Crossing genres

This year's Singapore Writers Festival features authors who refuse to be pigeonholed

From poetry to thrillers

Best-selling British writer Sophie Hannah is the approved heir to Agatha Christie and has a dozen psychological thrillers to her name. Not many know that she began her career as a critically acclaimed poet.

She also writes children's books and has translated the verses of Scandinavian children's writer Tove Jansson.

She will speak about her cross- genre adventures at the Singapore Writers Festival on Nov 7 and 8.


  • WHERE: British Council Gallery, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 7, 10am


    INFO: Go to www.singapore writersfestival.com for details of other appearances.


  • WHERE: Auditorium, National Gallery, 1 Saint Andrews Road

    WHEN: Nov 8, 11.30am

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass required

"As a child, I was obsessed with poems and with mysteries. I always wrote both," the 44-year-old says in a telephone conversation from Cambridge, where she lives with her husband and children. "I wrote some very bad crime novels when I was 16, but they never got published. My poetry achieved publishable standards first."

She had two pamphlets of poetry published, before Carcanet Press brought out her debut collection, The Hero And The Girl Next Door in 1995.

Nine years later, the influential Poetry Book Society named her one of the next-generation poets to watch and her fifth and most recent collection, Pessimism For Beginners, published by Carcanet Press, was shortlisted for Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry in 2007. It lost to Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book.

By then, Hannah had made the switch to psychological thrillers, though her often dryly funny verses are still studied across the United Kingdom in secondary schools and universities.

Thrillers are just "fun to write", she says. "When I'm writing novels, I'm concentrating on plot and story and a gripping narrative. When I write poetry, I'm concentrating on expressing a feeling."

She used to carry a notebook to jot down poetry, but for her novels, she makes it a point to churn out between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day on the computer.

She grew up "obsessed" with Agatha Christie and collected all the late writer's novels by the time she was 14.

It was something of a dream come true to be approved by the Christie estate to write the new Hercule Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was a blockbuster release last year. It appeared for three months on The Straits Times' bestseller list.

Hannah created her own narrator for the book rather than attempting the voice of Captain Hastings, Poirot's friend and the first-person voice Christie often chose to write about the Belgian detective.

The challenge of stepping into Christie's shoes made Hannah appreciate the other writer's style even more. "She's a genius. The books are light and jolly, but full of evil and darkness and the moral struggle between the two."

Hannah's own style is to unearth disturbing secrets from under the surface of a seemingly normal family. In her debut thriller, Little Face (2006), a new mother is convinced the baby in the crib is not hers. In this year's A Game For All The Family, a housewife who moves into a new home receives phone calls from a mysterious stranger convinced the newcomer is stalking her.

"My subject matter is the weirdness of normality," the author says. "Every normal family has something weird going on below the surface."

• A Game For All The Family by Sophie Hannah ($29.95) and The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah ($18.19) are available at major bookstores.


  • WHERE: The Arts House, Chamber

    WHEN: Nov 7, 4pm

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass

    INFO: Go to www.singaporewritersfestival.com for tickets and details of other appearances

Inserting poem into a germ

Poets experiment with language but Canadian writer Christian Bok also uses Lego bricks and DNA to construct - and require the reader to deconstruct - his verses.

Ten Maps Of Sardonic Wit (2012) was "bookish artware", as he puts it, a book-like structure made out of Lego bricks with each page containing the letters of the title rearranged to achieve "atoms in space now drift" followed by "on a swift and epic storm" and so forth.

His 13-year-old ongoing project The Xenotext involves coding a poem into an artificial gene which he hopes to embed in the DNA of an extremophile, a resilient strain of bacterium that will act as a living, unkillable archive.

This has yet to happen, though a test microorganism, E. coli, can express the artificial gene. The project has inspired his latest collection of verse, The Xenotext: Book 1, out this month from Coach House Books.

"I joke that instead of having created the first unkillable poet, I've created the first critic," says the 49-year-old teacher of English at the University of Calgary. "The organism doesn't like what I'm trying to do."

He also has two other well- received collections from Coach House Books, Crystallography (1994) and Eunoia (2001) - which took the then C$40,000 Griffin Poetry Prize for Canadian poets.

Bok's printed verse is also playful and thought-provoking. Crystallo- graphy contains the 10-word poem Sapphire, which begins with two repetitions of the word "aluminium", in North American spelling, and three of "oxygen" interlocked to represent the molecular unit of the gem. Eunoia is a five-chapter book, each composed of words with only one vowel, A in the first, for example and E in the second.

