For our fourth installment of the Debut Author Series, Indonesian-born Singaporean author Clarissa Goenawan reached out to me. I was immediately intrigued by her novel, RAINBIRDS, a magical realism mystery set in Japan. Maybe I’m just a sucker for anything about Japan.
Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Singapore, Australia, the UK, and the US. Rainbirds is her first novel.
What drove you to write your first book?
One day, a question floated into my mind. What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?
At that time, I was dabbling in short stories and flash fiction, so the original plan was to write it as a short story. A young man lost an older brother, and soon, he learns that the deceased brother was hiding a dark secret. Later on, the reclusive brother morphed into an elegant, seemingly perfect sister. More and more ideas came in, and in the end, I had to tell myself, “This can’t be a short story. This has to be a novel.”
What is RAINBIRDS about?
RAINBIRDS follows a young man’s path to self-discovery as he struggles with his sister’s unsolved murder. It’s a literary mystery with elements of magical realism set in Japan.
What inspired you to set your story in Japan?
I wanted the story to take place in an Asian country that has four seasons and a wide range of natural backdrop (mountains, rivers, lakes, etc) Japan became a top choice because I studied the language and was part of the Japanese cultural club in high school. I’m also an avid manga (Japanese comic) reader. It’s my guilty pleasure.
What writing most energizes you? What most exhausts you?
I love writing the first draft. This is the time to let my imagination run wild. Nothing is off limits. No rules, apart from the minimum daily word count I set for myself. I usually complete my first draft in November during NaNoWriMo, so there is always plenty of cheering.
The most exhausting—but crucial—part is the final check to make sure there are no typos or grammar errors. This is extremely hard especially after I’ve worked on a novel for years and am getting too close to my work. For writers, the final check is a very important step. We want to present the best possible book to the readers.
What part of you do you feel leaked into your books?
My favorite character in RAINBIRDS is Rio Nakajima, a young girl who is beautiful and smart, but also at times rash. She speaks her mind without holding back, unafraid to chase after the things she that wants, and doesn’t care about what others think of her. I really admire Rio’s confidence and boldness. In a way, she is a representation of the kind of person I wish I had been when I was young.
What made you want to add Magical Realism to RAINBIRDS?
I’m intrigued by the concept of a dream and how we perceive it. A dream comes in various forms—sometimes it’s crystal clear, sometimes it’s muddy and confusing. A few times I dreamt of something I thought had happened, and other times something happened and I remembered I’d dreamt about it.
I love how dreams often blend into real life, and this fascination probably explains why dreams frequently come up in my writing.
Does your family support your writing and the subject matter?
My husband doesn’t read my writing (or perhaps he does secretly?) and I’m not planning to ask. We have very different taste in books, and I would be devastated if he didn’t like my book. Despite that, he is very supportive of my career. He readily helps out and gives me time and space to do my writing. That, to me, speaks volumes.
My parents are Indonesian speakers and I write in English, so they haven’t read any of my stories. But there is good news. Gramedia has bought the Indonesian rights to Rainbirds. I’m excited but also nervous about what my parents will say when they eventually read it.
What was the publication process like for you?
I spent a month and a half to do my first draft, and another year and a half to do the editing. Finding an agent and a publisher took a year plus. The publishing process was another two years.
Rainbirds’ first draft was written in November 2013, and it’s finally being published in March 2018. This feels like f-o-r-e-v-e-r to me, but my writer friends said mine is actually fast.
Best money ever spent as a writer?
The GBP25 entry fee I paid for the Bath Novel Award. It’s an international competition for unpublished novelists.
I heard about the competition but initially didn’t plan to join, because I didn’t think I stood a chance. Thankfully, my writing mentor, novelist Jenny Ashcroft, asked me to apply so I did (despite being 100% certain this wasn’t going to lead to anything)
In 2015, the Bath Novel Awards received 806 entries from writers in 41 countries. Rainbirds won the first prize, and I can’t thank Jenny enough for her encouragement. Winning the competition has opened doors of opportunities and changed my life. I also formed a close friendship with many of the participants, even those before and after my year.
If you could tell your teen self one thing, what would it be?
Don’t take yourself too seriously, and don’t worry too much about what others think of you. Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.
Outside of writing, what are you passionate about?
I have a strong interest in personal finance. Actually, I used to work as a personal banker, advising clients on investments and insurance. I believe that everyone should learn about personal finance and take ownership of their finances.
I was only able to quit my banking job and pursue my childhood dream to be a novelist because I have some my personal savings and a portfolio that generates passive income.