Today, Rachel Heng is sitting on deals worth six figures each by publishers in the UK and US for her debut novel Suicide Club, but her writing journey was speckled with many disappointments.
“Suicide Club grew out of an early short story I wrote on a long-haul flight, in which a man goes to a party that turns out to be a funeral. I was writing a lot of short stories before and for the first couple of years I was pretty discouraged. I thought ‘well, this isn’t going anywhere, it’s just something I’m doing for fun on the side’,” says Rachel, who came from a finance background and spent six years at GIC before moving to Texas where she’s currently pursuing a Graduate Programme.
“I submitted a lot of them to literary journals and got a lot of rejections. I think my acceptance rate was something like one or two per cent. So, for every one story that got accepted, there were 99 others that were rejected. Given my track record, I didn’t expect that Suicide Club would do well and sell so quickly at all.”
The turning point, Rachel believes, was when she joined a night class at the Faber Academy in London. Posted to the city for work, the 30-year-old first-time author didn’t kick her passion for writing to the curb. She honed her skills at least once a week and it paid off handsomely.
“What happened was they actually published an excerpt of what I had written in an anthology that was sent to agents and editors in London. Then we had to do a reading day of sorts where we read out our work aloud for two minutes in front of a bunch of publishers,” she recalls.
“After the reading, I was approached by 11 agents and a couple of editors who wanted to read the full manuscript and all I could say was ‘I’m still writing it, it’s not done yet’. At that point, I had about 30,000 words and that was it.”
The experience was enough, however, to give her the motivation to finish the novel. Over a period of nine months, Rachel set aside time to write at least 500 words a day after work wrapped up.
Soon, the 30,000 words she began with turned into 170,000; before she threw half of the book out to end up with the 90,000 words that you see on bookstore shelves today.
Her success makes her the latest Singaporean author to break into the international market, following in the footsteps of Crazy Rich Asians’ Kevin Kwan and more.
“I think 2018 is quite an exciting year for Singaporean fiction. There are definitely authors making their mark on the world stage, so writing in Singapore is very much alive and well, contrary to popular belief. One hopes that this will spur people to gain more interest in literature to prop up the local publishing industry in the long-term.”