Issue 051 Author Interview: Denise Khng and “Felt”

Buckle up, dear readers, because today we’re taking a deep dive into Denise Khng’s richly detailed Issue 051 story “Felt“!

LSQ: I haven’t often read stories where the first-person narrator is telling the story to someone directly in second person. Why did you choose this type of narrative voice?

Denise: I think telling the story to someone directly in second person creates a more immersive impression of the dynamic between the Renee and Neal. When the narrator addresses the person she loves, there is an immediacy to emotion that perhaps a third-person narration or a first-person narration might not carry as intimately. I also wanted to portray the sense of grief and loss through the headspace of someone trying to believe in what seems impossible after that loss; for Renee to tell the story in second-person to Neal, to tell him her innermost thoughts after he’s gone, makes him somewhat present as well. There’s also the idea of storytelling bringing its subjects back to life; the idea of a story as sacred, to be shared with the right person (or readers), such that when it’s brought out into the open, when it’s read or spoken, a memory or vision or piece of truth it contains becomes living.

Because second-person narration is not omniscient the way third-person narration is, it becomes less certain if there’s a definitive version of events—or rather, if the narrator’s interpretation of events is the definitive truth. At the same time, unlike a first-person narration, telling the story to another character creates a heightened awareness of an untold side of the story—Neal’s. And that’s the version I think the reader would be most curious about. There’s some guesswork left for the reader, on top of Renee’s own guesswork in making sense of Neal’s disappearance, which leaves room for each reader’s own interpretation of what really occurs in the story.

LSQ: This story is richly laid out with words that are purposeful and powerful. What was your writing process like?

Denise: I wrote “Felt” as a form of creative recovery after leaving a commercial job a couple of years ago. It took me several months to finish the story, and my dwindling savings account functioned as the hard deadline. I tried to make sure the first thing I did at the start of the day was write, and kept my WiFi and phone switched off whenever I was writing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I wrote nothing in an entire day. There were a couple of rare instances where I was able to write for six or seven hours straight, but the next day, it would be one sentence or nothing again. It was only towards the finish line that the writing started flowing better. I personally find writing to be a masochistic process, kind of marathon-like, but when you hit the zone, everything else falls away except the story.

While I already had the beginning and ending in mind, the writing process wasn’t linear. The story came to me in bits and pieces like puzzle pieces I had to put together. It seemed to want to be discovered gradually, and I wasn’t allowed to rush the process. The time I didn’t spend writing, I spent reading and researching and watching anything that seemed to relate to the topic and atmosphere of “Felt.” I read quite a bit of material (written for a total layperson like me) on introductory physics and cosmology—mainly about stars, black holes, quantum jumping, the death of the universe, and the twin photon experiment which I was most intrigued by.

The writing was also inspired by Rickie Lee Jones’s and Jimmy LaFave’s covers of The Left Banke song, “Walk Away, Renee”. Apart from those, I had a playlist of instrumental tracks I listened to on repeat which I imagined as the score to the story. I also had a Pinterest board of photographs and artwork I was aesthetically inspired by, which was helpful in re-immersing myself into the story whenever I hit a writing block. In particular, there was a series of black-and-white photographs by Cosmo Hildyard that chronicled a 2010 police protest in Trafalgar Square, which I found extremely poignant. I’m very much drawn to photographs that are at least a decade old—a timeframe near enough to still remember vividly, but far back enough to see how it suddenly fits into history. The distance in time makes everyone and everything in the photograph take on the quality of fiction or myth—which is what all of us will eventually become.

As for language, I wanted to contrast the richness of Renee’s emotional landscape with the regiment of life in Singapore. The language of Renee’s inner world is an intuitive one, which would be the opposite of the general style of public communication in Singapore—which is reductive, straightforward, and entirely literal. State communication and public messaging favor the use of acronyms and words like ‘future-proofing’ or ‘future-ready’ (god, I hate that term). Words that, when put together, lose meaning instead of gain it. I think there is a far richer world within each of us that might not easily get expressed (if it even gets expressed), especially if our external environment doesn’t match it; and especially if the language we’re surrounded by does not adequately capture the emotional depth and complexity of our experiences and censors the beauty and mystery of life beneath a hyperfocus on the utilitarian and material. If someone is able to find connection in an emotional desert, it makes that bond between two people all the more precious. It was important for the words to be able to elevate the connection between both characters above the mundanity of the everyday grind in a culture that insists on keeping people’s minds chained to the fearful belief that their stability—and thereby, survival—is always at stake. A person can interpret life either the way it simply appears to the physical senses, or intuitively—and that gives two different realities, two different experiences of the same events. With “Felt,” a reader might view Renee’s point of view as a process of grief and denial and wishful thinking, or they could entertain the possibility of what she believes has occurred in the end. Or perhaps they’ll have an entirely different interpretation of it.

LSQ: What are your favorite things about the science fiction and fantasy genres?

