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."

"First Impressions", A Fiction Workshop by Rachel Heng

A couple of months ago I was approached by poet Joshua Ip, who runs the wonderful Sing Lit Station, to discuss ideas on how we could work together. Discussions and kayak.com searches ensued, and ideas were ideated (sorry).

Anyway, all this to say I'll be leading a fiction workshop in Singapore on Saturday, 16 December! I think (hope) it will be lots of fun and that participants will find it productive for their writing. Poster below and you can find out more here: http://www.singlitstation.com/shop/rachelheng

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Blogging for The MFA Years

I'm a first year contributor for The MFA Years, which means I'll be writing monthly blog posts about my experience at The Michener Center. The MFA Years was a great resource for me when figuring out this whole grad school thing -- to MFA or not to MFA, which MFA, how to apply, how to choose, and the writing lifecmore generally -- so if you're considering an MFA or are just curious about what getting one involves, I'd recommend having a browse. Anyway, I wrote my first post for them a week ago, while I was overcome with leaving-London-sadness. Here it is! 

 

Original post here: https://themfayears.com/2017/08/29/rachel-heng-introduction-michener-center-for-writers-20/ 

 

Rachel Heng Introduction (Michener Center for Writers ’20)

In two days I will fly to Austin to start my MFA, but for now I find myself in the living room of my flat in London, surrounded by very large piles of clothes. Turns out shipping things across the Atlantic is eye-wateringly expensive (duh, what did I think), so I’ve spent the last few days trying to give away/donate/throw out most of my belongings.

I am an unapologetic hoarder. I own movie stubs from 2008 and cut-off shorts from 2003 (that I have last worn when I was literally 14. 14.) and pebbles plucked off a beach in 1999. My husband’s wedding vows contained the line, “In the past 8 years, I have watched you collect about 1 million items.” All my other international moves had been for work and therefore paid for, so I’ve never had to throw anything out before. Every last half-used notebook, every last ticket stub came with me, from Singapore to New York, New York back to Singapore, Singapore to London. But now, for the first time, I’d have to throw stuff out.

Nothing quite hammers in the realisation that you’re leaving like spending 12 hours a day sorting through 5 years’ worth of accumulated stuff. Work blouses I thought I’d wear more often but now have no need for, unread books too expensive to ship, shrivelled cacti and browning devil’s ivy to be finally put out of their misery. Going through all my belongings with the most critical, ruthless eye I could muster, I felt no oft-touted lightness, no Marie Kondo moment of transcendent clarity. What had I expected? That I would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of discarded t-shirts (so many t-shirts)? Ideally I’d have a revelation, an unexpected silver lining to insert at this point. Something along the lines of: Throwing out all the things I hoard because I am fundamentally afraid of change and the passage of time has made me less afraid of said change and passage of time. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Upping from and leaving a place you’ve loved is inextricably sad, no matter how excited you are about your next move, and there is no epiphany-ing this away.

I realise, of course, how incredibly, ridiculously, lottery-level lucky I am. When I applied to 12 MFA programs last year, I spent most of my waking hours repeating ‘it only takes one’ to myself, all the while believing that even that elusive ‘one’ was beyond my grasp. I’d stalked MFA Draft, read the blogs, done the numbers. I knew admissions rates for many fully funded programs hovered at about 2%, dipping down to less than a percent for the most selective ones. I toyed with the idea of applying to Columbia, which, though an excellent program, had a surprisingly accommodating admission rate of >20% due to its dismal funding (I didn’t, because I could not summon the will to write a critical essay). When notifications season rolled around, I braced myself for rejection. And sure enough the rejections came, in the form of unceremonious emails from Syracuse and Cornell. I’d set my heart on Syracuse for the same reason as so many applicants before me (The weather of course, and you know, I hear they’ve got some famous guy on the faculty, Geoffrey? Greg?), so the “Dear Applicant” form rejection was a stab in the heart. In the week that followed, I lived in a zombie-like state. I ignored texts and calls from concerned friends, responded to my fiancé in grunts, neglected to comb my hair. It was only at work, where no one knew I wrote, that I could forget that Geoffrey/Greg at Syracuse had not liked my writing sample, and that I could ignore the slew of rejections I was sure was coming my way.

But then a tiny light appeared: an email from Peter Carey (!) at Hunter, asking when I’d be available for a phone interview. And then another email, saying I’d been waitlisted at Michigan. I allowed myself to hope. At least if I were rejected everywhere else, I’d know that I had come close and could try again next year. A few hours later, I received a call from a New York number. I locked myself in a meeting room, hands shaking, to take the call. It was Deborah Landau, offering me a place at NYU with a full fellowship. I immediately burst into tears and proceeded to blither incoherently. The time lag that happens on international calls amplified this awkwardness about tenfold. After I hung up, my cheeks seemed to have developed a life of their own and wouldn’t stop twitching. I must have looked manic when I returned to my desk. Hell yes, I thought, beaming, I was moving back to New York.

