An Eastlit Interview by Graham Lawrence
Daniel Emlyn Jones Introduction
What do you do outside of writing?
I worked for ten years as a research microbiologist in UK and Australia, and then studied medicine, but through various twists and turns I’m currently working as a freelance teacher. My working hours tend to be 3-9pm, so that leaves the morning and early afternoon for other pursuits such as a writing.
How long does it take you to complete a piece of work?
This varies a great deal depending on how much time I have spare. Currently it takes me the equivalent of two to three weeks of full time work to complete a short story of three thousand words or so.
When did you first start writing?
I started writing as a child, and then wrote in dribs and drabs during my adolescence. In my thirties I wrote two novels. The first was utterly awful, but fortunately I had a good dose of the hubris of the beginner, and indulgent friends who didn’t want to upset me. If someone had held up a mirror, I may have given up! The second novel was slightly less awful but still seriously flawed. I did have great fun writing it though!
Could you briefly summerize your literary activities and achievements?
Three of my short stories about Singapore are published in Anak Sastra, and two in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. I’m finding short story writing a great way to learn the craft and experiment. Further down the road I plan to have a proper go at writing a novel, but don’t feel quite ready for this yet.
Please tell us a little about your writing.
My writing started in earnest when I was walking at Punggol Point in Singapore in 2009. Punggol Point is a place where thousands of chinese were slaughtered during the World War 2 Sook Ching Massacre, and I suddenly got the urge to write about it. The result was my short story ’Punggol Road’. Other stories with a Singaporean theme followed the first one. With its fascinating mix of cultures, and intersting history, Singapore makes a wonderful subject for writing, but above all I think it was an important and life changing relationship I have with a Singaporean man which drove my creativity in this direction.
My writing only started to improve when I really began to scrutinise and criticise my own work, and welcome the criticisms of other people. I’ve done my share of pretentious writing, and writing which tries to show off and play the clown, and writing which tries too hard. These days, I try above all else to be honest in my writing, and write for its own sake. It’s nice to be published of course, but for me my stories are like my babies. I love them just as much whether they are at home with me, or in the care of a jounral such as Eastlit.
Which piece of your own writing means the most to you and why?
My short story ’A Secret Paradise’ is the piece of writing which means most to me. It is a cross-cultural Singaporean gay love story which comes from the heart. The first editor I submitted it to said it had too many cliched telly drama tropes to be published. I’m afraid I love those tropes, and those darlings aint gonna be killed! Hopefully one day it will see the light of day.
What does being a writer mean to you?
For me, being a writer means having a voice. When you speak, people can ignore you or talk over you. By it’s nature the written word is more durable and more empowering. I am presently helping a Nigerian friend write his story, and helping another person to find their voice is also deeply rewarding.
I spent ten years working in a research laboratory. In this environemnt, as in the office, politics plays an important role. I also like writing because it’s relatively free of such things. I can be creative, write and publish a short story without the need to suck up to or get on with anyone. I am judged purely on the quality of my writing and on nothing else.
How would you describe your writing process?
My writing process starts as a thinking process. Working out characters and plot, and finding out what a story is ’about’ takes much time and effort for me. I am dylsexic, and I don’t know if this effects the process in my case. Like the Mills of Justice, I think my brain grinds ’slow but exceeding fine’.
When I feel that I’m starting to know what I’m doing, I write out a first draft, tweaking it numerous times as I go along. Once it resists any further tweaking, I give it to a professional critic to read. I use Lorna Fergusson from Fiction Fire because she provides excellent literary criticism without leaving me feeling humiliated!
While waiting for criticisms, I usually work on another project, which gives me a rest from the story. This is important because it allows me to come back to it fresh. Once I’ve had this break and the criticisms come back, I work on the final drafts, tweaking and tweaking, self-criticising and self-criticising, until either I’m tentatively happy with it, or I’m too sick of the sight of it to continue. As I’ve grown in experience, I usually find that stories also ’tell’ me when they’ve had enough.
Are there any Asian poets, writers, artists among your major influences?
I enjoy reading short fiction from all over Asia. Recently, I’ve been particularly enjoying the short stories of the Singaporean poet Cyril Wong. I’ve also recently read Jung Chang’s biography of Dowager Empress Cixi, which is fascinating.
What are the Asia-related subjects that have recently engaged your attention?
Gay issues and issues of justice always interest me, and are good manure for short stories. Recently, the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore has been a hot debating topic. Legalisation of homosexuality in Singapore is also an ongoing debate which I follow with great interest.
Which books are most influential to you?
I love the great American short story writers Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx and John Cheever. Alice Munro’s prose is beautifully simple and yet wonderfully effective. I read her when I feel I’m not being ’literary’ enough and need reassurance that it’s OK. Flannery O’Connor can knock you to the floor with her short stories. The ending of ’Everything that rises must converge’ was so sad I couldn’t sleep. When I got to the end of ’The lame shall enter first’ I hurled the book across the room and called its author something rather rude. These heavyweights show just how powerful a short story can be.
How did you find Eastlit and what are your impressions of it?
I found Eastlit during searches for sites to submit my babies (oh sorry, I mean stories) to. There was clearly a great deal of enthusiasm and love behind Eastlit, and the site looked professional with a good number of readers. I also very much enjoy reading Steve Rosse’s witty How Not to Write series.
Would you like to leave us with a favorite quote or two, or a passage from your own or others work? And why does it means something to you?
This passage from Lawrence Durrel’s ’Justine’ is the first piece of writing which moved me to tears by its sheer beauty:
’…lying beside a sleeping woman in a cheap room near the mosque. In that early spring dawn with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the Ebed – a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria. ’I praise the perfection of God, the Forever existing’ (this repeated thrice, ever more slowly, in a high sweet register). ’The perfection of God, the Desired, the Existing, the Single, the Supreme: the perfection of God, the One, the Sole: the perfection of Him who taketh unto himself no male or female partner, nor any like Him, nor any that is disobedient, nor any deputy, equal or offspring. His perfection be extolled.’
The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words – the voice of the muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity – until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvellous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing as lightly as a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendours of a language she would never know.’
Thanks to Daniel Emlyn-Jones for taking the time to give us an interview. All of us at Eastlit wish him the best in the future.
The following work by Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit: