SINGAPORE, 24 NOVEMBER 2016— Epigram Books is pleased to announce the winner of this year’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize—research associate Nuraliah Norasid.
The first-time author was unveiled by the publisher and CEO of Epigram Books, Edmund Wee this evening at an Award Ceremony and Gala Dinner held at Pan Pacific Hotel. The $25,000 first prize is Singapore’s richest literary award and comes with a publishing contract.
Her manuscript, The Gatekeeper, tells the story of a ten-year-old gorgon girl named Ria, who petrifies an entire village of innocents with her gaze. Together with her sister, she flees the jungle of Manticura to the underground city of Nelroote, where society’s marginalised members live. Years later, the subterranean habitat is threatened when Ria, now the gatekeeper, befriends a man from the outside.
The three other finalists, author O Thiam Chin (Fox Fire Girl), architect Tham Cheng-E (Surrogate Protocol) and author/translator Jeremy Tiang (State of Emergency) will each receive $5,000 for their submissions.
All four manuscripts will be published by Epigram Books next year. Wee said, “These stories will power the imagination for generations to come, and we hope the authors never stop telling them.”
This year’s competition drew 52 entries. The judges were Prof Philip Holden, Department of English Language and Literature in the National University of Singapore, Constance Singam, civil society activist and former president of the women’s rights group AWARE, Haresh Sharma, resident playwright, The Necessary Stage and Wee.
At the gala dinner, Wee also announced that Epigram Books had started publishing in London “so that we can bring the wealth of Singaporean literature to the world.” The first UK title is expected in May 2017.
For media enquiries, please contact:
Singaporean publisher increases prize money, offers prizes to all shortlisted manuscripts this year
Singapore’s richest literary prize is set to get richer, as local publisher Epigram Books raises the stakes for its annual Epigram Books Fiction Prize to $40,000 this year.
Now running in its second year, the 2016 prize will see three of its finalists receive $5,000 each, while the prize money for the winning manuscript will be increased to $25,000. Last year, only the winning manuscript received a $20,000 cash prize.
“While we’ve never doubted the abundance of Singapore’s fiction writing talent, we felt deeply encouraged by the quality of manuscripts from last year’s submissions,” said Edmund Wee, Publisher and CEO of Epigram Books. “And seeing how well our finalists’ novels are doing, we feel the shortlisted manuscripts should also get something more than the publishing contracts we offer them.”
Speaking at a writers’ forum titled The Great Singaporean Novel: Fantasy or Reality? at The Projector on Wednesday, Mr Wee also noted that two novels from last year’s shortlist, Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao! by Sebastian Sim and Death of a Perm Sec by Wong Souk Yee have already gone into their second print run a couple of months after their release in March and April respectively. The two other books from the 2015 prize, Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal and the winner Now That It’s Over by O Thiam Chin, were released in June.
Epigram Books will release three more titles from last year’s longlist—Annabelle Thong, a chicklit novel by Imran Hashim due in August; Kappa Quartet, a fantasy novel by Daryl Qilin Yam in September; and Altered Straits, a sci-fi tale by Kevin Martens Wong to be published in January 2017.
This year’s judging panel includes Mr Haresh Sharma, resident playwright for The Necessary Stage; Ms Constance Singam, former president of AWARE; Professor Philip Holden from the Department of English Language & Literature in National University of Singapore (NUS); and Mr Wee himself.
The closing date for manuscript submission is Thursday, 1st September 2016. The shortlist will be announced 2 months later, and the winner named in a gala dinner on 24th November 2016.
For manuscript submissions and more information, please visit ebfp.epigrambooks.sg.
TWO NEW JUDGES JOIN EPIGRAM BOOKS FICTION PRIZE 2016 PANEL
First of last year’s shortlisted novels also released
SINGAPORE, 24 March 2016 — The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is pleased to announce the judging panel for this year’s competition, in conjunction with the release of Sebastian Sim’s Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!, one of last year’s finalists.
Returning to judge this year’s prize are Professor Philip Holden from the Department of English Language & Literature in National University of Singapore (NUS), and Publisher & CEO of Epigram Books Edmund Wee. The two new judges are: Haresh Sharma, resident playwright for The Necessary Stage, and Constance Singam, former president of AWARE.
Haresh Sharma was conferred the Southeast Asian Writers (or S.E.A. Write) Award (Singapore) in 2014, and Singapore’s Cultural Medallion in 2015. Constance Singam recently published her memoir, Where I Was: A Memoir From the Margins.
"I am thrilled to be part of the panel of judges along with Philip Holden and Haresh Sharma," says Constance. "It's an exciting time for fiction writing in Singapore, and I'm eager to see who we will be offering the Prize to."
First launched in 2015, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize is Singapore’s richest literary prize, boasting an award of $20,000 and a book publishing contract for the winning entry.
Last year’s winner was short story writer O Thiam Chin, whose book, Now That It’s Over will be published in May. Finalist Sebastian Sim’s Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao! is now available at all major bookstores, while Death of a Perm Sec by Wong Souk Yee and Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal will be released in the coming months.
The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is now open to all Singaporeans citizens, Singapore Permanent Residents, and ex-Singaporeans. Manuscripts must be original, unpublished and uncontracted work, and should have a word count of about 40,000 words or more to be eligible.
