UK Tour

Excited to share that I'll be heading back to the UK for several events around publication! Join me in London, Oxford and Liverpool. I'll also be posting soon about US and Singapore dates.  

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Interview with The Rumpus

I had a brilliant time chatting to The Rumpus about my fear of death, pre pub anxiety, writing rituals, vegetable consumption habits, cryogenic freezing and oh, pottery (more or less in that order)! Excerpt below, and you can read the full interview here: http://therumpus.net/2018/05/the-rumpus-interview-with-rachel-heng/ 

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Rumpus: Endlessly fascinating to me is the idea, which your book vivisects so intelligently, that any thoughtful examination of suicide is, essentially, an examination of life itself—in all of its, as you say, oozing and shedding mystery. Do you see your novel as any kind of cautionary tale?

Heng: I think it’s a cautionary tale for myself! Death and loss have always been obsessions of mine, and writing this book was my way of confronting my own deep fear of mortality. I think I wrote the book to convince myself that living forever would come with its own set of problems, that dying is okay, and that in many ways it is death that shapes and gives our lives meaning. When I started imagining the kind of world in which immortality would be attainable, other obsessions and fears began to come into it. I started thinking about the way healthcare resources are allocated in a capitalist society, the way wellness has become a kind of moral imperative and luxury status symbol. So I suppose eventually, it also evolved into a cautionary tale about the path we’re on as a society, in terms of the way we think of and value human life.

Rumpus: Suicide Club is rife with amazingly penetrating sentences: “Then the pain came, hot and selfish and demanding. Suddenly she was nothing.” and “She felt his delicate ribs under the flesh and fur, thin bones interlocking like puzzle pieces, protecting some squirming secret within.”

What comes first for you—the language, or the image?

Heng: That is a hard question! But I think because reading has always been such a huge part of my life, that I understand my reality through the filter of language. I think even the most visual descriptions in fiction (or poetry) achieve something that transcends the visual image, that allow the fictional reality to exist on a different, more flexible plane, if that makes sense. I think that’s why movie adaptations are always so disappointing to readers—not because the visual representation fails to match what we have in our minds, but because we often don’t have specific, definite representations in our minds. When we read fiction, I don’t think it’s like the projection of a movie reel in our minds, I don’t think we see the story in actual images that correspond to real life. I think fictional language allows us live in the spaces that words can open up for us.

Rumpus: Do you have any pre-writing rituals? Weird tics?

Heng: When I wrote Suicide Club, I was working a pretty intense full-time job, so I only had a short window of time before work to actually devote to writing. So my ritual then was to scramble out of bed at 6 a.m. and type desperately for about an hour while still half-asleep. I’ve since left my job and am now in an MFA program, which means my days are far more flexible and I’m still trying to figure out the best routine for myself. These days I still get up around 7 a.m. I make myself a large pot of strong Earl Grey, then I try to distract myself by harassing my cat and messing about on Twitter, and before I know it it’s noon and I’m consumed with self-loathing, so I write frantically for about an hour or so. Perhaps some better pre-writing rituals would help. I should really think of some.

Grief, Writing and Turning 30

I turn 30 this weekend! (I'm hoping the exclamation mark makes it less of a terrifying new phase of life?) When I started this website I thought I'd blog a lot more; after years of writing fiction around the day job, I was finally headed to grad school and the full time writing life. I would have so much time! And so many things to say! If you've been following this blog, you'll know that that hasn't, um, been quite the case. Turns out there's a law of productivity that dictates the more time you have, the less productive you are. Back in 2016, I was still working in finance, writing fiction in the wee hours of the morning, editing at night, planning a wedding, applying to 13 graduate programs and somehow managing to stay on top of life admin (tax returns, remortgaging our flat, organising family visits etc). Today, a mere email asking me for a single scanned document can send my day into a downward procrastination spiral (I will spare you the details of what this looks like but it involves a lot of lying on the floor at eye level with my cat). I'm getting better at it, but adjusting to so much unstructured time has been the most difficult thing about the past year. 

I say it's been the most difficult thing, but that's not true. The most difficult thing about the past year is that on October 31st 2017, my dad died. Those close to me will know that we had a complicated history, and that while he was physically absent since I was 9, his actions and influence have reverberated through my life ever since.

