The trick to writing a book is to not date anyone while doing it—at least, according to author of Kappa Quartet, Daryl Yam. Well, that’s at least a part of it.
Daryl laughingly recalls being unable to “get shit done” in the early stages of writing his novel, while in Singapore and dating. Writing is, after all, a solitary activity. It was only when he resolved not to see anyone and to focus all of his attention on writing, right before leaving for Japan for exchange that this two and a half year long project properly began. To date, it is his largest and proudest undertaking yet.
The process of writing the book is, of course, not without its own funny stories. Daryl confesses to Googling “how to finish your novel” when he had two chapters left to write and not a clue as to how to do it. Surprisingly (or not), it was through the advice of “some guy on the Internet” that he overcame his writer’s block and managed to complete his book.
Daryl feels like he’s always had a penchant for writing. Unlike many others who are either prodded onto their paths by the encouragement of wise elders or from being inspired by someone or some work, Daryl’s first spark of interest in writing came from being told precisely not to do it.
As a young boy, Daryl was often discouraged by his teachers from writing. When he was twelve and writing compositions in preparation for PSLE, his teacher left a comment on one of his papers advising him not to write ghost stories. A separate incident saw him in the Principal’s office, because his principal wanted to know why he kept using female protagonists and female points-of-view in his stories.
While such experiences might quash others’ interests in writing, this only evoked the opposite reaction in Daryl. In fact, he believes it was through these incidents that his passion for writing was truly ignited, as he realized just how affective literature—the writing of others and of his own—could be.
“Instead of feeling discouraged, I felt oddly inspired by how the words of a child could provoke such anxieties in adults.”
When did you decide that you wanted to write a book, and how was the idea for this book conceived?
I decided to write Kappa Quartet when I was in my second year at the University of Warwick. I was experiencing many things at the time – spring awakenings, beautiful friendship, a renewed interest in art and culture – and it had all culminated in a desire to finally embark on a book-length project. I felt like I had something to say, really, about the life that I’ve come to know and the many other lives that I’ll never be able to.
And like all other things the idea for the book came to me in the shower. I had my head down, directly beneath the shower head, when I had asked myself what it would be like to be a kappa – to have a hole in your head in which you’re meant to store water – to have an emptiness of sorts hardwired into your anatomy, to be born with it and have the state of your own humanity completely defined by it. I felt very inspired by this, and totally invigorated. It spoke to me on many levels.
What was the hardest part about completing this book? And what was the most rewarding?
I think the hardest thing I’ve ever faced was self-doubt. I invested a lot of myself in this first book. With Kappa Quartet, I wanted to be conscious of the fact that this book would capture a lot of my style and sensibilities as a writer, and of course I was worried that people might look at it and dismiss it for being too strange. I was worried it might be inadequate for some people, and I think that anxiety is something many people can relate to. And so, I found it equally rewarding when I found validation from a variety of sources, such as my peers, my publisher, my family. It’s the kind of support I’ve received for which I am very, very grateful.
Did you always think being a full-time writer/novelist was a viable career option?
No, actually. I never thought it was possible, especially in Singapore. If we were a bigger country with a bigger population of readers – sure. But here, no.
How did you deal with that and get to where you are today?
I tried to be very idealistic about it when I had turned twenty. I thought journalism was a way I could earn a regular income and support more creative endeavours on the side, but a few months into an internship with The New Paper quickly taught me that journalism wasn’t something I could do nine-to-five with tons of free time to spare. And then I went to university, relishing all the free time I had as a student – I had the ability to negotiate how my time would be spent, and it was in those years when I had a lot of writing and reading done.
Today I am employed by Sing Lit Station, a non-profit and charity that executes and manages a number of literary programmes and initiatives. It’s a job with flexible hours that allows me to write while doing something that I feel is rewarding for both the industry and the public at large. It’s great.
Do you ever feel unsure if you’re on the right path? If so, how do you deal with it? And if not, how do you know you’re exactly where you should be?
There’s a moment in Chapter 4 of Kappa Quartet, when a character named Takao turns to his friend and asks her, point blank, if a person can still feel lost, even when they are right at the place where they are meant to be. It’s a gentle moment with frightening repercussions. Even I can’t quite wrap my head around this dilemma.
I think of myself as a boat with sails and a pair of oars: I have a destination in mind, and I have all the things I need to get me where I want to be. But the sea is ever-changing, as is the wind; they do not bend to your goals, or to any of your great desires; there will be moments when I have the help of external forces, and there will be moments when I have no one but myself. For me I have nothing but a goal, and if every step I take brings me closer to that goal, I’m fine.
What are some plans you have for the future?
I have a manuscript of poetry and short stories at the moment, which I plan to refine and rewrite with an editorial team next year. In the meantime, I am also busy reading as much as I can and getting acquainted with science fiction in preparation for my second novel.
What do you think of the literature scene in Singapore currently, and where do you see it going?
I think it’s a really wonderful time to be writing in Singapore. There are now many opportunities in place to push local literature away from niche circles into a more public and even global stage, which will in turn shape the way we write and how we conceive of our intended audiences. There is also a raised political consciousness in both the writing and reading communities, and a population that’s more engaged in critical thought and civic engagement can only spell good things for the development of the arts in general. It’s a tension, I think, that will benefit the growth of artists and art-makers in the long run.
There was a really insightful lecture Gwee Li Sui gave at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival that sought to predict the various ways in which Singapore literature can develop, and I think all of those ways are real possibilities for the development of Singaporean literature. For me, the most ideal path for local literature to take would be one that expanded its reach while deepening its duty to storytelling, to critical thought, to art, to culture, to the growth and blossoming of the human soul. Is that asking for too much? I don’t know.