Four writers vying for debut $20,000 fiction prize

The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are Balli Kaur Jaswal(above), Sim Ngak Chuan, O Thiam Chin and Wong Souk Yee. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, ST FILE
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are Balli Kaur Jaswal(above), Sim Ngak Chuan, O Thiam Chin and Wong Souk Yee. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, ST FILE
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sim Ngak Chuan(above), O Thiam Chin and Wong Souk Yee.
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sim Ngak Chuan(above), O Thiam Chin and Wong Souk Yee. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, ST FILE
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sim Ngak Chuan, O Thiam Chin(above) and Wong Souk Yee.
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sim Ngak Chuan, O Thiam Chin(above) and Wong Souk Yee. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, ST FILE
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are (from far left) Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sim Ngak Chuan, O Thiam Chin and Wong Souk Yee(above).
The four writers shortlisted for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize are (from far left) Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sim Ngak Chuan, O Thiam Chin and Wong Souk Yee(above). PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, ST FILE

Four experienced writers are on the shortlist for the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

They are award-winning authors Balli Kaur Jaswal andOThiam Chin, playwright Wong Souk Yee, who recently contested the General Election, and author Sim Ngak Chuan, who has three Chinese sword-fighting novels to his credit.

The winner will be announced on Nov 5. The $20,000 received will be a cash advance against future royalties, so the winner is guaranteed a publishing contract with Epigram Books.

The Epigram Books Fiction Prize, announced this year, is Singapore’s richest literary award and the only one for unpublished English language novels. It is open to Singapore citizens and permanent residents, as well as Singapore-born writers, wherever they are residing.

Publisher of Epigram Books, Mr EdmundWee, says: “Weare really pleased with the number of entries and also the quality.” His in-house team chose the top four manuscripts from 69 entries sent in by 68 authors – one of whom submitted two manuscripts – between March 10 and Aug31.

Epigram Books is not releasing the synopses or titles of the shortlisted manuscripts as the winner will be chosen by a blind reading conducted by three external judges: Professor Philip Holden from the National University of Singapore’s department of English language and literature, actress Janice Koh and best-selling author Adrian Tan.

Mr Wee says he will step in only if a tie-breaker is needed and that he would be happy to publish all four entries on the shortlist.

The $20,000 prize for the winner is the biggest known advance promised to an English-language fiction writer in the Singapore publishing industry.

Mr Wee currently offers authors 5 per cent of the recommended retail price for every copy sold, so it would take selling 20,000 copies of a book priced at $20 for an author to make $20,000. This is unlikely for adult fiction in the Singapore market where 2,000 copies sold in a year marks a book as a bestseller.

Writer O, 38, author of five collections of short fiction, says: “It’s a good amount. I’ve not collected such an amount in royalties before.”  In 2012, he won the Young Artist Award given out by the National Arts Council and his book Love, Or Something Like Love(Math Paper Press, 2013) was shortlisted for last year’s Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction. It lost to Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry Of Moral Panic.

His competition includes Istanbul-based teacher Jaswal, 32, whose first novel Inheritance (Sleepers Publishing, 2013) was begun while on the £25,000 (S$54,000) David T.K. Wong Fellowship for writing at the well-known University of East Anglia. She was based in Sydney for several years and last year, The Sydney Morning Herald picked her as one of Australia’s four best young novelists.

She says she planned to submit her new novel to Epigram Books anyway and the competition and prize “provided motivation”.

Also motivated by the contest is playwright and former political detainee Wong, 57, who contested the GE as a member of the Singapore Democratic Party, which lost to the ruling People’s Action Party.

An adjunct lecturer at the National University of Singapore, she co-founded the now-defunct theatre group Third Stage, was detained in 1987 for allegedly taking part in a Marxist conspiracy against the Government and turned part of her experience into the play Square Moon, staged in 2013. The novel she submitted was written between 2000 and 2004.

She says: “I was obviously thrilled to receive the news that I was on the shortlist. In fact, the news came in the wake of the tragic GE2015, so, at the risk of sounding like a drama queen, being on the shortlist saves me from going over the edge.”

Author Sim, who has published three Chinese sword- fighting novels with Ling Zhi Media between 2004 and 2012 under the penname Yueguan Ming, says the $20,000 prize is more than he has earned in past royalties. Yet he is more interested in getting his foot in the door with his first novel in English.

“I’m glad that I’m on the shortlist because I’m told that all shortlisted manuscripts may be published. If I win, it will also draw market attention to my book,” says the 49-yearold, who is an executive at Senja- Cashew Community Club.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Four writers vying for debut $20,000 fiction prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe