A prominent figure in the Sing Lit scene, Daryl Qilin Yam tells us about his inspiration and creative process as a writer in Singapore.
The local literature scene may be small compared to its international counterpart, but it’s flourishing. With support from indie bookstores showcasing Singaporean titles, the nationwide #BuySingLit movement encouraging readers to pick up locally-written books, and the Epigram Books Fiction Prize recognising writers from Southeast Asia, there’s a collective push for literary arts to be in the spotlight.
As someone who’s part of this growing community, novelist Daryl Qilin Yam is one of the board of directors at literary charity Sing Lit Station. And his debut novel, Kappa Quartet, was longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015. We chat with him about his passion for writing, his thoughts on being a writer in Singapore, the creative process behind his two new upcoming books and more.
Hello, Daryl! Congratulations on your two new upcoming novels. But first, tell us how and when your love for writing started.
My love for writing really began with my love for reading. I started out with the usual slate of Enid Blyton books as a child, before I was suckered into being a Harry Potter fan. Looking back I think I fell for those books hard because they came at the right time. It was possible to feel powerful as a teenager in that universe, in a school that felt freer and much kinder than the one I was actually going to.
It felt great to be a sleuth too, because if you think about it, each book in that series had a mystery that needed uncovering. My brain at the time was a bit too eager to figure out what the meaning of life was. Finally, there was also a very rigid moral dimension to the Harry Potter universe that made it easy to decide who the good guys and bad guys were, which, in its own way, became another kind of fantasy I could indulge in.
And so I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that my love for writing is tied with a need for escape. It was a much needed outlet. Of course, over time I realised that the battle that’s harder won is the battle that requires you to not run away from your troubles but to seek solace within the very things that make you tremble. By the time I was 21, I was reading every single book that Margaret Atwood ever wrote at the time, followed by Haruki Murakami, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, Yoko Ogawa.
I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha when I was 17 and the lessons I learnt then continue to guide me till this very day. With every book I read, I felt myself being told, over and over, about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell myself. Having my poems and short stories published by literary journals and magazines, in turn, confirmed I could also tell stories to other people too; that I was writing things other people thought worthy of being read. So yes, in short: my love for writing began with my love for reading.
Who are your favourite authors?
Aside from the ones I listed earlier, the authors I’m into include Curtis Sittenfeld, Brandon Taylor, Garth Greenwell, Alejandro Zambra, Minae Mizumura… I’m also very excited to get my hands on Anthony Doerr and Hanya Yanagihara’s forthcoming new novels, and am eager to see what Singaporean writers will continue to do both locally and abroad.
I love Balli Kaur Jaswal and Cyril Wong, and of course I’d love to see what kind of second novels Sharlene Teo, Rachel Heng, Amanda Lee Koe and Jing-Jing Lee might produce.
You co-founded Sing Lit Station. How did it come about?
That one really began with the poet Joshua Ip. He was experimenting with a few ideas, conducting programmes for aspiring writers. He wanted to assemble a team of people who could support him in his vision of establishing a writer’s centre, one that advocated for Sing Lit and gave opportunities to its writers.
He also caught me at the right time. I was graduating from the University of Warwick in 2016, and he knew that I was in search of a job back in Singapore. When he asked me if I wanted to be the first general manager of the non-profit, I said sure. It made so much sense to me at the time, and now, five years later, the growth of the organisation and the part it plays in the Sing Lit community reassures me that we did the right thing starting Sing Lit Station.
Take us through the creative process behind your two new books: Lovelier, Lonelier and Shantih Shantih Shantih. How did you develop your plot and characters?
Let’s start with Shantih Shantih Shantih, which had much simpler beginnings. Kenny Leck, the owner of BooksActually, asked me one day in 2017 to write a work of fiction that could be experienced not as a whole, but in parts. He also wanted the parts to be rearrangeable by readers, so that each reader could genuinely chart their own way across the narrative. I do think that in longer works it’s useful to begin with a shape or structure that can be filled with an idea.
