KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 21 — Perhaps the most common question a published writer receives is “How do you write?” (followed by the equally popular “Where do you get your ideas from?”). While some writers would despair having to give a coherent explanation of their private writing process, this is not a request that stumps author Shih-Li Kow.
As part of the Silverfish Festival of Cabbages, Kow will be speaking about the process of writing. Her talk is titled Eat Your Cabbage: Good Advice is Hard to Follow and will be held at the independent book store Silverfish Books on September 26, 5pm to 7.30pm.
Kow, a protégée of Silverfish Books owner Raman Krishnan, had published numerous stories and a novel, The Sum of Our Follies, after participating in his Silverfish Writing Programme. She got her start in 2007 when Silverfish Books published News from Home, a collection of stories by her and two other Silverfish Writing Programme graduates, Chua Kok Yee and Rumaizah Abu Bakar.
Her next book, the short story collection Ripples and Other Stories, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the First Book category and shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Despite her prolific output and industry recognition, writing was not even a hobby for Kow in the beginning.
Kow recalls reading a lot during her growing-up years but not writing. “Writing was for homework, exams and the occasional school newsletter. Later, in working life, it was for letters, reports, emails and office magazines. Being a writer was never a realistic option as a profession then. It still isn’t, for me.”
This decision to delay her start in creative writing is something she still regrets. She explains, “All the teenage angst that should have been written down somewhere is now gone and what priceless material it would have been.”
It was only after participating in the Silverfish Writing Programme that Kow began to develop a consistent writing habit. She says, “I wrote more. I wrote regularly. Most importantly, I wasn’t wary of writing because it was just, well, no big deal.”
Inspirations for Kow’s stories come from a variety of sources, including “people I meet, strangers and family alike. Stuff that happens every day. The newspapers were a major source of material for The Sum of Our Follies.”
She adds, “Imagination is great but when it comes to delivering the unexpected or the amazingly silly, you can’t beat real life.”
When writing a story, Kow admits she spends a lot of time on revisions. “I consider my self-editing fairly brutal and I’m done with a story when I think I can do no better, when I’m nit-picking and making useless replacements of individual words. Rarely does a story come to the pen fully formed and perfect, and when it does – oh, it’s a gift from the gods.”
Once she has enough stories for a collection, the process of selecting stories to be included begins. She shares, “For Ripples, certain choices were deliberate because there’s a thread that runs through it. It’s definitely not a requirement and any collection is still defined first and foremost by the strength of individual stories.”
When Ripples was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the First Book category and shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, it came as a big surprise to Kow. She recalls, “It gave me a high for a little while. I’m grateful for the recognition.”
For her next book, Kow wrote a novel, The Sum of Our Follies, set in Lubok Sayong, a provincial Perak town. While fictional, Lubok Sayong is imbued with such lively descriptions that the place is a character in itself.
“In the case of Lubok Sayong, the setting asserted itself upon the writing when I had the first few characters and chapters in place. After that, it was just a lot of fun to make up details and stuff about the town. Most of the time, the people arrive first, with their stories. Then, the place around them comes to life because we always need a narrator’s viewpoint from which to see a place.”
Having written both short stories and a novel, Kow finds the experience and process different for each. Her first love remains writing short stories.
“I find short stories very rewarding, both to read and to write. I still find myself thinking of The Sum of Our Follies as a collection. The novel is much more indulgent, I feel. Although it calls for a different discipline in many ways, and obviously a more prolonged commitment to character and plot, I find the short story wonderfully unforgiving and therein lies the challenge.”
What’s next for the methodical author? Another short story, another novel, or something else entirely? “I don’t know,” she says. “I’ll have to let the writing happen first.”
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