It’s always an exciting time for a writer when your first novel is about to be published, but when you have two novels coming out from two separate publishers—one a prize-winner in Hong Kong, another crowdfunded in London—that’s really exciting..
Thirty years ago, when Ivy Ngeow was 17, I met her at two-day workshop in Kuala Lumpur conducted by noted Malaysian author K.S. Maniam. Seventeen years later, as an editor for the anthology Silverfish 4, I happened to choose one of Ivy’s short stories. I didn’t connect the writer from the UK with the writer I had met from Johor until she pointed it out to me.
I was fortunate to have read the advance copy of Ivy’s forthcoming novel, Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize, for her Proverse Hong Kong publisher. The book was written in a lyrical style infused with Borneo folklore, Iban dreams, and peppered with startling fresh similes and metaphors both illuminating and culturally apt....Ivy has an eye for rich telling detail and a deft ear for dialogue. I’m looking forward to reading Heart of Glass.
Born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and a graduate of the Middlesex University Writing MA program, Ivy won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Prize out of nearly 1500 entrants worldwide. Her short stories have appeared in two Silverfish New Writing anthologies, in Fixi Novo’s anthology Hungry in Ipoh, The New Writer, and on the BBC World Service. She won first prize in the Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition 1994, first prize in the Barnes and Noble Career Essay Writing competition 1998 and was shortlisted for the David T K Wong Fellowship 1998 and the Ian St James Award 1999. She even won fifth prize (out of 850 entrants) in the 2006 1-MIC (Music Industry Charts) UK Award for her original song, ‘Celebrity’. An architect by profession, Ivy lives and writes in London with her family.
After being interviewed on Ivy’s blog, I’m delighted to return the favor.
RR: I can’t imagine what’s going through your mind right now knowing that your first and second novels, Cry of the Flying Rhino and Heart of Glass, are both coming out in 2017, so please tell us...
IVY: I feel I am being whacked about the head every morning. I remind myself that although I have had short stories published, I have put in the five ingredients of writing a novel: inspiration, time, effort, commitment and energy. After many decades, in which at no stage was it easy, another journey has begun for me—that as a novelist.
RR: About time, I’m sure....I know the feeling all too well and so do plenty of other writers. You’ve also cleverly managed to bypass that whole second novel syndrome—two at one time. Smart! Tell us a little about each novel, their similarities and differences? I know one is set in Malaysia. The other?
IVY: Cry of the Flying Rhino is set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. The protagonist is a Malaysian Chinese doctor, a middle-class Western-educated professional. However he is entangled in his wife’s past secrets and has to disentangle himself and his family. Heart of Glass is set in Chicago and Macau in the 1980s. The protagonist is a mixed American Chinese girl, a petty criminal, a school dropout who has to find a way of coming clean by taking on a gig abroad in Macau. Both main characters have to find their own sense of belonging; both are decultured in their own natural settings. The themes of imprisonment, displacement, cultural identity and diversity are prevalent in my novels. They are both slightly gothic literary thrillers taking place in the denseness and darkness of cities or jungles at night, steeped in rich cultural references and atmospheric settings.
RR: The settings for Cry of the Flying Rhino were palpable. I was thinking, when did Ivy come to Borneo? Why didn’t she visit me! How did crowdfunding Heart of Glass come about? Was that your idea, the publisher, or is it a new trend that you tapped into—a compromise between traditional publishing versus self-publishing—a win-win, I assume, for both the writer and the publisher?
IVY: I first heard of Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher through a mailing list that I was on and I thought what the hell. I sent them the entire manuscript in October 2016 and they accepted it on 18 November 2016. The idea behind crowdfunding was simply to pre-sell 175 to 300 copies of your book through direct sales. I thought—I can’t do that! I could sell 10. Maybe 20. But then I asked myself, wait a minute, what if I could sell 175 copies? Would I not want that? Why don’t I give it a go? I could always quit if I could not make the target. Since no one, including the publisher, knew what could happen in the future, I signed the contract. If I pre-sold the copies, I would have a real book and an ebook. This was the deal. And it was a top London publisher. I started my crowdfunding campaign on 12 December 2016. The project was fully funded on 30 March 2017.
From the start I knew this is the exact opposite of vanity or self-publishing. No self-published book would exist in a real bookshop even an indie. Unbound’s books do. It can’t be vanity as it was as humble as you would ever have to be. You’re selling your hard work. How to be proud when you’re selling? And in sales, the customer must at least feel comfortable to spend his or her hard-earned money on you. The publisher? Unbound would be editing, designing, copyediting, proofing, publishing, distributing as per tradition. You? The writer? You write the book and you sell the copies. The contract was very transparent and clear. My contact who I was dealing with was friendly, helpful and kind. They were always there to answer my questions or to assist me with the steps I was taking. On top of that, I had access to the Unbound Social Club, the online forum of the authors and a treasure trove of experience, sounding boards, tips and advice.
RR: This all sounds intriguing—you get a publisher, an in-house support group and a social network, something you can plug into at any moment, ideal for isolated writers in the far flung corners of the world like me in Borneo....What are the benefits and the drawbacks to crowdfunding a novel? Do you recommend it for other writers? Would you do it again?
-publication by a top quality London publisher via traditional publishing process
-high quality, professional production
-access to top editorial team and design team
-access to the authors’ forum and network
-gaining wide readership or fans through campaigning
-gaining new skill of crowdfunding through the process
-attract media attention, publicity and promotion
-books distributed widely, or by Penguin if hardback
-authors get 50-50 with publisher (high royalties) after target reached
-crowdfunding is direct marketing, sales campaign and self-promotion all in one
-not being able to find/reach out to enough readers/investors/supporters/patrons
-social media over-use
-extremely time consuming
-annoying people you know (to buy your book)
-annoying people you don’t know (to buy your book)
-risk of not reaching target (shame/embarrassment)
Despite the cons, I would definitely recommend crowdfunding to new authors who have written a truly original piece of work or something which straddles genres (like mine) or something that has a moral heart which is hard to place in the market. For previously published authors crowdfunding would work well if you have an established readership. There are many well-known authors crowdfunding.
RR: With publishing industry being what it is today, I’m not surprised. If a writer can guarantee sales by crowdfunding, it removes a lot of the risk for the publisher; also the writer will be getting that second chance that may have eluded them if their first book or early work, for one reason or another, didn’t sell up to expectations....I was amazed by all these writers whose books had gone out of print, by how quickly they jumped into the eBook market. Suddenly they were back in business, eager to find new readers, putting in the hard work to market themselves, proving to publishers who let their work go out of print—see, I knew I had readers out there; they just happened to be scattered around the world!
Tell us little about your background, growing up in Johor, and what led you into writing at a young age. Do you draw upon that experience in your fiction?
IVY: I was born and raised in Johor Bahru. My house overlooks the Straits of Johor. I attended the local Convent school (Holy Infant Jesus Convent). I was so fortunate that when we moved into the house where my parents still live, one room was filled with the previous owner’s books from floor to ceiling. I did not know what these books were, but I started to read every one of them and by the time I was fourteen I believe I had read them all. There were classics, blockbusters, books on religion, biology, science, maths, astronomy, law, and teaching yourself (French, Yoga, Music, Chinese, Malay, English, Islam, Christianity, Swahili etc). There was even a Kama Sutra (I remember being so horrified as I thought it was yoga!) The books were very old, dating from the forties to the mid-seventies....I could slip into the past quite easily; even now I still see myself as a vintage person.
My mother, who was a school teacher, also brought home six hardback books every week from her school library. She knew I loved humour, mysteries and crime so she brought home Agatha Christie, P G Wodehouse, Enid Blyton books. There was also the Sultan Ismail library which I remember my mother took me to join when I was eight or nine.
RR: Lucky you! My parents weren’t readers, so we had zero books at home. My grandmother, who went to college but my parents didn’t, had a thick children book that I learned to read. Luckily we had a library next door to one of my primary schools (we moved a lot) and a decent library in junior and senior high school and my older brother had books assigned to him in college that I would read. But I was never a voracious reader and envied those who had cultivated that wonderful habit. I didn’t start reading on a regular basis until I backpacked through Europe after university—I would swap books with other backpackers. Nor did I start to write until my mid-twenties.
IVY: I started writing really young. This is pretty much the perfect age to begin living in an imaginary world. Initially it was to entertain my toddler brothers because they were bored with the stories they had heard (so was I), so I started writing down stories that I made up. I found it quite entertaining....I sort of cared and did not care if they liked my stories or not. My only reader was my dad. He was a doctor and quite a serious critical thinker. He would read them and give me feedback on plot or character weaknesses and I remember that I went back to fix the grammar or spelling, but not to improve or change the stories because I just wanted to start a new one. The door to many other worlds opened when I discovered reading and, from then on, I really did not want to look back or to stop to come back to the real world.
