On 16 October 2019, I went on the air with radio host Melanie Oliveiro to discuss my “greatest hits” collection, Most Excellent and Lamentable. For whatever reason, Channel NewsAsia doesn’t archive their audio content online like other radio stations, but I was provided with the interview for personal use. Below is my transcription (only slightly cleaned up to remove the “um”s and “uh”s and repetitions in speech), for those who were not able to catch the conversation when it aired.
Singapore Today with Melanie Oliveiro
CNA938, 16 Oct 2019, 800-830pm
Melanie Oliveiro: Keeping me company for the next fifteen minutes or so is an American, who was born in New York, grew up in North Carolina, and is now an author, editor and doting dad in Singapore. I’m with Jason Erik Lundberg, who’s been calling Singapore home since 2007. Jason’s a fiction editor at local publisher Epigram Books, and Epigram Books has published his latest volume, Most Excellent and Lamentable. It’s a collection of short stories selected from Lundberg’s first three collections, and this new book also includes a brand new novelette titled “Slowly Slowly Slowly”. Let’s quickly bring on Jason Erik Lundberg so he can tell us more.
Jason, is the title of your book a reference to the title of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?
Jason Erik Lundberg: It is actually, indeed. It’s the title of one of the stories in the book as well. It comes from the full title of Romeo and Juliet, which is: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet. I always liked that interesting juxtaposition between “excellent” and “lamentable”. So when I wrote that story, it introduces elements from Romeo and Juliet, but in a very different way. It’s not exactly a retelling, but it’s instead taking characters who are in that play and using them almost like archetypes to tell the very strange story that I’m telling.
MO: I’m sure that many students of Shakespeare would immediately have this resonance with the book when they come across the title.
So how did you go about choosing the stories from your previous collections? What was the criteria, and was it really like choosing your favourite child?
JEL: [laughs] A bit, yeah. So as you mentioned, I have three previous short story collections; the first one was published here in Singapore, but the other two were published by my UK publisher, Infinity Plus. The first one, Red Dot Irreal, went out of print recently, and so all three of them were hard to find here anyway. After some back and forth with Epigram Books, it was decided that we’d take a more comprehensive look at my short fiction, at this sixteen-year career in writing that I’ve had so far. So it was very much about picking the most emotionally resonant and interesting stories from those three collections, and then we included a new one as well. As you said, I’ve written a novelette specifically just for this book.
MO: So something new for your fans too.
Did you rewrite any of them? Some of the stories are labelled “author’s preferred text”.
JEL: Yeah, the two stories that bookend the collection. For the very first one, called “The Stargirl and the Potter”, the online venue that originally published it asked me to trim it down. So it was about five hundred words shorter than the version that appears in the book. [Actually, it was a thousand words shorter. —JEL] I was fine with the version that was published, but I also wanted the full one to be out there as well.
And then with the very last story in the book, called “Ikan Berbudi (Wise Fish)”, my friend Gemma Pereira, who is a wonderful writer herself, made me aware that there were some details that were problematic and some that I’d frankly gotten wrong. With her help, I was able to go through and realise that maybe the way that I was naming the characters and presenting some of the circumstances needed to change. So those two stories I revised more heavily than the other ones in the collection, which were only slightly tweaked to make them consistent throughout the book.
MO: I found your stories otherworldly; sometimes I got sucked into their surreal themes. Were you always escaping into strange worlds as a boy, which is something you still indulge in today?
JEL: [laughs] Pretty much. It all started with my love of fantastical fiction—science fiction, fantasy, things like that—when I was a boy, and it shows no signs of stopping. I think that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to change the way I approach it and the way that it influences how I look at the world. Because this is a very strange world that we live in; writing strictly realist fiction sometimes doesn’t incorporate the world that we’re really living in, especially right now. So it’s always been the mode that I gravitate towards the most and I’m very happy to keep going with it.
