Reading Rachel is officially kicking off a series called Q&A Mondays, which profiles people in various professions. For this week, I’m very proud to feature Melanie Lee, a Singapore-based author. She and I were colleagues many moons ago at a public relations firm, our first jobs upon graduation. Melanie went on to work in various industries before deciding to devote herself to writing full-time. She lives with her photographer husband and 2½ year-old son Christian in Singapore.
“Sitting down” with Melanie, we ask…
How did you get into writing? Has it always been a part of your life?
I’ve always liked writing, penning my own fairytales from the age of five. I went on to major in journalism at university level and began freelance writing ever since. In my various jobs in public relations, marketing or teaching, I continued to write on the side. While it was quite easy for me to get published on websites, magazines and newspapers because of my journalism training, I faced (and continue to face) many rejections for my fiction work. I never thought of becoming a published author. If I could get a story or poem out in a few journals or anthologies, that was (and still is) enough for me.
My first published book, Quiet Journeys: Finding Stillness in Chaos, happened quite unintentionally. While I was on a silent retreat at Good Shepherd Oasis [a Catholic retreat center in Singapore] a few years ago, my spiritual mentor, Sister Elizabeth, told me that the place was going to be torn down to make way for a highway the government was planning to build. Seeing her so heartbroken at the time, I sensed a deeper calling to write a book on the Good Shepherd Oasis before its closure. I began interviewing Sister Elizabeth on her teachings and did research on silent retreats. A Christian publisher agreed to publish it, and the original plan was that I would be the ghostwriter. But Sister Elizabeth insisted my byline had to be there, and that’s how I ended up being a co-author of Quiet Journeys. After that, I realized it was not that scary putting a book together. I also became a little bolder with the things I wrote “for fun.”
Your next book, Imaginary Friends sure looks very fun. How did it come about?
As a way to discipline myself to write more, I participated in the Blogging from A–Z Challenge last year. It’s a month-long community blogging event where you’re supposed to write something everyday on a certain theme. I chose the theme “Imaginary Friends” and the stories just came from there. In the course of writing these short stories, several strangers encouraged me to get them published.
Hence, I approached MPH Group Publishing to put Imaginary Friends out as an ebook and it went on to be a bestseller on Kobo. MPH then decided to release a print edition of it as well.
Your latest book is the first in a series entitled The Adventures of Squirky the Alien. I understand it deals with the topic of adoption. Tell us more about that.
Squirky is actually an idea that came from my friend David (currently the illustrator of the series). When I adopted my son from Indonesia a few years ago, David came to visit and said, “Let’s do a story for him. Maybe about a funky alien or something.” I mulled over this for over a year and envisioned a blue alien boy called Squirky who would travel around space looking for this birth parents. After publishing Imaginary Friends, I ran this idea by my publishers at MPH and they were willing to give it a go.
Squirky is a project that’s very close to my heart, and one that I also hope will make adoption a less loaded concept. As much as it’s a story for my son, it’s also for any kid who’s embarking on some sort of life quest.
What and who do you like to read? Do any books/authors influence you as a writer today?
I read a wide variety of contemporary fiction—whatever I find in the library usually. But these are a few books that are always on my bookshelf because I keep re-reading them [such as the above]. I’m not sure if I’m really influenced by any one book/author, but in an ideal world I would love to write novels like Margaret Atwood and short stories like Miranda July.
What is the most common misconception people have of you, or writers in general?
That writing is not “real” work and that by choosing to be a writer, we’re taking the easy way out. Writing is excruciating, no matter how good a writer you are and how much you love it. Someone once called me a “semi-retiree” and I really wanted to chew his head off, but I had no time to do so with three deadlines to meet that night.
Any advice to your younger self or aspiring authors out there?
Here’s something I wrote a while back which I re-read every now and again as a reminder to myself:
- Instead of whining about how you have no time to write your own thing, just write. You’d probably have written three novels in the time you spent moaning and getting existential.
- You’re devastated that your writing is rejected, but this is actually a blessing in disguise. You will be saving yourself a lot of trouble by not working with people who don’t get your writing style anyway.
- You’re afraid of showing your writing to others because you’re sensitive to criticism—but believe me, seeing your typos published for a lot more to see is way more horrifying.
- There will always be people who will hate your writing. Don’t take it personally. Reading is subjective: that is why so many people like Dan Brown novels and others don’t. Anyway, even if you hate Dan Brown with a burning passion, you’d probably still ask for his autograph if you met him in person.
- The anal, brutal editors will really get to you: but they are really your fairy godparents who will take your writing to the next level. Don’t get pouty or defensive with them.
- Read more.
- Change the world with your words? It doesn’t have to be so dramatic. Best to start with something more fundamental, like how do I get people to read what I write?
What’s next for Melanie Lee, the author?
I’m trying to complete the six-book Squirky series right now (I’ve finished writing three of them at this point). After that, I hope to develop my writing more by dabbling in other genres like YA or sci-fi. Because I don’t have a strong background in literature, I’m also considering furthering my studies in that area too.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I wake up very reluctantly. If Christian is going to playschool, I use that time to frantically run errands or squeeze in work. If not, there are trots to the playground, craft activities, storytelling, rushed cooking and choo-choo adventures.
At night, I try to write as much as I can before my eyes droop. On days where I’m less bogged down with things, I try to go for a long walk to clear my head.
Name 3 adjectives that best describe you.
Idealistic. Anxious. Sleepy.
Melanie will be giving away a free copy of Imaginary Friends and The Adventures of Squirky: Why Am I Blue? to one lucky Reading Rachel reader. The giveaway ends on Monday 6 October. To participate, leave a comment below OR send an email with the header “Q&A Monday: Melanie Lee” to email@example.com. The winner will be picked randomly and notified by email.
Thanks, Mel for participating in our first Q&A Monday! Visit her blog at http://melanielee.sg.