American publisher Soho Press snaps up Singaporean writer Clarissa N. Goenawan’s debut novel

Singaporean writer Clarissa N. Goenawan wrote the first draft of Rainbirds during the National Novel Writing Month in 2013. It will be out next year.
Singaporean writer Clarissa N. Goenawan wrote the first draft of Rainbirds during the National Novel Writing Month in 2013. It will be out next year.PHOTO: CHOO

Clarissa N. Goenawan's debut novel will be published by American publisher Soho Press and it has also bagged other honours

Singaporean writer Clarissa N. Goenawan last week clinched a book deal with American publisher Soho Press for her debut novel Rainbirds, about a Japanese man whose dreary life is shaken up by his sister's murder.

The book, which will be out late next year, has racked up a string of honours even before it was picked up by a publisher.

Last year, her manuscript beat 805 other entries to bag the £2,000 (S$3,580) Bath Novel Award, an international prize for unpublished and independently published novelists.

Rainbirds also emerged as one of the three finalists for the £10,000 Dundee International Book Prize - the United Kingdom's premier award for debut novelists - and was shortlisted for the 2015 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award.

Becoming a writer was Goenawan's childhood dream, but she found herself shelving that dream as she entered adulthood.

"I was an avid reader and always loved to write, but it wasn't exactly a feasible livelihood plan. I kind of forgot about it until a few years ago, when I decided to take a break from the workforce," says the 28-year- old, who is married to a photographer. "I thought, why not try doing something I really want to do."

She left her job in banking four years ago and now juggles writing and taking care of her three young children.

Rainbirds is set in Japan in 1994 and follows a grieving Ren Ishida, who, after learning of his sister Keiko's murder, decides to move to the small town where she lived. There, he takes a job as a teacher at the same cram school Keiko worked at, befriends a troubled young student and, guided by recurring dreams of a little girl, unearths dark secrets from his past.

"The idea came when I thought of what would happen if someone died unexpectedly - and no one really knew what kind of life she had been leading," says Goenawan.

A fan of manga, she chose to set the book in Japan as she wanted it to unfold in an Asian country with four seasons and a wide range of backdrops, such as mountains and lakes.

Amara Hoshijo, the acquiring editor at Soho Press - a New York City-based publisher whose authors include Sue Townsend of Adrian Mole fame and award-winning Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat - had high praise for the novel.

"From the first page of Rainbirds, Clarissa's writing struck me as not only beautifully literary and effortlessly transportive, but also capable of resonating with a wide audience, much like the works of Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante," she says.

"Rainbirds shatters so many boundaries, from genre limitations to the dichotomy of commercial versus literary. I am excited to have found a novel that I believe forges new territory."

Goenawan wrote the first draft of the book during the National Novel Writing Month - an annual, worldwide initiative where aspiring writers pledge to pen 50,000 words in the month of November - in 2013.

Then came 11/2 years of editing before she sent it out to competitions and agents.

"I collected a fair number of rejections while looking for an agent before receiving offers from London, New York and Barcelona," she says.

In January, she signed with Barcelona-based Pontas Agency, a literary agency with a stable of clients that includes Nigerian Writer Chigozie Obioma, whose first novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize; and legendary Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

In a matter of months, Rainbirds was picked up by Soho Press.

Goenawan was born in Surabaya and moved to Singapore in her teens for her studies.

She did visual communication design at the Lasalle College of the Arts in the mid-2000s, then went on to get a degree in marketing from the United Kingdom's University of Bradford.

Last year, she joined a six-month, online novel-writing course at the Curtis Brown Creative writing school, which is run by UK literary agency Curtis Brown, and received guidance from author and literary agent Anna Davis, and writer Chris Wakling.

She is working on two manuscripts - one a mystery with elements of magical realism, and the other a love story, and editing Rainbirds to get it ready for publication.

"It's still hard to believe. I'm so, so happy and excited. I'm glad that my book has found a great home."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Singaporean clinches book deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe