Our interview series Five Minutes With… sees us speaking to those in the writing and publishing industry – authors, journalists, editors, biographers, translators – to discover what compelled them to start sharing stories, and the hurdles they’ve overcome along the way. This week we spoke with multi-talented journalist, memoirist and novelist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan.
Cheryl, where has your work appeared?
I was a journalist for many years before I started writing books – my first job was as a hard news reporter at The Baltimore Sun, then I moved into covering fashion as a critic, reporter/features writer at The Wall Street Journal and an editor at In Style magazine in New York. At The Wall Street Journal, I was feeling particularly burnt out one season and really missing Singapore, where I grew up, as well as the food of my family. Right before fashion week one season, I took a week off and flew back to Singapore to reconnect with some aunties who had cooked with my paternal grandmother, who had been a formidable cook and whose pineapple tarts I never forgot. She passed away when I was just 11, though, so I never learned her recipes.
Finally, in my 30s, I traveled home to cook with my aunties and learn her recipes – the essay I wrote for The Wall Street Journal about that experience ended up being turned into my first book, A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family (Hyperion, 2011). I often joke that I started writing about food because I was tired of writing about people (in fashion) who actively avoided food – that’s not entirely untrue!
Since then, I’ve also edited Singapore Noir (Akashic Books, 2014), a collection of noir stories by Singaporean and other writers. I also freelance fashion, food and travel stories for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bon Appetit and more. I wrote about Hemingway’s hamburger for The Paris Review and recently explored my love for British food in Foreign Policy magazine.
Last year, HarperCollins published my first novel, Sarong Party Girls,which has been described as “Emma” set in modern Asia and explores the world of Sarong Party Girls, whose main goal in life is to date and marry an expat, usually white, man. It’s written in first-person, entirely in Singlish, and it was a lovely treat to present it at the UWRF last year.
When and why did you start writing?
I wrote my first ‘short story’ when I was around five – it was just a paragraph long and I remember being so proud of it. I loved reading so much and I always knew I wanted to write – the idea of being able to spin magic just from putting words together was intoxicating. I started writing first as a journalist, which I loved. I really do believe in this H.L. Mencken quote: “…as I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”
In journalism, I enjoyed telling the stories I felt needed to be told – and that’s been my focus in my books as well. Singapore, where my whole family still lives, is such a fascinating bit of the world and not too many people in the US, where I live, know it beyond the fact that it’s a very expensive place to live, has strict rules etc. I want to share with readers the beautifully complex and textured Singapore that I see. And my books tend to be about the female experience in Singapore – my stories explore what it can be like to be a modern woman in Asia and the pressures one can feel and the experiences one can have. I’ve been working on my next novel these few months and it’s also set in Singapore.
What hurdles have you overcome, and what have been your biggest wins?
I’ve been very fortunate as a writer as I’ve had a wonderfully supportive agent and editors in my book career. I wake up every day feeling very blessed – just having them in my life and in my corner has been my biggest win. Also, my first book was about my family and it really was an ode to my late grandmothers, my aunties, my mother – the women in my family. It actually came out shortly before my maternal grandmother passed away and I feel so grateful that I got to tell her – and their – story and share that (and their recipes!) with all of them as well as readers around the world. It was such a special experience and memorable project for me.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
The best way to write a book – whether it’s a novel or non-fiction – is to just sit down and write. So many people I know (myself included, when I’m stuck) feel paralyzed and go out of their way to avoid just sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Sometimes the act of sitting down and doing that is all you need to trigger the words – they may not be the most perfect words or the best story that day but at least something is coming out and you can finesse it all later. That’s how I fight writers’ block anyway – Woody Allen once said, “80% of life is showing up.” I normally loathe platitudes but this is one I don’t mind.
What was your most rewarding experience at UWRF?
Meeting readers and writers – I have the most amazing memories of my time there, from the long dinner conversations with readers to poolside discussions at the beautiful Kano Sari with writers about books we love, the slog of writing and more. I’ve become rather good friends with a few of those writers and count them as very dear friends – and I have UWRF to thank for having them in my life. Everyone should read Annabel Smith, Anita Heiss, Kirsti Melville, Hannah Kent and Susanne Gregor! And Mitchell Jackson, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Amit Chaudhuri, Suki Kim and… the list is endless. Truly, terima kasih.
Follow Cheryl on Twitter: @cheryltan88 and visit her website here.