A Surprise Visit to the Singapore Writer’s Festival

There were plenty of times during our cycling trip in which we rolled up to the right place, but at the wrong time. Museums would be closed, monuments under renovation, and festivals often began the next week or had just ended the day before we arrived in town. If there was a market for photos of world-famous landmarks ensconced in scaffolding, I’d be a rich man. Fortunately, we did occasionally find ourselves in the right place at the right time. We were in Edinburgh during its gargantuan Fringe Festival (the largest arts festival in the world); Naples for Italy’s biggest New Year’s celebration; and a small mountain village in Crete for a traditional Greek wedding. But of all the moments in which our path aligned with a major event, the one I got to take the most advantage of came in Singapore.

We disembarked from a nineteen-day crossing of the Indian Ocean in Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia and pedaled 52 miles south to Singapore. The plan was to spend three days getting our bicycles and touring gear boxed up and shipped home then another four nights in the heart of the city, soaking in the humid sights and sounds in full-on tourist mode. One of my best travel tips for visiting major cities is to check that city’s page on TimeOut.com and, for once, I took my own advice. There, listed alongside art galleries, concerts, and a stage production of A Clockwork Orange (tempting, but too pricey), was the Singapore Writer’s Festival (SWF).

SWF was in its second and final week when I learned about it, but fortunately most of the events were scheduled for the coming weekend, making it worth my while to pick up the full ten-day pass for $20 SGD (about $14 USD). Unlike weekdays which each only had two or three events scheduled, Saturdays and Sundays were filled with multiple options for every time slot from 10 a.m. through late night.

I had never attended a writer’s festival before — my writing career had previously drawn me to the annual live-action pinball machine known as the Electronics Entertainment Expo, aka E3, instead — and thrilled at the chance to schedule two days of panels, discussions, and lectures. Such great luck to have this opportunity on the heels of spending all that time at sea outlining my novel: immersion, at last! And I would arrive prepared.

Spending nearly three weeks aboard a cargo ship affords one ample time to talk, plan, and dream. My wife and I discussed nearly every aspect of our return to domestic life, particularly about my shift from writing video game strategy guides to authoring novels. The key to success, I had decided, was going to be notebooks. Lots and lots of notebooks. Notebooks in my pockets, on the nightstand, in the bathroom, my office, in our car — they’d be everywhere. The problem, as I learned once back on land, was that notebooks of the “Field Notes” variety I had coveted were quite pricey. I wanted at least twenty of them, but finding any of quality available for less than $3 or $4 each was a challenge. And I had become a bit more frugal in our two years of vagabonding. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a stationary store in Singapore with hundreds of notebooks, nearly exactly what I had wanted, in a multitude of colors for just one Singapore dollar each, about seventy-five cents in US currency. I bought thirty-eight of them. Why thirty eight? Forty just seemed extravagant.

So, on the morning of November 7th, I arrived at the building now known as The Arts House at the Old Parliament and took a leather-backed seat in the main chamber. There I put a stolen Hilton-branded pen to a sweat-dampened notebook and wrote the title of the first panel in large block letters atop the first page. I underlined it, then underlined it again for good measure, and settled into a lengthy wait.

I was over thirty minutes early.

You’re forgiven for thinking a writer’s festival in Singapore would be impenetrable to an English speaker, but that is not the case. Singapore’s history as a British colony (the city-state was celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence throughout 2015) has left it with quite the English-speaking legacy. Though Malay is the nation’s official language, English is the main language used in schools and in professional settings. The SWF program guide showed that the majority of panels and lectures were given in English, with just a smattering offered in Mandarin Chinese. Though most of the presenters came from Southeast Asia, many had come from as far away as South Africa, France, and the United States. Which brings me back to the first panel I attended.

Wit and Wisdom: Capturing the Humor and Humanity in Narrative Non-Fiction

Strategy guides aside, I don’t intend to write much non-fiction in the immediate future. Even so, I was happy to see Susan Orlean on the schedule. Not only because I was beginning to miss being around Americans, but because I had always wanted to read her book The Orchid Thief, had enjoyed the movie Adaptation which was based on the book, and wouldn’t pass up a chance to hear from a tenured writer at The New Yorker.

I’ve always enjoyed reading narrative non-fiction. I consider books like Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time and Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and The Professor and the Madman among my favorite books. And yet, in today’s age of instant-answers, the need for narrative non-fiction seems questioned. “Sure, anybody could look it up. But most won’t,” Orlean said, relaying advice from her editor. “That’s what we have to remember. People could Google the history of orchid poaching in South Florida, but they’re not going to.” Speaking for myself, I agree. We won’t. Not because of laziness, but because we often don’t even realize we’re interested in a topic until we see the book blurb. Case in point: I’m an unfinished thesis away from holding a master’s degree in Geology (a story for another time), but was never interested enough in the world’s first geologic map to look it up. Then I read the blurb for Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World and knew immediately that I had to read it. And it was fascinating. And yes, I try to read everything Winchester writes.

The topic of Orlean’s talk was about the use of humor in non-fiction. And her number one tip was “to give the reader the unexpected.” She illustrated this by reading a passage from The Orchid Thief (which I’ve since read) about traipsing chest-deep through a swamp with a ranger and two work-release prisoners. She ends a serious, lengthy description of her miserable surroundings with the sentence. “I hate hiking with convicts carrying machetes.” Laughter ensued. The point, she said, is to embrace your own humanity and be the guide in telling an eloquent story, but allow the unexpected observation to get the laughs.