The closing date for manuscript submissions is Wednesday, 31st August 2016. The shortlist will be announced 2 months later, and the winner named in a gala dinner in early December.
For more information about the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, please visit http://ebfp.epigrambooks.sg.
For media enquiries, please contact us at email@example.com or call +65-6292-4456.
Thank you for coming to last night’s edition of The Finer Art of Editing—the second instalment after the inaugural session with Miguel Syjuco. Over the course of two hours, Meira Chand, the internationally acclaimed author of eight novels generously shared with us about how the UK editing landscape was like in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was published by the same imprint as Jane Austen herself.
Meira also related how her first editor sat down with her for five days, going over every word, sentence, paragraph and chapter—her greatest lesson in writing yet. Now, she edits her own manuscript before submitting it to publishers, like her latest, the Oprah’s Book Club selection A Different Sky (Random House, 2011), which Meira herself edited down from over 1,000 pages to its final 500 plus.
Our thanks also go out to NUS Press, Super Cool Books and NTU Centre for Contemporary Art for joining us. Do join us for April’s instalment of this complimentary evening of editing enrichment, snacks, drinks and conversations with some of the best writers in world literature. RSVP with our Sales Manager, Ilangoh Thanabalan, at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ today. Until then, keep reading!
SINGAPORE’S RICHEST LITERARY PRIZE LAUNCHED
For Immediate Release
SINGAPORE, 10 March 2015—Epigram Books is pleased to announce the launch of a new literary prize, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
The annual prize of S$20,000 is the richest literary award in Singapore. It is to be awarded to a Singaporean, Singaporean permanent resident or Singapore-born author for the best manuscript of a full-length, original and unpublished novel written in the English language. The first winner will be announced at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival in November 2015 and have his/her novel published by Epigram Books.
“We want to reward excellence in contemporary Singapore creative writing and to encourage the readership of high-quality Singapore literature by publishing the winning and shortlisted entries,” explains Edmund Wee, Publisher and CEO of Epigram Books.
The competition is now open for entries. The manuscript must be unpublished and uncontracted to a publisher. Four hard copies of the manuscript and a completed official entry form should be submitted by post or delivered by hand to Epigram Books at Block 1008 Toa Payoh North #03-08 Singapore 318996. The closing date for submissions is August 31, 2015, 6pm.
The judging panel will be chaired by Edmund Wee. The names of the other judges will be announced at a later date. For more information about the inaugural edition of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, or for any queries, please visit www.epigrambooks.sg.
For interview opportunities or further media enquiries, please contact email@example.com
or +65 6292 4456.
About Epigram Books
An independent publisher based in Singapore, Epigram Books is known for putting together well-designed and thought-provoking titles. It began as a division of the multiple award-winning communications design firm Epigram but registered as a separate entity in July 2011 to champion Singaporean literature.
It is best known for the middle grade series, The Diary of Amos Lee, which has sold over 240,000 copies worldwide. Other landmark publications include translations of Cultural Medallion winners and new editions of out-of-print classic Singaporean novels.
In 2014, a debut short story collection Epigram Books published, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe, unanimously won the Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction.
Epigram Books Fiction Prize
The Epigram Books Fiction Prize promotes contemporary Singapore creative writing and rewards excellence in Singapore literature. The annual prize is Singapore’s richest literary award. S$20,000 is awarded to the Singaporean, permanent resident or Singapore-born author for the best manuscript of a full-length, original and unpublished novel written in the English language. The competition is now open for entries. The first winner will be announced at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2015 and have his/her novel published by Epigram Books. Please download the official entry form and rules and regulations here.
“Brian organised for the body to be flown back”, Jolene Tan’s debut novel A Certain Exposure begins. From this unsettling start—tragedy met by administration—the story only grows in disquietude, encompassing within its cool grasp a suicide, burgeoning sexualities, fledgling romances and myriad forms of unfeeling as its cast of characters seek an answer to resounding grief.
Revolving around the adolescent years of twin brothers Brian and Andrew, A Certain Exposure alternates between their coming of age in Singapore and Cambridge, UK; the waning years of the LKY-led 1980s and the softer “heartware” of the 1990s. Newly published, Jolene Tan’s novel has already been hailed by author Sandi Tan (The Black Isle) as possessing “the feel of an essential Singapore classic”.
You may recognise Jolene’s name from her letters to the press. Educated at Cambridge University and Harvard Law School, she works for the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group. Some issues Jolene has addressed as part of her job include the need for regulation against workplace sexual harassment, abortion rights and in regard to the recent hijab question, “the right of every woman to choose what she wears”. A Certain Exposure marks the first time she has published her fiction writing.
In this email interview, we unravel the many layers of A Certain Exposure with her.
1. What drove you to write A Certain Exposure?
I’d always wanted to write fiction, but wasn’t confident that I could craft a good story. But then I read Still Life by A.S. Byatt, and it was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life, somehow without featuring a story as I then understood the term: more a working through of dynamics, relationships and ideas. And I thought, right, this was well worth reading, and something like that would be well worth writing—so why not give it a shot.
So A Certain Exposure was me working through longstanding preoccupations about how much of ourselves we can afford to reveal or conceal, when prejudice and hierarchy can make opening ourselves up risky, but the apparent refuge offered by conformity is also more dangerous than it seems.
