Malaysian author begins her fantasy trilogy with an epic slice of 'Amok'

Penang-based author Anna Tan is set for a busy year ahead, with her fantasy novel ‘Amok’ leading the way for her 'Absolution' trilogy. Photo: Handout

Until very recently, all secondary school students faced the big question: science stream or arts stream?

For many, it was a no-brainer. And often, not really a choice.

Whether or not one intended to pursue a career in the sciences, students who scored in the then PMR examination at the end of Form 3 were generally directed into the science stream unless they made a particular objection.

Anna Tan made a particular objection.

Growing up in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, the Methodist Girls’ School student did not exactly know what she was going to spend her life doing, but science wasn’t it.

“I made the controversial decision that I did not want to go to the science stream, although (people said) that’s ‘where all the smart girls go’.

“I remember doing those career guidance and personality tests and the question that came up was if you don’t go into the science stream, what are you going to do? What career can you have if you’re an arts stream student? It’s terribly biased, I know, ” recalls Tan, Malaysian Writers Society (MYWriters) president and author.

A bookworm from a young age and a self-professed homebody, Tan did briefly consider jobs that had something to do with the English language.

“However, the main career choices mentioned were journalism or teaching – both of which are really fine careers but are people-centric jobs, which tend to stress me out. I figured I liked numbers and was pretty good with them so why not accounting?

“There may have been some parental nudging involved since my dad also used to be an accountant. So, the consensus was accounting was a safe, stable career and the writing thing could be done on the side, ” she says.

Thus, into the auditing world Tan went.

Starting off at KPMG and then moving on into internal auditing at semiconductor manufacturing corporation Atmel, Tan spent nearly a decade working in auditing, which she ironically points out involves a great many people.

“I learnt that it meant having to deal with many, many people too, but they do not tell you this at the start!

“Anyway, nearly a decade into audit, it got to the point where I couldn’t see my career path. I enjoyed the work, but when the ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ question came up in performance reviews, I could not see myself in a senior manager role, ” says Tan.

With a healthy savings account as well as some editing and publishing credits already under her belt, Tan decided to take a leap into the unknown in 2015.

Teaspoon Publishing

Be it Carrie Bradshaw leisurely typing beside an open window or Oscar Wilde relishing the freedoms of Paris, there is often a romanticised image of those who write and create books.

Penang-based Tan, 37, says nothing could be different from reality.

In fact, even as her publishing company Teaspoon Publishing turns four this year, she would hardly call herself a full-time writer.

“(Being a writer is) stressful! I don’t know if I technically count as a ‘full-time writer’. I do more editing and formatting jobs with Teaspoon Publishing than actually sitting down and writing my own novels.

“Unless you have already built up a huge backlist that is paying you a steady and sustainable income or you have other streams of passive income or funding, there is no way you can be a full-time fiction writer in Malaysia. You’ll always be looking for additional jobs on the side to cover expenses, ” she says.

Tan, whose lists Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb, CS Lewis and Zen Cho among her favourite authors, currently has two novellas (short novels) in the market, along with a healthy number of short stories and even a libretto (text in a musical or vocal work) which was her first major writing project.

“I wrote a libretto called Star Of Persia in 2003 for a musical that was produced by FGA Centre.

“I’ve been writing since school, so I’ve come out with a lot of stuff!

My first published work was probably a short story in Phases, a youth magazine by Scripture Union back in the late 1990s.

“But my first professional sale would likely be Codes in Fixi Novo’s Cyberpunk: Malaysia in 2015, ” she says.

Participating in NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month initiative based in the USA) throughout college, Tan remembers a breakthrough in 2013 when she got the job to be the editor for the Love In Penang anthology published by Fixi Novo.

After a couple years of freelancing, Tan heard about a former classmate who had been awarded a Chevening Scholarship and decided to throw her hat into the ring as well.

This brought her to Brunel University London where she spent a year completing an MA in Creative Writing: The Novel, submitting the first 15 chapters of Amok to clinch the dissertation prize.

The 'Absolution' trilogy

A royal bloodline on which superhuman power is bestowed, a stunning queen from a former rival kingdom and predictions of doom and destruction from the priesthood fill Amok, Tan’s first full-length novel, which is available now.

Set in a fantasy world that is loosely based on the Melaka sultanate, Malaysian readers will recognise distinct, homegrown elements sewn throughout Tan’s imaginary realm, including ranks of nobility, religious gatherings and the use of keris as weapons.

“When I sent an early version out to beta readers, it was the Malaysian readers who found the words and terms the most jarring!

As fantasy readers are used to conlang (constructed or fictional languages), my US and UK friends had very few problems with the terms, though I ultimately decided to add a glossary to aid with that.

“When discussing my difficulty in choosing how to use certain terms depending on actual meaning, my editor was like: I didn’t know they were real words! I thought you made them up!” Tan laughs.

She adds that in spite of the familiar references, the world created in her young adult novel is entirely imaginary.

“As much as I use a historical Melaka sultanate as a jumping off point, it is not meant to be anywhere on earth.

“One of the things the MA really got me delving into was the settings of my stories. Why did I default to a Eurocentric fantasy world and terms? What could I do to take it out of that? What does being Malaysian really mean?”

Tan acknowledges that international publishing houses are starting to celebrate and push for diverse voices, looking for writing from cultures all over the world.

“What was I doing recreating white countries?” she asks.

Amok, which follows young Putera Mikal on his journey to fulfil a prophecy, will be followed by The Tale Of The Hostage Prince, set for release in December, and Absolution, which interestingly enough, was the first novel of the series that Tan wrote.

“I pitched it to several agents and editors, even in some competitions. I had full requests and it was one of the finalists for The Future Bookshelf project (by publishing company Hachette Book Group) in 2018, but it never quite fit anywhere.

“At the time, a friend of mine was retelling the story of Moses... in space. And I was like, well, this whole supernatural strength thing I’d been mooting has some relationship to Samson and Delilah, what can I do with that? That’s how the early outline of Amok came about, ” says Tan, adding that in order to suit the new background of the book series, she spent two months completely redrafting the original Absolution during a residency at the Rimbun Dahan arts centre last year.

Both remaining books in the trilogy are in the editing stage and the whole series will be self published by Tan’s Teaspoon Publishing.

“Self-publishing was a very deliberate choice from the start, though I’ve wavered back and forth on it in the interim.

“Part of it is the control but mostly it’s the fact that there are no publishers in Malaysia that specialise in the fantasy genre in English.

"The local English market tends to be pulp, horror or historical fiction circa WWII. I did look at getting traditionally published overseas, but that is a very long, arduous journey, ” she adds.

On the future, Tan, who heads the MYWriters group and is the primary editor for local branch MYWriters Penang’s annual zine NutMag, says expanding the local fantasy genre in the country is one of her long-term goals.

“I keep complaining about there being no fantasy publisher in Malaysia and it’s on the bucket list to be able to do that with Teaspoon Publishing eventually, ” says Tan.

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