ST Press' foray into fiction

Local publisher Straits Times Press is making its move into novels, starting with a Japan-based fantasy and a light-hearted look at the lives of expatriate wives in Singapore

After building up a portfolio of best-selling non-fiction titles, local publisher Straits Times Press (ST Press) is taking the plunge into the new waters of fiction.

In a concerted campaign to move into this market, the book publishing division of Singapore Press Holdings last month released its first novel in recent years, Japan-based fantasy The Memory Eaters by former journalist and sub-editor Janice Tay.

It will follow this up next month with Travails Of A Trailing Spouse by first-time author Stephanie Suga Chen, a light-hearted look at the lives of expatriate wives in Singapore.

ST Press general manager Susan Long, 45, cites "access and opportunity" as the reason behind the new direction, given the submission of more quality fiction manuscripts.

"We have a good thing going in non-fiction, but we don't feel the non-fiction and fiction genres are mutually exclusive, or their authors," she says. "We are trying to diversify our offerings and also support our authors better.

"Many of Singapore's best writers start out doing it in a semi-professional capacity and often cut their teeth on non-fiction works," she adds, referring to authors such as Tay, whose first book was Kyoto Unhurried, a collection of her columns on the Japanese city, last year.

"It just makes sense to support their literary journeys when they decide to unleash the novel in them."

ST Press has in the 2000s put out new editions of acclaimed local fiction titles, including novels Fistful Of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim and Tangerine by Colin Cheong, which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1992 and 1996 respectively.

An aim to tell good stories

But it is most established as a non-fiction legacy publisher, particularly of memoirs of the founding fathers, history and heritage books.

Its non-fiction titles chart frequently on the Straits Times bestseller list, which is collated using data from major bookstores in Singapore.

These include the runaway bestseller Neither Civil Nor Servant, a biography of former Economic Development Board chairman Philip Yeo by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, which has sold more than 20,000 copies.

To enter the fiction market is a considerable risk, especially given Singaporeans' lukewarm attitudes towards reading.

"If they do read, they may read current affairs to keep up or non-fiction titles for self-improvement, rather than for pleasure," says Ms Long.

"The market conditions for publishers of books remain daunting, even more so for fiction."

It plans to meet this challenge with an aggressive advertising campaign, including sending out advance review copies - an unusual move for a local publisher - to drum up awareness.

Should this foray succeed, Ms Long hopes it can put out a few good fiction books a year, although this depends on how many good manuscripts come its way.

"We are in the business of telling good stories that describe the human condition, however we find them," she says.

Adventures of four expat wives, from a mouldy wardrobe to a wandering husband

First-time author Stephanie Suga Chen wants to lift the lid on the glitzy lives of expatriate wives.

Her light-hearted novel, Travails Of A Trailing Spouse, takes readers behind the polished veneer of this privileged circle to reveal trouble in paradise, from culture shock to marriages falling apart.

Chen, 38, is herself an expatriate wife. In 2012, the TaiwaneseAmerican mother of two gave up a career as an investment banker to follow her neuroscientist husband to Singapore when he was offered a position in local academia. She hopes to remain in Singapore for the foreseeable future.

She struggled to cope with the heat, humidity and her daughter, now 10, returning home from school spouting Singlish.

She began writing what she thought would be a memoir of her time here, but decided to expand it into a novel as fiction gave her more leeway.

"It is an inside look at expat lives," says Chen, who pictures the book as a cross between Singapore-born Kevin Kwan's pulpy bestseller Crazy Rich Asians (2013) and Janice Y.K. Lee's The Expatriates (2016), about expatriates in Hong Kong; with just a dash of travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006).

"We tend to keep to ourselves and we have found it hard to make friends with locals," she adds.

The book follows the adventures of Sarah, one such trailing spouse, and three other expatriate wives she befriends in her Singapore condominium.

Like Chen did, the women go through a difficult adjustment period, often having given up high-flying jobs for domesticity in Singapore.

"You begin to question your role in the family, your self-identity," she says.

Some incidents in the book are based on her own experiences, such as when Sarah, unprepared for the humidity, discovers her entire wardrobe of clothes has turned mouldy.

Others are more inventive, such as the revelation that one of the women's husbands goes on weekend getaways in the region to visit prostitutes, or a scene in which Sarah's husband and friend get caught up in a drunken brawl and are arrested as a result.

Chen did her research in some unusual places, such as online platform Reddit, where she discovered a thread in which an expatriate had been arrested in Singapore and was asking for help. He had even posted his bail agreement and court transcripts online.

She also gained a lot of information from Facebook groups for expatriate wives - one has up to 16,000 members - where members debate topics from "where can I find graham crackers in Singapore" to coping with absent husbands and fertility issues.

Chen, who is working on a second novel about an investment banker trying to close the deal of her career during the worst haze Singapore has seen, acknowledges that many locals see expatriates as "entitled and annoying".

She mentions the likes of Briton Anton Casey, who was forced to leave Singapore in 2014 after his online posts mocking locals sparked a furore and cost him his wealth management job.

"We have to be sensitive that this is not our country and we are guests," she cautions her fellow expatriates.

Still, she hopes the book can start a conversation with locals and give her fellow trailing spouses a voice. "I hope it resonates with anybody who is feeling lost and unsure of what her place is in the world."

•Travails Of A Trailing Spouse will be released on Jan 15.

An ageless race feeding on human memories

A man wakes up on a beach with no memories. The woman next to him says she has eaten them.

So begins The Memory Eaters, the debut novel of former journalist and sub-editor Janice Tay, a historical fantasy set in an alternate samurai-era Japan.

Tay, who was with The Straits Times for more than 10 years, moved to Japan in 2006 after going on holiday to Kyoto the year before and falling in love with its machiya, traditional townhouses with wooden facades and courtyard gardens.

"I woke up one morning and the first thought in my head was, 'I can live in Kyoto,'" she says. "It was total clarity. I know when I have a thought with such conviction, it's very hard to convince myself not to do something silly."

Despite not knowing Japanese, she quit her job and moved to Kyoto, enrolling herself in a Japanese-language school. She now works for a company that restores machiya and arranges heritage tours, as well as teaches English and tea ceremonies part time at a high school.

Tay, who is in her 40s, planned at first to write a historical novel set in Japan's Sengoku period, from 1467 to 1603, which was marked by near-constant civil war.

This fell through, but one element continued to captivate her. "In times of upheaval, what happens to the past? Do you jettison or hold on to it, because it's the only thing left that can give you stability?"

Thus, she created the kuyin, an ageless race of memory eaters who disguise themselves as humans to walk among them and consume their memories for sustenance.

Her heroine Sudare - named for a kind of Japanese blinds that prevents those outside from seeing in - is an 800-year-old kuyin that, in her immortality, experiences intense loneliness.

In a moment of hunger, she accidentally devours the memories of a hapless passer-by. Now, she is determined to help the man - whom she has christened Amado, after a kind of sliding door - regain his past life.

Tay, who is single, spent five years writing the novel, which required a great deal of historical research.

The novel is full of exquisite details inspired by real places. A beautiful room, where the ceiling is adorned with white fans inscribed with poetry, is based on Sumiya, a 17th-century geisha entertainment house in Kyoto.

Tay was not confident at first that a local publisher would be interested in her novel, since it is not in the "HDB void deck-ish" strain of social realism predominant in Singapore fiction. When Straits Times Press picked up her manuscript, she was "baffled".

A Japanese rights agency has since taken on the book and is trying to get it published in Japan. Tay has ideas for three more books set in the same universe.

She thinks human memory is diminishing in the modern day because of devices such as smartphones. She has only recently been prevailed upon to acquire one for the sake of work and checks it twice a day.

"With devices, we don't need to remember as much. When you're outsourcing your memory, your experience is less intense than that of somebody who doesn't rely on such devices."

At the same time, she adds, it is not always such a bad thing to forget. "This may sound odd from someone who has invested so much energy in preserving the past. But it is one of the great unspoken lessons to be able to forget, especially if you forget the harm someone has done you."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline ST Press' foray into fiction. Subscribe