Cover Story
A Beautiful Mind
Evanna Ramly 
Felicia Yap’s debut novel draws from the power of human experiences and vivid memories
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An announcement comes over the bookstore’s public address system, informing customers about Malaysian author Felicia Yap’s book signing taking place later that day. Yap, 36, pauses at the sound of her name and then laughs. “I thought I was in trouble; it’s like I’m being called to the principal’s office!”

One can only imagine that the principal would be proud of her today. Yap made headlines when her first novel, Yesterday, became the subject of a bidding war among eight of the UK’s top publishers. Headline Publishing Group (under Hachette UK) ultimately won with a six-figure sum, negotiated by literary agent Jonny Geller, joint CEO at Curtis Brown.

Yesterday sparked a bidding war among the UK’s top publishers

Published by Wildfire, an imprint of Headline, and Mulholland, an imprint of Hachette in the US, the book was released in August and has since enjoyed tremendous success with 13 translations to date and a Hollywood film deal currently in negotiation. UK newspaper The Guardian called her a rising star and praised the book for its “ingenious and intriguing premise”. A prequel, tentatively titled Today, is already in the works.

“My journey has been incredibly exciting and heart-warming,” says London-based Yap, currently on home ground to meet fans and speak at the George Town Literary Festival 2017. “I’ve been in contact with schoolmates from Convent Peel Road whom I’ve not met in 20 years. It’s amazing how writing can rekindle old friendships.”

 

Whirlwind voyage

“It happened so quickly. I took 15 months to finish writing, from the day the idea first came to me (incidentally, on her way to a ballroom dancing class) to when I submitted my manuscript,” she shares. “When it’s your first book, you’re in unfamiliar territory; it’s been a fascinating learning experience.”

Yesterday is set in a dystopian society where people are divided by memory capacity. The Monos can only remember as far back as the day before, while the Duos can recall twice as much. Her main characters are a couple, Mark and Claire, whose mixed marriage is threatened when news of a death brings to light an extramarital affair and a murder accusation.

“When you’re writing you don’t think about themes. You just want to tell a good story. You’re following your characters’ journey, their arc. You only reflect on what the book is about after you’ve written it.”

For Yesterday, Yap wanted to explore the connection between memory, hatred and love. “Does memory influence our ability to love or hate? On the flip side of the coin, does it take away those abilities? I knew I wanted to look at that but precisely how it happened I didn’t know until I followed the characters and what seemed natural to them.”

Yap’s own story is also interesting. The daughter of a banker and a clerk, she grew up in Cheras. Her family lived modestly although her father did treat her to one cherished book a week.

“What first sparked my interest in writing was reading lots of books when I was a little girl,” she recalls. “When you read great stories as a child, you wish you could tell amazing tales yourself.”

However, she would go on to study biochemistry at Imperial College London before working at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. She later decided life in a lab wasn’t for her.

At a book signing in Singapore

She joined the University of Cambridge as a historian and also made her mark as a journalist for The Economist and Singapore’s Business Times. Of all the hats she has worn – including theatre critic and flea-market trader – Yap surprises when she reveals that being a catwalk model was what sharpened her skills as a writer the most.

“It brought me in contact with people in a real way. Sitting in a conference room and presenting academia, it’s all very structured. You don’t see people in an unguarded way. When you’re writing a novel, all your characters are under constant stress. Every single scene has a conflict, and you don’t see those in lecture theatres – well, you hope not!”

Catwalk modelling, on the other hand, is rife with potential disasters. “I came close to falling off the runway once, in high heels. Due to quick changes of clothes, you had to walk back on in 30 seconds from when you walked off,” says Yap, who has modelled for L.K. Bennett as well as independent designers in Oxford, Cambridge and London. “From the horror of breaking your dress on a nail, to the joy of the audience clapping for the designer, this was where I experienced a myriad of real emotions.”