RR: I left the “real world” in my late twenties when I moved to Malaysia (after travelling for nine months) to make myself a writer. I had read an autobiography by Norman Hall who had moved to Tahiti and wrote the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy with Charles Nordhoff, and thought, now there’s an idea! I thought I’d give it two years and if it didn’t work out, return to the company I had worked with....I’m still here, but now living in Borneo....
Living so long in London, do you consider yourself a Malaysian writer or an expat writer or just a writer who happens to be living in London?
IVY: Now that’s tough, Robert! Someone once said patriotism is the love of the food one ate as a child. I have been away too long. I now only have dim glimpses and snatches of details of Malaysian life and culture. I would consider myself a London writer of Malaysian origin.
RR: Me, I’m an expat writer who happens to be American. I felt more Malaysian early on when I was writing the stories that became Lovers and Strangers Revisited, many written from the viewpoint of Malaysians. Then I began working on an expat novel. I wrote two expat novels. Lately, my novels are mostly set in the US....Perhaps, in a way, I’m missing home, though I feel more at home here with my wife and two children (I have a third working in West Malaysia). I have a hard time relating to what is going on in America these days, socially, politically...
Something I do miss is a literary scene. Penang and Kuala Lumpur held literary events now and then, readings, well-known writers from overseas stopping by as part of an Asian tour....I used to meet with two expat novelists and the three of us would get together and exchange our work in these marathon meetings that were fantastic until I accidentally offended one of them, who was very sensitive about her novel (she had a traumatic, war-torn childhood). Then soon after, she moved away. She was very talented and years later her novel sold and did very well in the US and now she has another novel out. I just wished we didn’t have that falling out because we had a good thing going....I did teach creative writing in Penang and Kuching at the university level and that was fun workshopping their stories. We all learned.
Are you actively involved in the London literary scene, regularly attending readings or workshops or being part of a writing group? Does it help with your writing or can it be more of a distraction or an excuse not to write? (I’ll never be as good as so-and-so, or who has time to write with all of these literary events going on?)
IVY: I am in the London literary scene both virtual and real. I prefer real face to face interaction as opposed to online groups. For example, I am attending the Brixton Book Jam this month. I am also a member of the South London Writers’ Group. I joined the City Lit Writers’ Club when I first arrived in the UK and I completed my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. Let’s face it, writing is a solitary profession. I attend groups or workshops when I am not writing or need motivation, encouragement or just a drink, without any real aim. I am attending the London Lit Lab in Hackney in October for a weekend workshop which I am really looking forward to. Meeting writers in the flesh is the most inspiring experience. I meet my fellow Unbound authors every few months or so in a pub room in London. Online I am a member of Facebook groups such as the Book Connectors, The Crime Book Club and the Unbound Social Club. These are fine, but they are still social media and can suck up time. There is no end to it.
RR: How do you keep yourself motivated to write novels, especially when you feel the novel is not going as well as you had intended? Do you share your early drafts with other writers or friends? If so, is it encouraging or discouraging?
IVY: It is never going as well as intended. No first draft does. I am just a simple jovial pessimist like any other writer. For me the first motivation comes from turning up at the job. If I just sit there, and think, it’s already a hundred per cent better than not sitting there and thinking, even if I do not write a word. If you can’t think, you can’t write. And if you don’t think, you will write rubbish. The second motivation comes from knowing the ending. I have to know the ending for me to proceed. Better still, I need to know the “twist” at the end (but this is just a bonus). I don’t share any drafts with anyone. Period. I trust my own instincts to get to the end of the first draft and do at least another two before it’s ready.
The reason being I got my fingers burnt by an early experience. About twelve years ago I was very nearly signed by a prominent agent. She read the first 10,000 words of my novel and said this is the most amazing thing she had ever read, was thrilled to bits and she asked to see “the rest”. I was even asked to go in to their very grand offices in Soho Square. You can imagine my excitement, stupidity and naiveté. However, I had not written this mysterious thing called “the rest”. In a big rush I completed the novel and showed her the worst first draft ever known in publishing history. I was dropped. She did not even return my calls. And “the rest” as they say is history.
RR: Sorry, I had to laugh. It reminded me of Lisa Jewell who, on a bet, wrote three chapters of her first novel Ralph’s Party and submitted it to an agent, who then requested “the rest”. Taking it on faith that she “had” an agent, she rearranged her life and for the next year wrote “the rest” and hand delivered it to this agent who was flabbergasted when she showed up at her office. You just don’t do that, and a year later! No shame! Lucky for her, the book was well written and it launched her career. Sometimes you just have to write on faith that someone really wants your book and is willing to wait a year to receive it! You just have to make sure it’s worth the wait! Rushing your work to pass to someone, as you and I and others have learned the hard way, merely backfires. Get it right first because you only get one shot to make a first impression—impressing the right agent.