2. With this being your first book, what was the writing process like?
I wrote the first draft between the summer of 2009, when I was living in London, and the spring of 2012, when I was living in Heidelberg, Germany. Everything else—chatty emails, angry letters—I write pretty quickly, but with fiction I am agonisingly slow. I can’t bring myself to churn out words in a messy draft and come back later; I have to continually polish as I go along, like some kind of pedantic cowrie. A sentence can take an hour to happen, and then ultimately unhappen. I also get obsessive about researching certain points, or repetitively acting out movements, gestures and speech descriptors to check that they make sense. These things then become single lines or even two words of background detail. So basically I’m really slow.
3. So what did it feel like, in three words, when you finally saw A Certain Exposure in print?
A friend said she would have pissed herself in my position, so I guess my three words are “Remarkably continent, considering.”
4. Like the protagonist Andrew, you studied at Cambridge University. How much of A Certain Exposure is based on your real-life experiences, and/or the people you know?
I was very conscious of not wanting to write an autobiographical first novel. The book is resolutely fiction and nobody in it maps easily onto anyone I know. But I see something of me in all the characters, including the more unsympathetic ones, and many of the petty and not-so-petty cruelties in the book are based on things I have seen or heard.
5. You chose a pretty evocative title. How did it come about?
“Exposure” is a word which encompasses many of the themes that I had in mind: in particular, the danger that comes with revealing oneself in a hostile world, but also the notion of a risk that could carry a reward, such as connection or understanding or support. A lot of the book is about people trying to manage these tensions—to decide on just how much they can bring themselves to reveal or conceal—and the notion of a search for certainty is ironically reflected in the title. It’s obviously also a photographic pun, referring to a particular picture which plays a pivotal role in the plot. (How many more ‘p’s can I get into that sentence?)
6. You’ve written plenty about books on your website. What are your literary sources of inspiration?
I can’t say ‘inspiration’ is something I feel very much, but I guess writers who have achieved things that especially awe and resonate with me include: A.S. Byatt, Alison Bechdel, Yiyun Li, Greg Egan, Edward St Aubyn and China Miéville. (A very white list, I know; I’m working on broadening my reading habits.)
7. Speaking of, what do you miss most about living in England, and why?
The countryside. I’m sure this is partly or entirely a function of being a brainwashed postcolonial child, but the British countryside has a comforting human scale—in size, temperature, colours, walkability and textures—that nothing else in my experience matches.
8. Closer to home, what issues in Singapore concern you the most?
I’m professionally obliged to be mostly preoccupied by women’s rights, but fortunately that covers a lot of territory. Otherwise, the disempowerment of children bugs me a lot, and I have a long-standing interest in penal reform—I used to work for a prisoners’ rights organisation.
9. Do you have a favourite work of Singapore literature?
I don’t have strong opinions about a favourite, but of what I’ve read recently, I’ve really enjoyed Tania de Rozario’s Tender Delirium. I’m also a fan of the poetry I’ve heard from members of the spoken word troupe Sekaliwags.
10. It might be too early to tell, but do you already have a second book in mind? And if so, have you started writing it?
I’ve had too much going on in my life lately to have the bandwidth! I have, however, been working on a short story for two years (see the bit where I’m really slow). It helps that my husband is incredibly supportive and goes out of his way to create time for me. I would love to write a second novel; it’s just going to take a bit of time.
Experience A Certain Exposure with a reading by Jolene Tan and a Q&A hosted by Teng Qian Xi.
BooksActually, 17 April 2014, 7.30pm.
Last week, our editor Jocelyn offered some insight into the editorial process behind Ming Cher’s Spider Boys—part of our Singapore Classics series—and gave us an overview of the gritty story set in 1950s Singapore. Today, read on to find out more about the novel from the author himself!
Epigram Books: What prompted you to write Spider Boys? At which point in your life did you write it?
Ming Cher: I wanted to write a novel about Singapore’s recent history since the country had changed so much over a 30-year period. I began writing in 1988 when my son Marco was five years old (Marco has an Australian mother) to show him something of my own childhood at around his age. I was living in Auckland and had just sold a shop on Grafton Road which I had owned for ten years (Batik Bazaar) and was at a loose end and needed something to do.
I also wanted to move into the present by setting down everything I knew personally about the past. The past is of value especially when it leads us into the future.
EB: How long did it take you to write Spider Boys?
MC: It took me four years to write Spider Boys. Writer’s block was always a problem and my English was not really up to the task. The writing went very, very slowly. A page often seemed to take an eternity.
EB: Which of the characters do you most closely identify yourself with? Why?
MC: I identify with most of them in a literary sense. I should stress that while it is not “my” story, many of them are based loosely on my friends—Kwang, Chinatown Yeow, Sachee. It is however a work of fiction—to protect the reputations of the innocent! Although it sounds autobiographical, it is not an autobiography. My own life has been different and often darker than the events within the book. I am however proud of all my characters in their struggle for survival and in their truth to themselves. They are colourful and essentially honest. There is a lot about life in Singapore that I do not wish to talk about.
EB: We understand that you grew up in Bukit Ho Swee, represented in the book as Ho Swee Hill. How did life change after the big fire in 1961?
MC: I was away from Bukit Ho Swee, living on construction sites wherever there was work—Jurong, Bedok. The whole face of Singapore was changing rapidly and we lived in workers’ camps wherever the big jobs were.