 

Creative process

When she first started on Yesterday, however, she was still writing academic papers for the London School of Economics, which she is still affiliated to and chairs panels for. “As the book developed, I devoted more of my energy to it. Towards the end, I was editing the manuscript full-time.”

The book gradually took over all her energy and resources, especially just before she sent it out to the agents. “It was important to get it as perfect as I could. I only got one shot with an agent. If they didn’t like the first chapter, then that was it. You couldn’t ask for a second chance.”

Her edgiest character in the novel is Sophia, Mark’s revenge-seeking mistress who was found dead floating in the River Cam. She admits that Sophia was quite a challenge to write. “I had to make her a character readers could sympathise with and admire, and not just dislike from the start.”

But the hardest character to write was Hans Richardson, the police detective investigating Sophia’s murder while concealing his secret identity as a Mono. “I do not normally think like a male detective in his 40s. Also, he was the fourth voice. My creative writing teacher was adamant that you shouldn’t write more than three voices in the first person.”

She insists that Yesterday is entirely fiction, apart from how it feels to not remember something. “When Claire loses pages from her diary, she feels a part of her had been cut out. That, I think, is from me because I had an accident when I was growing up in KL and I couldn’t remember it.”

Yap was hit by a motorbike while crossing the road and her parents maintain divergent accounts of what happened. “One of them thought the person who hit me was middle-aged; the other said he was young. Because I have no recollection of the incident, it was like two versions of the same truth.”

Although she was very young at the time, it struck her then that the nature of memory could be slippery. “That was built into the fabric of Yesterday, what it means not to remember. It’s like part of you is missing. For that, I drew from my personal experience. But it’s Claire’s voice, not mine.”

 

Dreaming big

It is now clear that she has developed her own voice, having always wanted to write a novel. “I’m glad I went for it but it was a leap of faith. You don’t know if anyone will buy your book or represent you but if I hadn’t set everything aside and concentrated, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Her goal was clear: to be published by one of the Big Five – HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan (two of these companies ended up bidding for Yesterday) – and be represented by a good agency.

“That was in early 2015 and all of that did happen. You never will get anywhere unless you dream and my personal thing is always to aim not for the top but be on the top, the highest I can possibly achieve.”

What drives her is the desire to write a book that will be remembered. “If, after many years, what I’ve written still resonates with people, that’s what keeps me going.”

Pivotal to her growth was her writing group, ex-course mates from the Faber Academy. “We still meet every week in Bloomsbury to exchange about 9,000 words each time. This constant feedback is so useful because constructive criticism is the lifeblood of any creative process.”

Yap is an advocate of paying it forward, hence her decision to sponsor a scholarship at Curtis Brown worth £3,000 (RM16,480). “It’s for writers from below a certain income threshold, or who have one parent who has not been to university because neither of my parents has a tertiary education. I know how difficult it is to get ahead when you come from a less privileged background and I want to help someone else in the same situation.”

Her dream is to help a promising writer who has not had the opportunity to benefit from a writing course and the support network it would provide.

“I was helped in the past by a generous benefactor who made it possible for me to study in university. One stipulation is that if the recipient is ever in a position to help someone else in the future, they must also pay it forward. My benefactor was very pleased when we put that clause in.”

The author reveals her favourite writers

“I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton. She’s a genius storyteller. I love the visceral beauty of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose and incredibly precise yet understated storytelling that packs a strong punch.

Matt Haig’s observations about human nature and behaviour, especially in The Humans, made me think about the world differently and what it means to be human. I also draw heavily from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby has such charismatic characters, and Tender Is The Night, with its story of a fractured relationship between a couple who persisted in spite of the odds stacked against their marriage provided some conceptual basis for my book.

I’m a huge fan of Patricia Highsmith. In The Talented Mr Ripley, she created such an unlikable character in the titular murderer yet you find yourself rooting for him. To this day, I still don’t know what that magic is.”



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 260.