What motivated you to create a Young Adult novel?
I’ve been doing journalism for decades – it’s political, financial and economic. Non-fiction is not something that I’d ever consider doing or saw as a clear expression of myself.
It started from the kidsREAD
programme by the National Library Board. I began reading to children six years ago and had two extraordinary mentors. I wanted children to see books not as a reminder of studying, but of pleasure. Some children see books so rarely that they hold it as a prized possession or a distant object. I wanted kidsREAD to be fun.
Another thing was that a lot of children read books with vocabulary and setting that are not pertaining to our area – I wanted children in our own books to wear tank tops and flip flops.
The Island in the Caldera
may seem choppy at times because those were a series of short stories read to the children at kidsREAD. I wrote these stories placing the children at the centre of the story. That was exactly what my father had done for me when I was 5 or 6 years old – we would go on imaginary adventures in Africa searching for the white rhinoceros. As a child, I wanted to know all these weapons that my family carried in this imaginary world, and where the food came from.
In a way, these stories are beta-tested. The book can be read aloud and I’ve seen adults do so with children.
I’ve always believed that you don’t have to go very far to experience wonder.
“Being brave isn’t about never being afraid.”
It’s about being afraid but still trying. Do you do that in your life? Most of us don’t want to. When I’m afraid, I tend to shut off and stop listening. I’m also the loudest when I’m afraid.
That was what Min Rui had to go through in the story – the tests that she went through weren’t simple and they made her fearful.
Through the dialogues and actions in the story, it becomes apparent that when fear is dominant, listening becomes important.
Who were the difficult characters?
I’d say the more difficult characters are coming up in the second book. Stereotypical characters like Min Rui, Chloe, Horbo and Empu are easier to write. Duplicitous characters and the ones who aren’t consistently evil are the tricky ones but they also speak of the human condition. They may do some good things but they may also betray you. You may be disappointed by their actions and that’s what happens in life. They are challenging, but are probably the most realistic characters to write.
How did journalism shape your stories?
It shaped my stories such that that I feel most secure when everything is researched. The Caldera is a conflation of Lake Toba in Indonesia and Taal in the Philippines, for example. The mythology of the Kris as well – everything that is depicted in the story are derived from actual cultural tales.
Do you agree that fiction is very much interlinked with humanity?
Can you write anything that’s dislocated from humanity? Probably not because you are a human being. I suppose yes, all stories resonate with our human condition.
What’s next for The Island In The Caldera?
The next book is based in a fantastic place in Asia. A new character will be introduced – Habu. Various themes or elements that didn’t necessarily seem important in the first story will be made clearer, forming a couple of ‘AHA’ or ‘that’s why!’ moments in the readers. Stephanie (the illustrator) will have a tougher time crafting the map.
The book will not be saccharine sweet. There will be some levels of goriness. I’m not saying it’s off-putting – from reading what 12-year-old kids are writing, I know that they can take certain awful things as long as it’s contextualised properly.
The first book was more of an introduction or a teaser to the story and I think the adventure only really begins now.