship are much more important than the setting, Chengdu.

Family Secrets, by Ding Liying, translated by Nicky Harmen, is also about jealousy - and also about anger and disillusionment.  The narrator is a newspaper columnist who gets more than she bargained for when she answers the phone to one of her readers; with a few minor adaptations it could be set anywhere where newspapers publish gossipy human-interest stories, and journalists feel ashamed of their work.

The loneliness of life in big cities is explored in such stories as Square Moon, by Ho Sin Tung, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, and This Moron is Dead by Han Dong, translated by Nicky Harman. This Moron is Dead concerns a man who dies in the street, and whose body is largely ignored; indifference could be the fate of a corpse in almost any big city in the world.

If you want conversations one-to-one with various Chinese writers, and the various characters they have created, then I recommend Shi Cheng. If you have read it yourself, then do please post with your comments.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Singapore Writers' Group

I’ve just discovered the Singapore Writer’s Group. (http://www.meetup.com/The-Singapore-Writers-Group/) This is a loose network of local writers who meet once a month to listen to members’ work, and to provide feedback.

I’ve always been in two minds about writers’ groups.  On the one hand, a writer should surely always welcome constructive criticism?  On the other hand, writing a novel is not a team effort. Isn’t there a risk that novelists, if they hear too many opinions on their works-in-progress, will either lose sight of their own opinions about what they are writing, or else give up, because, in the light of other peoples’ chatter, their novel seems such a mess?

Before I went along, I was particularly worried about the Singapore Writers’ Group.  I imagined, in advance, that it would be a bunch of my own kind: Expat Lady Novelists With Their Notebooks.  As it turned out, the only Expat Lady Novelist With Her Notebook in attendance was me. To my considerable surprise, the group was split roughly 50:50 between men and women, and though the organizer, Alice Clark-Platts, is English, and there were several other western faces round the circle, most of the group seemed to be local, or else to be non-western expats now drawn to Singapore from their home countries all over Asia. 

The range of writing, too, went way beyond the expat dramas and sagas I was expecting. Alice Clark-Platts is a human rights lawyer, and she has just completed a political thriller set in the future; it explores the long-term legacy of the war on terror.  She did not read the night I polled up, but three people were brave enough to do so. One put us through the wringer with a harrowing short story about a lost child.  Another read the first chapter of a genre-bending fantasy-romance about a teenaged girl seemingly possessed by an ancient Egyptian Queen, and destined to join a sisterhood dedicated to protecting modern Egypt’s female politicians.  The final offering was from an Indian writer, who is working on a highly fictionalized, wildly exuberant memoir of his teenage years.  The chapter he read was called That crazy, shit-assed chapter to all the lovely people in the parallel universe- yes, whatever has been reported here happened in the parallel universe.  To the extent I understood it, this seemed to me in equal measure barking mad, genius, tasteless, and funny.

Next time I go, I won’t take any preconceptions, and nor will I take my notebook.  If you do happen to be living in Singapore, and you want to set up shop as a writer, I recommend you give this group a try.

If you’ve ever been a member of a writers’ group, and you have thoughts on their helpfulness, or otherwise, then do please post to share them.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Two takes on Raffles

In the spirit of urging books I’ve enjoyed on my friends, I’d like to recommend Raffles And The Golden Opportunity, by Victoria Glendinning, published in late 2012 by Profile Books, and available as both a paperback, and an e-book. Glendinning remarks in her introduction that “Raffles’ story, in a work of fiction, would strain credulity.” For sure, his biography has it all: a spectacular rise from humble beginnings; financial success, and financial ruin; blazing rows with assorted soldiers and administrators; two wives, his first a raffish beauty, his second the mother of his children, and the keeper of his flame; shipwreck; multiple bereavements – everything including the founding of London Zoo.  It is fantastic material, and Glendinning marshals it with enjoyable flair and aplomb. Her purpose is to provide a portrait of Raffles the man, and not to treat him as either a hero, or a villain, of early imperialism, thus she does not paint him as either falsely black, or as falsely white, but as a mixture of good and bad, like any of us, a mass of contradictions, like any of us, loving to, and loved by, his wives, loathed by many, ambitious, yes, but not venal, a man who wanted to do good, even when he messed things up, as he did sometimes. If you are prepared to set aside the idea that colonialists were all monsters, and to see them as human beings, then I think you will enjoy this book as much as I did. 

If, on the other hand, you are determined to see Raffles as an ogre, you might prefer Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java, by Tim Hannigan, published by Monsoon Books, also in late 2012, and also available as both a paperback, and an e-book. This focuses on the five years during which the British ruled Java, for almost all of which time Raffles was the settlement’s Lieutenant-Governor. Hanningan is much more concerned than Glendinning to push a point, his being, roughly: Everything Raffles Did In Java Was Wrong. He selects material to show Raffles in a uniformly bad light, there is no attempt to be balanced, and even Raffles’ first wife, Olivia, whom Glendinning presents as a vivacious, interesting woman, is more-or-less dismissed as a cartoon drunk. At times I did long for some indication that there were multiple sides to every story, but Hannigan clearly feels it is still necessary to argue against the idea that Raffles was a paragon of virtue, rectitude, and wise and kindly good sense. In this he succeeds admirably.

If you have read, or now choose to read, either or both of these books, then do please post with your opinions. Thanks.