Wanderlust and the Promise of the Other

My SWF experience continued to a panel featuring poet Marc Nair, graphic novelist Christian Cailleaux, and novelist Nicholas Hogg. The goal of the panel, according to the program guide, was to answer the question “Why do writers travel?” but I unfortunately never really got (or expected) an answer to such an amorphous question. Why does anyone write or travel? Why do we do any of the things we do? Because we feel a calling to do so. The writers shared some excerpts from their books and talked a bit about their personal experiences abroad. Nair’s poetry made me question the lack of poetry in my reading (and later kick myself for not buying his books at SWF) and Hogg’s resume made me wish I was headed back to Japan soon. Most of the hour; however, was spent trying to decipher Cailleaux’s funny anecdotes as the native Frenchman struggled with English.

Saturday night was spent with Orlean and fifty others at a screening of Adaptation. As I mentioned earlier, I remembered enjoying the movie, but couldn’t tell you much about it. Now I can honestly say that it’s a movie worth watching twice, particularly as there’s a lot of subtle fun to be had at Hollywood’s expense. It’s also quite meta. The hour-long discussion that followed was informative and revealed a lot about the process of having a book adapted into a movie. It was oddly reassuring to hear a successful author like Orlean confirm that we authors have no control over things once we sign that contract. Of course, we should all be so lucky to have such problems.

I’ve never before read a book after watching the movie, and certainly never after also meeting the author of that book. Despite getting to briefly chat with Susan Orlean, shake her hand, listen to her talk for two hours, and have her signature gracing the title page of my copy of The Orchid Thief, it was still Meryl Streep’s face I pictured while reading the book. I guess that’s the overwhelming power of movies. Images in general, perhaps. I remember as a teen reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three in paperback. Then, when the third book in the Dark Tower series finally released and included a handful of glossy full-color illustrations, I was shocked and angered. “That’s not how Roland and Eddie are supposed to look!”

Sell-Out Versus Artistic Independence

The first panel I attended on Sunday morning featured graphic novelists Troy Chinn and Christian Cailleaux. I was a little concerned about attending a second panel featuring graphic novelists, particularly one featuring entertaining but hard to understand Cailleaux, but the other options at the 10 a.m. time slot held little interest to me. Fortunately, Cailleaux brought an interpreter with him this time and, together with his fellow panelist, Troy Chinn, provided an informative and entertaining hour-long discussion. Much to my surprise, my notebook entry for this panel holds the most lines of my chicken-scratch. Which just goes to show that it’s a good idea to branch out and even attend discussions featuring people who work in different mediums or genres.

My biggest takeaway from listening to them speak, particularly from Chinn, was in direct response to a question I had posed. Chinn found himself having to self-publish his earliest works because Singapore, despite being one of the world’s most modern and thriving cities, had no publishers of graphic novels when he first started out. He told us about driving around town, delivering copies of his books to local shops, wondering if they’d earn enough to cover the gas money. He now works with a local independent publisher and reaches a bigger audience. I asked him if he was tempted, much like I was with One Lousy Pirate, to return to his earlier works and improve them. He said that the temptation was there, but he wouldn’t ever do it for a number of reasons. For starters, he already had enough ideas for a lifetime of work and going back and redoing earlier works was too time-consuming. He also expressed the concern for continuity. His books are an auto-biographical series about his adventures abroad and it would be jarring to new readers, for example, to see his earliest works match the artistic style of, say, his eighth or ninth books but for his mid-series books to still show the signs of someone learning their craft. Cailleaux chimed in and said that one of the benefits to having an agent and publisher is that they will not tolerate you spending time trying to perfect everything you’ve already released; they want to see you creating new content, not polishing the old!

That’s two votes against and none in favor: One Lousy Pirate will not get a rewrite.

The Burden of Experience

The final panel I attended was titled “Real to Print: The Burden of Experience” with Thaddeus Rutkowski, Alison Jean Lester, and Siow Lee Chin. Chin, a world-famous violinist, stole the show from the start with a haunting performance of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair, the song she played for her dying father who had taught her how to play the violin. She’s since played at Carnegie Hall and Osaka Symphony Hall and everywhere between. Chin read from her recent memoir and Rutkowski and Lester read from their most recent novels. While Chin used her personal experience of overcoming cancer and a major car accident to continue her rise amongst the world’s great virtuosos, her fellow panelists used their childhoods and relationships to add authenticity and a unique perspective to their fiction.

The title of the panel was apt as the word “burden” came up frequently. I shamefully forget who used the term first, and it may have been an attendee in the form of a question, but the literary phrase “objective correlative” was mentioned as a tool to remember. “We should,” Lester said, “write to give the reader the feeling you want them to have and don’t just focus on your need to tell.” The lady knows what she speaks. Lester confessed to recently — as in just that week — having started over on a novel she had been working on for five years. For five years her agent and editor had been telling her that her book was far too personal and that she needed to make it better for the reader. “The pain of a recent divorce was finding its way into too many pages,” she confessed. The burden of experience, in other words.

I ultimately didn’t end up chatting with too many people at SWF, as there just never seemed to be much mingling. I did purchase the following two books: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura. And, personalized autograph from Orlean aside, I immediately regretted buying the books in physical form. What can I say, I love the Kindle’s highlight feature and built-in dictionary.

I look forward to attending at least one or two conferences a year going forward, likely with advance notice and time to plan out my days better. Looking through the program guide for SWF, I see that there were some all-day workshops that would have been worthwhile to attend, and I’m sure if I had come prepared with samples, business cards, a prepared pitch or anything, I might have been able to get more out of it. Or at least made some connections. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise and a great, air-conditioned way to spend a couple of days in Singapore.

Got any thoughts or tips on attending writer’s festivals or conferences? Thoughts on The Orchid Thief or any of the other books I mentioned? If so, let me hear it in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

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