The circumstances under which he left were difficult, and I learnt, from a young age, not to speak about him. After he left, we lost our home and pretty much everything we owned, and moved into my grandmother's spare bedroom, living off the charity of relatives. One of my memories from that period is my mother looking at me with tears in her eyes, because she felt so bad I had to sleep on the floor (at the time, she, my brother and I shared a space that was smaller than the dorm room I had in my freshman year of college). If you remember being 9 years old though, you'll remember that you really don't care about things like sleeping on the floor. In fact, it's actually pretty fun, like camping indoors. I told her that but she didn't seem to be convinced, and it broke my heart. I couldn't bear to see my mother sad because she thought I was sad. I was sad, of course, desperately sad, but about my father being gone, not about sleeping on the floor. From then on, however, I felt I had to protect her, to keep my pain from her at all costs.

It was then that I developed the emotional distance which people have frequently remarked on over the years. When an ex-boyfriend asked why I was so 'feelingless' and 'always in control', I shrugged, assumed it was inherent to my personality, a tendency as mysterious and incidental as being averse to the texture of tomatoes. I was too deep within my protective shell to really reflect on why this was the case. Now I think partly, it was the fact that when you have one great sadness that looms over everything, the fights you have with teenage boyfriends can feel trivial, not quite as important or dramatic. The other part of it was something that went deeper: I'd more or less completely blocked off vulnerability and unhappiness as permissible emotions.

So I was always okay. The only thing I could never quite get over was the loss of my dad, even though he'd left years and years ago. It was the thing that I couldn't speak about to anyone, except to the partner I've been lucky to spend the last decade with. My husband, the strongest person I know, is also the kind of person who gets called feelingless and in control, and that, amongst many other things, is one of the sources of our deep mutual understanding. So this time, the second time I lost my dad, I had someone who understood--who knew when the defences were going up and knew how to reach me nonetheless. I had just moved to Austin, where I knew no one, and my father had died in a different continent, over 20 hours of flight away. My husband forced me to grieve. He took me to an outdoor chapel overlooking the beautiful Texan hill country, where the two of us held a memorial service. He made me call my friends to tell them what had happened. My instinct was not to tell anyone; it was too personal, too exhausting, and what would I say anyway? What would they say? It would just be awkward and painful for everyone. But he made me call them and so I did. I also told a few classmates, people I'd only known for a couple of months. It turned out they had their own stories to share, which they generously did, and for the first time I felt like I was speaking to people who truly understood what I was going through.

The past year has been filled with beautiful things. I fulfilled my impossible dream of writing and publishing a novel, married the best man I've ever met while surrounded by our favourite people, got a fellowship that would allow me to devote the next three years of my life to improving my craft. I look back on the places my fiction has taken me this past year and I'm honestly blown away. I've met and gotten to know my literary idols (Elizabeth McCracken! Jeff VanderMeer! 2016 me would have fainted in shock); presented--at a fancy dinner in a historic London church--to 200 journalists and publishing people on a deeply personal novel I thought would never see the light of day; become friends with talented and wonderful human beings such as my cohort mates and other internet-writer-friends; met lovely booksellers around the world, in the UK, US and Singapore; have had total strangers (almost all dealing with losses of their own) reach out to me, telling me what my writing means to them. And the book isn't even out yet--it comes out in July. It is deeply strange to think that a series of words I essentially hallucinated into short stories and a novel has resulted in all of this tangible, life-changing stuff. But also very, very wonderful.

Yet, since October, I've been sad (hey! I'm talking about it!). None of this writing stuff is negated by my father's death. It's still beautiful and wonderful and surprising. The timing has meant that now the two--writing and the loss of my father--are inextricably and intimately linked, the exhilaration mixed with grief, the joy with pain. But really, they've always been. I say my book is about healthcare and life extension and all of that, and it is, but really, at it's core, it's about my dad. I wrote it because of him, I wrote it for him, and I wish he could have read it. 

I said something about 30 being a terrifying phase of life before, but really, I say this out of habit. It's the joke you're meant to make. I'm not ready to be an adult! Where did my 20s go! But I don't mind turning 30. My friends will say this is because I am a grandma at heart, which is almost certainly true, but I think it also has to do with feeling more and more like myself. Through writing, yes, but also through finally allowing myself to be sad, and happy, and everything else.

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The Interdisciplinary Thing

Post for The MFA Years

I’m now a semester and a half into my MFA, and one of the things I’m finding incredibly (and surprisingly, in my specific case) rewarding about being at Michener is the interdisciplinary focus. Our program requires everyone to declare a primary and secondary genre, but on top of that, we also take a multi-discipline first year seminar together with our entire cohort of fiction writers, poets, playwrights and screenwriters, and we’re allowed to take classes in disciplines that are neither our primary nor secondary genre.

