Malaysian-born Felicia Yap got a six-figure deal for her debut novel, Yesterday, and was hailed as a ‘rising star of 2017’. Now based in London, the full-time author talks to Options about her second book, Future Perfect, and writing.
Options: You have a delightful balance of interests and work experience — biologist, war historian, lecturer, theatre critic, flea-market trader, catwalk model and technology journalist. Did one thing lead to another?
Felicia Yap: One thing leads to another; I believe in the magical forces of engineered serendipity. In 2002, I did research on radioactive cells at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. In between experiments, I read The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, an ex-prisoner of the Japanese. It has been made into a movie starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. I thought it was an extremely fascinating topic so I applied to the University of Cambridge to do a PhD on the subject. I wouldn’t have become a war historian if I hadn’t read that book in a radioactivity lab.
To give you another example, when my ballroom dance partner and I were practising in the Lee Hall of Wolfson College, Cambridge, in 2007, I saw a face plastered to one of the glass windows — a man was staring intently at us. After a while, I couldn’t bear it anymore so I went out to ask him why he was watching us with such great interest. He said he loved my dancing, introduced himself as a director of fashion events, and asked if I would like to model in his upcoming runway show. I said yes and ended up doing my first catwalk show a couple of weeks later. I enjoyed modelling so much, I went down a lot more runways after that. Highlights included being photographed in Giorgio Armani for Red, Kate Spade for Tatler, Burberry for Esquire and for dozens of other magazines. I wouldn’t have written Future Perfect if I hadn’t been a ballroom dancer and catwalk model.
Future Perfect’s plot is fresh, fast-paced and intriguing. How did the idea for the book come about?
It came to me on a catwalk. At a show in 2012, a backstage helper handed me an extremely heavy leather bag just before I walked onto the runway. I remember clutching it and thinking as I glided down the platform: What if someone put a bomb inside the handbag and we were all going to die? Would I have led my life a little differently yesterday, had I known I would die today? Years later, I sat down and began writing this episode from the perspective of a model named Ally. The scene now forms the first chapter of the book. Police commissioner Christian Verger has to solve the case quickly while grappling with his mortality and trying to win back the woman who left him because his voice assistant Alexa is 99.74% convinced he will die tomorrow.
Does Yesterday also focus on technology? Are you taking a dig at our obsession with gadgets and digital stuff?
Yesterday doesn’t really focus on technology per se, but it alludes to our increasing dependence on technological devices, such as smartphones, to remember the past. People in Yesterday must rely on electronic diaries to remember what they have done (and who they have loved) because they can only remember one day — or two.
In books, things get sorted out eventually. Do you enjoy an author’s ‘power’ to tie up loose ends neatly?
As a writer, I enjoy the process of working out the logical order and structure of a thriller. It’s indeed fun to be able to tie up loose ends in stories and bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. I also believe it’s the job of the author to do this. Readers expect all threads of the story to be brought together, that the different pieces of the jigsaw will eventually come together in a logical whole. I hope to write more of these books in the future.
Are you working on a third novel? Do thrillers require a particular skill and which authors from this genre inspire you?
Third book ... of course. I believe thrillers should ideally have in-built ticking clocks so readers will keep turning the pages. This is why my novels are propelled by a sense of urgency, why the lead investigators in both Future Perfect and Yesterday must solve their cases within a day. While I write with one eye on the clock, I also keep one foot on the brakes. Suspense can be created by slowing down the story, by making the action super-slow-mo. This can often make readers more desperate to find out what happened and prompt them to speed up their reading.
Thrillers also require the skill of withholding information until the right moment. I love the challenge of keeping readers in thrall by drip-feeding information in stages. If it’s fun to read a thriller, it’s even more fun to write one.
I am inspired by Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier (especially her masterpiece Rebecca). I also love the works of Patricia Highsmith, particularly The Talented Mr Ripley.
You did history. Will that lead to a historical novel, one day?
Maybe! I tend not to discuss what I’m working on (or planning to write) for fear of jinxing it.
Would you set a thriller in Malaysia? What aspects of the country would work well for such a book?
I may, indeed. I can already picture someone dangling off the Twin Towers.
How much personal experience creeps into your writing? Are you constantly keen to try out new things?
I would say that all my writing is based on personal experience. Nothing is ever wasted; all prior experiences are immensely useful when one is working on a novel. Everything feeds back into one’s writing, often in unexpected ways. It could be random conversations one has overheard in a science lab, obscure things one has seen, heard, felt, smelt or tasted along the way.
I’m definitely a curious person, the sort keen to try out new things. The process of seeking out different experiences, of being open to new possibilities, really enriches one’s writing. I have travelled to 143 countries partly because I’m curious to see what lies out there in the world.
