Yangsze Choo spent eight years writing a book about an elephant detective, a choice that (in hindsight) seems like a “very bad idea” to her. “I thought, ‘There’s literally an elephant in the room! How is he moving around?’” she says. But from the elephant detective came The Ghost Bride, a debut novel that catapulted Choo’s literary career to prominence.
Choo’s goal wasn’t always to be a novelist. “I came out of the slush pile,” Choo says in reference to The Ghost Bride, which landed a publishing deal after Choo Googled ways to pen a query letter and find an agent, and is on its way to becoming a Netflix drama. The Bay Area writer has grown up everywhere — Malaysia, Germany, Japan — but she currently resides in the Peninsula as a novelist, where she wrote half of her debut in the Mountain View Public Library. Her second novel, The Night Tiger, will be launching its paperback edition on Jan. 7, 2020. SF Weekly spoke with Choo about The Night Tiger, writing about colonial Malaya, and her journey from management consulting to writing.
SF Weekly: You’ve worked in several corporate jobs before writing. What was it like moving from the corporate to the literary world?
Yangsze Choo: It was kind of scary. I gave a talk to some kids some months ago, and a bunch of them asked, “So, how did you become a writer?” And I said, “Well, you usually need a day job.”
Historically, going into the arts has always been difficult — if you want to become a writer, a sculptor, a musician. Coming from an Asian family, this is never considered a viable career choice. My parents were like, “Oh you like writing. That’s so nice. That’s a lovely hobby.”
I worked a day job, and I thought of my writing as a hobby. I wrote little bits in between. If you like to write, you’ll always find some space. Everyone likes to create something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing. It can be knitting, cross-stitching, gardening. We like to create things as people.
I was actually a stay-at-home mom at that time. And I thought, “I need to do something that’s interesting.” I wrote half of Ghost Bride in the Mountain View library when my kids were babies. I sort of transitioned from a corporate career to be a mum. But the writing went on all the time, always in the background.
SFW: Both of your books, The Ghost Bride and The Night Tiger are set in colonial Malaya. Why the draw to this specific setting?
YC: I’m originally from Malaysia, although I spent part of my childhood in Germany and Japan as well. As a child, my grandparents lived in a part of Malaysia which I write about in The Night Tiger. And The Ghost Bride is set in Malacca, the city my uncle was in. In Malacca — the past intrudes itself into the present a bit. So when I started, I wanted to write about a place I knew about well. That’s important to me as a novelist. I couldn’t write about a town in Texas unless I researched it really well.
So for me it’s always a house or building or a place that sparks my imagination. When I was writing Night Tiger, what inspired me was these really colonial houses that the British left behind. The British colonial houses I actually did a lot of research on the for the book as well. These were houses that were made for the tropics with high ceilings and no electricity, and they survived in Malaysia. They have a lot of them in Singapore as well. They’re sort of a dream of a house, but they’re also in ruins.
In those days, there were quite a lot of them. You could visit some of them. Some of them were turned into hotels and restaurants. Some were overrun by the jungle, eaten up by the greenery. I always wondered what the stories were like in those houses? They must have had a lot of servants them. That sparked my imagination. It’s a mark of imperialism to recreate your country — the stamp of your empire.
SFW: The Night Tiger is set in the 1930s. What do you think makes it relevant to us in 2020?
YC: I did not think of that when I was writing the novel. I tend to write organically, which is by the seat of my pants. Only after the book is written is when I can say all of literature is applicable to present in the sense that it talks about dualities. When I was writing the novel I was really interested in writing about parallel worlds — the world of the foreigners, the natives, women, the living, the dead. Emotionally we as humans are okay — we accept this contradictions. I think that’s the feeling I had running through the book, that you could live in two worlds simultaneously. The book itself can be read as a murder mystery or as a ghost read, or both.
We live because of technology in many worlds simultaneously. You can have an online life and a “real life” life. But human beings have always had many worlds many lives in their heads, and the very act of reading a book is an act of opening a parallel world in your head.
SFW: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
YC: Have a day job! You’ll need health insurance. It’s terrible — I’ve become a total middle aged auntie. And by the way, don’t sleep with your hair wet.
Keep writing. Write what you think is interesting. But don’t write for other people. Write what you like. What interests you will come through on the page.
Grace Li covers arts and culture for the SF Weekly. You can reach her at email@example.com.