Denise: While the genres provide a limitless scope to the type of worlds that can be created, I’m partial to stories where the sci-fi/fantasy elements are weaved into the story in elegant and subtle ways such that they magnify the humanism of the characters and their choices. Some authors whose science fiction/speculative work I love: Kazuo Ishiguro, Lily Brooks-Dalton, Ted Chiang, David Mitchell, Chris Adrian.

I think fiction can sometimes be more revelatory, more truthful, than non-fiction or biography. It doesn’t hide anything because it can’t. Writing from imagination taps into your unconscious mind—you’re not in any conscious control of the full extent of what the story eventually reveals. It’s only when it’s finished that you can discover new epiphanies with each re-read, then trace the full scope of your innermost concerns and beliefs driving the piece—which begs the question: How much of ourselves do we really know? And by extension, how much of reality do we actually understand or are even aware of?

LSQ: Who and what inspires your writing?

Denise: I suspect it’s the same for a lot of writers: Disillusionment, loneliness, grief, longing, loss, rejection, despair, struggle—Our darkest experiences tend to be the most fertile creative triggers, don’t you think? Equally: Freedom, love, connection, beauty, vulnerability, understanding. Though if I have to pick the most formative, it’d be a sense of entrapment. I’ve always viewed my home country as a cage for the soul; Singapore embodies an exceptionally risk-averse culture that discourages independent thought in favor of the illusion of collective security, which has a uniquely detrimental impact on creativity. What takes the place of originality and artistic expansion is replication, self-censorship, the borrowing of trends, a reliance on backward engineering, and highly unnecessary layers of bureaucratic involvement in the production of creative work (especially in the local media industry). This conditioned dependence on authorial approval, and the state’s lack of trust in the outcome of creative autonomy so much so that the public are treated as children—and have to be kept child-like in understanding and obedience, to be sheltered from the threat of freedom of mind while having their senses placated and dulled by attainment and accumulation of material goalposts—is something I’ve always found deeply disturbing. The deep-seated desire to break free from environments of rigidity, stagnation, and compliance, to ensure that the freedom of possibility exists no matter how fixed the circumstances feel, fuels my work.

Which leads directly to another source of inspiration: Travel. I’m inspired by scenic landscapes and atmospheric, cinematic cities that bare a deep, old soul, replete with great architecture and design—places where imagining comes effortlessly. I like being on an airplane; I like not knowing what’s ahead, anticipating something new, feeling like I could leave my old self behind and start life afresh. I find this particular sense of freedom very conducive for the flow of ideas. Similarly, I tend to get most of my better ideas when I’m on the road, listening to a good rock/soft rock playlist and daydreaming out the view. And solitude—a lot of solitude.

My ideas are also influenced by New Age beliefs and Buddhist philosophy. I’m interested in the idea of soul contracts, and the relationship between destiny and free will. In line with the themes of the story, I’ve always been curious about what happens after death; whether or not consciousness continues, and what the purpose of life is. Seventy-five years (for a lot of people it’d be less than that) seems like a glaringly inadequate amount of time for any person to come to a complete understanding of our existence, and centuries of scientific work barely scratch the surface of this mystery. Which makes me wonder if knowledge is only meant to be parceled out across generations, so every era uncovers a further piece of the mystery but not the entirety of it; if the full answer would be too overwhelming for any one person or generation to bear. Maybe knowing everything would undo the linearity of our choices, collapse history, prevent the answer from coming into its own fruition by bringing the world to stasis too early. Or if the full answer, once brought to light, would cause us to immediately revert to forgetting it (perhaps we already knew it once).

On a related note, I’m inspired by symbolic imagery in narrative illustrations by artists such as John Bauer and Dan May, and in tarot and oracle decks by illustrators such as Danielle Noel, Kim Krans, and Jonathan Saiz. Allegorical art tells a story by reflecting its beginning, middle, and end all at once—whereas the nature of writing means the story is revealed incrementally. The difference between these two modes of storytelling seems to tie back to what I mentioned earlier about two different experiences of the same event—because fiction and art connect us with our intuition, we’re made to understand an insight or truth about ourselves and the world according to what we feel rather than what we think.

Other things I’m inspired by are documented events that are imbued with nostalgia, vivid but lost to time, with faces and names and voices that are so distinctly alive and vibrant and full of hope at the captured point in time, such as: the launch of the Voyager Golden Records, the Challenger disaster, Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark’s documentary Streetwise (1984), Patti Smith’s memoirs. I’m inspired by stories of ruggedness and independence in people who grew up with a lot of struggle, but who still possess an untameable spirit and a sense of wonder.

I could go on forever about everything that inspires me! So to close, I hope my writing re-inspires the reader and allows them to recover their imagination, especially if it’s been buried for a while. To lose your imagination would be to lose your ability to keep your soul alive; to ensure your existence isn’t one that’s relegated to just survival, but transcends it and makes of life something rich and precious and worthy of its brief stay.