EB: Why did you leave Singapore? Do you think you’ll return any time in the future?
MC: I went to work in Sabah and then worked in Vietnam as a construction supervisor. I became a seaman and for seven years sailed all over the world with many of the big lines at that time—Hogg Line, under the Norwegian flag, Neptune Orient Lines (Singapore), KDM Shipping.
However, my six brothers and sisters all remain in Singapore. If I return, it will be only as a visitor, since I relinquished my citizenship for citizenship in New Zealand.
Original 1995 Penguin and William Morrow editions of Spider Boys
EB: Spider Boys had been out of print for several years now. Do you have any particular thoughts on this new edition?
MC: I am delighted by this new Singaporean and Malaysian edition for many reasons. The first is that I am working on a sequel to Spider Boys, which follows the characters after the first novel ends. It is called Big Mole and any interest which comes as a result of the new edition may translate into interest in the sequel.
The second reason is that the book has never been published before in Singapore. It has been successful in the US, in Australia and New Zealand, and in Italy. It is the subject of many university courses on Asian writing in English but, really, has been looking for its true home for almost twenty 2 years.
The third reason is that it was written away from Singapore, and from memories of a distant past, so naturally there were some inaccuracies. The excellent team at Epigram Books, and in particular my editor there, Jocelyn Lau, have ensured through diligent historical investigation and enquiry that location and street names are all accurate for the time it was written, which means, in turn, that it will read more authentically for a contemporary Singaporean. These things do not matter in an “overseas” publication, but are vital in your homeland. Funnily enough, the Italian edition, I Ragazzi di Singapore, was very popular with readers there because in translation into the Italian tongue, the street slang of the spider boys rang true immediately for local readers!
Find out more about Ming Cher’s Spider Boys and read sample pages from the novel here.
Spider Boys, by Ming Cher, was launched earlier this year as part of our Singapore Classics series. First published by Penguin New Zealand in 1995, Spider Boys has been re-edited to not only retain the flavour of colloquial Singapore English in the dialogues, but also to improve the accessibility of the novel for all readers by rendering the narrative into grammatical Standard English. Our intrepid editor Jocelyn Lau offers some insight into the painstaking yet rewarding editorial process she undertook:
“It’s like reliving my boyhood again.”
— Tan Kok Seng, author of Three Sisters of Sze, Son of Singapore and Man of Malaysia
When I first began the daunting task of re-editing the original edition of Spider Boys, published in 1995 by Penguin Books, New Zealand, I had to decide how to go about making the book more accessible to readers—both international as well as Singaporean and Malaysian. For me, not only was the use of tenses in the narrative and the dialogues inconsistent, but the depiction of the ‘street slang’ was not wholly accurate; I found it taxing to read beyond even the opening paragraphs.
The work involved ‘regularising’ the narrative so it conforms to standard English, and also retaining as much of the colloquial flavour in the dialogues as possible; this was so that readers from our part of the world would identify more closely with the language they use in informal banter, as they certainly would with the life in Singapore in the 1950s portrayed in Ming Cher’s novel.
As I turned the millstone, I was gratified to discover how handsomely the story would reward my efforts. Set in Chinatown and Bukit Ho Swee, two historically-rich neighbourhoods, Spider Boys is true to “[…] aspects of colonial Singapore in the mid-fifties: gangs and gang rivalry, fighting spiders, fighting fish, kite flying, adolescent angst, religious observances and superstitions amid working-class poverty”. (Robert Yeo, introduction, Spider Boys).
“As someone born in 1940, who also flew kites, kept fighting fish and spiders and took part in competitions […], knew gangsters in my district of Hougang and grew up hearing stories of old wives’ tales, I can testify to the authenticity of the novel.”
— Robert Yeo, introduction, Spider Boys
Gritty, it is unsentimental in its description of poverty: while the parents are out all day (or, in some cases of live-in servants, all month), the street children scrabble in mosquito-infested grasses for fighting spiders that would bring them extra pocket money through bartering or gambling, or in stench-filled monsoon drains for recyclable scraps for the karang guni men—while tourists took photographs of them. Grim, it tells how betrayal of one’s compatriots can result in untimely death—by knife, perhaps, plunged into the chest once in drunken sleep. Gripping, it is evident of first-hand experience in its richly textured account of Chinese festivals, such as the Hungry Ghosts Festival, and attendant superstitions—pontianak can be kept at bay with a six-inch coffin nail, for example, while one must be careful not to be suddenly shocked, because the soul can unknowingly jump out of its body.
But it’s not all gore. The teenage protagonists of the novel, Kwang and Kim, while grappling with the daily reality of making ends meet, also spend leisure moments chatting, playing with their fighting spiders and—exploring each other’s sexuality. When the heat from the ‘Spider Olympics’ intensifies, Kwang becomes increasingly obsessed about winning the Championship—equally for prestige as for the prize money, and his bored companion turns her attention to Kwang’s dangerous gangster rival, the smiling-faced Yeow, and finds herself on unfamiliar terrain.
“It reminds me of the old days, when your mum used to cut our hair by putting a rice bowl on our head! Very funny.”
— Priscilla Lee (my aunt!)
Hypnotic, arousing and shocking all at once, Spider Boys will especially endear itself to readers who grew up in Singapore between the late 1940s and early 1970s. To readers younger than this, the realness of the story, the palpable excitement in the plot and the historical value of the novel will appeal.