But then the impossible happened. I was subsequently accepted to Indiana, Iowa, Johns Hopkins and Michener, an outcome beyond my wildest dreams. Before getting these  acceptances, I’d had stories rejected around 200 times by literary journals over the prior 3 years, with 5 stories accepted for publication. One of the stories in my MFA writing sample had been rejected over 20 times before finally finding a home in Prairie Schooner. Since March, things have taken a positive turn – I’ve signed with an agent and had my debut novel acquired by publishers – but oddly, getting those MFA acceptances was still the happiest I’ve ever been. I’d wanted it for so long, dreamt of it so much, thought it was so impossible. If you’re reading this blog, I don’t have to tell you that a fully funded MFA is a gift – 2 or 3 years of time to read, write, be part of a vibrant and passionate community of writers – and nothing short of a dream come true.

After the drunken happiness wore off, anxiety set in. I began to, as I often do, turn what was an overwhelmingly happy choice into a tormented, anxiety-ridden dilemma. I was most torn between NYU (New York, glittering faculty, rare coveted fellowship), Iowa (Holy Grail #1 + a current student told me they literally hosted a house party for Michael Cunningham) and Michener (Holy Grail #2 + 3 years with no teaching responsibilities what?). I descended into obsessive spreadsheeting, ricocheting between the three, convinced one day it was NYU, the next that it was Iowa, and then Michener. I developed a social media addiction, had difficulties sleeping, and would jolt awake at 5am with thoughts like “But do I want teaching experience?” or “Is more time better or worse?” I knew I was being ridiculous and I felt immensely ungrateful for my good fortune. What was wrong with me? Couldn’t I just make a choice and be happy? When I really thought about it, I was happy, deliriously so. But I was also wracked with worry about making the ‘wrong’ choice, about ‘wasting’ the amazing opportunity I was being given. On hindsight this was of course somewhat melodramatic and unfounded, for as many have said before me on this blog, amongst fully funded MFAs there are no wrong choices. But I couldn’t see it then. In this embarrassingly self-indulgent time, the vets of MFA Draft were invaluable in providing objective, informed advice. I was, and still am, completely blown away by the generosity of strangers on the Internet.

I’m making it sound more drawn out than it really was, for it felt like that at the time. But in reality this agonising happened over the space of a week, before I realised that Michener was quite clearly the program for me. I’d always been drawn to interdisciplinary work, having majored in Comparative Literature and Society as an undergrad, and Michener would allow me to work on both Fiction and Screenwriting. The flexible course requirements also meant I had a high degree of freedom in taking electives across different departments. It was a small program of just 5 fiction writers, something that had attracted me to the likes of Syracuse in the first place. And it offered an opportunity like no other program: three full years, fully funded, with no teaching responsibilities taking time away from writing. On a personal level, the company my husband worked for in London was headquartered in Austin, and it was very likely he’d be able to move with me. Finally – this was one of the biggest factors in my decision – I got a hugely positive vibe from speaking to current students. Quite simply, everyone seemed ecstatic to be there.

Since making my decision, I haven’t doubted it once (fine, I haven’t doubted it seriously once, since let’s be honest I doubt all aspects of all my decisions at all times). That doesn’t stop the ghosts of other lives that could have been from haunting me. The glorious International Writers Program at Iowa, the Lilian Vernon House at NYU, and, as I give away most of my personal belongings in preparation of the move, my life here in London, complete with a stable job, good friends and universal healthcare. I am a hoarder of objects but also a hoarder of moments, past, present and future. The posters from 2006 that still adorn my flat in 2017 speak to my deepest fear of losing something – some fleeting moment in time, some version of myself – and it is this same fear that threatens to paralyse me each time I make a major life decision, each time I close a door behind or in front of me. I try to recognise the fear for what it is and move forward nonetheless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I think (hope) it is okay to feel regret or anxiety even as you take positive steps in your life, even as you see your dreams fulfilled. People will say accusingly: “But isn’t this what you’ve wanted for so long? Haven’t you always wanted to quit your office job? Didn’t you say you always saw yourself moving back to America?” and they will be right, partially. You do want those things. You want them desperately. But maybe you are also allowed to miss your tiny cubicle, your morning commute, the kind lady who remembers your name at your local bakery/dry cleaners/grocery store. Maybe – earlier I said there was no epiphany forthcoming, but it appears I lied – the first step to achieving a happiness that rests in itself is to stop aggressively demanding of ourselves: But aren’t you happy? Why aren’t you happy yet?

In two days, I leave London for a new life in Austin. I’m excited, anxious, disbelieving, happy, terrified. For now though, I’ll keep putting stuff in boxes.

Pre-order

Suicide Club is now available for pre-order in both hardcover and ebook on Amazon 😊 You can pre-order here! It's only listed on Amazon UK for now; I'll update again when the Amazon US link is up. (That said, some determined friends have thus far managed to pre-order off Amazon UK for delivery in Singapore, Germany, Switzerland and the US, so it is possible!)

Also means I have a shiny new Amazon author page!

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The Straits Times Interview

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with Olivia Ho, Books Editor at The Straits Times. We had a lovely long conversation about Suicide Club, how I started writing, and my relationship with vegetables (I eat them now. Sometimes.). You can read the interview here: http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/singapore-writer-scores-international-book-deals

 

And here are some pictures of the paper itself! I don't actually have a copy yet, but people have been sending me photos and I must say it's pretty damn surreal to see myself on the front page of a national newspaper! 😱

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Ermagerdddd that's my face