Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.May Seah has spent the better part of the last decade as a culture reporter, and currently works as a senior digital lifestyle journalist with Channel NewsAsia. Her first novel, The Movie That No One Saw, debuted in the Top 5 of the Straits Times bestseller list and was a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2018.
What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
When I was learning to read, my family was living in Virginia, in the United States. My mother took me to the library a lot. At four, I discovered a book called New Blue Shoes by Eve Rice, who had also done the illustrations. I immediately decided I needed blue shoes – and a stack of more books to read.
My kindergarten ran a summer reading programme where if you read a certain number of books, you would get a sticker, and if you collected a certain number of stickers, you’d get a free personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut. Thanks to me, my family had many meals at Pizza Hut.
I spent so much time at the library that one day, while I was sitting on the floor absorbed in browsing the bottommost bookshelf, a photographer came along and surprised me with her camera flash. The next day, the picture ran in the News-Virginian, immortalising one little Asian kid’s love for reading in newsprint.
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
In my childhood, I was a prolific producer of my own “books” – pages of A4 paper stapled together, handwritten, with a cover design, blurb and illustrations. My parents, being a captive audience, were forced to read them. These were mainly illustrated works of fiction, but I also enjoyed publishing my own “newspapers” complete with shouty headlines, made-up quotes from men-on-the-street, weather reports and even (unfunny) comic strips.
When I graduated from university, I knew I wanted to write for a living – however meagre a living that might be – and I became a culture and lifestyle journalist writing for a real newspaper. The thought of eventually writing a book was on my mind, of course, but I always thought I’d do it when I was old and wise and had suffered enough.
Then, the media landscape started to change drastically, with the death knell of print sounding, and the race for clicks and shares. I had a prestigious job but it all started to feel a little absurdist, like I was in an episode of Dilbert or something.
So, I left that job, took a three-month break, sat down one day and started writing the first page of a novel, with no plotting or planning. Part of me really liked the idea of doing something anachronistic in this age of Netflix and Twitter: writing a good old fashioned book, which probably no one would read because they were too busy watching Netflix and tweeting.
Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
The Movie That No One Saw, a finalist for the 2018 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, is the story of successful actor Adjonis Keh (the “d” is silent). He has looks, adoration and a shelf full of acting awards, but he also has a deep dark secret: He can’t actually act. He’s managed to fool people into thinking he can with a clever little trick. But then he lands a role, playing an actor in a film called The Movie That Everyone Saw, and finds that he can’t keep up the charade any more. He also meets and falls instantly in love with an inquisitive journalist who might or might not expose his secret.
The novel is inspired by my years of covering the entertainment beat, spending lots of time on sets, talking to actors, backstage at fashion and awards shows, and being privy to insider gossip.
I guess you could call it a work of absurdist fiction but I like to tell people it’s carefully calibrated nonsense. I’m fascinated by the idiosyncracies of showbiz – and life in general – and I like taking those quirks to their naturally ridiculous conclusions. A by-product of this is that there are some rather more grown-up themes hiding in there, such as the relationships between reality, unreality and hyper-reality; and the question of “existing” versus “living”.
Where does your work fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you write?
I have to confess I don’t read a lot of contemporary Singaporean literature because I find the themes and the writing generally very bleak. I think the exception is Adrian Tan, who seems to appreciate finely tuned nonsense in the same way I do. I think all of his writing is hilarious, not just The Teenage Textbook, which was written in 1988 but is still just as sharp today. That was made into a movie ten years later, and if The Movie That No One Saw should eventually enjoy the same treatment, that will be the greatest irony.
I know that serious books about serious Singaporean topics are the ones that win acclaim here, but I didn’t want to write a book about overtly “Singaporean” issues, because I really believe life in Singapore is so much broader, more category-defying and yes, a lot more fun than that.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
I still hold down a day job as a journalist, so I don’t think I’ll be ready to start on my next literary work until my next sabbatical. But I do have loads of ideas in my head. I know that when the time is right, the next book will write itself, just like The Movie That No One Saw did.