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Award-winning author O Thiam Chin knows what it's like to fail

Writer O Thiam Chin, winner of the first Epigram Books Fiction Prize, barely passed English in secondary school

Singaporean writer O Thiam Chin is an avid runner who runs one full marathon every year. It is fitting then that the 38-year-old's circuitous route to literary success has been a long and at times arduous journey.

He barely scraped a pass for English in secondary school, was rejected several times when he applied for writing jobs and made short-lived forays into film-making and poetry writing.

Through it all, he kept on writing. "I felt this desperate need to tell stories. I had to do it somehow, whether it was through an article, poem or anything else. Something had to come out," he tells The Straits Times.

No one would have imagined that O, who was raised by Mandarin- speaking hawker parents, would one day become one of the country's leading contemporary authors.

He beat three other writers - Sebastian Sim, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Wong Souk Yee - to clinch last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

The win netted him a $20,000 cash prize and publisher Epigram Books has published his first full- length novel, Now That It's Over, which chronicles the unravelling of two relationships, set against the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

He researched parts of the novel while on a 2007 holiday to Phuket and wrote it between 2010 and 2014. He started work on it while on the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2010.

The book is a non-linear narrative that flashes back and forth in time and features a gay relationship.

But he is not concerned that it will turn readers off. "I based the material off dynamics I've seen in both married and gay couples. Relationships are complex. They carry with them so much joy and pleasure, but also complications and sorrow. There are all these secrets, different expectations and interior lives that we all have," says O, who is single.

He has penned five short story collections, of which the most recent, Love, Or Something Like Love, was up for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2014. It lost to writer Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry Of Moral Panic. He also received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2012.

Winning Singapore's richest literary award is quite the feather in his cap, but he admits it came with great expectations. "Now, people know who I am, so they will read and judge my writing. All eyes are on me. They expect me to write top-notch stuff," he says.

He used the prize money to pay his home loan and other expenses and is now living off income from freelance writing assignments and grant money from the arts council.

"It's not really possible to survive as a full-time writer," he says. "I can carry on like this for one or two years at most. After the announcement, I jumped back into writing again. Then I realised this is the part that doesn't change. Writing still goes on painstakingly and slowly for me."

He is working on a new story collection that will have a "more fantastical bent", due out next year.

O was first exposed to stories by his English teacher in Townsville Primary School in Ang Mo Kio. His most vivid recollection was a retelling of The Twits by acclaimed English author Roald Dahl in class.

"I was so fascinated that this story was about two ugly and detestable people, which made it even more compelling. So I went to read the book," he says.

As a student in Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, he would be late for school because he was hooked on the radio plays broadcast at noon on the Rediffusion radio station.

Following the plays regularly, however, taught him storytelling elements such as cliffhangers and how to "carry a story forward to compel listeners to tune in, and craft it in a way to hold their attention, and keep them in suspense".

O studied English and literature in school, but scored C6 grades for both subjects at the O-level examinations ("A lot of memorisation that killed my love for reading", he recalls).

He took up a diploma in mecha- tronics at Temasek Polytechnic, as he had no idea what to pursue then.

His National Service stint marked a turning point, as he had to travel to Pasir Laba Camp near Tuas for his military training.

Failing in order to succeed

The public transport rides of more than an hour gave him time to read the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize winners. He counts American writer Raymond Carver and Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto as two of his biggest literary influences.

"Carver taught me that a sentence may look deceptively simple, but it takes a lot to pare it down to what you want to convey. I try to emulate Yoshimoto in my work as her stories are sad, soulful and beautiful."

He got a job in a telecommunications company after national service, but did not enjoy working with telephone systems and left three months later.

"After 21/2 years of reading, I knew I wanted to do something dealing with words, so I looked for marketing communications and public relations jobs," he says.

He eventually joined Mediacorp as a marketing and communications executive and was asked to star in an episode of Crimewatch by a show producer.

"He told me, 'You look like a failed IT entrepreneur who lost a lot of money.' All I did was make a call on the phone, loosen my tie and look dejected," recalls O, mimicking the action and laughing.

In 2000, he enrolled in a part-time English language and literature course at the Singapore Institute Of Management. "I wanted to be able to go into a text, understand and dissect it - to learn those kinds of skills," he says. He later started writing for magazines and online publications, and even applied to be a journalist at Singapore Press Holdings, but was rejected thrice.

Hoping to expand his repertoire, he wrote a screenplay and directed a short film about a mother who may have possibly killed her child. "It was so terribly conceived. I think it won a merit prize at a competition and was screened at a film event, but I didn't even go to see it. I'm my own worst critic," he says.

He also feels the same way about his first self-published short story collection, Free-Falling Man (2005), which he wrote while holding a full-time job as a marketing communications manager.

"I'm trying to destroy any copy of it that I can find now. It was one of my first attempts at fiction writing and it was cringe-worthy."

Such is the author's candour and self-deprecating humour. He flashes a broad smile and often breaks out in nervous laughter when he answers questions.

Looking back on his career, he says: "I believe that sometimes, you have to fail, fail and fail. I tried fiction-writing because I had failed at almost everything else. So it sounds like it's my concubine, right? But actually, it's my one true love."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'O comes full circle'. Print Edition | Subscribe