Love London Love Culture spoke to Selina Siak about her latest novel When the Future Comes Too Soon….
Could you tell me a little more about the inspiration behind When the Future Comes Too Soon and the Malayan series?
I did not set out to write a series! I began with one book – the story of a feisty woman grappling with cultural identity in a rapidly modernising world. I felt her story was best told by immersing the reader in the place where she lived. As I wrote it, I realised I was also telling the story of her country – this is how the Malayan Series came into being. But each book can be read independently.
How would you describe this sequel to The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds? How does it compare to your first novel?
The two books are very different – to reflect a changing Malaya, a new protagonist and a different cast of characters. The first novel starts in 1878 when life is slow and meandering, and the pace of the book reflects that. In contrast this new book begins with Malaya being dropped into war; therefore, the pace needed to be faster. Readers are still in the world of colonial Malaya, but it is now a country in deprivation, with all that that entails.
Could you tell me a bit more about the plot for When the Future Comes Too Soon?
This is, at heart, a story about betrayal in its many forms. It also explores the nature of love and survival. Perhaps most of all, it asks what courage means. We sometimes find courage only because circumstances push us into situations we would never have imagined for ourselves.
How much research did you have to do in terms of getting the details about the Japanese occupation right?
I grew up listening to stories about the Japanese occupation: what I had to do was to verify the accuracy of the various anecdotes I’d heard. Fortunately my granduncle, Chin Kee Onn, wrote a classic non-fiction work, Malaya Upside Down, which detailed many aspects of the occupation. I supplemented the information in his book by poring through newspapers of the time. However, research only gets you to a point. I still had to imagine what it was like for my characters; no one else could do that for me.
Was part of the attraction of writing both The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds and When the future Comes Too Soon to enlighten people about the Japanese occupation of Malaya?
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a story tackling identity in a rapidly changing world, something we all have to deal with. So it’s a very relevant topic. At the same time, the story features a mixed-race culture which is known only in Southeast Asia and I wanted to take it to a wider audience. When the Future Comes Too Soon continues naturally where the first book ends. While I do want more people to know what the war was like for Malayans – because our experience has largely been overlooked – my aim is more to entertain than enlighten!
How difficult have you found it writing a sequel?
Believe it or not, I had no problem with this. I went back to what my aims as a novelist are – to touch emotions, to entertain, and to do both intelligently – and went from there. I first created the story outline and its key events and then gave flesh to the characters.
What were you most concerned about while writing When the future Comes Too Soon?
This book is very different from the first and I worried that some readers who loved the first book would be disappointed. But I also know that there will be readers who regard this difference as a strength. The ending here is unexpected: it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Do I fear that my protagonist will be harshly judged? Yes I do. People may not even be aware of making a judgment about this character over what happens – because these types of judgment are subliminal.
How much pressure have you felt in writing a sequel?
No one put any pressure on me: not my agent or my publisher. The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a debut novel with such a grand sweep that one UK literary critique agency, to which I sent an early draft, told me I was being ‘too ambitious’. I thought that a ridiculous comment and ignored it! Any pressure I have felt was self-imposed – I wanted to follow that novel with one which immersed readers in the same way.
What do you hope that readers take away from reading When the Future Comes Too Soon?
That there are two sides to every story; you in Europe suffered during WWII but so did we in Southeast Asia, and what happened to Malaya did not cover colonial Britain in glory; also, that diamonds are made under pressure – sometimes, it takes extreme circumstances for us to discover our inner strength.
Have you got any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m busy writing the third book in the Malayan Series while promoting When the Future Comes Too Soon! This third book will again be quite different, and is a story of loss, love and awakening. And that’s all I’ll say at this stage! Meanwhile I’m going to be appearing in various media, including radio. I hope you’ll look out for me!
When the Future Comes Too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke is out now onAmazon. (Amazon Crossing, £8.99).