The day has finally come when a Singaporean author gets serious international acclaim and attention. Case in point is local author Balli Kaur Jaswal, 34, whose book Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows (ESFPW) was recently picked up by Reese Witherspoon for her book club, which boasts over 440K Insta-followers. “I’m elated! I've really enjoyed [Reese’s] book club picks, and I think it's great that she's using her broad fan following to get more people on board with reading,” says Balli.
This isn’t the first time the book has garnered attention — it was picked up by Harper Collins for a six-figure sum after a reported bidding war with five other publishers in 2016. To add icing to the cake, the movie rights to ESFPW, about the lives of women in a close-knit Punjabi community in London, were also sold for an undisclosed sum to Ridley Scott’s production company last year.
While ESFPW is Balli’s big break, she is no greenhorn. Her rise arguably began when she received a £25,000 (S$46,400) writing fellowship at the acclaimed University of East Anglia in 2007, which counts recent Literature Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro as its alumni. The writer’s debut work, Inheritance, won Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and her second novel Sugarbread was a runner-up for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, with a payout of $5,000.
8 DAYS: What was the toughest part about writing fiction for a living in Singapore?
Balli Kaur Jaswal: I really can't complain — it's my dream job! I suppose writing to a deadline can be pretty challenging, especially when you're used to letting the story rest and marinate for a while.
Do you need relevant experience and the right CV to pursue a career in fiction writing?
Your resume doesn't really matter — it's all about the strength of the story.
Did your education in Literature at Hollins University in USA and University of East Anglia in the UK help in getting published?
I think some training in creative writing can be helpful because it gives you the time to hone your craft and have a ready-made support system of other writers who can give you feedback, and you all learn together, which is important. But it's not mandatory to have a degree in creative writing. If you have the discipline to start your own writers' group and attend festival workshops, you can sort of build your own creating writing course and have the flexibility to do it your way. I also think the single greatest tool a writer has at their disposal is a library card. Reading is very important to the process of becoming a writer.
Where do you get inspiration from?
I'm usually inspired by injustice, and by a need to fix inequalities in society. Stories about marginalised people and communities usually appeal to me — that's the common theme in my work.
Tell us about your writing routine. What’s a typical work day like for you?
There are no more typical days now that I have an infant! But I do have some baby-free days, and usually I try to get a couple of hours of writing done in the morning, and then I take a break to do something else — walk, read, or just catch up on some lost sleep! Then I go back to it in the evenings. I find it useful to alternate between projects, so when I get sick of something, or if I feel stuck, I can open another window and work on the other piece. Alternating between fiction and non-fiction is usually the best. I'm currently doing my PhD in creative writing at NTU, so I alternate between my manuscript and essays that I have to get done for class.
You’ve said it’s hard in Singapore to find a quiet space to write because it’s too busy. How do you overcome that?
I think weekdays are a little easier than weekends. On weekdays, I've been able to find some nice spaces, like Group Therapy cafe in Katong. The libraries are great quiet spaces as well. I do some writing at the Marine Parade Library on weekends.
What did you learn on the job that you never learnt in school?
Terrible sentences and poor word choices are actually okay in a first draft. In school, the first draft always felt like a bit of a test, and sometimes the big red circles felt like definitive pronouncements of wrong writing. But you need to write a lot of rubbish sometimes to get to the good stuff.
Hold a day job but still clinging on to that dream of publishing your first novel? Here’s how you can do it, according to Balli.
1. “Make time to write a little bit every day, even if it's only 15-20 minutes. It adds up.”
2. “You may have to make sacrifices to your time - writing is another job on top of the job that pays the bills, so it might be your weekend job. I had to say no to evenings out with friends to get more writing time in.”
3. “Find a friend or a support group to keep you accountable, or set small, achievable targets for yourself, such as 250 words by the end of the week, or X number of chapters written by a certain month.”
Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is available at all major bookstores and BooksActually (9 Yong Siak St, S168645).