In this case, I had the inspiration to write about a dozen characters in Singapore who so happen to be awake when it snows, miraculously, for four minutes and twenty-six seconds. I wanted a dozen people who’d come with their own particular histories and respond, in their own unique way, to the freakish weather that they were witnessing, and how the event might inform the trajectory of their individual lives.
There was the added pleasure, of course, in having the characters connected to one another too. So the novella as a whole retains a sense of unity even amongst its disparate parts. Once I had everything laid out in my mind, it took me two weeks to produce the first draft, which I wrote in a heady rush while Sing Lit Station’s office was located at Jalan Kubor.
On the other hand, Lovelier, Lonelier was a beast of a book. I totally underestimated the work I needed to do before I could even write a word down. So, for six months in 2017, I couldn’t move past a couple of pages, even though I knew the novel would be loosely split over three discrete parts. The first set in Kyoto, 1996, the second in Isla Cristina, 2004, and the third between Singapore and Johor Bahru, 2015, essentially following the lives of four friends over three major moments of reckoning.
I knew also that the book would follow the course of a marriage, and that it would contain a nestled narrative within itself that chronicled a totally separate, genre-defying series of events. But knowing this much could never match the amount of investigating I needed to do into each of my main characters’ lives. Knowing their habits, their interests and their inclinations were essential in threading how their paths would intersect and interact with one another.
Once I had my breakthrough, I felt like I could generate enough momentum to finally finish the first draft. I spent December in London, generating more words than I had planned to. Naturally, this led to major revisions over four more drafts, aided by readers and their crucial feedback along the way. Everyone steered me to what they felt was the best direction for the novel.
I basically felt like I was writing five novels over the course of four years. While it was arduous work, it felt immensely rewarding every time. By the fourth draft, I finally felt like I knew my characters inside and out. On the fifth, I had to evaluate which parts of their lives to let go or reshape, so the novel as a whole could feel more compact and intentional with the way it was telling its story.
As a novelist in Singapore, how viable is writing as a career? What are the challenges you’ve faced?
I think writing is totally viable as a career, though of course how viable it is will depend on how good you are. I think I’ve been lucky and immensely privileged. I have a family who feeds me whenever I’m home and expects nothing else from me.
Over the years I’ve spent as the Station Control at Sing Lit Station, I could also negotiate my own hours and manage the time spent on work and the time spent otherwise on writing. That gave me opportunities to take time off and spend mornings at Starbucks or go on writing residencies abroad to work on my second novel. The most crippling challenges I’ve faced have most often come from within. Self-doubt, shame, my sense of right and wrong, my need for love, friendship, validation, enlightenment, and so on. These are the problems that never go away, no matter the condition of your external circumstances. I spend more time working on these things than anything else.
Your debut novel Kappa Quartet has been compared to Haruki Murakami’s writing. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s a very valid and flattering comparison. Every writer has someone else that lit the way forward for them, and for me that’s obviously Murakami. In fact, if you read Kappa Quartet, you’ll see his influence not just in the style of writing, but also in the way the chapters are structured, the way the respective plots progress, develop, twist and turn. Kappa Quartet is a novel in stories because I found Murakami’s early short stories particularly powerful. All of them were masterclasses in how we can organise fiction in its most effective and surprising ways possible, and his hand is present in every single way I’ve crafted the individual chapters.
Any tips for aspiring writers to break into the Sing Lit scene?
You start by reading and writing. Read a lot and endeavour to write very, very well. (After that, know who your local publishers and literary non-profits are and get in touch. You have to be your own agent, advocate and administrator!)
What would you like to see in the future for the local literary landscape?
I’m not sure. At this stage of 2021, I can’t help but feel that Singaporeans are not only thriving overseas. They’re also causing local publishers to pump out a slate of promising titles. (I, myself, am releasing my novel Lovelier, Lonelier with Epigram Books, and my novella, Shantih Shantih Shantih, with Math Paper Press in October.) My only wish is for writers to feel enabled to write about whatever they want. And for publishers to feel enabled to pick only the best manuscripts they receive for the public to read.
Finally, if you had to pick one book to read over and over again, what would it be?
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Timeless.
Keen to read Daryl Qilin Yam’s works? Pre-order Lovelier, Lonelier and Shantih Shantih Shantih at BooksActually.