Find out more about Ming Cher’s Spider Boys and read sample pages from the novel here. And visit our blog again next Wednesday for an insightful interview with the author himself!
In this week’s installment of A Day in the Life we hear from Jason, another valuable and recent addition to our editorial team. A published author, editor, teacher and small-press owner, Jason brings to Epigram Books a wealth of literary experience.
The life of a book editor was always something very mysterious to me growing up and reading fiction, and then still later after becoming an author myself (you can find me online at JasonLundberg.net). What power those people must have, I thought, and what fun. They are the ones who determine what books get published, and they get to include their fundamental love of reading and books into their daily job.
After a month as one of Epigram Books’ newest editors, I can say that much of the mystery has fallen away, but the passion remains. I had editing and publishing experience as an anthologist prior to being hired—Scattered, Covered, Smothered (Two Cranes Press, 2004), A Field Guide to Surreal Botany (Two Cranes Press, 2008) and Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction (Math Paper Press, 2012)—but acquiring and editing books as a house editor is a completely different animal.
Our fiction publishing line has thus far largely consisted of reprinting older works, of bringing them back into the public consciousness after years of being out of print, which is a noble endeavor; but our publisher, Edmund Wee, is also eager to release new and original titles, to show that Epigram Books is committed to championing the best new Singaporean writing in English. And that’s where I come in.
So far, I’ve mostly been working on titles that Epigram Books has already acquired, and shepherding them into shape for publication in 2013. I’m working with authors of both novels and short story collections of the literary variety, although I’m also very interested in speculative fiction as well (since that is my specialty), and hope to start bringing in more SF to our stable as well (submission guidelines are here).
One of the unexpected benefits of this job has been the projects that have come up because of an immediate need to be filled. This has resulted in me writing a children’s picture book about the pandas who have just arrived at the Singapore Zoo, and curating a biennial anthology series of best new Singaporean short stories. Both of these projects are stretching me as a writer and editor, and likely would not have happened if I were not in the right place at the right time.
I’m part-time at Epigram Books, meaning that I only work mornings. My days consist of emailing the authors with whom I’m working to ensure that everything is coming in on time and to our satisfaction, editing the text in Microsoft Word (thank goodness for change tracking), reading and assessing other manuscripts that have been sent in over the transom for quality and marketability, drawing up author contracts based on our standard template, applying for publication grants from the National Arts Council, and meeting with the rest of the editorial staff to discuss our production timelines.
In the afternoons, I’m free to work on freelance projects, and to get my own novel into decent shape (I finished writing it in August, and have just completed my own second editing pass; I hope to have it ready for first readers by end of October). It’s a situation that has worked very well for me so far, enabling some steady income but still giving me time to pursue my own creative passions. I’ll be appearing in my authorial capacity at the Singapore Writers Festival in November.
I have to give many thanks to Edmund Wee for recognising my potential as a book editor and bringing me aboard Epigram Books. It’s a relationship that I hope will continue for many years to come!
We’ve been bringing our readers A Day in the Life of Epigram Books staffers for a while now, so we thought it might be a nice change to give our readers an insight into the minds of our authors!
First up, the brilliant and gentlemanly Robert Yeo, prolific poet and author. A welcome and familiar sight in the office, Mr Yeo has published The Adventures of Holden Heng and The Best of Robert Yeo with Epigram Books.
Without further ado, a very quick Q & A with Robert Yeo on our favourite topic, books!
“His poems are personal poems, reflections on observed reality. They chronicle the developments of an individual consciousness while at the same time they chronicle the developments of Singapore. The parallelism of the poet and the city is unforced but recurrent.”
–– Michael Wilding, novelist and Emeritus Professor of English and Australian Literature, University of Sydney.
What was your favourite book growing up?
There were too many, but if I have to give a favourite, it is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, read when I was probably an adolescent of 14 to 15 years old. I must have been precocious!
What books are currently on your “to-read” list?
What Maisie Knew by Henry James, Confucius by Meher McArthur, Shame by Salman Rushdie, July’s People by Nadine Gordimer.
Who are your top five authors?
Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Michael Wilding (an Australian writer), Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Yap.
Have you ever bought a book just because you thought the cover was beautiful?
If you could pick one book to recommend, which book would it be?
The Analects by Confucius.
Is there a book that changed your life?
What is your favourite line from a book?
The first line from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
What book would you want to read again for the first time?
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
What book or book character would you want to be real?
The latest entry in our series on working at Epigram Books. In this episode, our intern Aran finds out what it’s like to track down an author the old-fashioned way.
Today Jocelyn, one of the editors, approaches me to give me more work. This is most satisfactory––an intern is created to serve. As the voluntarily enslaved, designated master of menial tasks, lackey work is what I exist for. Maybe it will be a new press clip to upload to the website, or a parcel to pack. Or maybe even an invoice to do up…One has the right to dream.
But Jocelyn has in mind something outside my usual job scope. Today I am to be an intern-cum-private investigator, set on the trail of a case shrouded in mystery and intrigue: The case of a man named Tan Kok Seng, who wrote a series of notable books in the 1970s but who has now seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. A tip-off from an unnamed informant tells us that he is still alive, and still in Singapore. Jocelyn has done reconnaissance via the Yellow Pages; I’ll just have to call every person with that name.
