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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Letting Little Things Talk


INTERVIEW with Tan Twan Eng. In Penang Monthly, February 2014.

OOI KEE BENG: What fascinates me greatly about your writing is your ability – and your apparent need – to embellish your narration with a sensitive description of some act or item occurring on the side. I hesitate to use the word “embellish”, because very often, that detail you throw in manifests sentiments that promise to be very relevant indeed. This technique is very suggestive. The reader’s curiosity is aroused. Is this on your part, a conscious technique, as I rudely call it, or is this how you notice the world?

TAN TWAN ENG: That’s how I observe and experience the world, how I strive to understand and replicate those observations and sensations. Whenever I’m in a place (a room, a friend’s house) or a situation, or a city, the countryside, for example, I’m unable to drink in all that I see and sense. But something smaller will catch my interest: an object, a painting, a stack of books, a scent, the way the light falls on a patch of leaves, or the way someone moves or gestures.

When I first started writing novels, I wanted to describe everything, but over the years I’ve come to realise that it’s more effective and powerful to leave things unstated: the air after the wind has died away is more evocative than the moments when it was gusting and shaking the leaves. Rather than tell the readers what my characters are feeling, I prefer to let the readers come to their own conclusions.

I suspect that you prefer to draw from what you know, relying on the sights, sounds and smells you have imbibed in your life. You told me once that you have had to do a lot of research for certain scenes, but I feel that even that is just to complement your reliance on solid experience. Am I right?

I do as much research as possible in order to feel confident about what I’m writing about, even if I always end up using about a tiny fraction of the information. This is the best way, otherwise my book becomes just a platform for me to dump all my research on just because I don’t want to waste all the weeks and months I spent combing through materials and books and talking to experts in their fields.

I keep in mind what Ernest Hemingway referred to as the ‘Iceberg Theory’: what ends up on the page is like the portion of an iceberg floating above the waterline; hidden from view, however, is all the accumulated weight of the writer’s knowledge. The reader will sense that unseen mass and believe more in the story, because he or she will feel reassured that the writer knows what he’s writing about, even if it doesn’t appear on the page.

However, even though I research as much as possible, there comes a point when I abandon all that I’ve unearthed and make the leap into my imagination. Ultimately, I’m writing a novel, not a reference book.

At any moment of my day, whatever I’m doing (queuing up somewhere, waiting for a friend, doing the dishes) I’m constantly processing ideas, thoughts, sentences, descriptions. Quite often this process occurs on a subconscious level, but often I catch myself making a mental note to remember something I saw, or trying out a sentence to describe it. Like many writers, I dip from the store of the sights, sounds and smells I have imbibed, but when I recreate them, I use them in a different way, in a different setting or to create a different effect. Writers are magpies, and we make use of everything.

It’s more than just relying on one’s experience – that’s quite impossible to do so for certain characters or settings: for example, I don’t have any personal experience of being in a POW camp and I’ve never met anyone who was there. What’s more essential for a writer are empathy and imagination.

What interests me is how you seem to be painting more than writing. You paint with words, rather Japanese in that sense. Zen-ish. There is immediacy in your depiction of events. Would you agree with that?

The inspiration could come from anywhere – something I heard in a conversation or read about. Usually the ‘footnotes’ are what catch my attention. My first two novels were set in times and places that are largely unknown to many readers, so I had to make them real, alive. A novel should immerse the reader in its world, so the atmosphere of the settings is essential.

We’re living in a pervasive visual age now. Many writers – and readers – are influenced by the cinema, but writing IS about creating images and sensual experiences through words. This is the power and magic of words.

May I ask what your philosophical tendencies are, as an artist? How do you wish to influence readers with your books?

I have no strong philosophical tendencies, except to keep honing my skills as a writer, to refine my ability in order to improve with every book I write. This, I’ve come to suspect, seems to involve using fewer and fewer words to say more and more. In a way it’s a Zen-like approach, the paring away of the unnecessary to reach the heart and the essence of meaning.

How readers engage with my books, and what experiences they take away after reading them, are entirely dependent on them. I have no wish to influence my readers in any way at all.

We have a tendency to stare at the storyline, and not at the emotions and notions conjured by the story-telling itself. How central is the storyline to your art, or is the story-telling an excuse to “paint” with words as well – the journey being more important than the destination, as it were.

Every element of the novel is important: the story, the characters, the dialogue, the language, the length of each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter. The story is the vehicle to convey the ideas; the more complex the ideas, the stronger the vehicle has to be, otherwise it will just collapse beneath the weight.

I enjoy playing with language, I enjoy using it in a new way to describe things, to see the world in a slightly off-kilter angle and still have myself and the reader say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like!’

The destination is the accretion of every event along the journey, so you can’t have one without the other.

In this age of cinema and videos, it is difficult to not be visual when writing fiction. Do you find yourself inadvertently structuring your writing as if you were writing a film script sometimes?

While I do write with images in my head – I think all writers do – I don’t structure my writing as if I were writing a film script. The last thing I’m concerned about when I’m writing a novel is whether it’s going to be filmable. I’m more concerned with making the structure of the novel succeed, making the characters come alive, making the language clear, fresh and evocative.

A novel and a film script are two completely different creatures – it’s impossible to catch a wolf and a bird with the same snare.

A famous author writing his next book, is I believe, quite a different thing from a beginner writing his next book. How is success affecting how you think, what you wish to achieve, and how you see “the industry”?

There’s pressure, but it’s a pressure I place on myself. Even if my books have not been successful, every book I write has to be better than the previous one. There has to be growth in the writing, a maturing of technique, craft and experience. Every book is different – different characters, themes, ideas, mood, atmosphere, narrative voice – and so creates a different set of challenges.

When I finished my second novel I realised that each subsequent book is not going to get any easier, but much, much harder. I admire writers who’ve spent their entire lives writing, and who’ve produced ten, twenty or more books in their oeuvre.

Are you at all involved in the film-scripting of The Garden of Evening Mists? If not, why not?

No, I won’t be involved. I won’t be able to make objective decisions regarding what to cut out from my book. If I did adapt my book for a film script, I suspect I’d put in everything in the book, so it’d end up as an exercise in futility. Very few authors have been able to adapt their books successfully – off the top of my head I can only think of John Irving, for his own novel, The Cider House Rules. He won an Oscar for his screenplay.

Malaysians are very proud of your achievements. Do you plan to use your celebrity status to influence young authors in the country?

I’m flattered by but also smiling at your use of the word ‘celebrity’ because I certainly don’t feel I’m one. I don’t wish to influence any young authors – it’s really up to them how they want to pursue their craft, how they want to live their lives.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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