Fantasy tale set in Singapore

The protagonist in Tiffany Tsao's debut novel can travel to invisible lands

In her imaginative debut novel, The Oddfits, author Tiffany Tsao lays out a Singapore that thrums with the fantastical, as places familiar and mundane become the unlikely backdrop for the start of a whirlwind adventure.

A 7-Eleven outlet in Tampines hides the entrance to part of a secret world.

Details of a quest to discover lands accessible only by a chosen few are divulged in a meeting near the Orchard MRT station.

It is in a small ice cream shop in the HDB heartland of Ang Mo Kio - run by an old man who vanished in his youth without a trace for more than 40 years before reappearing just as suddenly - where blond, blue-eyed Murgatroyd Floyd has his first, short-lived brush with something magical.

When asked why she chose Singapore as the setting of her book, Tsao, who was born in the United States, but grew up here, says: "This is what I know. Most of my formative years were spent in Singapore and, in many ways, it's the country I'm most familiar with. I just thought, 'Why not Singapore?'"

"In a way, the novel is sort of an ode to Singapore, packed with all these little details about it - from places we see in everyday life and what we eat to what we're fixated on and the way we speak."

Born in San Diego, California, Tsao, 33, lived in Singapore and Jakarta through her childhood and young adulthood.

When she was three, her parents - her father was born in Indonesia, and her mother in Singapore to Indonesian Chinese parents - moved to Singapore, where she lived for six years until 1992.

She then lived in Jakarta for six years before moving back to Singapore in 1998.

Year later, she moved to the US to study, graduating from Wellesley College in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in English.

She went on to earn a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2009.

Tsao, who is Indonesia Editor-at-Large for literary magazine Asymptote, is married to Justin Hastings, a senior lecturer in International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Sydney. The couple have a one-year-old son, Zephyr.

Speaking over the telephone from Sydney, Australia, where she lives, she says: "I didn't want Singapore to be some sort of exotic setting to present to foreign readers. I wanted it to be 'Guess what? Everyday life happens in Singapore as well.'"

"I was hoping to do more than pay tribute to Singapore landmarks. I wanted the book to be about the ins and outs of Singapore.

"It should be a book Singaporeans can read and not say, 'Wow, she's just playing this up.' I wanted it to be acceptable to Singaporeans too."

Published in February by AmazonCrossing, The Oddfits is the first in a four-part series and follows the hapless Murgatroyd who, all his life, has been struggling to fit in.

His scheming parents hate him, his ambitious best friend does not believe in him and his boss - who owns a fine-dining restaurant where customers pay to watch their food killed on the spot - may have just arranged for his assassination.

It is all because Murgatroyd is an Oddfit, a human being who can travel to lands invisible to most.

The world as most people know it sees him as a foreign presence - a blemish that should be exterminated.

"I began writing a story about this guy whose best friend, boss and - worst of all - parents are out to get him. But as I kept writing, I wondered, 'What's the underlying reason?'" she says.

"And that's when I started thinking more about the world the book was set in, the logistics to his bad luck.

"And I came up with: The world was allergic to him because he's an Oddfit, someone who will never fit in."

It took her more than five years to complete the book - she started it in the mid-2000s and completed it in 2011.

It took another four years before the book was picked up by AmazonCrossing, a publishing imprint of e-commerce giant Amazon.

"I think I surprised even myself when it was done," she says with a laugh.

"I've always liked to write and I've made a few false starts. But this is the first time I've come up with an idea that could sustain an entire novel. Now, I have a four-book series in mind."

Tsao is working on a second novel and there are plans to release it next year.

The Oddfits unfolds mostly in 2004 Singapore - a period when she was already studying in the United States and would make trips to Singapore twice a year.

"The main reason for setting The Oddfits in 2004: I realised how quickly the Singaporean landscape changes and that Singapore had changed in numerous subtle ways since I'd left - old places replaced by new ones, changes in public transport," she says.

"I wanted to write something that captured that period of time in Singapore and, I suppose, my life as well."

She returns to Singapore every year to visit her family - including her mother, brother and maternal grandparents.

"The book was sort of a walk down memory lane. Every time I'm in Singapore, there's something different and unfamiliar.

"In a way, the novel is set in a Singapore I can't get back. That in itself is almost magical."

• The Oddfits ($23.94) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline Fantasy tale set in Singapore. Subscribe