Letters for Creatives #57: Colin Tan - Interview With an Artist vol. 3
He weaves narratives in prose and poetry
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I am very excited to do this interview with Colin Tan as I have been thinking about doing it for a few months. His work always inspires me to read and write about subjects that I am not familiar with.
I am so excited to do this. I have not been so excited in a very long time. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how your writing journey started?
I was born way before the days of wifi in Liverpool, England. Being a mixed race, working class kid, my childhood was quite turbulent. The local library became a special place to me, a quiet place and a place to escape via books which I would read for hours.
I then began to write as I approached my teens and would write something almost every day. Back then I regularly won creative writing awards in school and locally.
But instead of pursuing a career in writing or English, I was encouraged to move into other areas. Sadly, I stopped writing for a long time in my twenties due to the demands of the industry I worked in and incredibly long hours. I only rediscovered what was missing in my life, writing, a few years ago.
Wow! I am so surprised. I am so glad you rediscovered the craft that now we can read your phenomenal stories. Did your writing ritual change after you stopped writing? Or did it stay the same?
I don't think I have ever seen it as a ritual, but it is something I have always had to do. There is and was a gnawing frustration in the background when I am not writing. For a long time, I didn't understand what it was.
What I write now is unsurprisingly different to what I wrote when I was younger. I don't have set times or schedules around it. I just try and catch ideas when I can and do something. I am the happiest if this happens daily. If it has, it has been a good week for me.
That is very similar to my process. But I have not been prolific these days. I miss March and April of 2020 so much as I was writing a lot. Writing makes me so happy, like I became a kid again.
If that is the case, then I think you need to try to schedule some time to write. Even if you don't feel like writing, you can eventually crank something out. The more you write, more stuff comes. It is very easy to fall into a rut and then you don't write anything for a long period.
Well. I have been in a rut for months, to be honest. I miss writing for fun so much. I am going to try that and see how it goes.
Try writing about not being able to write. It always works for me. What I mean is, try and describe how you are feeling, put it down, try and mould something with it. It is kind of like a muscle that needs exercise.
I wrote one about writer’s block and it was kind of fun! I am even a bit surprised reading the piece.
That is good and then you have written something and broke the cycle. That is the trick.
How does your day look like when you are not writing stories?
A lot like most people, working, trying to work, getting by or constantly daydreaming, which I have done for as long as I can remember.
Daydreaming kinds of takes us away from the reality and we get to write stories that come out of nowhere.
How did your writing style evolve? Were you always writing mysterious stories or did you stumble upon this style by accident?
I write to explore and make sense of the world, people and emotion. In doing so, it seems natural to strip away what we consider to be natural and normal. By doing so, I think it prompts us uncover truths about ourselves and our nature. We need to frame the world differently to appreciate a new or different perspective, in narratives.
As a storyteller, I feel that it helps to present the world in a slightly different way to engage the reader. They would engage with your message and consider what you say. It is like, removing the filters of the everyday, to focus on the core of the message or the tale.
As you mentioned that you write stories as inspiration comes, how can you be so prolific if that is the case?
Honestly I don't think there is a definitive answer for that. I am a very inquisitive, curious person and my mind is a bit hyperactive. I think this contributes. I find it very hard to switch off.
Do you get the answers you need if you write a lot? I used to have quite a hyperactive brain but it gets more quiet these days.
I do sometimes, sometimes I get more questions. But I think by doing so, a writer has a sense of agency about their world. It is one of the moments when we feel alive, as a human so to speak.
I got a few answers for the past few days. I was reflecting as I read some books that help me make sense of life. i guess poetry is more of a tool for me to process anger or remember my best days. Such a contrast but that is how I have been dealing with life, I guess.
I would say it's a very healthy way. Not able to express ourselves makes things worse, and brings no answers.
The most alive I have ever felt was when I was writing dreamy poems. Those are definitely days where I enjoy writing the most. I am so glad that I found poetry and storytelling, to be honest.
