Letting Little Things Talk

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

main image

Ooi Kee Beng follows up with Tan Twan Eng to chat about what motivates him and finds out that oftentimes, it’s the little things in life that inspire the most.

What fascinates me greatly about your writing is your ability – and your apparent need – to embellish your narration with sensitive descriptions of some act or item occurring on the side. This technique is very suggestive. The reader’s curiosity is aroused. Is this, on your part, a conscious technique, as I rudely call it, or is this how you notice the world?

That’s how I observe and experience the world, how I strive to understand and replicate those observations and sensations. Whenever I’m in a place (a room, a friend’s house) or a situation – a city or the countryside, for example – I’m unable to drink in all that I see and sense. But something smaller will catch my interest: an object, a painting, a stack of books, a scent, the way the light falls on a patch of leaves or the way someone moves or gestures.

When I first started writing novels, I wanted to describe everything, but over the years I’ve come to realise that it’s more effective and powerful to leave things unstated; the air after the wind has died away is more evocative than the moments when it was gusting and shaking the leaves. Rather than tell the readers what my characters are feeling, I prefer to let the readers come to their own conclusions.

The Ryōan-ji Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan. In Tan's novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, Japanese rock gardens are a main plot device.

I suspect that you prefer to draw from what you know, relying on the sights, sounds and smells you have imbibed in your life. You told me once that you’ve had to do a lot of research for certain scenes, but I feel that even that is just to complement your reliance on solid experience. Am I right?

I research as much as possible, but there comes a point when I abandon all that I’ve unearthed and make the leap into my imagination. I keep in mind what Ernest Hemingway referred to as the “Iceberg Theory”: what ends up on the page is like the portion of an iceberg floating above the waterline. Hidden from view, however, is all the accumulated weight of the writer’s knowledge. The reader will sense that unseen mass and believe more in the story, because he or she will feel reassured that the writer knows what he’s writing about, even if it doesn’t appear on the page.

At any moment in my day, whatever I’m doing, I’m constantly processing ideas, thoughts, sentences, descriptions. Quite often, this process occurs on a subconscious level, but I frequently catch myself making a mental note to remember something I saw or trying out a sentence to describe it. Like many writers, I dip from the store of the sights, sounds and smells I have imbibed, but when I recreate them, I use them in a different way, in a different setting or to create a different effect. Writers are magpies, and we make use of everything.

It’s more than just relying on one’s experience – that’s quite impossible to do for certain characters or settings.

For example, I don’t have any personal experience of being in a POW camp and I’ve never met anyone who was there. What’s more essential for a writer is empathy and imagination.

Aikido demonstration. The Japanese martial art features largely in The Gift of Rain.

What interests me is how you seem to be painting more than writing. You paint with words, which is rather Japanese, or Zen-ish, in that sense. There is immediacy in your depiction of events. Would you agree to that?

The inspiration could come from anywhere – something I heard in a conversation or read about. Usually the “footnotes” are what catch my attention. My first two novels were set in times and places that are largely unknown to many readers, so I had to make them real, alive. A novel should immerse the reader in its world, so the atmosphere of the settings is essential.

We’re living in a pervasive visual age now. Many writers – and readers – are influenced by the cinema, but writing is about creating images and sensual experiences through words.

May I ask what your philosophical tendencies are as an artist? How do you wish to influence readers with your books?

I have no strong philosophical tendencies, except to keep honing my skills as a writer and to refine my ability in order to improve with every book I write. This, I’ve come to suspect, seems to involve using fewer and fewer words to say more and more. In a way, it’s a Zen-like approach, the paring away of the unnecessary to reach the heart and the essence of meaning.

How readers engage with my books, and what experiences they take away after reading them, are entirely dependent on them.

How central is the storyline to your art, or is the storytelling an excuse to “paint” with words as well – the journey being more important than the destination, as it were?

Every element of the novel is important: the story, the characters, the dialogue, the language, the length of each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter. The story is the vehicle to convey the ideas; the more complex the ideas, the stronger the vehicle has to be, otherwise it will just collapse beneath the weight.

I enjoy playing with language, I enjoy using it in a new way to describe things, to see the world in a slightly off-kilter angle and still have myself and the reader say, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like!”

The destination is the accretion of every event along the journey, so you can’t have one without the other.

In this age of cinema and videos, it is difficult to not be visual when writing fiction. Do you find yourself inadvertently structuring your writing as if you were writing a film script sometimes?

While I do write with images in my head – I think all writers do – I don’t structure my writing as if I were writing a film script. The last thing I’m concerned about is whether it’s going to be filmable. I’m more concerned with making the structure of the novel succeed, making the characters come alive, making the language clear, fresh and evocative.

A novel and a film script are two completely different creatures – it’s impossible to catch a wolf and a bird with the same snare.

A famous author writing his next book is, I believe, quite different from a beginner writing his first book. How is success affecting how you think, what you wish to achieve, and how you see “the industry”?

There’s pressure, but it’s a pressure I place on myself. Even if my books have not been successful, every book I write has to be better than the previous one. There has to be growth in the writing, a maturing of technique, craft and experience. Every book is different – different characters, themes, ideas, mood, atmosphere, narrative voice – thus creating a different set of challenges.

When I finished my second novel I realised that each subsequent book is not going to get any easier, but much, much harder. I admire writers who’ve spent their entire lives writing, and who’ve produced 10, 20 or more books in their oeuvre.

Are you at all involved in the filmscripting of The Garden of Evening Mists? If not, why?

No, I won’t be involved. I won’t be able to make objective decisions regarding what to cut out from my book. If I did adapt my book for a film script, I suspect I’d put in everything from the book, so it’d end up as an exercise in futility. Very few authors have been able to adapt their own books successfully – off the top of my head I can only think of John Irving, for Cider House Rules. He won an Oscar for his screenplay.

Malaysians are very proud of your achievements. Do you plan to use your celebrity status to influence young authors in the country?

I’m flattered by, but also smiling at, your use of the word “celebrity”, because I certainly don’t feel I’m one. I don’t wish to influence any young authors – it’s really up to them how they want to pursue their craft, how they want to live their lives.

Tea plantation in Cameron Highlands, where The Garden of Evening Mists is set.

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com