WRITING: A streak of recklessness

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Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk Wai helms the Big Read at the National Library for dedicated readers who discuss books, reading and writing. Her story about Good Grief! appeared in The Sunday Times on Feb 7. The book will be featured at the Big Read session on Feb 24 and Suk Wai’s given me early warning to prepare to be interrogated. She put some questions to me and this is what I told her.

 1 How did you go about curating your columns? What did you leave out, what did you have to leave out, and how did you order your essays? For instance, how did you make the call to name some former colleagues and not others in your book?

First, I wanted this to be a collection of my personal columns because through the years I received the best feedback from readers when I revealed embarrassing things about my struggles with being a husband or father or son or fat guy. I chose the columns that still felt alive despite the passage of time. I tested some on a few victims and was encouraged to go ahead. At first I grouped them chronologically, but one of my first readers was Cherian George who felt that did not serve the reader best and suggested putting the columns on related topics together instead. I tried that, showed it to other readers and it worked, so we went with that. I used full names where it seemed right or I suddenly had a good feeling about a particular person.

2 Why did you write a few fresh essays for this book? Also, why did you give dates to some that were after you wrote them?

I stopped writing regularly in The Sunday Times in 2005 and there was a big gap between then and now. I was now past 60 and still alive, my children had grown up, and I had completed the full marathon! If this collection was happening, I needed to update the reader. The published columns carry the date they appeared in the paper. I wrote the new stories at the end of 2015 but it would have been odd to use “date of writing” for each. My book editor and I settled on using the same January 2016 date for the new ones.
3 In writing your columns and personal essays, what have you steered clear of all these years? Why?

I’ve steered away from subjects I knew nothing about or did not feel enough for. In looking at everything I wrote at the paper, the columns I liked least were the ones done when I was on a roster of editors who took turns to write on some serious topic of the day. We were trying to get more staff-generated content into the op-ed section and someone decided editors should show the way. I wouldn’t put any of those columns in a book, they read forced. Occasionally over the years I have felt strongly about some issue in the news – paying for human organs, competition for school places, or the group representation constituency system – and the idea for a column would bother me until I wrote it. And they ring truer than most of the rostered-to-write ones.

4 In shaping this memoir, who was/is your ideal reader? Why?

Anyone who sometimes despairs that doing life can be so hard. I’m always struggling with something or other in my life, and the newspaper allowed me to work it out in public. A few readers would send an e-mail and say it helped to know they weren’t the only ones cussing and swearing at the same things. They were ideal readers, because they were good enough to write.

5 Which writer(s) and journalists influenced you in your early years at work? Whose work do you have greatest regard for today? Why?

I was earning under $1,000 a month in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s when I paid a fortune for the complete, five-volume set of Editing and Design by Harold Evans, the legendary editor of The Sunday Times and The Times of London. Book One, Newsman’s English, was my favourite and everything I know about writing simply, cleanly and without big words I learnt there. Soon after I joined The Straits Times in Singapore, I was assigned to a new rewrite desk headed by Ambrose Khaw, a veteran who could clean up reporters’ copy in record time and would announce howlers to the whole newsroom in his booming voice. Editor in chief Peter H.L. Lim taught me to lick that beast called pride of authorship. He listened when I complained that an editor had mangled a story I’d written. He checked and then told me to suck it up because the published version was better than my original. Cheong Yip Seng, who was ST editor and then editor in chief for many years, was a big influence because he was a tireless advocate for thinking clearly and writing plainly. “If you can’t write a clear summary of your story in four lines,” he’d say, “your story will be in trouble.” He was right.

6 In your 35 years at The Straits Times, what are you proudest of and why?

I’ve been an editor for most of my career. I derived vicarious pleasure from other people’s good work, and it thrilled me no end when journalists I’d worked with won awards for their best efforts. Editors do a lot of invisible work, guiding or shaping work that appears in the paper. Most people who worked with me will tell you I gave them grief by asking too many questions in the night, sometimes forcing a story to be held over or killed because it was not fit to run. Last year, a reporter whose story I’d just queried in some detail revealed to me that a more senior writer had looked at the questions I’d asked and said: “Welcome to the club, you’ve just been alan-johnned.” It was the nicest thing I’d heard in a long time.

7 With almost 40 years in two newsrooms, why have you made relatively little mention of journalism and journalists in your memoir, particularly journalism as practised in Singapore? Might you be saving that knowledge for another book?

This is not meant to be that book. I was a hands-on editor for most of my time at The Straits Times. I’ve thought of writing ‘Dear God!’ about being an editor but it would be mostly a survival manual for people who spend their days and nights in a newsroom. I don’t know who would want to read that. I only have the title so far.

8 How much have you changed as a writer between writing Unholy Trinity and writing Good Grief! While the books’ subjects are very different, what did the process of writing them tell you about yourself and in what ways you yourself have, and have not, changed?

The Adrian Lim book first appeared in 1989 and it is a straightforward, factual telling of that 1981 case of two child murders, based mostly on the court records and police statements. I felt a little spooked writing it because of all the ghastly details. The only satisfaction I got was not that it sold well but that the 1989 edition raised funds for the Samaritans of Singapore. I am pleased that the 2016 edition includes a short account from Sister Gerard Fernandez, the amazing Catholic nun who counselled Adrian Lim’s wife and mistress on death row. I’m hoping that this edition will raise funds for Pave, the lead agency dealing with domestic violence here.

Writing the personal columns is different. I don’t understand the streak of recklessness that makes me reveal potentially embarrassing information about myself for all to see, but stuff just comes out as I’m writing and if it hangs together, I will leave it in and run for cover. I write fast, and am not someone who agonises over every word and comma, or uses uncommon words that will drive readers to the dictionary. But I always review what I’ve written before turning it in. I leave the story alone for a bit and when I look at it again, I pretend to be someone else seeing it for the first time – my wife, my friend, my mother or that fellow who can’t stand the sight of me. This often helps me spot what needs fixing. I don’t need a special time of day to write, but good things seem to happen in the dead of night.

9 Why had you considered moving to Chiangmai after retirement, and what did Mrs J and your children think of that? Also, what do they think of being mentioned in your writings all these years?

I mentioned Chiangmai in a story in Good Grief!, but I’m sure I also said, ‘Let’s move to Tirana’ after I came home from visiting Albania. My wife and children know when to roll their eyes and ignore me. They suffer my references to them admirably, especially because I never show them anything I’ve written before it appears in print.

10 To what extent would you consider that your life has been Good, and to what extent has it been Grief? Why?

I swear someone has been watching over me throughout my life. I know I am loved and the people I love include some I don’t speak to any more. Grief has its place in human life and arrives in many forms. I failed spectacularly in keeping some important relationships alive and I am not proud of that. But I lean shamelessly on God and it helps that I am not someone who wallows. If you work in a newsroom, you encounter plenty of grief but you cannot stew too long because there is a paper that won’t wait.

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