Finding confidence in writing

Short-story writer O Thiam Chin took four years to write his first novel.
Short-story writer O Thiam Chin took four years to write his first novel. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

O Thiam Chin, who won the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, was filled with self-doubt about his works

In his decade-long writing career, Singapore author O Thiam Chin has put out five short story collections, three of which were longlisted for Ireland's prestigious Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

His first novel, The Infinite Sea, which will be published next year, won the inaugural $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize just this month .

But his hawker parents have yet to read any of his works. His 71-year-old father, O Tiaw Seng, is more at ease with Chinese and his mother Poh Lay Tee, 68, is illiterate.

And more often than not, O reveals, they are perplexed by their son's decision to go into writing.

"Sometimes I feel like they still don't know what it is I'm doing," he tells Life with a laugh. "They've been supportive. But I can tell sometimes they're still thinking 'So, what is he doing ah?'"

My parents have been supportive. But I can tell sometimes they’re still thinking ‘So,what is he doing ah?'

AUTHOR O THIAM CHIN, on how his hawker parents are perplexed about his decision to go into writing

But since he started writing in 2005, O, 38, has made waves with his stories, giving his parents some reassurance. In 2012, he received the Young Artist Award for Literary Arts given by the National Arts Council.

"My father went to the Istana with me for the award ceremony then. He kept saying 'You know, I shook hands with the President just now!' He was so proud," O recalls.

His latest collection of short stories, Love, Or Something Like Love, was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction last year and made the longlist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

He started writing The Infinite Sea in 2010 and completed it last year. The Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore's richest literary prize, was launched this year for unpublished novels in English.

"I was in the papers because of that and my mother saw my photo, she saw $20,000. She was quite impressed," says O, who is single.

"You know how parents are. They're worried you're struggling, they don't know if you can pay your bills. I was thankful to have the chance to show them, 'Hey, I'm doing okay, don't worry too much!'"

There is a charming artlessness to O: fast-talking and easygoing, a keen listener, he admits that he is still given to mumbling when fans compliment him on his books.

"Don't laugh, but I have this fear that, actually I'm not a good writer, and people have been forgiving about my failures," says O, who has worked in telecommunications and marketing, and is now a freelance editor at a publishing firm.

"Maybe I'm just the kind of writer who worries a lot. I started out with a lot of self-doubt. I wanted to tell stories, but was I good enough?"

His decade in writing has been as much about pinning to the page the gamut of stories running wild in his head as it has been an exercise in confidence-building.

"The more short stories I wrote, the more confidence I found. And this thought kept nagging at me: What's the next step in prose? It's the novel," says O. "There's a whole romantic idea to a novel. It's sort of like the Everest of writing."

His 32-chapter novel, which is out in the first quarter of next year, tracks two couples holidaying in Thailand, who are torn apart by a tsunami. The story is a fictional take on the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

"Lives were lost, life stories and entire histories gone. I wanted to give voice to four possible stories. What happens to people when disaster strikes?" says O.

He started work on the novel in 2010, when he was in the Iowa International Writing Program.

But for a writer accustomed to an average word count of 4,000, stamina was a major challenge. He finished about a third of the manuscript in Iowa. Then came a long drought, which he filled by working on short stories.

"So, sometimes I'd be working on a short story and, suddenly, I'd have an idea for the novel. My novel would be different if I sat down and completed it in one shot," says O.

A single-person narrative could not encompass the scale of the disaster, so O, whose works focus largely on human dynamics, chose to write from the perspective of multiple characters.

"When I was done, I felt so drained," he says. "It was a mix of emotions: you don't want to see it anymore. But, at the same time, you're so happy. And finishing it makes me feel like I can do anything now. It feels like you've reached the top of Mount Everest."

  • Love, Or Something Like Love is available from Kinokuniya at $23.54.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Finding confidence in writing'. Print Edition | Subscribe