There are 49 people named Tan Kok Seng in Singapore.
Tan Kok Seng #1:
“Hello.. Can I speak to Mr Tan Kok Seng?”
“He’s working. What you want?”
“Do you know if he’s written a book before?”
“没有 la [No, he hasn't]. Bye bye.”
The next 10 or so calls repeat this pattern: “Don’t have la”…Never pick up…Never pick up…“Sir not home sorry”…“Wrong person”…Weird sound (dial up connection?!)
Around #15 is this very funny Tan Kok Seng.
Me: “Have you written a book before?”
TKS: “Return book?! I never borrow book how to return?”
Then around #17/18 is this old lady.
“Can I speak to Tan Kok Seng?”
“Can I speak to Tan Kok Seng?”
“Can I speak to Tan Kok Seng?”
“(same thing in chinese)”
“Oh…ha ha. 他不在 [He's not here].”
Wah lau. The search for the true Tan Kok Seng does not seem to be drawing closer to an end. I pause for a while to contemplate the enormity of the task and the disastrous consequences of failure, then continue.
At #30 plus is this Tan Kok Seng who actually wrote a Chinese book before, but nothing in English…
By this time I have perfected my manner of speaking to grumpy old men, which is what most Tan Kok Sengs turn out to be (no offence to the handful of nice/youthful/non-grumpy TKSs). Just speak loudly and impatiently and they will relate to you/understand what you are saying much better.
#32-39 is this long stretch of no one picking up and discontinued numbers. By this time I’m almost just going through the motions. Even as the excellent, resilient intern I am, any hopes of getting to the end of this mystery are rapidly fading. Of all the countries in the world, Tan Kok Seng has sought refuge in the one where the most people share his name, and spun around himself a web of deception and misdirection. His insidious guile has bested me and he will forever remain an enigma, a phantom roaming the dark streets of Ang Mo Kio, an urban legend whose books we’ll never get to publish. With a heavy heart, I pick up the phone to resume.
Tan Kok Seng #40:
“Hello can I speak to Mr Tan Kok Seng please?”
“(woman’s voice) Ok wait”
“Hello? Mr Tan?”
“Yes, this is Tan Kok Seng speaking.”
“Hi Mr Tan I’m calling from a book publishing company. Have you ever written a book before?”
“What book are you talking about?”
“It's called Son of Singapore.”
“Oh yeah, my first book was Son of Singapore, my second book was Man of Malaysia, my third book was….”
But I’ve stopped paying attention. An angel’s choir has erupted in my head, and I feel like my entire being has been flooded with light. Felicia, Sok Wan and Charmayne, who have been eavesdropping on my phone calls and laughing at my failed conversations, freeze and turn in my direction.
“Mr Tan!!!!! I have been looking for you!!!!!!!!!!”
What is it really like to work at Epigram Books? How is a manuscript or an idea scribbled on an NTUC receipt turned into a finished book that you hold in your hands?
Now, with our new series A Day In the Life, you can find out! First off is our managing editor Ruth, who recaps a typical day. We hope you enjoy this glimpse into the wild, weary and wonderful reality of literary publishing.
I fumble for keys as I walk towards the locked doors of the office. First to arrive. Again. Have just dropped my son off at his primary school––school starts way too early, and I’ve nothing to do after bidding him goodbye, so that’s why I’m always the first one in. After staring at my computer for a while, I begin work.
First task of the day: sieve through the 100 emails I have received. Indian company advertising its book cover design services. Hotel in Frankfurt advertising cheap hotel rates. “Book now for the Frankfurt Book Fair in October (or risk disappointment!)”. I also get other emails: a potential author griping the advanced royalties we offered him is way too low (“how to feed family?”), a colleague who sends a funny quote she read on how to write well, and another cold call from a wannabe writer with a tome of a manuscript for me to assess. I make hot tea while contemplating the trajectory of my day. Oooom.
Ding, dong! We receive a surprise visit from Robert Yeo! How I love that man––such an easy person to work with, always a gentleman, so dapper. We republished his book The Adventures of Holden Heng last year. Robert is stopping in to drop off his introduction to a play we’re hoping to publish in April––Mimi Fan by Lim Chor Pee. I look at the introduction––it is handwritten! How cool is that! I spend the next hour typing it out. For you, Robert, anything!
After sending off the introduction to my intrepid designer, Boon, for layout, I buckle down to look at the emails that really matter. Imaginary Friends Studios has just sent in the draft illustrations for the new Archibald book, out in May. Eeks! Why does Archibald look like a Japanese manga character? It’s ok, it’s ok––still early days, and I’m very confident they’ll get it right because Darren Tan of IFS is DA BOMB.
Have a quick discussion with Stefany regarding the draft cover. We also spend time choosing eight portions of the book to illustrate––these will be spot illustrations, more like sketches. Should we illustrate the twist at the end of the book? Hmm. Would it give the story away if someone accidentally flips to that picture at the end? Double hmm. Should we illustrate the evil villain? Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. Or leave it to the readers’ imagination? Got budget? What is best for reader? Decisions, decisions, decisions. And oh yes, Stef and I both agree this Archibald book is even better than the first one. Go SherMay!
Hunger check. Do I want to snag a biscuit from the pantry…or work?
Think I’ll continue working while I figure out the answer.
