Featuring Colin Cheong

Colin Cheong

Singapore Literature Prize winner in 1996 and the author of more than 30 books, Colin Cheong recently joined our Literature Dept. Here in this exclusive interview, we ask him some probing questions:

 How did you come to write your first novel, The Stolen Child?

I was in Secondary Four at the time and preparing for my O-levels. As a sort of recreational break, I wrote a very long short story that eventually became Part 1 of The Stolen Child.

What are your pet themes?

 Love lost, and the conflict between freedom and commitment (home or the highway!)…

How much attention do you pay to the “craft” of writing?

 I’m very conscious of things like structure and flow, character details, location details, motifs. In the preparation phase, I internalise all this. But once I begin writing, I no longer pay conscious attention to craft – I extemporise around the structure, the chord progression and ornament as the moment moves me too (just like a jazz pianist might – except my keyboard is QWERTY). After that, I leave the work alone for a while and return to it with fresh and critical eyes. That’s when I pay attention to the micro-level craft bits. So I don’t know if that would count as ‘a lot of attention’ or ‘hardly any’!

What do you do when writer’s block hits? What prompts do you use for your writing?

I don’t get writer’s block. I used to be a journalist and I had deadlines everyday. All I need to do is to start typing – anything at all related to the story I want to tell at that point. Thanks to the wonderful technology called word processing, I don’t have to get it perfect the first time round – I can hammer out what I want to say – broadly – then go back and refine it. I don’t pretend I can get it perfect the first time. Another good trick is to stop writing the day before at an exciting point – you know how you will go on… but you just stop. Then it’s easy to get back to it the next time you sit down to write. I think this tip came from Ernest Hemingway. It works for me.

Are you writing anything currently?

 Yes, I am writing all the time. I have a backlog of story ideas that sit in The Box – a cardboard box of all the ideas I dashed out – I am actually behind some 10 years in my writing.

What do you think of Singapore Literature?

I don’t think about it – I just enjoy it! Being part of the scene, I know pretty much everyone in it and it’s always hilarious when we get together for panels and things like the Singapore Writers’ Festival. I was also taught by many of the writers, for example, Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng. Boey Kim Cheng, Felix Cheong, Alvin Tan and Adrian Tan were school mates. Nicky Moey was my neighbour. Colin Goh was an army mate. Liang Wern Fook was a school mate as well as my Corporal in the Army. Shermay Loh, Christine Lim, Robert Yeo and Kirpal Singh are friends too. Some of the younger crowd, Alfian Sa’at, Toh Hsien Min and Ng Yi Sheng, I knew as students from the Creative Arts Programme. International bestselling writer Cheryl Tan (A Tiger in the Kitchen) was a former girlfriend. The point of all this shameless name-dropping?  Singapore literature is actually really very diverse in its concerns – as diverse as the personalities I’ve named. There’s really something for everyone and the biggest challenge is readership (or the lack of of it) and prejudice as well as the continued perception that ‘west is best’ and that work by ‘native speakers’ of English are superior.

What can be done to liven up or improve the literary scene in Singapore?

So much has been done for it already. There are high-profile competitions, fellowships, travel grants, publishing grants. There are tiny publishing houses who go all out to support new writers (eg Books Actually, First Fruits) and bigger ones like Epigram and Marshall Cavendish. There are readings and poetry slams and the Singapore Writers’ Festival. To improve the literature scene, writers just have to keep on writing and on the reader’s side – they’ve got to keep on reading or at least give Singapore writers a chance. We’re starting to go into e-books too and this should make it cheaper and more accessible.

 Who is your favourite writer (local or otherwise)?

Since 2004, I’ve answered: Murakami Haruki (Japan). Why? I loved his weird, surreal stories and his offbeat characters. His main protagonist, usually some loser in his late thirties or forties… reminded me of myself. But if I could save just ONE book from a fire, it would be JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. So I think that would make him my favourite writer by default. It’s just a story I love and it has a certain refinement and elegance you don’t find in modern fantasy novels. And to know that there is an entire created world that lies beneath The Hobbit… it’s awesome.

How does your writing inform your teaching?

There is always the ‘craft’ aspect of writing that is easily applied to the understanding of literature. I know the ‘tricks of the trade’. It’s easy – and sometimes fun – to dissect a work to reveal its secrets and workings, but it can take away some of its magic. A really great work is more than the sum of its parts. While this ‘reverse engineering’ is a wonderful intellectual workout, and you hope to interest students in literature through this, it actually does leave me a little cold – it always has. Imagine studying dance through only the critical evaluation of Laba notation – but not dancing. Imagine studying art through art history, but never painting or sculpting. Imagine learning how to analyse Baroque compositions but never trying to compose and play such pieces yourself. Imagine never going beyond textual analysis of Shakespeare, never creating a performance that says what you have to say. Literature was always an easy subject for me – but its true object was always writing.

What would you like to say to the Literature students of SOTA?

 Always remember that the study of Literature is really a means to a very delightful end – a more knowledgeable and pleasurable reading experience (of anything you wish, not just the set texts). Along the way, you’ll learn other useful intellectual skills, such as evaluation and working in a context where there may not be any clear cut answers. Your linguistic ability is also likely to improve quite a bit. So pay attention, participate and most of all, just enjoy the process!

More about The Colin Cheong Collection from Marshall Cavendish

Prolific writer Colin Cheong brings together three classic novellas and 23 short stories in this first-ever collection. Written in the 1990s, each story reflects his prowess as a storyteller. He is known for his sensitive and skillful articulation of some universal human themes — the pain of rejected love, the frustration and anticipation of being ‘almost adult’, the rites of passage to adulthood, and man’s need for woman.

This collection comprises:

Seventeen (novella, published 1996)
Poets, Priests and Prostitutes (novella, published 1990)
The Man in the Cupboard (novella, published 1999) – won the Merit Award, Singapore Literature Prize 1998
Life Cycle of Homo Sapiens, Male (short stories, published 1992)
Five new stories, previously only published in The Straits Times

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