Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.

Ning Cai is the bestselling author of Misdirection, the Singapore Literature Prize shortlisted memoir Who is Magic Babe Ning?Game of ThoughtsMagicienne, and Adventures of 2 Girls. Recipient of the 2018 National Arts Council Arts Scholarship, she has a Masters in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her sixth book Manipulationlaunches in 2020.

Photo of Ning Cai

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, badgering Mum to bring me to the library every weekend when I was too little to ride the bus alone. Even on the journey back home, I’d crack open my latest reads, immersing myself in their pages, getting lost in their worlds. For some reason I always “read up”, preferring books just a bit older than recommended for my age. Perhaps that’s why I felt I could relate to Roald Dahl’s Matilda! I spent 10 years in a strict mission school that frowned upon literature that didn’t align with their religious ideology, but I was in love with brilliant books put out by talented writers like J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and LOTR trilogy), Neil Gaiman (the entire Sandman collection), and Christopher Pike (The Last Vampire series). I relished them in secret as they explored possibilities beyond the realm of reality, setting my imagination aflame, expanding my young mind.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
It came quite naturally for this bibliophile, who was already submitting fan fiction back in the late 90s (anonymously, obviously!). Readers who sent in fan mail never realised I was actually a Singaporean teenager. I also had an encouraging English teacher, Mr Terry Morgan, also a published author himself, who was instrumental in my growth. I’d hand in compositions over ten pages long; not essays but short stories really, and he never once complained about the extra work he had to mark. Instead he fanned the flames of my budding talent and growing passion in writing, and I never stopped. I just kept at it, never for the money but simply because writing just brings me great joy. For years, I penned newspaper reviews (concerts, theatre, travel, even gaming products), wrote articles for magazines (both traditional and online before everything pretty much went digital), and was even paid to maintain a weekly blog by Singapore Press Holdings, way before my first book was published in 2012. After that, it’s all pretty much momentum. My sixth book comes out next year, mid 2020.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
Talk about timing… I just sent off the manuscript for Manipulation: Book 2 of the Savant Trilogy to my publisher! It’s the sequel to Misdirection, which came out last year (2017). It’s essentially a YA crime series, based off my submission that was long-listed for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, about a teen savant who wakes up from a coma and realises someone’s murdered her family in cold blood. With her gang of trusted allies, she seeks to uncover the truth and also helps the cops solve crime along the way, courtesy of her newfound talents. I’m super thankful though I honestly didn’t expect the book to be an instant hit; it sold out at the launch, and enjoyed six weeks on the national bestsellers list. People have shared that they really enjoyed the read, and I attribute a part of the book’s success to having a credible “YA voice” that feels authentic to the target audience, along with focus on contemporary stuff that interest young readers like current pop culture, parkour and even memes… besides embracing universal themes that resonate: family and friendship, good vs evil, finding/ knowing oneself.

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?
Singlit is rich and diverse, like our country’s multi-racial culture. So there’s no reason to pigeonhole oneself in a particular genre, methinks. I take my cue from Singaporean author/ poet Felix Cheong, who I truly respect. He’s crossed genres and different mediums. That’s why, besides YA, I’ve also written for middle grade and a whole slew of non-fiction books (travel, creativity, and even an autobiography about my time as an illusionist/ escapologist that was nominated for the Singapore Literature Prize). I’ll just continue to follow my heart in this journey. I want to write novels that the teenage me wished had existed; celebrating resourceful girls who dare to be their authentic smart selves, compelling teenagers who don’t necessarily fall within the heteronormative spectrum, and endings where the princess saves herself at the end, thank you very much.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
Besides my involvement in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival where I’m on some interesting discussion panels (Dangerous Minds & YA Fiction Roundtable) and also leading a writing workshop (Murder S/he Wrote), next on my plate is an illustrated series for children that is quite close to my heart. It’s a bit daring as it pushes certain boundaries of what is considered “safe” here in Asia, but my brave publisher just gave it the green light, so I’ll be busy with this new project once the Savant Trilogy wraps! I just completed my postgrad studies in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, made possible through the NAC Arts Scholarship that the National Arts Council awarded me, and the course is something I’d recommend a reader thinking of making that leap in being a serious writer (I know you’re out there) to go for. Who knows, dear reader, you might just be the next J.K. Rowling 😉



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