Amanda Lee Koe reflects on writing her debut novel

Published on 7 March 2018

Credit: Kirsten Tan

What has the US-based Singaporean author been up to since winning the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize? Amanda Lee Koe fills us in on the process of writing her debut novel, picked up by Doubleday.

By Pamela Ho

Maybe her close friends knew about it, but for the rest of us, little was revealed. Amanda Lee Koe kept the writing of her debut novel well under wraps.

Not that we haven’t been asking.

After her debut collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic, won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction, everyone wanted to know when she’d be writing a novel. After all, her compelling characters, her bold exploration of themes and topics, and her refreshing literary voice articulating a sexy, contemporary Singapore seduced us into wanting more. She couldn’t possibly stop there, not after teasing us with characters such as the Merlion as a ladyboy working Orchard Towers, the teenager who grapples with her ‘friendship’ with an elegant woman old enough to be her grandmother, or the faded Pop Yé-Yé singer who reunites with his lost love in a hospice.

It’s been over four years. Then just recently, Koe announces that her debut novel, Delayed Rays of A Star, has been picked up by the Nan A. Talese imprint at Doubleday, which publishes acclaimed authors in the likes of Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood.

According to Koe, she started writing her novel three years ago in New York. There are obviously many blanks to be filled in. What has she been up to in the intervening years? What has her novel writing process been like? We catch up with the New York-based Singaporean author to find out.

The Missing Chapter

An early sign of promise for Delayed Rays of A Star came when an excerpt from her working manuscript won the 2017 Henfield Prize, a US$15,000 prize awarded to the best work of fiction by a graduating Master of Fine Arts student at Columbia University’s Writing Program. Says Dean of the Writing Program, Binnie Kirshenbaum, “As you might imagine, the competition for the award was steep, but the committee was just wowed by Amanda’s writing.”

The story – which is set in various cities, including Berlin, Beijing, Los Angeles and Paris – follows the occasionally interconnecting lives of three actresses across the ebb and flow of the 20th century, exploring questions of ego, art, sex and performance.

Koe was approached by literary agents in New York while still finishing up school, and eventually signed with the Wylie Agency, which represents authors ranging from Salman Rushdie to Miranda July, and the estates of Vladimir Nabokov and Susan Sontag.

“As someone who really wants to focus on my work, it’s a huge relief now that I can actually live off my advance as I write,” says the 30-year-old writer/editor. “Before the book was sold, what I did was to take on one sizeable editorial gig a year, with a fairly short time frame, that would cover me financially for the rest of the year, alongside some dwindling savings. This way, I would be able to focus on writing the novel without being constantly interrupted.”

The last gig she had was to write a horror script for a new HBO Asia series exploring our region’s occult folklore. “It’s about a migrant worker on a construction site who encounters a young Pontianak,” she discloses of the work. “For me, other than the refreshing opportunity to work on a screenplay within certain genre conventions, it was also a chance to subvert the gaze on those who are often viewed as outsiders – in this case, migrant workers working in Singapore under unfair conditions, and ostracised supernatural beings who are seen as malevolent – and to unpack power dynamics that deal with nationality, race and class.”

A Novel Experience

Writing a full-length novel is a process quite different from writing a series of short stories, perhaps akin to moving from sprinting to running a marathon. When asked what sustained her, Koe admits with a laugh, “I’m basically a maniac when I am writing, so it’s actually more of a problem to remind myself to stop writing – to eat and sleep – than it is to push myself to go on writing!”

Even being on the road did not curb the momentum. On a trip to rural Thailand – where her partner was shooting a film – she wrote in the middle of a field of lallang, in the sweltering heat.

But Delayed Rays of A Star was not an easy novel to write, she confesses, and being an obsessive perfectionist, she wanted to devote her undivided attention to it. “There’s simply no other way to finish a book than to be alone, sit down and write it; to short-circuit my brain to cut to the chase.”

She likens the process to embarking on an Arctic expedition. “It’s like you know you have a specific amount of rations and a limited amount of daylight hours to cross the terrain, so you minimise as much energy loss as possible from the moment you wake,” she elaborates. “If you do this every day, without having a social life, without communicating physically or technologically with the outside world, your mind and body acclimatise to this; and soon, it’s like the air you breathe. You can just wake up, lace your boots up, and keep walking.”

Delayed Rays of A Star will likely be out in the second half of 2019. You can follow Koe on Facebook here or on Instagram at @amandaleekoe. For more on Singapore literature, check out #BuySingLit, 9 to 11 March.

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