Singapore authors ink deals abroad

Balli Kaur Jaswal has a two-book deal with HarperCollins while mother-daughter duo Eliza Teoh and Gabby Tye are poised to break into the China market

Mother-daughter duo Eliza Teoh (left) and Gabby Tye (right).
Mother-daughter duo Eliza Teoh (left) and Gabby Tye (right).PHOTO: COURTESY OF ELIZA TEOH
Balli Kaur Jaswal (above) have clinched deals with international publishers.
Balli Kaur Jaswal (above) have clinched deals with international publishers.PHOTO: SENA BROOK

Three Singapore writers have clinched book deals with international publishers in the past month.

Istanbul-based Balli Kaur Jaswal has nabbed a two-book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins, while a mother and daughter duo are poised to break into the massive Chinese market.

Author Eliza Teoh's Ellie Belly series of children's books and her teenage daughter Gabby Tye's young adult series RunHideSeek have had their Simplified Chinese rights scooped up by publishers in China.

Jaswal's first novel in the two-book deal boasts the eye-catching title Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows and will be the lead title for summer 2017 for HarperCollins in the United Kingdom and its imprint, William Morrow, in the United States.

The book, which took Jaswal, 32, four years to complete, follows a directionless young woman who takes on the cause of teaching literacy to elderly women in London's Punjabi community. She soon learns the widows have other plans: starting an erotic storytelling club.

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Wives deals with themes that have always interested Jaswal: inter-generational conflicts, migrant communities and cultural expectations of Indian women, especially those who live on the fringes of society.

She says: "I liked the idea of writing something funny with serious and dangerous elements lurking beneath the comedy."

The second novel in her deal has yet to be written, but it will be a dark comedy about three sisters, who share a tenuous relationship, on a pilgrimage to India to fulfil their late mother's wishes.

Jaswal's star has been rising steadily. In 2007, she was awarded the prestigious David T.K. Wong Fellowship for writing at the famed University of East Anglia in England, which counts literary titans such as Kazuo Ishiguro among its alumni.

During the fellowship, she started working on what would be her debut novel Inheritance. The book - which traces the lives of a Punjabi family living in Singapore, against a backdrop of the nation's development from 1970 to 1990 - was published in 2013 by Australian independent press Sleepers Publishing.

By the following year, The Sydney Morning Herald named Jaswal, who was born in Singapore but had been based in Sydney for several years, one of Australia's four best young novelists.

Another achievement lay right around the corner: In 2015, she made the shortlist of the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore's richest literary award.

Writer O Thiam Chin beat her to the $20,000 prize, but Epigram will be publishing Jaswal's novel Sugarbread this year.

Jaswal, who has been teaching English at an international school in Istanbul, declines to share exact figures of the HarperCollins deal, "but I will say I can focus on writing full-time from now on".

Meanwhile, Tye's Singapore publisher Bubbly Books clinched the deal with Children's Fun Publishing Company, one of China's leading children's publishers, last week at the Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy.

The company, which is 49 per cent owned by Nordic media giant Egmont Media Group, has committed to a first print run of 8,000 books per title, with the trilogy slated for release in China in the third quarter of this year. Tye, 16, will be flown to China for the launch.

The trilogy is set in a dystopic Singapore: It is 2037, and genetic experiments gone wrong lead to dire consequences, as parents are moved to a quarantine zone, leaving children to fend for themselves.

Tye, a Veterinary Bioscience student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, says: "I'm worried about speaking Chinese. I got only a C6 for my O levels, which was actually a fluke, since I always got F9."

She started writing as a challenge, in typical teenage fashion, recalling: "I was bored after my Primary 5 exams and my mother wouldn't stop nagging at me to do something. So to get her off my back, I started writing 300 words a day. And soon, it was long enough to be a book."

In a press release, vice-general manager of Children's Fun Publishing Company Shi Yan said it was an excellent series with vivid characters and an intense, suspenseful plot. The advance against royalties offered to Bubbly Books amounts to slightly more than $6,000.

Tye's mother Teoh, who is also one of the directors of Bubbly Books, tells The Straits Times that there is a pending deal for the series with India and also interest from other countries. Movie rights have also been optioned by Woosh Productions, a Singapore production house.

Teoh, 44, says: "Everyone in the publishing industry told us that in Singapore, once a child went into secondary school, they stopped buying books and stopped reading. They told us that Young Adult fiction would never work. So as a company, we went in with zero expectations."

The first two books in the trilogy have sold around 8,000 copies each. The third book had a first print run of 6,000 books in October last year and is now going into a second print run.

Teoh says: "I think readers in Asia are sick of reading about dystopian scenarios in Western contexts. The fact that the series is set in Asia and the characters are Asian - that's what makes the series unique."

Her own Ellie Belly series, about a girl who can talk to animals, was sold to Beverly International, a children's book publisher in China, last month.

It has bought the first seven books of the series and paid an advance for the next two books, which have yet to be written.

In Singapore, the series has sold 85,000 books. Rights have been sold to India and Turkey.

Jaswal, Tye and Teoh are not the only authors putting Singapore on the world map.

Other Singapore writers who have caught the eye of international publishers include Ovidia Yu and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, who both have new books out this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore authors ink deals abroad'. Subscribe