I am glad you can get that from writing. We all need some way of expressing what is inside us, for some it is writing, music, sport or other things. But as humans, I think we need to find a way of doing so. Otherwise life really would be pretty crappy.
Yes, I agree. Which writers or artists have the biggest influence on your work?
We are all influenced to some degree by absolutely everything we experienced, every sensation our senses allow us to experience. Deconstructing that pops up a lot in my poetry. I don't consider any writers to have influenced how I write. There has been nobody I have read who has had qualities I have wished to emulate.
But it is impossible to not be influenced in some small way by something I have read over the years. Reading is obviously as much a passion as writing is.
I do have writers who I enjoy, who have encouraged me to read and take up writing to explore my own voice. In this sense, I would say my influences would be people like Paul Auster, certainly when I was younger.
Books that have really stood out to me over the last few years have been written by David Foster Wallace, Yoko Ogawa, and Samuel Beckett. I have also recently been reading a lot of short stories which historically I never did.
Yes. Life experiences can definitely be the main ingredients of writing. I am still working on bringing more fictional elements to my work.
But as long as I enjoy the writing process, it is fine. I am going to check out these writers you mention. I have been switching from writing poetry to stories more often now.
I really like reading Alain de Botton. He mixes fiction and non-fiction in his work but his wit is my favourite part of his work. You can say that I love reading books with wit.
Do you have any advice for writers who want to find their writing style, except writing a lot?
Reading is just as important as writing and finding new books to read. Not to find things to emulate but to open your mind up to the possibilities of what can be done on a page.
Also set yourself challenges. Deliberately write about something you have never thought about before or a genre you don't normally write in.
I had a feeling that my brain was literally rearranging itself when I read a book that suggests foreign ideas. I am not saying that it is a bad thing. It is just the brain working.
Basically, we are moving out of the comfort zone as we do.
How was the process when you put your books together? Is there any challenge?
The poetry collections? The Man Who Ate My Arms was quite a reactive process. People had been asking me for some poetry in print, so I put that together.
The latest one, The Neon Myths, as a concept was more or less planned from the beginning and I set out to write stuff in the themes I wanted it to cover.
I didn't put too much of a rigid framework around the content. I just allowed myself to write as I do each day, and when I finished a piece I would ask myself "is this a Neon Myth or not?" If yes, it went in the book.
I work on multiple things at the same time so I can't be too rigid. I am working on a novel, and I write short stories to submit to magazines and competitions. So if I set too many rigid goals around other things, I think I would go mad.
That is fair. How is the novel coming along?
I am about half way through a rewrite, which is good as stressful as it sounds, because I feel like I am now more onto what I wanted it to be.
I can’t be too rigid too, otherwise I would have nothing to show.
Yes, a lot of it has to flow.
That is nice! Looking forward to your novel even though it may not be in the genre I normally read.
Hopefully I can publish traditionally as I won't self publish the novel. I have another one to start working on when the novel is done.
Good luck with getting the novel out! I know that you would have a publisher for that.
Thank you! Finding time to write is about making time. If I have wasted hours binging very average shows, I feel bad about it.
I only watch shows that make me feel comforted for that reason.
You can learn from a well written show or movie. It is not just books that show how to tell a story.
Can you choose a poem among your favourites that our readers may like?
I awoke to a confusion of nectarines
and my skin tried to tell me I was alive
but my dreams were still asleep.
In slumber I unencumber my mind,
and release it from the weight of limbs.
Silence soothes the terrified tremor of a pulse
as the ache of a lost libido forsakes feeling.
Crying chooses the expression of an impulse,
as the break of a hollow heart murmurs meaning.
A reflection of glass paints the shadow of a mirror,
beneath my skin there may be a soul to discover,
but my eyes are blinded in dreams,
for I am lost in a confusion of nectarines.
— Colin Tan
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See you in 2 weeks,