Inspired by Raffles Hotel to write

Its first writer-in-residence Pico Iyer says his 1984 stay was a pivotal one

Pico Iyer and his new books - This Could Be Home (top), about Raffles Hotel, and Autumn Light (above), an intimate look at his neighbourhood near Nara in Japan.
Pico Iyer and his new books - This Could Be Home, about Raffles Hotel, and Autumn Light, an intimate look at his neighbourhood near Nara in Japan.PHOTO: DEREK SHAPTON
Pico Iyer and his new books - This Could Be Home (left), about Raffles Hotel, and Autumn Light (right), an intimate look at his neighbourhood near Nara in Japan.
Pico Iyer and his new books - This Could Be Home (left), about Raffles Hotel, and Autumn Light (right), an intimate look at his neighbourhood near Nara in Japan.PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, ALFRED A. KNOPF

Travel writer Pico Iyer first visited Singapore's Raffles Hotel in 1984 as a young journalist. Wandering its high-ceilinged halls that many famous writers had passed through before, he thought that perhaps he too should try to become a writer of books.

Thirty-five years later, he has been invited to be the hotel's first official writer-in-residence. He has already penned a book, This Could Be Home, about the grand dame, which is more than 130 years old.

Iyer, 62, a Britain-born American globe-trotter, felt the hotel to be exotic, yet instinctively familiar - like the England he had grown up in, but also like the Bombay his parents came from.

He had been a cubicle-bound journalist working for Time magazine in Manhattan, but at Raffles Hotel, he realised he could be more. It did not hurt that at the time, one could stay at the hotel for $100 a night.

"I felt a kind of intoxication, the possibility of escape," he says over Skype from his home in Japan. "How much more interesting my life would be if I travelled to places like Singapore instead of remaining in New York."

Iyer, who has written more than a dozen books and is among the best-known travel writers, will be here on Aug 5 to launch This Could Be Home as part of a slew of activities around Raffles Hotel's reopening following a two-year revamp.

Unusually for a residency, he would stay in the hotel for two weeks after the book has come out, not before. He wrote it during the hotel's renovation, going behind the scenes to observe the stripping of the facade and the painstaking move of its 886,000 items into storage. He also spoke to the hotel staff, including resident historian Leslie Danker.

Raffles Hotel has counted among its guests writers such as W. Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and John Le Carre, whose works Iyer had grown up reading.

Iyer says: "When I was 27, I never could have dreamed I'd be an official writer-in-residence in a place with such a distinguished literary heritage. I never dared to imagine I could write books and be part of that history. Life has some nice surprises."

He is older and wiser now.

The other book he published this year, Autumn Light: Season Of Fire And Farewells, is the sort of book that one can only write with age: an elegiac, intimate look at the neighbourhood near Nara, Japan, where he has lived in for years with his wife Hiroko Takeuchi and her two children from a previous marriage.

Autumn Light opens with his father-in-law's death, yet also contains a great deal of ping-pong. "The essence of Japan to me is a mix of sadness and exuberance," he says. "It is joyful participation in a world of sorrow."

He will be putting out yet another book, A Beginner's Guide To Japan, next month and will be here to launch it at the Singapore Writers Festival in November.

He has been to Singapore more than a dozen times and considers it to be like a "brother" to him. he says: "I'm a few years older, but we've grown up alongside each other and I've watched it change beyond recognition."

On previous visits, he explored Singapore by getting up at 10pm, eating breakfast and then wandering the empty streets until 6am. "Singapore is an unusually good city for walking because there are so many historical plaques. So even going nowhere in Singapore is pretty interesting," he adds.

What is a must-do for him whenever he comes here?

"Visit bookshops," he says. He names Books Kinokuniya in Orchard and BooksActually in Tiong Bahru as favourites and is looking forward to seeing the new Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, which sells only local books. He will be holding an event there co-hosted by the British Council on Aug 16.

For all that Raffles Hotel is steeped in history, he feels that like Singapore, it is "pointed much more towards the future than towards the past".

"When I talk to my Singapore friends, all their talk is about the future. That is a gift Singapore has to offer to the world - it is not mired in the past, but growing so quickly."

• This Could Be Home ($20.22) and Autumn Light: Season Of Fire And Farewells ($32.10) are available at major bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2019, with the headline 'Inspired by Raffles Hotel to write'. Subscribe