Skip to content

Who Writes The World? — Rachel Heng


'Who Writes The World' by BooksActually is an interview series that celebrates prominent Singaporean women writers of 2018. In this post, we interviewed Rachel Heng, who released her bestselling novel Suicide Club, to various accolades and international acclaim. We congratulate Rachel and eagerly look forward to more works from her in the future!

Hi Rachel, tell us more about yourself!
Hello! Oh, that’s hard. What would you like to know?

Tell us about your journey as an author. What inspired or compelled you to start writing?
Reading has always been my greatest love, but I only started writing about 5 years ago. I guess I never thought of writing as a thing I could actually do. When I was a sophomore in college, my then boyfriend (now husband) told me he thought I should be a writer. Back then I had this habit of reading passages (okay, entire pages, maybe entire stories) out loud to him whenever I came across something I deeply loved. I’d just get so excited about it and had to share it with someone. So he, unfortunately, was subjected to a lot of forced reading and discussions. I say
back then, but I still do this today. Anyway, it seemed obvious to him that I should be writing fiction but to me, at the time it seemed like a ridiculous idea. Still, it took root, and eventually, sure enough, when the time was right, I started writing.

What inspires you and your writing now?
I’m always inspired by books. Every day I’m simultaneously encouraged and discouraged by some new thing I’ve read (This is so damn good! I should try to write like this / Why should I even bother, I’m a failure!). Lately, I’ve also been very inspired by physical spaces, architecture and urban design. I particularly love learning about the ways in which urban landscapes evolve and exploring that has been very generative for me.

Tell us about your creative process.
The word ‘process’ makes it sound like a rational, systematic thing. But in reality, like many writers, mine involves much gnashing of teeth and harassing of cats. On a practical level, I do try to write every day, usually in the mornings, for 3-4 hours. I have the luxury of doing that now as I’m currently in an MFA program, but back when I had a full-time job, I’d get up at 6 a.m. and do 1 hour before work. Most of what I write is dross, but hopefully, sometimes, if I’m lucky, there’s something in there that I can use. I produce a lot of volume (the first draft of Suicide Club
was close to two hundred thousand words long) in my first drafts, as I don’t usually outline or know where the plot’s going. I have to write to find the story.

Everyone’s probably asked you this a million times, but tell our enthusiastic new readers how Suicide Club came about. Did you draw inspiration from personal events that occurred in your life? What else inspired it?

It started from a very deep personal fear of death. I began thinking ‘what if we could live forever?’ but the more I thought about it, the less utopian this seemed. I kept seeing stories about cryogenic freezing and Silicon Valley billionaires trying to ‘hack’ death, I knew people who unironically subsisted on Soylent, and every day some new $10 green juice promised to buy me extra years on my life. All of it—the oppressive wellness, the disturbing intersection of healthcare and capitalism, my own deep fear of mortality and loss—went into building the world of Suicide Club.

With the huge acclaim Suicide Club has received, everyone’s keeping you on the radar as a writer. What are your thoughts on being a writer – and although the adjective shouldn’t be needed in the first place, we identify you as a female writer in a largely androcentric world. What are your thoughts on being a female writer specifically?
Being a writer is the kind of dream I never dared to have for most of my life. Partly due to my upbringing, partly the socioeconomic circumstances of my childhood, I never considered writing to be something I could even do, let alone have the amazingly good fortune of it being my full-time job. So regarding being a writer—I’d say it’s an impossible dream come true. Writing frustrates me to no end, but it also makes me feel alive and complete in a way that nothing else does. So I’m very grateful that I get to do this wonderful thing.

As for being a female writer: I’ve had the luck of being surrounded by incredibly strong female role models my entire life. I was raised by a single mother and spent many formative years at a girls’ school, where I met intelligent, ambitious classmates, many of whom are still my best friends today. This is to say that while growing up, I existed within spaces where men were often absent or irrelevant. Much of this changed when I entered the workforce post-graduation. I was
working in a very male-dominated environment, where I became aware of the ways in which women often have to put in more effort to be taken seriously, as well as the double standards that can exist in the workplace. I think being a female writer involves similar challenges (e.g. the different ways in which autofiction by male and female writers is perceived) but at the same time, publishing and the writing world is a far less male-dominated environment than where I used to work, so in some ways, it’s also easier.

Do you feel things might be different if you were a male writer?
I don’t think I would write the work that I write if I were a male writer, so yes, everything would be different.

What struggles have you had to face as a female writer?
I hesitate to call them struggles. But something that I’ve found interesting has been the way my female characters are received, especially the ones who don’t conform to what we think of as acceptable personality types for women. I was surprised to find out how strongly people feel about unlikeable female narrators. They just aren’t afforded the same empathy and aggrandizement that unlikeable male narrators frequently are.

In this very competitive day and age, it is increasingly difficult to forge a career in the Arts, let alone trod down an author’s path. What advice would you give aspiring writers who are struggling to make this lifestyle work for them?
Don’t give up your day job (unless you are independently wealthy or have some other means of supporting yourself). Perhaps I’ve been shaped by my own past, but I think there’s nothing romantic about financial instability. Personally, I’ve also found the structure and stimulation of a job to be very helpful for my writing. It can feel difficult to find the time, I know. But if you do a little every day, and you try to be consistent, and you don’t give up, I do believe you’ll get where
you want to eventually.

I love this line from Cory Taylor: “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable.” Writing nourishes me in a way that nothing else does, and if it does that for you too, then cling to that precious feeling. Cling to it in the times when the words don’t come and the rejection and failure seem overwhelming. It will always get better.

Lastly, writers have a very special relationship with books. They say that to write you must first read, and most of us learn to write first and foremost from the books we read. What are some of your favourite books you’d recommend to your readers?
Always the hardest question because there are so many! Some favourites are: George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, Balzac’s Père Goriot, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Wu Ming Yi’s The Man With The Compound Eyes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House, Diane Cook’s Man V Nature, and Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood.

Previous article 8 Questions with Kirstin Chen