I was reading some of the entries on Sharon’s blog and came across this entry which featured O Thiam Chin. I wrote to Sharon to request O’s contact details as I wanted very much to interview him. The challenge for me, in preparing this interview, was to constantly hold myself back from adding my own comments. As I read the answers O provided, all I could think of all the time was “Been there; done that!”. Nevertheless, I take my hats off to O for realising his dream and without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, O Thiam Chin …
Aneeta: How do I address you? Mr. O? O? Or, Thiam Chin?
O: You can call me O. I know it’s a weird surname (at least, that’s what somebody tells me) but it’s something I’m ‘stuck’ with for the rest of my life, haha. Actually it should be Oh (a common Chinese surname), but the clerk who filled up my father’s name in the birth certificate spelled it phonetically, O. So my father decided to carry on this surname when he named me, not wanting to correct it. In a significant way, he has started another generation with the surname O. Well, that’s the story of my unique surname. One good thing that often comes out this oddity: it’s always a good conversational starter.
Aneeta: Yes, indeed. As we’ve just proved, your name’s a good conversation starter. Before we begin to discuss your work proper, please tell me a little about you – your background, your family and where you live?
O: I come from a family of five – parents, an elder sister and younger brother. My parents have been food hawkers for over twenty years and they have brought us up through hard work and tough love.
I live in an old neighbourhood in Singapore, called Ang Mo Kio, an estate consisting of tight-knitted blocks of old flats. I think the place where I live has somehow shaped and determined my outlook and view of life.
When you are faced with mortality on a daily basis, your worldviews tend to be darker and more melancholic. The block just in front of where I stay consists of dingy one-room flats where single folks lived and died alone. Every other week, I see an ambulance carrying off these elderly folks and it struck me how bleak, lonely and meaningless life can be for these old folks. Sometimes, when I see these folks at the void decks of my flat, with their blank faces and stony silence, it can be really heart-breaking and sobering.
After I finished the stories in my first book, Free-Falling Man, and looked back on it, the single thought that dawned on me was a sense of relief, which came from an expunging of my deeper fears. I write out (of) my fears – fears of dying alone, fears of the unknown, fears of hidden desires and memories.
And in my stories, I have explored the darker side of human nature, the free-falling instinct that each of us possesses, this innate desire that craves for no boundaries, no limits, just a downward fall from our other half, the good and fragile self.
Aneeta: How did you first become interested in writing?
O: For me, writing stories come as a natural extension after many years of reading good books. I started to read seriously when I was in my late teens and grew to love what I read, and as I read more, I become fascinated with the idea of creating worlds, people, places, situations and dilemmas. It’s amazing what a phrase or paragraph of words can mean and conjure to a reader and to me, the life of the imagination is a beautiful and profound life.
I believe all of us are imbued with a natural ‘creative’ instinct, one that wants to create something out of nothing, to flesh out an idea or a thought, like creating babies, skyscrapers, a painting, or a poem. I simply tap into this instinct, sit down and write.
I wrote my first story when I was around 21. It was about a ten-year old boy who has hallucinations about his dead mother. It was a very short piece, about 1000 words and very depressive. But it was enough to get me started in writing my stories.
Before I write a story, I always keep the particular story idea in my head for a while, tossing it around, adding an incident there, taking out another here, putting words together and simply let it grow in size over time. Once it becomes the elephant-in-my-head, I will eventually write out the story. More often than not, the story will move in another direction even as I write it out. The idea takes on a different form and substance once it’s completed, but the gist or heart of the story will always be there. This will not change at all.
Aneeta: O.K. let’s get down to your book, Free-Falling Man. I’ve learned that there are three stages to a book coming into print: first, there is the writing; then, there is the publishing and finally the marketing. Please describe your experiences in each of these areas.
O: The idea of this collection of short stories originated back in 2004 when I was pursuing my part-time bachelor of arts course in English Language and literature. The stories’ ideas had been germinating in my mind for a while before that, bits and pieces of different stories coming together, gelling and expanding, certain story plots growing clearer and clearer.
As the ideas grew and multiply, so did my conviction to write them. I realised then that it was a now-or-never decision that I would have to make. Of course, I took the plunge, quit from my full-time job and spent the next seven months writing these stories. After the first draft was completed, my savings were completely wiped out. I quickly refocused on securing a full-time job again and had to cold storage this draft indefinitely.
