Brain-picking Storyteller – interview with Tan May Lee (3 March 2009)

Introduction

I met May Lee some time ago and since then, I’ve been periodically asking her if she’d like to be interviewed. The answer, finally, was yes. Not only is she an editor in MPH, she has now become a published writer. Her story is interesting and without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing you to Tan May Lee…


I met May Lee some time ago and since then, I’ve been periodically asking her if she’d like to be interviewed. The answer, finally, was yes. Not only is she an editor in MPH, she has now become a published writer. Her story is interesting and without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing you to Tan May Lee…

Aneeta: May Lee, thank you for finally agreeing to this interview.

May Lee: Swapping chairs feels odd. I prefer doing the brain-picking and photography. You probably saw me during the reading event at Seksan’s, where I hid behind my camera when they called out my name and also a “writer.”

Aneeta: Let’s start, as usual, with something about you. Where were you born, where did you grow up, what do you do for a living and where do you live now?

May Lee: From my current office, I was born 5 km away, went to school about 6 km away and never lived further than 12 km away. Figuring that I ‘needed to get out more’, I fled to United Kingdom to study English. Living with cybergoths and camping outside Leeds University’s School of English at 6 a.m. to join a creative-writing module were one of the more enlightening experiences.

After my degree, I was based in South Korea for over a year to get addicted to kimchi and sesame leaves. During this time I also taught English as a Second Language and (my friend owned the language institute, hence this was completely acceptable) explored a bit of the Far East – sometimes alone and sometimes with a friend who wanted to see as much of the world as he could before he went blind. I left Korea for the U.K. again to witness his 25th eye surgery and see him complete his final year at university. There was a lot of eye goo, but happily, he graduated. I then came back.

Aneeta: From what little I know of you, I know that you’re now an editor at MPH. Have you always worked in the publishing industry? What does your work involve?

May Lee: This is my first ‘proper job’—my mum cut the job ad out and bought me corporate clone clothes. I sit in a cubicle. I also have a keycard that checks my in-outs. There might be recordings of keystrokes and mouse clicks but I’m not sure. But hey, it’s all new and exciting!

I mainly edit a book magazine called Quill. The best part of the job is meeting new, down-to-earth and interesting literary and professional writers, discovering and promoting great book titles, and writing and developing articles I care about. What a joy it is to get an email from a writer with brilliant stories they want to share! Often, I get to work quite independently and this suits my reclusive nature nicely. I take pictures of people and other kinds of things with a DSLR camera too.

As for books, I sift through some manuscripts occasionally. Eric Forbes and Janet Tay usually get the juicy manuscripts, like O Thiam Chin’s short-story collection, Never Been Better, and John Ho’s collection of horror comics, Scary Ever After. I tend to proofread more, which means I also get to escape some diabolical manuscripts.

Aneeta: For the benefit of my readers, can you please explain what Quill magazine is all about?

May Lee: It’s about books, authors and the reading life. This year, we’re sponsoring the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival as well as the Singapore Writers Festival. We have features on internationally-acclaimed authors. Literary heavyweights include Hari Kunzru, Mohammed Hanif, Kate Grenville, Vikas Swarup, John Boyne, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Miguel Syjuco. These are the exclusive issues I hope people will pick up and read.

These are discernibly different from the regular quarterly issues of Quill. Get them!

Aneeta: I know that you’ve got one story in the recent collection of short stories published by MPH Group Publishing, Urban Odysseys, KL Stories. Tell me, please, what is this collection all about?

 May Lee: Urban Odysseys: KL Stories captures the images and lives in this capital city. There are layers and sides to KL, that one could never know and recognise them all. It’s great for someone who wants to get to know the city outside Wikipedia and blogs, and great for city dwellers who might have overlooked some aspects!

Even though I was due for secondment to MPH Group Publishing, the senior editors kept the submissions out of sight and told me to get in line like everyone else to submit my story. You can’t get any more professional than that! But I am pleased that my work went into the filter along with the other writers’.

I do wish I’d written something better and more substantial, though. After borrowing short-story collections off my boss’s bookshelf, like Tim Winton’s The Turning, Nam Le’s The Boat, and Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing, I wanted to delete all the Word Documents in my laptop.

My story, ‘From the Roof’, has a rather introspective chindian granddaughter and a sentimental Chinese grandmother who climbed up an airwell. My grandparents all died young, but my maternal grandmother left behind a home with an airwell that’s fascinating, especially when you watch raindrops spilling into the house. Most old terrace houses have sealed up their airwells, so you don’t see them nowadays.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give those who would like to venture into storytelling?

May Lee: If you want to go pro, understand that the writing industry is just like every other bitching industry.

(1) Read deeply, not just widely. Study the structure of successful stories and find out why they flow so well.
(2) Compare your work with better writers and ask yourself honestly if your story sits comfortably in between such works.
(3) Be open to constructive criticism—it’s not failure, it’s just feedback.

Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing is a fantastic guide on how to write.

Aneeta: In your email to me, you said that you’d like to talk about a new project that MPH Group Publishing is taking on. Go ahead, do tell.

May Lee: It’s a collection of travel stories, tentatively entitled Sini Sana: Travels in  Malaysia. It’s inspired by travel-story collections from Traveler’s Tales and Conde Nest. Malaysians aren’t able to submit stories to some international collections though.

The deadline is 31 January 2010. We’ve already received a few interesting entries. Please send something if you can!

Aneeta: May Lee, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

May Lee: I’ve stopped wearing black eye shadow.

Aneeta: May Lee, thank you.

May Lee: All the best with your website!


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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