No such thing as failure


You grew up in Johor Bahru. How did that influence you?

Growing up in Johor Bahru was difficult only because I went to school in Singapore. Every day, you had a two-hour commute to Singapore and back. But I liked that I was growing up in Johor Bahru because there was actually land to play on – it’s not the concrete jungle that Singapore is. Back then, Singapore wasn’t quite that bad – it still had a bit of space, but now there’s nothing, you know? You can’t even kiss without someone else looking at you. It’s crazy! It’s like, where do you kiss now? You can’t make out at all in Singapore!

Can you tell me what life as an artist is like? Do you wake up every morning pursuing ideas and creating new art, or is it something more mundane?

I think I have actually dropped a lot of the lifestyle as an artist after switching to writing. Even when I am writing, I split my time between doing that and drawing very simple objects – my characters are basically stick figures.

I also split a lot of my time between writing and marketing myself. That’s a very tough route to go down. The lifestyle of an artist is not easy. It’s easier if you work for a company because you go to work and you get paid, but if you work for yourself, a lot of us fall into the trap where we just want to draw. But when you draw and you don’t market yourself, you’ll never be able to sell yourself, which is what you need to do as an artist.

So that aspect is tough, especially when you don’t have an agent and you have to do it yourself. You are splitting your time between creating and marketing, which is always tough. For me, it is slightly easier because I have recognition from the works I have already done, but starting out, for anyone, is always difficult. You have to know that the minute you go into art, you are going mostly for passion and you’re not going for a safe job anymore, because art is so subjective. Someone can create something fantastic and someone else can still say, “I don’t like it”.

What’s the difference between working in Malaysia and in the US?

I’ve always been only working in the US. When I came back here, it was only to sell my books, but even those were mostly written in the US. Based on my experience trying to get a book published in both places, it’s harder for someone to give you the time of the day here, because a lot of people don’t believe that local writers can survive. They always feel like they want to buy a foreign author’s book because there is no local talent, but that is not true. We need to get locals to give us a chance.

Why TEDxWeldQuay?

I was actually involved in another TED event before – I did a commercial for Sharpie and they liked my story, and that won me a TED Award. With TEDx, I thought it was a good way to gain exposure. It was a test for me to see if I could do something like this, because like I said during my talk, there’s no such thing as failure. You learn from it. To me, success is very predictable and is the worst part of a project, because you always know what happens – you get a lot of money, you sell a lot of units, you get a big house, you have a huge car, you get recognition and stuff like that. The journey itself is usually far more thrilling, and when you fail, you realise that this is actually much more exciting than you thought. But it’s not as easy.

I’ve read your blog. Your life is literally in public view. How do you deal with people knowing a lot about you?

I actually asked my friend that. I asked, “Is it because many people are very conservative, that they would think, ‘Oh my god, he left all his life out there’?” But maybe it is because the secrets that I hide are far darker than what normal people have. I mean, I don’t think I have very dark secrets, but everyone has secrets, and maybe my level of secrecy, or what I think is private, is crazier or darker than what people consider (normal). If I think that talking about sex is nothing, then maybe the stuff that I hide is… I don’t know. But this is one of the things I think about.

I never felt that I was leaving too much out or putting too many things out there, but I do think that it’s very easy to track me. You don’t have to do much homework – just read and you will know who this guy is, because so much is out there! But I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It allows me to be far more expressive. If you were to go home and say, “Today I had sex”, your mom would probably kill you. But for me, if I went back and said, “Today, I had sex with a ton of girls”, my mom would be like, “Why?” She wouldn’t disown me right away. Of course, that didn’t happen (laughs), but I think that when you express yourself in a certain way, you free up yourself a lot. When people try to get to know someone, they just want to know the most honest part about them, and I think that is why my blog works and why my books are selling. People just want them to be unedited and very, very honest.

All those cross-outs… (In his comic, Boey usually crosses out mistakes instead of removing or redrawing them.)

Yeah, because some of these people actually try to read the cross-outs! You know how sometimes when you write in pencil, then you erase it, and your brother or your sister would shade over the erased section to find out what you wrote? I realised there is that kind of secrecy that people want to know.

It’s very voyeuristic.

Yes, it is! And it is a part of humour that many authors don’t appeal to. Authors always type out everything, but what people really want to know is the train of thought – that extra bit of information – maybe even more than the chapter itself. I think that that’s the meat of the dish. That’s the kind of approach I make when I’m writing the comic.

When I started, I actually showed my comic to a famous comic writer. He told me that no one will buy it because it’s too messy and it doesn’t have the boxes. I didn’t have the boxes because I was too lazy to draw them. You have to draw the boxes with rulers, and I hated that. So I drew it as is and he’s like, “This is not going to work.” But when the comic became popular, I told people another story – I didn’t want to draw the boxes because I wanted to think outside the box. I spun the story and people actually believed that I was so brilliant! But I’m not. It’s because I was lazy (chuckles). I mean, who wants to draw lines?

So, what’s next for you? The plan is to maybe write a third book, but I don’t know. If I do put out a third, people already know what it’s going to be like. It’s not a bad thing, because there are also people to whom it will be new. For the current reader, they may want something else, so I might try to translate the books (into Chinese). I need to think about what I want to do – maybe publish the blog, I don’t know yet.

What about bringing your comic to the big screen? Firstly, animation takes a lot of time. Secondly, did you read Doraemon? I remember reading Doraemon for a long time, and I never saw the cartoon until I was 30-something. And I remember hearing Doraemon’s voice, and it was different (from how I imagined)! I couldn’t like it after that. I’m afraid that it will be the same for my cartoon. The minute you give something a voice, it may turn off the current readers. So if I do make a cartoon, I may make it silent – play music in the background and make them have speech bubbles so that when they talk, it goes bloop!

What would you say to your child if he or she wanted to follow in your footsteps?

I think I would like my kid to be able to do what he or she likes in life. My parents, at the time, felt that if I didn’t do well in school, I was really screwed. Knowing what I know now, I will understand that my kid failing will not be the end of the world. They have to at least have tried, because that’s the one thing I still did even when I failed – I tried to do well. It eventually made me what I am today.

For more of Boey, visit his website at

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She enjoys Graham Greene, Groove Armada and a good Moscow Mule.

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