Future Perfect has bits ‘lifted’ from interviews, reports and op-eds, which reflect the characters’ views on perfection versus flaws, expectation, motivation, imagination and truth. Do you feel strongly about these observations?
I think a lot can be said in just a few words. This is why the book contains many observations and comments that encapsulate a person’s thinking (or feelings) in just a few sentences. They also provide short breathers between long chapters, hopefully entertaining ones.
What made you start writing?
I had always wanted to be a novelist, ever since I was a child. When the concept for Yesterday came to me, I started writing the next day. I’m glad I did.
Do you have a particular audience in mind?
Not particularly. I try to write something that wouldn’t bore me, a book which I will personally enjoy reading. That said, I hope to reach out to readers who don’t mind a challenge, readers who enjoy twisty stories with philosophical elements.
What do you get most from this lonely pursuit?
I write because I enjoy the process. Happiness is a process, not a state. Nothing makes me happier than the process of coaxing words from within, conjuring something out of nothing, creating stories out of stardust. Watching how nebulous ideas grow with each passing day, taking the form of beautiful constellations on paper. As a writer, nothing is more pleasurable than watching my characters come alive, seeing my stories take flight.
What do you begin with: plot, character, an idea, an incident?
I start with big concepts that intrigue me, questions that I’m happy to spend two years of my life figuring out the answers to. Yesterday grew out of the question, ‘How do you solve a murder if you only remember yesterday?’ The idea hit me on my way to a ballroom dance practice in Cambridge.
Additional themes take shape over the course of editing, too. I got to the end of an early draft of Future Perfect only to realise it was partly about perfection, or the impossibility of it. So I went back and re-edited the manuscript.
Concepts are merely empty canvases to hang tales on; what makes books come alive are the small but lively details that populate them. A tiny yet exquisite diamante on a bodice is like a beguiling character quirk in a novel: both make a story not just shine but sparkle.
Do you follow a routine when writing?
I try not to. Routine has the tendency to stifle one’s creative instincts. I believe inspiration is triggered by the new, surprising and unfamiliar. This is why I tend to do things a little differently each day.
Can you see Future Perfect becoming a movie? Is the Yesterday film deal on?
Of course! Which author wouldn’t want to see their books on the big screen?
A production company in Los Angeles is working on the adaptation of Yesterday. I’ve just heard from the project’s screenwriter. The plan is to bring it to the big screen but we may repurpose it as a TV adaptation.
Still have family in Kuala Lumpur? How often do you come back?
All my family is in Malaysia, actually. I come back once in a while, often in conjunction with events such as family weddings or literary festivals.
Your father taught you to read. Did you grow up with books?
Yes, Dad most certainly taught me to read. I could read since I was two; I must have read most of the books in the Enid Blyton canon by the time I was six.
Our home in Cheras was filled with books, even though Dad could only afford to buy me one book a week when I was a child. He would take me to the MPH Bookshop in Bukit Bintang Plaza to read books for free, every Wednesday afternoon. Wednesdays were the highlight of my week.
My most cherished present in my childhood was a fat little blue dictionary, a gift from him when I was around three or four. It was the first present I remember. He wrote an inscription in it — I can’t recall his exact words but they were along the lines of: ‘For my beloved daughter who has been clamouring for a dictionary.’ I remember reading that line and asking what ‘clamouring’ meant. He grinned and said, ‘Just look it up.’ I did. It was the first word I learnt from that dictionary, a magical moment I will never forget.
Enid Blyton, most definitely. I particularly loved her Adventure, Famous Five and Secret Seven series. I also read a lot of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Terry Pratchett when I was a child. I went through a brief Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High phase in my early teens, too.
How does it help to have people who believe in you and what you do?
It helps to be surrounded by people who have faith in your abilities, because they stick with you even when the going is difficult.
With the positive reviews and attention you got for Yesterday — a six-digit offer and being named a ‘rising star of 2017’ — did you feel intense pressure to do even better with your second book?
I felt a bit of pressure at first but it dissipated over time. I just sat down and told myself: I’m going to write the best second book I possibly can. As there are many things one can’t control (such as other people’s expectations and attention), I should focus on the things I can control.
Were you working on a prequel to Yesterday? How about Tomorrow?
I do have a manuscript of Today, a prequel to Yesterday, but it needs a lot more work. I may come back to that book at some point in a perfect future. Tomorrow was the working title of my second book until we changed it to Future Perfect.
Authors write for various reasons. How about you?
I write because it makes me happy and because I enjoy the process. I write because I cannot not write.
What are your dreams?
I dream of having a happy, fulfilled, meaningful life.
This article first appeared on Apr 12, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.