Interview: Shih-Li Kow, on ‘Ripples’

First published on 5th July, 2009 in The Star

shih-liIN 2007, Silverfish Books published News from Home, a collection of short stories by three Malaysians, Chua Kok Yee, Rumaizah Abu Bakar, and Shih-Li Kow.

The writers were participants of the Silverfish Writing Programme, and had been chosen to contribute to the anthology because they showed promise and commitment. Each had a different style of storytelling, but Kow’s stories stood out as the most original and interesting, and also because her voice was the most confident and natural of the three.

A year later, Kow published Ripples and Other Stories, a collection of her own, to critical acclaim locally. On Monday, that acclaim became international when Ripples was shortlisted for the world’s richest short story prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

The winner of the £35,000 (RM175,000) prize will be announced on Sept 30, at the culmination of the annual Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, which begins on Sept 16.

The other titles shortlisted are An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah; Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower; Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy;Singularity by Charlotte Grimshaw; and The Pleasant Light of Day by Philip Ó Ceallaigh.

In an e-mail interview, Kow, 40, talks about being shortlisted and other aspects of her life as a writer.

What does being shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor mean to you?
I still find it hard to believe! It’s absolutely crazy but in a good way, like getting a big surprise birthday present when it’s not my birthday. Being selected for the shortlist is a wonderful motivator to keep me writing and I hope it encourages other writers and publishers in Malaysia as well. With the shortlist, Ripples gets a level of exposure that would have been practically impossible to generate otherwise. I hope, too, that we widen the readership for Malaysian books. We need that to happen.

How necessary are nominations and good reviews to you? Do you read reviews of your work and do they have the power to make your day, or spoil it if they’re negative?
I don’t have much experience with reviews, they’re hard to come by. I think Ripples was reviewed maybe twice. Yes, I do read them. Good reviews are great but any reviewer who takes the trouble to criticise constructively will have my attention, even if it spoils my day.

How long did it take to you put together Ripples? Were the stories written specially for it, or did you also have stories saved up from before?
About a year and a half. News from Home (2007) had 10 stories but I had several more that were not published at the time. Those were reworked for Ripples and combined with newer ones.

The story Distraction is a favourite with many readers I’ve spoken to. It flows so well, and reads like it was written quite spontaneously. Could you describe how you came to write it? How much revision was necessary?
It was quite easy to write. Not much revision, maybe two or three rounds. I remember a day when I was editing some older stories and losing a few hairs trying to link them up. I just wanted a break. No plots, no characters, no dialogues, no keyboards. Just indulge in a bit of writing. On a bit of paper and a pen. That’s how I remember starting Distraction.

You have said in a previous conversation that you don’t know if your style of writing is suited to a novel. What do you think is the difference between writing short stories and writing a novel?
Perhaps it is less a matter of style than choice. I guess a novel would demand a more sustained commitment to character and plot, a more gradual build-up of events, while short stories allow more opportunity for play, for testing storylines and selectively magnifying a particular situation.

Do you think you will attempt a novel?
Never say never – I am tempted to attempt.

What’s your approach to writing? Where do your ideas come from?
This is going to sound so dry. I approach writing much as I would approach the acquiring of any new skill. Learn the basics, check out what the pros do, practise, get some feedback, then go back through the cycle again. Learn more, read some more, write some more, and try to have some fun along the way.

Daily life is a great source of ideas, and I happen to work in a very colourful part of town (Kow is a manager at a shopping centre in the China Town area of Kuala Lumpur). There are also members of my family who are wonderful narrators.

Is your story Grey Cats a tribute to Hemingway? Could you talk about how and why you came to write this story?
No, I wouldn’t dare! Someone I know had a maid who did get in the family way. This was worked into Grey Cats. I think there’s this whole sub-culture with foreign workers here that we hardly know although it’s right under our noses and in our homes. But that’s another story altogether.

Describe a typical writing session as well as the entire process of completing a story.
A typical writing session is maybe 30 minutes during breakfast teh tarik after I send my son off to school. Editing, after dinner, if I’m up to it. Longer stretches on weekends. I don’t have much of a life!

 What was it like working with your editor? How much input did he have? Any dramatic moments?
It was surprisingly painless in contrast to self-editing which is absolutely masochistic. Most of the input was about clarity, consistency, and credibility. Sounds like a slogan, 3Cs!

Anyway, I wish the acknowledgements to (Yeoh) Phek Chin and Raman (Krishnan, both of Silverfish Books) were not taken out of the book when it went to the printers. They were a great help, and I knew I had control over the changes. That was important.

ripplesDo you find real life interfering with your writing? How do you organise time to write, and how do you cope with distractions?
There isn’t much choice when real life pays the bills! I write when I can, I scribble in notebooks a lot. Having targets helps. With Ripples, I told myself I would have at least one story a month, fully edited and rewritten if necessary. I might have three or four in the works but I would complete that one piece. Actually finishing something and chalking it up is a great motivator.

Some luxuries have fallen by the wayside – don’t ask me how many movies I’ve watched, or what happened on CSI or in Perak, or when I last went on a proper holiday.

Do you read local or Asian writers? If so, who are they, and how far did they go in helping you find your voice as a writer?
Most of my Asian reading has been of anthologies. As to finding a voice, I believe it’s an accumulation of reading influences, not necessarily local or Asian. I found some of the most effective stories not necessarily overtly Asian or packed with Malaysian cliches. The Geology of Malaysia (by Christopher Yin) from one of the earlier Silverfish collections (New Writing 5) comes to mind. And Bentong (by Ho Sui-Jim) in Urban Odysseys (published by MPH Group Publishing).

Which authors or books have inspired and influenced you most?
I am a short story fan, and I find that Raymond Carver’s stories are so emotionally true to life, they are intimidating. I am humbled every time I read one. I find Toni Morrison’s use of language and Annie Proulx’s descriptions and sense of place inspiring.

Before signing up for that Silverfish Writing Programme, had you tried writing before? What made you want to try to write? And how has the journey been so far?
A little, in school. It was a long time ago. I think they were frivolous teenage articles that we printed on newsprint with cyclostyle machines. I think I’m showing my age here!

A few years ago, I started keeping an occasional journal, mainly to vent, and found that I sometimes wandered into something approaching fiction. I wanted to do more.

I wrote my first story and, soon after that, I came upon Raman’s class. The timing was right and, suddenly, I was with other people who wanted to write. It wasn’t so strange after all to want to write.

So far, it has been more rewarding than I imagined. No money in it though, that’s for sure!

What’s your idea of the perfect time, place and state of mind in which to create a story?
When it’s quiet enough to hear yourself think. Not a physical quiet but a time and space when there’s nothing else demanding your immediate attention. Then that nugget of a story knocking around in the back of your mind can come out and play freely.

Recommend three of your all-time favourite books or authors and why you love them?
The Malayan Trilogy (by Anthony Burgess) for making us recognise ourselves through the author’s eyes. The Life of Pi (by Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize) for sheer storytelling joy, for delivering so many messages without ever seeming to preach. One Hundred Years of Solitude (by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez) – a beautiful beginning, an illuminating resolution, it’s like a perfect circle. Can’t imagine which came first, the beginning or the end.

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