I hadn’t thought much about this when I applied to Michener. I know for some people this is a big draw, because they already write some combination of fiction / poetry / plays / screenplays. But I was very much a fiction person. I’d never read much poetry outside of literature classes in high school, let alone written a single poem. I loved going to plays but would never think to try writing one. And I certainly don’t watch as much film as I would like (I find it kind of stressful — TV and movies give me overly vivid dreams, it’s a long story…). So while the interdisciplinary nature of Michener’s program sounded like a lot of fun — who wouldn’t want to learn to write new things! — it wasn’t something I had given a ton of consideration to both when applying and when making my choice to come here. I guess this post is for those of you who might feel the same way right now. Perhaps you’re a steadfast fiction reader and writer as I was, or you only do poetry or plays or screenplays. Perhaps you’re nervous about working in a different discipline (as I was) or you’re worried it will take time away from your primary discipline (it will, but it’s worth it!).

In our first year seminar, we read and workshopped across disciplines. Some of the benefits are obvious: having a poet focus their attention on the cadence of your sentences or the effectiveness of a convoluted mixed metaphor, having playwright point out when a narrative isn’t progressing quite as logically as it could or when action is stalled, having a screenwriter critique your dialogue. Workshopping with classmates who are not fiction writers has been incredibly helpful for my craft. But I am also inspired by the ways in which they think about their own craft and process — for example, poets who start writing poems with a fragment of an image in mind, screenwriters who write extensive outlines complete with act breaks and cliffhangers before diving into a draft, playwrights who begin with odd situations or concepts that they find stuck in their minds. Of course all of this applies within disciplines as well, and fiction writers themselves work in many different ways. But I have found that when I am feeling stuck, trying to approach my writing like one of my poet / playwright / screenwriter classmates can often help me come unstuck. For me personally, this has been most apparent when it comes to plot and story, something I’ve always struggled with. Making a narrative advance has often felt like drawing blood from a stone, and watching the ease with which playwrights and screenwriters bandy around alternative plot lines, potential twists, character motivation has helped me develop a better instinct for these things as well. I can’t say exactly how it happens — it’s that weird osmosis-like process of learning that takes place through being around people who are passionate about what they do and are eager to share that with you.

Of course, writing and reading in other disciplines has taken time away from my fiction. At times I’m frustrated because I’m not making as much progress with my novel or new stories as I feel like I should be. I’m in a TV writing class this semester, and it’s a lot of work plus because I’m new at writing scripts, I think it’s taking me extra long. I’m also in a poetry-heavy seminar, and I find that I (strangely?) can’t read poetry as quickly as I do novels. But I remind myself that as much as MFAs are about producing tangible work, it’s also about expanding the boundaries of our craft in whatever way possible, opening up new possibilities and stepping out of our comfort zones. And hopefully it all feeds the work in some invisible way.

Cover Designs

My book has a cover design! Well, two different cover designs, to be precise. This is something I didn't know about the publishing world until fairly recently, but publishers in different geographies operate independently of each other, even if they're owned by the same big 5 firm (mine are Hachette and Macmillan, so this wouldn't have applied anyway). One cool implication of this is that for every country the book is published in, it gets a new cover.

So without further ado, here they are!

 US Edition Cover Design (Henry Holt)

US Edition Cover Design (Henry Holt)

 UK Edition Cover Design (Sceptre)

UK Edition Cover Design (Sceptre)

I am in love!!! It's also interesting to me how different the two covers are. I think it comes down to the fact that Suicide Club is a 'literary dystopian' novel -- while the UK cover leans into the dystopian aspect of it, the US cover leans into the literary-ness, I feel. Both interpretations got me really, really excited and I absolutely cannot wait to see them printed in hardcover. 

My UK editor, the wonderful Melissa Cox, did this cool post on how they came up with the cover:

"My brief was mostly inspired by films and images I’d found online – the book reminds me in places of Blade Runner, so I definitely had that in mind, as well as anime references (particularly the cityscapes you get in films like Akira and the re-make of Metropolis) and minimalist film poster design. But I think my biggest subconscious influence was the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror – that’s where I got the inspiration for the 80s neon elements I put in the brief which ended up being the foundations of our approach."