Bok, who is single with no children, says he knew he wanted to be a writer when he was four years old and asked the mall Santa Claus for a typewriter. His parents, a plumber and an accountant for a used car dealership, bought him a green plastic toy typewriter which he hit with enthusiasm.

He first thought he would write science fiction, but, while doing his bachelor of arts and master's degrees at Carleton University in Ottawa, discovered the history of the avant-garde movement and realised the kind of writer he could be. "There is a preconception about what is a writer, that a writer writes a book about personal experience with a plausible story. I'm more interested in the beauty of words and the physical character of language."

He combined both interests by creating new languages for two TV shows, Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict (1997-2002) and Peter Benchley's Amazon (1999). He is more interested now in turning verse into real science with The Xenotext.

"I'm doing my best to be the poet appropriate to the 21st century. I'm curious about biotechnology as a medium of expression. The reasons why it won't work are mystifying. I wish I had promised to make it work in any old bacterium."

Yet, he is not giving up in part because he has spent "well over" C$100,000 (S$110,000) on the project, thanks to grants.

"There's no book of poetry that receives a $100,000 advance. Although, if I pull this off, I'll feel justified to ask for a million dollars."

• The Xenotext: Book 1 ($21.20), Eunoia ($18) and Crystallography ($19.05) by Christian Bok are available from www.chbooks.com


  • WHERE: The Arts House, Chamber

    WHEN: Nov 7, 11.30am

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass

    INFO: Go to www.singapore writersfestival.com for tickets and details of other appearances

Writing vampire fiction for daughter

How does a writer, who won the coveted Pen/Hemingway award for his debut novel, end up spending 11 years writing an epic trilogy of vampire horror fiction?

"My daughter, who was turning eight at the time, came to me and said she was worried, she was concerned that my books were boring," says Justin Cronin, 53, from the house in Texas where he is holed up working on the copyedits of The City Of Mirrors. Out next year, it is the final book in the series which began with The Passage (2010) and continued in The Twelve (2012).

The books follow a number of people through a world where a botched experiment releases a virus that turns the infected into vampires. Critics and buyers rave about the epic yet intensely character-focused world built up by Cronin in his roughly 700-page tomes.

In the early Noughties, he already had a measure of fame with literary works half the length, their strength also in intimate character studies. There is Mary And O'Neil, about the relationship between two teachers, which won the 2002 Pen/Hemingway Award and Stephen Crane Prize, as well as The Summer Guest (2005), about a dying man on a fishing trip. While unique, the books were also expected, perhaps, from a Harvard graduate with a master's in fine arts from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.

At the time when his daughter brought her concerns about his books to him, Cronin was supposed to be working on a third literary novel, but it was going nowhere, so he humoured her. For the next three months, she rode her bicycle with him on his daily run and they hammered out a taut outline.

To his surprise, he ended up with several hundred pages to show his agent. "I tried to write a book that asked to be written," he says. "I honestly didn't know if anyone would want to publish it."

His agent submitted the manuscript under a pseudonym because Cronin did not want preconceived notions about his style to affect the editor's opinion. Ballantine Books published it, The Passage made the New York Times bestseller list and director Ridley Scott bought the film rights.

Cronin says his choice of "boogeyman" was arbitrary, though the book came out during the vampire craze sparked by Stephenie Meyer's best-selling Twilight novels for teens.

The Passage trilogy was a series he was peculiarly suited to write, growing up in New England reading the "cerebral and very dark" science fiction of the Cold War era. Authors gloried in apocalyptic themes that reflected the tensions of the times.

A story that stayed with him was George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), a realistic drama about a civilisation ruined by disease.

Cronin brings similar realism to The Passage series and will teach a class on world-building at the Singapore Writers Festival.

"People love a good story, being fully immersed in a world with hundreds of characters. The essence of escapism is going into an entirely new world."

Getting the final book done is, he says, a bittersweet experience. "I built this world with hundreds of characters I've been living with for years and now I'm going to stand on the pier and watch the ship sail away."

It is a lot like sending a child to college. His daughter is 19 now and at Brown University. He also has a 12-year-old son.

"You're proud of them, you miss them, but it's time."

• The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin retail at $15.95 at major bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Crossing genres From poetry to thrillers'. Print Edition | Subscribe