AT 27, AMANDA Lee Koe was the youngest person to win the Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction in 2014. The book, a beguiling short story collection titled Ministry Of Moral Panic, was already a huge bestseller before she took the prize.
Shortly after its publication, Lee Koe moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in fiction writing at Columbia University. While browsing the aisles of the legendary Strand Bookstore, she chanced upon a photography book by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
It included an incandescent picture of three young actresses posing at a Berlin party in 1928. All three were on the path to becoming legends of Western cinema – Marlene Dietrich, a screen siren still revered for her distinctive style today; Leni Riefenstahl, who controversially directed Nazi propaganda films; and Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star.
Lee Koe knew this could the inspiration for her debut novel. And after four years of toil and sleepless nights, the-now New York-based writer has produced a gorgeous and sweeping epic that takes in the adult lifespan of each woman, from the years of relative obscurity to the dizzying heights of stardom, and finally to the indignities of old age and irrelevance.
The book, titled Delayed Rays Of A Star, went straight to No. 1 on Kinokuniya’s bestseller list when it was released a month ago – and has stayed there since.
You moved from writing short stories to a big epic novel spanning eras, continents and political landscapes. What was it like making that colossal leap?
As aesthetic vehicles, the short story and the novel have always been completely different to me, not only in terms of technical concerns, but also philosophical ones. If I was an actor, my approach to the short story would be akin to improvisation and movement, where I’m just curious to put my body and brain in a situation with no prep work, whereas my approach to the novel would be closer to classical method acting, where I train my body and brain to respond to a certain situation with a lot of prep work ahead of time, to ensure a certain consistency and sustain a specific performance.
The short story is more a vernacular snapshot of feeling. I never overthink any aspect of a short story, I just find it on the page. I don’t mind if it is imperfect, as long as it was able to capture the mood I was in when I was writing it. The novel, however, is to my mind a formal challenge, with an age-old lineage, entrenched canons, and various splinter groups. Even if one is writing outside of a recognisable mould, one needs to be aware of the conventions one is breaking. Are you leaning towards Chinese picaresque classicism, Latin American magic-realism, Southeast Asian postcolonialism, contemporary American postmodernism?
I loathe being pigeonholed in an immediate sense and for superficial reasons. But I like stepping into the shoes of a label that I’m not expected to belong too. Delayed Rays of A Star, to me, feels closer to 20th century European modernism than anything else, and writing it was part anachronistic waking dream, part pleasurable stylistic tightrope, part ascetic mental nunnery.
What were the challenges of reconstructing the lives of three women who were quite different from each other – apart from their obvious ambition?
Marlene’s personality came easily to me. I had been familiar with her – she was my teenage queer icon and I had a huge poster of her in my bedroom. Because I had once been obsessed with Marlene, I didn’t need to work through that obsession again, I just had to recall the telling details behind the big personality. For example, Marlene was the life of the party, but when everyone had gone to sleep, she’d scrub the floorboards by hand instead of leaving it to the maid.
Leni’s motivations weren’t hard to understand too, once I had removed all vestiges of retrospective moral judgment and found contemporary common ground. It’s not at all unusual for artists to collaborate with the state, to make state-commissioned work, to utilise state resources – from there, I could investigate context and complicity.
I found it easy to comprehend Anna May on the surface, but I am always suspicious of ease. It took me a long time to find a deeper way into her, because I wanted her to be more than “Hollywood racism ruined my career”, which although true, would turn her once again into a trope.
The novel continues to follow these women when they’re long past their prime, when they’re shorn of their cinematic mystique, when they’ve started to look as mortal as the rest of us. What was the impulse behind writing these sections?
I am not a fan of historical fiction in general, because it tends to focus on subjects when they are their most obvious selves. I didn’t want to be dependent solely on their star power, because then the novel would just be a shiny, fictionalised biography. I’m not interested in that. As an author, I have to bring something that only I can bring to the table as well.
Writing into these women when they’re past their prime allowed me to access a greater vulnerability, to peel past a certain veil. Also, writing a fuller range of life allows for built-in pathos on the reader’s part. Pathos can be more easily arranged for and built up to in a linear novel because the reader is following the character’s journey very closely, but I wanted the pathos to be juxtaposed rather than sequential.
Because we’ve spent time with the three women when they were at their most seductive and powerful, I don’t have to be heavy-handed in telling you how to feel when they are old and frail but still hard as nails. You’ll fill in the blanks because of what came before.
How does one balance fact and fiction in a novel like this? At what point do you feel you can extrapolate or fictionalise?
Veracity was of great importance to me, but you reach a certain point where you realise you have to let go – you’re a novelist, not a historian. The oath you’ve sworn is to fiction, not fact, and your craft lies in how best to tell a story, not how best to arrange the facts.
For the whole of the first year, I was still feeling my way around the research, enamoured of this detail or that. The turning point came when I wrote an early chapter in which Ibrahim (the teenage boy who prank-calls Marlene) recites Rilke to Marlene on the phone, in a bid to get her attention. After I had written this, I read in a biography that Marlene Dietrich had done almost exactly the same thing to make Erich Maria Remarque notice her in Cannes. It was at that point that I knew that I had internalised enough to create with no fear from here on.
Writing a novel with historical figures is not about getting the biographical facts right, it’s about getting so deeply under their psychological skin that intuitively you know what they would or wouldn’t do.
How would you compare the NY literary scene to that of Singapore? Would you advise aspiring Singapore writers to spend some time there?
I am really an ostrich with its head buried deep in the sand when I work, so it is hard for me to weigh in on cultural scenes because to be honest I am so out of it! What I can say though, is that I love both Singapore and New York for the fact that they are true cities.
There is life in every pore of them at every hour of the day. In Singapore, at three in the morning, I can be at a Geylang coffee shop eating S$2.50 prawn mee, watching soccer with gambling uncles cussing at the tops of their lungs. In New York, at three in the morning, I can be at a gritty Williamsburg bar and suddenly some shy guy with baby bangs is showing me the artwork he makes on napkins.
I would advise aspiring writers to spend time anywhere that sparks something in them, be it freedom or fear, pleasure or pain. Just don’t get too comfortable. I lived for a year in Beijing and I would say that was the city that broke me the most, made me cry and laugh and led me on the strangest adventures with people I never expected to meet.
New York for me is actually more a blank slate work cave where I am untethered from all commitments, and I can completely focus on the writing itself. I wouldn’t say it was particularly conducive to the writing of this novel – that would be Berlin, where I spent every summer or fall working on this novel in the past few years. It’s the city that’s most pertinent to the heart of this novel.
You’re a cineaste and dating a filmmaker. I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but are you working on or intending to work on a screenplay?
Prescient question. All I can say is that I can’t say anything, but keep your eyes peeled.
Amanda Lee Koe is in Singapore this week for a series of talks and appearances. For details, visit her Facebook account.