Receive an email from Lim Chor Pee’s family. They are the ones signing contract with us as Lim Chor Pee has passed away. The daughter, Claudine, explains she is from a family of lawyers. I understand the reason for her explanation as I read her email––she is requesting to include, among other things, the following clause in our contract:
The illegality, invalidity or unenforceability of any provision of this Agreement shall not affect the legality, validity or enforceability of any other provision of this Agreement.
Wha wha what?
I call Claudine and she is extremely friendly and approachable. In essence, the terms and terminology and phrasing and phraseability of the aforementioned contractual agreeity are rectified, clarified and demystified in, but not in exclusivity of, and not limited to but in consideration of the following ways: colloquial banter, jokes, plainspeak and much humour and discreet laughing. In short, we sorted it out!
Contract settled (I think! I hope!). It’s time to…call some celebrities! Yes, celebrities! Wait, let me check my breath. My nail polish. My hair. JUST kidding. First on the list: Woffles Wu. Yes, we are doing a book project with Woffles and he is lovely to talk to over the phone. Next I call Mr Brown. I hope to convince him to do a book project with us. I call, and call, and call. Then email. He replies to email, “Ah, that was you? Sorry, having flu.” I tell him I will call him later. It’s off to lunch then. Lunch is porridge, colleagues, talk of board games, Munchkin, Ticket to Ride, Hwa Chong students, doing wushu as CCA and studying in America.
Start chatting with Felicia, our marketing manager about marketing ideas for our Gurkha Book and our Teochew Recipes Book. Unlike our fiction titles, these non-fiction titles rarely receive sponsorship or grants. =( How do we ensure they make money for us? How do we ensure people buy our beautifully-designed cookbooks and photo books? We think of a few ideas which Feli will follow up on. Suddenly, I get a call from SherMay––she was supposed to drop by to discuss marketing for Archibald. “Sorry, Ruth, I have flu. On the way to doctor’s. Postpone to next week?” Is there a flu epidemic today? Hee. No matter, I start to type out my discussion points with her over email, since our meeting has been postponed. Don’t want to lose a week because of flu!
Off to a meeting with Edmund which will take the whole day. But before that, I note down my key tasks for tomorrow: a) Proofread Mimi Fan in layout b) Call Mr Brown c) Send new short story to Dr Howard Goldblatt who is helping us translate some Cultural Medallion Chinese novels, including You Jin’s, for publication in October this year c) Chase Tan Tarn How for the revised manuscript of Fear of Writing (yes we’re hoping to publish that in Apr!) and d) Send email IFS to discuss our comments for the book cover (make Archibald less manga!) and spot illustrations.
I switch off my computer, grab my bag and speed off behind Edmund while he harrumphs and harranghs about our celebrity book project, his latest culinary find ODP and how we should rename a poetry book we’re putting out soon. That’s all, in the day of a life of an Editor, for you!
Happy New Year to one and all! In this special Q&A, Epigram Books staff look back on the year nearly over and gaze into the months ahead.
1. What was one of your favourite projects this year?
Sok Wan: I enjoyed working on all of the projects! I worked on a variety of projects this year: a play collection, a food guidebook, a cookbook, a photography book and also a children’s book. But if I had to pick my favourite, it would be The Fish Book. The fish photographs by Ernest are all so whimsical and quirky! I think it is amazing that he managed to capture various moods (happy, sad, grouchy, cheeky, etc.) of the fish. I never knew fishes were so expressive!
Min: The time I spent working on Epigram Books’ website and Facebook community was pretty rewarding. Besides the fun of conceptualising and writing blog entries and Facebook posts, it was interesting to learn how WordPress and Facebook page administration worked behind the scenes.
Ruth: I really enjoyed working on Archibald and the Blue Blood Conspiracy by SherMay Loh. I love SherMay’s writing, and it was fun working with Imaginary Friends Studios to illustrate the book and see the characters come to life through their amazing drawings. Conceptualising the book cover with our designer, Stefany, was also a cool experience––we had a lot of discussion about “imagining” the scene that is now the front cover of the book.
2. What was a high point of your year?
Sok Wan: Selling NOTBOOKS at the MAAD Pajamas market. It was quite tiring to stand at our stall (by the road and no shelter!) for 8 hours straight, but seeing the NOTBOOKS sell like hot cakes was really exhilarating! It was also fun to see groups of people crowding around our NOTBOOK banner laughing as they pointed at different NOTBOOKS to assign the different titles to their friends. I am looking forward to seeing more NOTBOOK-related merchandise come out next year!
Min: I was thrilled to sit in on an exploratory meeting that included several local comic artists. I’ve been reading some of their comics for years and it was fascinating to see these creators in person and hear the personal thoughts and concerns outside of their works.
Ruth: One of the high points was selling Chong Tze Chien’s collection of plays, Four Plays, at the staging of Charged in July 2011. Why was this a high point? For one, the book sold like crazy! We could hear the click-clack of our little cash box opening and closing all night long. Secondly, it was the first time the whole Epigram Books team hauled itself down to execute a book launch. We were like travelling salesmen for the night, carrying posters, books, spare cash, receipts, and we even had to do catering that night! Talk about one multi-talented editorial team, plus it was a bonding experience!
