It is the stuff of literary dreams: Malaysia-born author Felicia Yap’s debut novel Yesterday has not even hit the shelves, and is already being called one of the most anticipated titles of 2017.
The high-concept futuristic thriller, slated for August, was at the centre of a heated auction between three publishers last year, before being acquired by the Headline Publishing Group in Britain for a six-figure sum. Rights to the book have already been sold to 11 other countries, including Little Brown in the United States.
An alumna of the Faber Academy for writers, Yap’s book further saw eight agents battling it out to represent it.
Most recently, she was declared a “rising star of 2017” by British newspaper The Observer.
The 35-year-old Yap, who currently lives in London, could well be a book character herself.
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, she did her schooling in Convent Peel Road before going on to study biochemistry at Imperial College London, which led to career in research at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. She then did an about turn, completing a doctorate in history at Cambridge University. She has a written for The Economist and Singapore’s Business Times, and has done some modeling. Currently, she is an associate of the London School Of Economics’ Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre.
As she awaits the official release of Yesterday, Yap is already working on a prequel, tentatively titled Today. She also envisions a sequel, which she plans on calling Forever. We speak to Yap through e-mail about her upcoming novel and her journey to writing it.
Tell us about Yesterday.
Yesterday is about a murder that takes place in a world where most people only remember yesterday. It is also a love story at its core. Claire Evans is a conscientious housewife. Her husband Mark is a novelist-turned-politician on the rise. Both of them have only one lifeline to the past: their diaries. When a woman turns up dead and is revealed to be Mark’s mistress, their perfectly-constructed lives begin to fall apart. Suddenly, the race is on to find the killer. The question at the heart of the story is, how do you solve a murder or love someone when you can only remember yesterday?
How did you begin writing fiction?
I began writing Yesterday in 2014. Till then, my published works were entirely within the non-fiction genre. The concept for Yesterday came to me on my way to ballroom dance practice in late 2014. It was just a simple question: “How do you solve a murder when you can only remember yesterday?” The idea was so compelling, I spent most of the session working out the mechanics of this murder, much to the consternation of my dance partner. I began writing the next day.
At around the same time, I received a Facebook friend request from a girl I didn’t recognize. I accepted her request and it turned out she thought I was her ex-classmate from the Faber Academy. Up to that point, I had never heard of the Academy. But then I reasoned: if someone thinks I’m a Faber alumna, maybe it’s written in the stars. I applied for the first available Faber course on writing a novel.
What drew you to the speculative fiction genre?
I never deliberately set out to write within the speculative fiction genre. It just so happens that the premise of my book is an inherently speculative one. I’m a storyteller at heart. My dream is to write more page-turning novels, stories with universal appeal.
Does the Malaysian part of your identity figure into your writing? My Malaysian experiences have helped me appreciate universal truths about love and the human condition. The dreams which keep all of us going, no matter where we live. This is what Yesterday is ultimately about.
My family lived in a really tiny house in Cheras. Neither of my parents have been to university; my Dad started his career as a bank cashier. My Dad’s old dusty-brown Datsun had holes in its floor. Water would flood in whenever he drove through a puddle.
My school also used to get flooded. I once had to wade through a waist-deep flash flood to get from a classroom to my school bus. I remember thinking, when I walked along a crumbling school corridor at the age of nine, that I would love to study at Cambridge someday. My experiences of growing up in Malaysia have taught me a lot about tenacity, determination and resilience. These values have helped me during my journey as a writer.
My dad could only afford to buy one book a week. He would take me to a bookshop every Wednesday afternoon, just so I could read books for free. These trips were a highlight of my childhood existence. They sparked a lifelong love for the written word.
Who are some of your writing inspirations?
I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, especially While We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go. Other favourite books include One Day by David Nicholls, The Humans by Matt Haig, Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden and The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
How do you feel about the amazing response to your debut novel?
Absolutely delighted. The international response to the novel has been staggering. I feel extremely lucky. I never expected auctions, pre-emptive offers or bidding wars to happen in so many territories. Neither did I expect my book to be translated to so many languages, including Italian, Russian, Spanish and Japanese. I was particularly delighted when nine Chinese publishers bid for the book.