MO: You grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and that’s not near the coast, so did you look to escaping into different worlds because you maybe secretly wanted to get out of Raleigh?
JEL: I don’t think it was that. By the time I got to Raleigh, I was about twelve years old, so it wasn’t that I was really escaping that. And by the way, the coast was not too terribly far away, about an hour and a half drive—
MO: That’s a long way for Singaporeans! [laughs]
JEL: [laughs] Maybe, but for Americans, that’s nothing.
JEL: That’s a day trip to the beach. [laughs] And it wasn’t always about escaping either. This is one role that fantastical writing does have, but it has always helped me to understand the world as well. When you can look at things at a slanted point of view, you can ask questions and you can think, “Okay, the narrative that I’m being given on whatever topic might be: is that actually the real thing, or is somebody trying to spin it their way?” And by literalising metaphors and doing other things with fantastical fiction that are a bit out of the ordinary, it jolts you out of just blindly assuming whatever someone says is true. You can look at things where you might not have seen them before in that way and think, “Maybe I’m not seeing the full truth of them, but I’m still seeing it from a different point of view.”
MO: Okay, that makes sense.
I enjoyed reading the first story in the book, “The Stargirl and the Potter”; it’ll appeal to the romantics in all of us. But I couldn’t get my head around “Wombat Fishbone”. Do you get people writing to you, not just asking you to explain concepts in your storylines, but also to tell you how much a story resonated with them?
JEL: I have, actually, and it’s always really, really lovely to hear, in email or in person or whatever. It’s always fantastic to be able to hear that something I’ve written actually connected with someone else. That’s one of the reasons I do this. Not so much of people asking me to explain things in my stories, although there are a few of those as well; that particular story you mentioned, “Wombat Fishbone”, is one of the stranger ones in the book. [laughs] And in it I go full-on into a surreal farce; it was a reaction to this short film that I saw during that time which was also funny and surreal. [“A Heap of Trouble” by Steve Sullivan (NSFW); probably worth a Google. —JEL]
I think the thing I really like about this type of writing is that I don’t explain things, and the strange events that happen just happen; it’s not like we can justify them or show that they’re intruding into our real world. They’re just part of the world of the story. I really like writing that makes you feel very strange. The standard label for this type of writing is “slipstream”. I like being able to affect somebody who’s reading my work and make them feel a bit off about what’s going on in the world.
MO: Once you put a book out there, it’s not yours anymore. It’s open to interpretation by anyone who picks it up.
JEL: That’s absolutely true. Though I do feel like it’s still partly mine. [laughs] But you’re right, I’m sharing it with the reader now. I don’t subscribe to the idea that once you put a piece of writing out there, it’s not yours at all anymore. It’s a conversation now with the reader who’s picked up my book, whether that conversation is a clear one, or whether it results in confusion, or whether it results in epiphany and connection. I like that this is a way that I can communicate with other people, through these squiggles on paper.
MO: You’re the first author who has told me his book is a conversation with the reader! That’s quite a concept for me to think about. And it is true.
Which short story was the hardest to complete, and do you have a reason for that?
JEL: I’m not sure, actually. They were…
MO: So they just flowed out of you.
JEL: Some of them did. Some were a little easier than others. For the title story, “Most Excellent and Lamentable”, I basically wrote the entire thing in one afternoon in a café. It was one of those gifts that, as a writer, you get very few of, where the process is so easy that it feels like you’re channelling some other kind of force. And the version that is published is nearly exactly the one that I wrote as is.
MO: Almost like stream of consciousness.
JEL: Almost, yeah. So there was very little editing to do for that story. But then there were others that required more work and thought. The story that is original to this collection, “Slowly Slowly Slowly”, is a bit longer than most of the ones in the book; it’s at novelette length, a bit longer than a standard short story. I originally thought it was going to be a novella, but some of the logical issues in the story made me realise that this was going to be shorter than that. But because I’m dealing with concepts like elder care and how we deal with degenerative diseases, things that are a bit more weighty than some of the other pieces in the book that are lighter in tone, I did feel like I needed to think through a lot of it. So it wasn’t so much that it was “difficult” to get through, but it did take more thought and I had to be very careful about how I approached the story.
