In March 2020, as the first wave of lockdowns arrived in Southeast Asia, Clarissa Goenawan released her second novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida. Set in the same universe as her 2015 debut, Rainbirds, this story follows the life and death of Miwako Sumida, the friends she left behind, and the many secrets she took to the grave.
Below, the Indonesian-born Singaporean writer speaks about her follow-up novel, the writing process and how to stay inspired during lockdown.
How would you describe The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida?
“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is a story of how a young woman’s unexplained suicide shapes and transforms the lives of those she left behind. It’s a literary mystery with elements of magical realism set in Japan.
As your second novel, how did the experience of writing The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida differ from your first?
“Actually, the writing process remains more or less the same. Both The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida and Rainbirds (my debut novel) are my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) projects. Both of them took about five years to complete.”
Your novel deals with some heavy subjects, especially suicide. What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida?
“In the beginning, I had trouble understanding Miwako Sumida, the young girl whose death became the catalyst for the story. It took me multiple drafts over the years to figure out the kind of person she really was, why she did what she did, and all the secrets she took along with her the night she killed herself.”
You wrote your debut novel, Rainbirds, in one month as part of NaNoWriMo. What was that like?
“NaNoWriMo is an annual online writing event where the aim is to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I always wanted to write a novel, so when I first heard of the event, my first thought was, ‘Why not?’ Rather than a set deadline, what appeals to me most is the idea of writing the first draft fast to keep the momentum. I’m the type of writer who discovers my characters—and therefore the story—as I write them. I also love the sense of camaraderie from the NaNoWriMo community.
That being said, actually I wrote my first draft in one and half month, instead of in one month. NaNoWriMo’s goal is just 50,000 words. The first draft of Rainbirds is about 80,000 words, which I completed in the first half of December.”
How long did it take from writing Rainbirds to getting it published?
“For Rainbirds, I spent about one and a half months writing the first draft, and one and a half years editing it. Querying and finding a publisher took more than a year. The publishing process was around two years. In total, it took me about five years from the first draft to publication.”
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How would you describe your ideal writing environment/method?
“I’m pretty flexible. Anywhere is fine—at home, at the coffee shops, at the libraries, at co-working spaces—as long as I’ve got my laptop and I’m left on my own. I’m using a MacBook Air so it’s very mobile.”
What usually comes first–character, scenes, storyline?
“I don’t plot. I usually have a clear idea of a beginning, a sense of ending, and some sort of key scenes I’d like to include, but nothing in-between. I just write and write, hoping that eventually, they’ll turn into something. I’m a believer in trusting your characters and letting them lead you to unexpected places.”
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How has the outbreak of Covid-19 and lockdown influenced or affected your writing routine/style? Has there been a noticeable shift in the way you write?
“My second novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, was out in March this year, so it was a rather unfortunate time. That being said, I’ve been heartened to see the outpouring of support from the reading community. Many book lovers stepped up to help get the word out. And since book tours and events have to be put on hold, most of the promotional activities have moved online.
“On a personal level, having the kids at home can be extremely challenging to working parents. It was so difficult to focus. Thankfully, the schools reopen! With social distancing and various health protocols in place, working remotely outside is not as straightforward as it used to be. I also feel that I’ve been putting in longer hours, but not necessarily being more productive.
“A lot of things are new and many of us are still unsure, but we’re learning and adapting.”
What would you say to writers who are finding it difficult to stay inspired during the pandemic?
“I don’t know how helpful this would be, but I’ve been telling myself to take it one day at a time. Don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t go according to plan. Don’t force yourself to do the same things as you used to do. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support. Most importantly, always remember that your mental health and well-being are important.”
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida expands on the world you created in your debut novel, Rainbirds. Do have any plans to continue building this universe in the future?
“That’s right. Rainbirds and The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida are part of a series of interrelated novels. You’ll see characters in one book make appearances in the others.
“I’m currently working on a literary suspense. It is set in the same universe as Rainbirds and The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, so do keep a lookout for the side characters, because they might be the main characters for the next book.”
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