3. Name a person or thing that inspired you. Why did they inspire you?
Sok Wan: Madam Padma Krishnan is a very lovely person who is fiercely passionate about cooking. I am glad we published her cookbook which fulfilled her wish to document her family’s recipes so that future generations can get to taste authentic South Indian cuisine. I can still remember the scrumptious feast she prepared for us when we went to her house for food tasting––the food she cooked was truly inspirational and till today, the colleagues who came along for the food tasting are still asking when we can have a meal at her place again!
Min: The Epigram Books and Epigram team! It’s a pleasure to come in every day knowing at some point someone will make you laugh, teach you something new, or complete whatever request you might make with professionalism and grace.
Ruth: For a while, being the only Editor with a car, I played “delivery man” and helped deliver our NOTBOOKS to several lifestyle shops in Singapore. I am very encouraged by shops like Cat Socrates and Woods in the Books. These are small, quirky, independent locally-owned lifestyle shops, started by people with great passion and vision. I’m glad there’s still the spirit of enterprise and passion out there in our local shops–that really makes me happy!
4. What are you looking forward to next year?
Sok Wan: I am looking forward to working on upcoming photography books under our Wee Editions imprint. Titles that are scheduled to be released in 2012 include The Effigies Book, The Teochew Muay Book, and The Durian Book, to name a few. We hope to expand our photography titles in 2012 and I’d like to take this opportunity to invite all interested local photographers to contact us if you have any works you’d like to publish, or if you have ideas for a photography book!
Min: It looks like we’re adding to our marketing resources in the new year, so I look forward to thinking up publicity and marketing strategies to get Epigram Books’ titles in the hands of people who would enjoy them…even if they may not know it yet.
Ruth: I am looking forward to editing the five Cultural Medallion works we are publishing in English next year. These will be works by Chinese authors You Jin, Xi Ni Er and Dr Wong Meng Voon, Tamil author M. Balakrishnan and Malay author Suratman Markasan. We have been hard at work putting the series together, meeting these luminary Cultural Medallion authors and identifying good translators who will do justice to their works. For me, having read some of You Jin’s works in Chinese before, I especially look forward to editing her works in English! Happy New Year everyone!
Do you need fresh gift ideas? Would you like your dollars to support local industry? Like to read, but don’t have an iPad?
Well, you’ve come to the right blog. Take a look at these hand-picked recommendations for you and everyone on your list.
1. ARTSY FOLK
by Tan Tarn How
Tan won critical acclaim this year with his censorship-themed play Fear of Writing. Theatre buffs and culture watchers will appreciate Six Plays, a collection of his earlier works, which also push boundaries in topics such as sex, life and politics.
The Fish Book
by Ernest Goh
The Fish Book is an collection of art photography focusing on the miniature world of ornamental fish. Warning: these charming close-up portraits may trigger a run to your local aquarium shop.
2. YOUNG AT HEART
Archibald and the Blue Blood Conspiracy
by SherMay Loh
A thrilling tale about a bumbling son of a duke who gets embroiled in a sinister conspiracy. SherMay Loh keeps pages turning with endless wit and a fast-moving plot. This novel for young adults picked up a Bronze Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and a nomination for Popular Readers’ Choice in 2011.
The Diary of Amos Lee 3: I’m Twelve, I’m Tough, I Tweet
by Adeline Foo
The latest volume in this bestselling series brings more laughs and tween angst as Amos takes part in his school’s talent contest. Catch up on the Amos Lee saga before the TV series airs on okto next year! This book won third place in the Children category of the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2011.
3. ARMCHAIR ADVENTURERS
The Scholar and the Dragon
by Stella Kon
Stella Kon may be most famous for a certain play starring Ivan Heng as a Nonya matriarch, but did you know she brought her dramatic talents to prose too? This historical novel brings you to Singapore of the 1910s, where overseas Chinese fought the revolution to bring down the Qing dynasty. This book is part of the Singapore Classics series, which reprints formerly out of print novels by pioneering local writers.
by Robert Goh
The real-life adventure story of how a Singaporean team climbed a Himalayan mountain without fixed ropes or the aid of sherpas. Written by Robert Goh, the leader of the expedition, this account sheds light on the many uncertainties of unguided expeditions to Himalayan big mountains and how they were overcome. “If you’re sure you can do it,” Goh often says, “where’s the challenge?”
4. FOOD LOVERS
The End of Char Kway Teow and Other Hawker Mysteries
by Dr Leslie Tay
Featuring mouthwatering photos of dishes from rojak to wanton mee, and stuffed with entertaining facts and fictions about hawker food in Singapore, this is a foodie guide like no other. Use this insider’s guide to clue in your friends and family about the best hawker stalls in Singapore.
Madam Krishnan’s South Indian Recipes
by Ambrose Krishnan
Indian food fans will be enthralled by this collection of over 120 treasured family recipes from Pondicherry and Kerala. Recipes include those for Chutneys & Thovials, Rice, Seafood, Poultry, Meat, Vegetables, Snacks & Desserts, and Home Remedies.
5. EVERYONE ELSE
If none of your prospective giftees fit into the previous categories, we’re sure you’ll find an suitable design in our new series of NOTBOOKS. Take the NOTBOOK that reads “I AM NOT BOSSY. I AM TAKING CHARGE”, for instance. How many people does that remind you of?
Where to shop: all the books can be found in major bookstores, and NOTBOOKS can be ordered directly from Epigram Books and purchased at selected retailers.