MO: So no writer’s block in any of them then.
At the end of a few of the stories, you credit literary greats like Pablo Neruda and Jack Kerouac; why openly acknowledge them? Isn’t it a “talent borrows and genius steals” kind of situation?
JEL: I’ve always believed that we’re standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us. There were a number of stories in this collection that are very deliberate responses to other writers and artists. There’s a short piece in the book called “Great Responsibility”, which is a response to a couple of photographs by the photographer Nguan. [As well as the notable phrase by Stan Lee to encapsulate Spider-Man’s ethos. —JEL] I’ve been influenced by creators since I started reading. If anybody who says they’re a writer claims they have no influences, they’re lying. So I wanted to make it very explicit and open, to acknowledge these influences in the first place and to give thanks as well; if these previous writers and artists had not committed their art, I would have no story responding to it.
MO: You work in publishing at Epigram Books, and you’re an author. Are there any conflicts of interest of the creative kind? Sometimes you’ve got to put on your editor hat and edit someone else’s piece of work, but does the writer role in you say, “No, I shouldn’t touch that because it is raw and real”?
JEL: My whole position on being an editor is that I am trying to take whatever text it might be, whether a short fiction collection or a novel, and help it become the best version of itself. I’m much more of a midwife than somebody involved in the creative process itself. It’s changing word choices, it’s making the writing flow smoother; it’s questioning different parts of the text, including character consistency and whether they would behave in a certain way.
It’s also a matter of looking at the writer’s style, and really trying not to mess with that too much. There are a number of writers I’ve worked with who have a very distinctive style, and I was tempted at times to try and smoothen that out a bit, but that roughness of their style is part of what makes them who they are. It’s always a balancing act between wanting to impose my own vision on the text and staying faithful to what the writer was originally trying to create.
MO: So who edited your stories, and did you have a good relationship with that person?
JEL: Absolutely. My editor is my Epigram Books colleague and our managing editor, Eldes Tran.
MO: So she’s the boss!
JEL: Well, she’s the boss of me! [laughs] Not the head boss, which is Edmund Wee, but she’s my boss and she’s a fantastic editor. I really trusted her and enjoyed working with her on my previous book, Diary of One Who Disappeared, and appreciated seeing how she thinks and approaches a text. So it was a very smooth process working on Most Excellent and Lamentable as well. She’s someone I really enjoy hashing things out with and getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes a story good, what makes it work and what is the best thing for it.
MO: So it sounds like a good creative relationship.
I know you love your daughter very, very much. If she wants to be a full-time writer in Singapore when she gets older, what would you say to her?
JEL: Well, first of all, she just turned ten years old yesterday, so Happy Birthday, Anya! It’s very difficult to be a full-time writer in Singapore, even if you’re writing non-fiction. It can be done, but it’s hard to do, especially if you’re writing fiction. Unfortunately, the publishing ecosystem here doesn’t quite support that yet, and that’s kind of where the rest of the world is now too, even in the US and the UK, which have long traditions of supporting their writers. Unless you’re one of the top-tier consistently bestselling authors, it’s really hard to make a living it at it. So you have to do other things, like teach or edit, to support your income.
I would very much encourage her if she expressed the desire to be a full-time writer, but I would also be very realistic with her, and just let her know that these are the things to think about and be aware of when you try to have a career in writing.
MO: Jason, thank you so much for your time. That was American author and fiction editor based in Singapore, Jason Erik Lundberg. Grab his latest volume of short stories, Most Excellent and Lamentable, published by Epigram Books. It’s now out on bookstore shelves at places like Kinokuniya, Times and other great bookstores in Singapore. This is CNA938, and I am Melanie Oliveiro.