“If a writer has something critical and urgent to say, and an impulse to entertain others while saying it, he or she shouldn’t have any trouble writing novels.”
And there you have it, finally: the answer to not only the most-asked literary-festival question of all time (“Why do you write?”) but also,obliquely, the second most (“How do you do it?”).
Things critical and urgent that must be said seem to propel Singapore-born American Wena Poon. How else to explain an oeuvre expanding at the rate of the big bang, but which is also curated in parallel with a full-time legal career conducted in the crucible of corporate law?
Between the statutes of limitations and mergers and acquisitions come the novels, short stories, poems, articles and anthologies. Consider the engaging tales in Lions in Winter, The Proper Care of Foxes and Maxine, Aoki, Beto & Me. And the four volumes of The Biophilia Omnibus, “a high-octane space opera set on Planet Nagy”, as the official description has it. And the “Spain novels”, Alex y Robert and Novillera – the former adapted for the BBC’s Radio 4 – which paint the most intriguing picture of bullfighting since Hemingway.
After a short pause for breath we come to The Hoshimaruhon Novels: The Adventures of Snow Fox & Sword Girl, Voyage to the Dark Kirin and The Marquis of Disobedience, the trilogy billed as an “historical romp through the landscapes of Akira Kurosawa and Louis Cha”. Then we have The Pacific War Novels: Café Jause – A Story of Viennese Shanghai, Kami and Kaze – A Story of Occupied Japan and the forthcoming Chang’an – A Story of China & Japan, which Poon describes as the tale of “a Japanese Manchurian military doctor who didn’t go home after World War II, but lived as a Chinese in Communist China”.
All that has been achieved since 2005, revealing Poon, 41, to be an author in a hurry, busily blasting through cultural and chronological barriers, blaring pop or classical opera as she writes and confidently choosing widely divergent subject matter. Not that her work isn’t underpinned by certain recurring themes, notably geographical and metaphorical dislocation and a search for identity – the sort of threads usually found alongside the words “diaspora novel”. Each theme can be traced to Lions in Winter, written after Poon had left Singapore to attend university in the United States; and true to form, they colour Chang’an, which she also calls “a transnational novel about identity and the enduring love-hate relationship between China and Japan”.
Is Poon, now living in Austin, Texas, a “transnational”? “Yes, I guess so,” she says. “I’d never heard that word until it was applied to my work by the academics. I’m always grateful to them for paying attention to it, because they study it very closely. In April, Professor Suzanne Choo of Singapore put me alongside Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Carey and Ha Jin in her Cross-Worlds short-fiction anthology. Most people I interact with still don’t believe I’m an author, so this might convince them.”
A glance at Poon’s burgeoning back catalogue should be convincing enough. Then there is the legwork required to write novels about, say, a war already familiar thanks to countless other artistic works. “The amount of research available on World War II is staggering,” she acknowledges. “But you only need to know what you need to know to tell the story. The statue is already in the marble. The rest of the marble you don’t need to use.
Choosing a subject is similarly straightforward, it seems, so too the compartmentalisation of writing styles and topics. “Subjects do just appear in my mind,” says Poon, “although the question isn’t, ‘What kind of novel should I write next?’ but, ‘What kind of story is important for the world right now?’” As for the stamp of individual authenticity, “Film directors often are asked to take on very different projects,” she says. “Ang Lee made Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm in rapid succession. Their subject matter is different, but you know it’s still him.”
That Poon’s thoughts should turn to pictures is appropriate: as well as calling herself a “compulsive photographer” she frequently acts out pivotal scenes from her work to improve it, rewriting and rehearsing until she’s satisfied. Timing, she realises, is non-negotiable – something comedians and actors understand, but countless writers do not.
“My favourite genre is literary comedy,” she admits. “I love Evelyn Waugh. Recently I tried reading Proust, was very irritated, then found out that Waugh felt the same. I think comic writers share the same sensibility. We care about timing, brevity and practicality.”
The visual and auditory are essential to Poon’s work: playing scenes, diligently photographing locations in which tales are set – then exhibiting the photographs on her website with matching lines from the stories – and performing her work live for literary festival audiences. So too, when it comes to research, is the visceral. Not every author would share a ring with a bull (even to assist a matador); not every author would board a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress to experience something of World War II combat, as she did while fact finding for Chang’an.
“A non-profit organisation restores them here in the States,” she says. “A B-17 has openair windows, so there’s no climate control and if you’re not careful the slipstream will suck you out. They’re incredibly light, unlike modern jet planes. “I sat in the radio operator’s seat and thought of what went through his mind. They were all on horrible missions; many never returned. This is one of those experiences you will never be able to imagine and write about unless you try it yourself. If you try to write about it from watching a movie, or from your own experiences in modern planes, you will be completely wrong and mislead your reader.” The experience for that reader may be vicarious, but with a Wena Poon book you’re right there, front and centre, part of the action. Cut!