If you’ve ever browsed local books, the name, Jason Erik Lundberg, may have a familiar ring. That’s because he has written over 100 short stories, articles and book reviews for both adults and children. He’s also a fiction editor at Epigram Books and his books can be found in local bookshops and in our libraries. From book recommendations to intimate reading habits, here are some of the things he was excited to share with us:
As a writer and book editor, I need to stay current and knowledgeable about the new books that come out every month; in one way, they are competition for the books I write and edit, but more importantly, they are the most current additions to the worldwide literary conversation. Being entrenched in the Singaporean lit scene at this point, I’m up on the books being released here, but I still take a strong interest in titles being released from the UK and my homeland in the US; I regularly read reviews and book news in The New York Times, The NYT Book Review, The Guardian, The Independent, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, Locus Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and other venues that might pop up in my news feed.
So then, when choosing which book to read, I typically go with authors I’m already familiar with or am interested in, based on reading their previous books, or on the buzz surrounding their new book.
2. Speaking of which, has there been a title that immediately caught your eye and urged you to pick up the book and read it? If so, which title was it?
Last year, I was seeing a tremendous amount of positive talk surrounding Elaine Castillo’s début novel, America Is Not the Heart. Castillo is a Philippine-American born in the US, but with strong ties to the Philippines, and her novel deals with both those worlds. Since I have many friends in the Philippines, and since I’ve tried to understand the literary culture there, Castillo’s book immediately intrigued me.
I read an extract that was published in the fourth volume of the literary journal Freeman’s, and decided on the spot to order the book; I was so impressed with the lyrically compelling prose and fascinating characters that I actually sprang for the hardcover edition (which is something I hardly ever do any more, since paperback international editions are now so common from major publishers overseas). And my risk was well-rewarded: America Is Not the Heart was the best book I read in 2018, a year that boasted a great many incredible books.
3. What book of any genre would you recommend someone to kickstart the reading habit with?
Reading tastes are highly subjective, and depend on the reader’s age, genre preferences, patience, etc. So to narrow things down, I’m going to alter the parameters of the question a bit and stick with just Singaporean titles. A big part of my job is promoting SG lit, and I feel that it’s on par with literature anywhere in the world.
- For realist novels: Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal and State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang
- For speculative fiction novels: The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid and Kappa Quartet by Daryl Qilin Yam
- For graphic novels/comics: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew
- For short story collections: Lion City by Ng Yi-Sheng, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe, and Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday by Jennani Dura
4. If you had to describe Singapore in one book, what would it be?
Just one book cannot encapsulate all of Singapore; even if the landmass is small, the country’s history and culture are so incredibly diverse and varied and that a single book cannot do justice to all of that complexity. However, to toot my own horn for a moment, the closest to come to this is the Best New Singaporean Short Stories biennial anthology series, where I am the series editor. Because each volume collects the best fiction published over the previous two years (our fourth volume, guest edited by Pooja Nansi, will be out in October 2019), it can give a more representative feel for Singaporean concerns during that period.
5. Have there been any fictional characters you strongly relate to?
Outside of my own writing: Winston Smith from George Orwell’s novel, 1984 (which is my all-time favourite book). Winston is very much complicit within the systematic control Oceania holds over all its citizens, but since he was born before the rise of the Party and Big Brother, he remembers what the world used to be like and longs to return to it. There is a strong moral compass within him which screams that IngSoc is exploitative and fascistic, so when he meets potential revolution in the form of Julia, he is ready to commit himself to the cause. The tragedy of his capture and programming via torture make me weep every time I read the novel or see the film starring John Hurt.
Poetry. I’d been exposed to a bit of it during school, including Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it never spoke to me; it was difficult for me to understand, and I was much more at home with fiction. But after moving to Singapore and befriending a number of poets here, I found myself devouring their collections. There is both an accessibility and profundity in Singaporean poetry that I’ve just not experienced anywhere else, and it has been nice to become fans of these writers as well as friends. Some collections I turn to again and again are Love Is an Empty Barstool by Pooja Nansi, Tender Delirium by Tania De Rozario, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light by Cyril Wong, We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee, and Clear Brightness by Boey Kim Cheng.
7. Having read a lot of manuscripts, what are three things you’d like to tell aspiring authors?
It’ll be hard to narrow this down to just three, but I’ll give it a try:
1) Read widely, both within and outside of the genre in which you write, so that you’ll have a wide array of voices and concerns to be exposed to, and to ensure that you won’t “reinvent the wheel” because of ignorance of previous texts (I’m looking at you specifically, Ian McEwan).
2) Have something to say; only you can tell your story, but make sure that you’re not writing solely with the aim or publication or awards, because that leads to empty pointless work. This means that you will also need to cultivate a critical awareness of the world around you.
3) Don’t rush to publication; many emerging writers are impatient to see their work in print, but your young work will not be your best work, and it’s common to look back on this juvenilia later and cringe. Spend your time instead with a focus on getting better, and on enjoying what you’re writing; publication will largely be completely out of your control, but if you put in the time to consistently improve, your chances will increase once you feel you are ready to be published.
Bonus #1: You don’t need anyone’s permission to write whatever the hell you want. The only requirement for writing is to be alive and aware. That’s it. However, if it’s so ingrained in you to seek authorisation before you feel like you can put pen to paper: you officially have permission from me. You’re a creator, so go create.
Bonus #2: Once you see a measure of success, recognise that you didn’t get there on your own; everyone who ever gave you encouragement, positive feedback, financial support or emotional strength is standing beside you in spirit, so be sure to acknowledge them, at least in your heart. Also, pay it forward; actor Jack Lemmon once said, “If you’ve done well in the business you wanted to do well in, then it’s your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down.”
8. Are there any “must-haves” in your environment before you start reading? E.g. warm blanket or a cup of tea.
Relative quiet and calm. When I lose myself in a book, the world around me disappears, but this cannot happen unless I can concentrate on the words themselves first. I do a lot of my pleasure reading in bed before sleep, but even when I’m reading out in the world, I need to find a quiet place to do so.
9. What are some of your weird reading habits people don’t know about? E.g. Smelling a good book before reading it.
I’m very protective of my books and I try to keep them as close to as new as possible. This means that I never crack the spines or dog-ear the pages or (shudder) make notes in the margins. When reading a hardcover, I remove the dust jacket and place it aside so that I don’t smudge it with fingerprints. It’s a point of pride for me to be able to look on any shelf in my home library and see the books in such good condition.
10. What’s the oldest book in your shelf right now?
I thought that it was a 1961 printing of The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, which was a gift from my godmother after I was born. But in fact, it’s a 1957 hardcover edition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss, which is the same book read to one of my parents (though they can’t remember which of them it belonged to) when they were children by their parents. This book and the animated feature by Chuck Jones are an indelible part of my belief in what Christmas is all about.
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”