Newcomers to fiction writing are often told, “Write what you know”.
Indeed, many authors tend to write about settings and characters they are familiar with – John Grisham, a lawyer, writes courtroom dramas, Maine-based Stephen King often writes about writers living in Maine, and the late Michael Crichton, who went to Harvard Medical School, wrote mostly about science and medicine.
Author Clarissa Goenawan, however, seems to have gone in the completely opposite direction. She’s an Indonesia-born writer now living in Singapore with a background in marketing. Why then did her first novel, Rainbirds, end up being set in 1990s Japan? And with a male protagonist to boot?
“I’m a big fan of Japanese culture and food. I grew up reading a lot of their comics, and when I was younger I joined the Japanese Culture Club at my school. I used to study the language – but don’t try to test me on it, it’s been light years ago!” says Goenawan, 30, a lifelong anime and manga fan (Death Note is a favourite).
“I like Japanese literature. There is a certain quality about it, a certain creepiness, an atmosphere I really enjoy. Even their crime fiction feels very different from the Western style.”
Goenawan’s debut novel has been making waves in literary scenes local and international. It was the winner of the 2015 Bath Novel Award (a prize for unpublished and self-published or independently published novelists), beating over 800 other entries from 41 countries.
It was shortlisted in 2015 for Britain’s prize for debut novelists, the Dundee International Book Prize, and the First Novel Prize 2016, also in Britain, among other awards.
It was picked as 2018’s most anticipated debut novel by numerous newspapers and online portals, including this paper and the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan magazine and Goodreads.com. The novel was published internationally in early 2018 by US indie publisher Soho Press and by Math Paper Press in Singapore.
Rainbirds is about Ren Ishida, a graduate student who leaves Tokyo for the small fictional town of Arakawa when he learns his sister, Keiko, has been murdered there. Ren plans merely to wrap up her affairs – however, he ends up accepting her old job as a teacher in a local school.
He soon encounters a strange cast of characters, from an enigmatic politician offering him free lodging to the alluring “Seven Stars”, a feisty young student. As he learns about his sister’s life, Ren must confront his memories of her and realise truths about their relationship.
Including elements of suspense and magic realism, Rainbirds explores themes like secrets, grief, and moving on. The book is quite a mixed bag of genres: while it revolves around a killing, it is not your typical crime story. It also contains elements of fantasy, the paranormal, romance and coming-of-age tropes.
On the telephone from Singapore, Goenawan is chatty, sometimes speaking at 200 words per minute, and regularly bursting into laughter as she talks about Rainbirds.
“What happened if someday, someone I really cared for passed away? But I had never taken the time to know them. I had that idea one day, when I was just sitting down. At the time, I was writing short stories, so I thought I could write about this man who lost his brother,” Goenawan says, explaining the novel’s genesis.
“The more I thought about it, the more ideas came. The brother became a sister, for example. And I realised, this wasn’t a short story anymore. There were too many things I wanted to put in.”
Curious as it may sound, Goenawan didn’t always feel like she would become a writer. In her childhood home in Indonesia, though, she did love reading, often spending recess at school in the library. Her mother, a housewife, always made sure her children had books – among them were Japanese manga.
Goenawan says she originally wanted to become a manga artist, but gave up on that idea because her “drawing skills were terrible!” After moving to Singapore at 16 to study, she assumed that writing wasn’t a feasible way to make a living and took up more practical pursuits, eventually going into marketing.
But fate had other ideas. One day, one of her colleagues asked her (“forced me, more like it!” Goenawan laughs) to read one of his favourite books, Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (1987). Goenawan agreed, and was soon captivated by the writing.
“I read it and went, oh my God, this is what I want to do,” she says.
And with that, Goenawan began her writing dream. Rainbirds was written as part of the 2013 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) event, an independent international programme that annually encourages participants to write a 50,000-word novel in a month, specifically, November.
After editing, finding an agent and taking care of all the other nitty gritty of publishing a novel, Rainbirds was published in March this year by Soho Press, a month before her 30th birthday.
“They wanted to publish it last year, but then it got pushed to this year. So I said, could you publish it before April? Then I can say I got published in my 20s. Even though, yeah, 29 and how many months!” she laughs.
Why choose to write from a male character’s perspective? It felt like the best way to tell the story, says Goenawan, who is a firm believer in letting characters guide a story.
The author also chose to set her story in 1994, a time before the rise of cellphones, because “With cellphones, things are too easy to fix!”
Asked about potential sequels to Rainbirds, the author says she does indeed have more books in the pipeline. She’s currently editing another work, one completed during a previous year’s NaNoWriMo.
She hopes to have five books, each one a stand-alone story that are also interrelated. Main characters from Rainbirds, for example, could reappear as supporting characters in another book.
Exciting news, to be sure. Wherever her Rainbirds fly to, Goenawan says she will enjoy the journey. “Your characters take you to unexpected places sometimes. And discovering them, that’s definitely the fun part,” she says.