Fast forward. In early 2006, I took out the first draft and began to work on the stories again. I think with the passage of time, I began to read my stories with a more critical eye and knew I have to cut and edit the stories ruthlessly, if anything good is going to come out of it. As any writer can testify, this was a painful experience.
It was about this time that I approached a writer friend for help and advice on how to publish my stories. He recommended some local publishers to which I quickly sent my manuscript. Out of the four publishers, only two responded. One rejected my manuscript based on the taboo subjects I have touched on in some of the stories, and the other has stopped publishing local titles and advised me to seek other avenues.
I was undeterred and continued to look around for other publishers. The same writer friend, who has published his second book with a small print-on-demand press in the US, iUniverse, told me about his experience in self-publishing and its advantages and benefits. Overall his experience with iUniverse was quite smooth and enjoyable since the publisher took care of many things, especially the sales channels to sell the books.
This is the main concern I have when I considering going into self-publishing – how to push the sales of my books. Since iUniverse has already an on-going relationship with major online booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Booksamillion, this was the tipping factor in why I decided to hire their services. There are several packages to choose from when you decide to opt for self-publishing with iUniverse, each with its own drawbacks and terms and conditions. I chose the Premier package that comes with an initial editing and comments, and a book cover design among other things. It costs about US$699.
A few things to be cautious about though: while iUniverse is experienced and proficient in many areas, there are some areas which i was not entirely satisfied with. Firstly the book cover design. The initial design they gave was really atrocious with awful visuals and images. The concepts were not what I have briefed them and I had to pull the plug on it by hiring my own designer.
Next: the costs. There are some hidden costs that were not covered under the package like the editing fee and proofreading fee. Depending on the nature and extent of your manuscript, different editing fees would be levied. While I could have opted out of the editing services they recommended but wanting to maintain a consistency in editing from start to end, I decided to go for their editing services. That adds another US$200 to my tab. However this amount will depend on the length of the manuscript as they charge on a per-word basis.
Based on the promo on the package, I received 20 free author copies, which were promptly sent out to overseas and local reviewers. I have to purchase another batch of my books, which I was given an author’s discount. But since I have to ship the books from US to Singapore, there were additional shipping costs. And let’s not forget the taxes on these books as well. In the end, these extra costs contributed to the overall cost of the book, driving the selling price higher than expected. But this is life: you gain some, you lose some.
Next, the marketing of the book. I have to peddle my book from store to store and so far, I have managed to persuade two small local bookshops to display and sell my book by taking low-quantity consignments. As for the bigger bookstores, I did not have much luck as they do not deal directly with author and would prefer to work with a publisher or distributor instead.
So right now, I’m still trying to get a local publisher who might be interested in doing a small print-run of my book and help with the distribution of it.
Aneeta: Can we have an excerpt of this book, please?
O: You can read the first story of Free-Falling Man at:
This story is more of an allegory, of being an outsider and observer and I think it sets a tone and mood for the rest of the stories in the collection: the ‘fall of man’ in different disguises of urban life.
Aneeta: How can we purchase this book?
O: The book is currently available for sale online at Amazon.com Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Booksamillion. I have a few copies with me, so if you want an autographed copy, just drop me an email.
Aneeta: I would like to know, if an editor/literary agent/publisher would like to contact you, how can they do so?
O: Of course, I welcome any enquiries from readers, editors, agents or publishers. They can contact me at email@example.com.
Aneeta: O, this is all I’ve got to ask you. Is there anything you’d like to add?
O: Write whenever and wherever you can. You have to make time for it, otherwise you will never get it done. A small tip from my writing mentor: Always carry a small note book with you so whenever a thought or idea or phrase hits you, quickly jot it down. You’ll never know when these flashes of creativity will come in handy or useful when you write your stories later on.
Aneeta: O, as a fellow-self-publisher, I wish you all the luck in the world. I know what it takes to do this and all I can say is that it will only make you a better writer. Thank you for participating in this interview.
O: It has a wonderful experience for me. It has been heartening to know writers who are willing and courageous to give up the comforts of a good life and job and to pursue their dream of writing single-heartedly. The recklessness, the sheer determination, and the guts to hold on no matter what – these are rich materials that make up a life worth living and a good novel too. It’s truly inspiring.
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