My First Time with...Rachel Heng
Image: Ben Crocker
Rachel Heng's debut novel, Suicide Club, will be published by Henry Holt (US) and Sceptre (UK) in July 2018, and translated in eight languages worldwide. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Prairie Schooner's Jane Geske Award, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post, ELLE, The Rumpus and NYLON. Short stories she’s written have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Offing, Prairie Schooner, The Adroit Journal, the minnesota review and elsewhere. Rachel is currently an MFA candidate and James A. Michener Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers, UT Austin.
Rachel will be reading from Suicide Club and answering your writing questions at The Riff Raff on Thursday 12th July. Want to benefit from her advice?
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Here's the blurb for Suicide Club...
'In a near-future world, medical technology has progressed far enough that immortality is now within grasp -but only to those who show themselves to be deserving of it. These people are the lifers: the exercisers, yogacisers, green juicers and early nighters.
Genetically perfect, healthy and wholesome, one hundred-year-old Lea is the poster girl for lifers, until the day she catches a glimpse of her father in the street, eighty-eight years after their last encounter. While pursuing him, Lea has a brush with death which sparks suspicions. If Lea could be so careless, is she worthy of immortality?
Suicide Club wasn't always an activist group. It began as a set of disillusioned lifers, gathering to indulge in forbidden activities: performances of live music, artery-clogging meals, irresponsible orgies. But now they have been branded terrorists and are hunted by the state. And Lea has decided to give them a call.'
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Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book?
There were many moments! It first took shape in the form of a failed book during NaNoWriMo 2013. Then a short story where people lived forever in mid 2014. Then finally, the first draft of Suicide Club while I was enrolled on the Faber Academy Writing A Novel class. The exact moment for the latter, I suppose, was when I was submitting my application to Faber and had to decide what to use as my writing sample. I had two novel projects in mind – the first, a realist, intergenerational novel set in Singapore, the second, a speculative novel that would eventually become Suicide Club. I was sitting at my kitchen table reading what I’d written of both projects so far and after much wavering, decided to work on the speculative novel.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?
I wish I’d known that feeling frustrated and lost didn’t mean that the novel was going nowhere. It was just part of the learning and writing process.
What’s your go-to procrastination method?
If you follow me on Twitter, chances are you already know. It’s Twitter. (I also spend a lot of time lying on the floor at eye level with my cat.)
Any tantrums while writing it?
Literally every other day! My poor husband and best friends had to deal with my tantrums and existential crises for almost three years. I guess they’re still dealing with it and will deal with it for as long as I continue writing (or they get sick of me).
Best thing about writing your book? Having readers tell me that they connected with the book and that it meant something to them. That sense of connection is what I love about reading books, and what got me into writing in the first place. It’s a feeling like no other.
And the worst?
The sense of vulnerability and of being exposed, both on a craft level and a personal level. But I’m told by older and wiser writers that you get used to that, so I’m hoping it gets better.
Go-to writing snacks?
Dark chocolate Digestives when at home, lemon tarts when I’m at my favourite writing spot (Loafing at Victoria Park).
Who or what inspires you to write?
Books inspire me. There is no better feeling that reading something so painfully true it feels like the writer is staring straight into your soul, and I write because I hope one day I can do for others what so many writers have done for me.
The book that changed you?
In childhood, Norton Juster’s fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth. In adulthood, Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment Of My Imagination.
Your pump up song?
I actually never listen to music when writing! But if I had to pick something, it would probably be Florence + The Machine’s 'Dog Days Are Over'.
If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer, who would it be?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or George Saunders.
One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get published?
On a practical level: so much information is available online, try to use that information to your advantage. When querying agents, be specific about why you chose them: what about their list attracts you? Have they said something in an interview that resonated? Then, if/when the rejections start coming in, don’t give up. While I was lucky to find an agent and publisher for Suicide Club fairly quickly, I also received many rejections along the way. I got over 200 rejections on my short fiction submissions over 3 years!
As for the writing side of things, one of my favourite writers Cory Taylor said this: 'Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable.' If you feel the urge to write, to shape your world, then you probably already know the intangible rewards that come with this vocation. Writing nourishes me in a way that nothing else does, and if it does that for you too, then cling to that precious feeling when the rejection and failure seem overwhelming. It will get better.
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