You learn by writing (and rewriting), by finishing, and by submitting...
IVY: What a way to learn, but in those days there was no social media or any kind of detailed advice that you could get about the submission process. You just bungle along and learn as you screw up. That book became my first novel Cry of the Flying Rhino after 14 drafts and 12 years and won a prize. Heart of Glass went through nine. I am getting better at doing fewer drafts because I am thinking clearer with each draft, rather than randomly drafting and changing direction with every whim. I am aiming for five to seven drafts for my third book, which I am now a third of the way through.
RR: Is it a sequel to one of the other two novels, or is it a stand alone? Can you tell us a little about it?
IVY: It is a modern literary suspense novel told in multiple voices and viewpoints on the themes of memory and loss. A vulgar wealthy London banker in his early fifties leaves his wife and daughter for a hedonistic lifestyle under the pretext of a career move to Singapore. He gets a Thai girlfriend, a yacht, a luxury penthouse and lives the dream until one day there is a storm. He crashes the yacht and is shipwrecked. He loses his memory and when he gains consciousness he has to live the life of the person they “think” he is.
RR: Sounds intriguing, especially if they are manipulating him for their personal gain! I’ve met expats like that, who end up ruining their lives (and their families). Some work out okay, but many gets played by their “girlfriend and girlfriend’s family”, or end up losing their high flying job over a low lying maid or a prostitute, forgetting why they came to Southeast Asia in the first place (to advance their career), drawn into that hedonistic lifestyle. Some end up as a drug addict, in prison or dead. I guess it was fun while it lasted... sad, though. Somerset Maugham wrote about them, too....Some people just never learn. Good luck with your book.
Tell us about your typical day or week as a writer. Do you anticipate any major changes in your working schedule once your books come out?
IVY: I don’t have a rigid routine as my day job number one, being a freelance architect, is deadline-oriented. Also if I wake up with an interesting dream, I will write that down instead. I am a slow writer. I can’t do what other people do such as write 2,000 words at a go, per day. If I manage 500 I am really ecstatic. I try to write by hand about 10 to 30 minutes when I wake up (in the winter months at 06:45 or 07:00 if I am lazy; in the summer months 05:45). Using my trusted fountain pen, it could be stream of consciousness type thing or it may be just thinking and note-taking. I stop and I make the children their breakfast before they go to school and do my day job number one, where I have a degree of flexibility. In mid morning to mid afternoon I usually cannot write a word so I may as well work.
On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons I teach music (piano or guitar) to children and adults. This is my day job number two. I really love my jobs and I don’t know what to do without them as they are a great displacement activity from writing. After cooking and eating dinner and the children’s bedtime, I may bash away again for another thirty minutes to an hour. A writer never really stops working, so while I may not be writing, it still counts as my thinking time. Once my books come out, I anticipate cutting back on new projects or commissions for my day job number one. I would like to be writing in the day time for longer periods. This would be for me living the dream. Writing is like having homework forever and ever.
RR: I laughed out loud. My children, age 10 and 12, refer to my writing as homework, something they can relate to. “Don’t disturb Daddy, he’s doing his homework!” In a sense, it’s true. I’m working from home; hence homework! Now and then they get a glimpse that maybe what I’m doing is important like when a French crew recently came to my house to interview me while filming a documentary on Somerset Maugham in Malaysia for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte.
What advice would you give your 17-year-old self before you attended that first workshop in Kuala Lumpur? What would you have done differently? Also, what advice would you give to an aspiring novelist just starting out?
IVY: I would tell myself to not have so much fun and at least be taking notes or collecting name cards. What I would have done differently: I would have not used writing as a past time or a subsidiary extension of reading, rather taken it more seriously. I did not know that you could take it seriously or be taken seriously. I thought that writing was something that you stumbled into like Alice down the rabbit hole. What advice I would give to an aspiring novelist just starting out: Firstly, read, read, read. Read anything and everything. Secondly, nothing has changed—the five ingredients still apply—inspiration, time, effort, commitment and energy. Thirdly, don’t obsess about social media. It really doesn’t matter. Only the writing matters.
—Borneo Expat Writer
Amazon links for Ivy Ngeow's books will be added when available.