Interview: Debut author Elizabeth Wong

An early draft of Elizabeth Wong’s beautiful literary speculative novel shone its way onto our 2018 longlist. In July 2021 We Could Not See The Stars is to be published by Hachette imprint John Murray Originals and we catch up with Elizabeth’s path to publication.

Congratulations on the forthcoming publication of We Could Not See The Stars. What were the key moments from completing your first draft to signing your book deal?

Thank you! One of the first key moments is the birth of my son, who came three weeks early and interrupted my plans to finish my first draft! I had just started my maternity leave, had ambitious word count targets, and then my beautiful son came along the day after that! I thought my dream of finishing a novel was over… Thankfully, while motherhood in general is incredibly time-consuming, it turns out that babies sleep a lot, and I was able to complete the novel during his naps.

Another key moment is when I got longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2018. I remember sitting in the office, idly scrolling through the Bath Novel Award longlist announcement page, not really expecting anything, when I saw my name and the title of my manuscript. I was in shock. It was the first time anyone had ever read my work. And to get that external validation – incredibly surprising, exciting and confidence-boosting.

Last key moment: I received an email from Hachette UK that an editor would like to make me an offer. I found out in a car on the way to Oxford, and spent the rest of that weekend completely elated and stunned.

How did your publishing deal come about?

I had been in the process of querying agents, with a number of full requests but no offers of representation at that time. I had submitted to Hachette UK, who had an open submissions process, the Future Bookshelf, and were looking for unpublished and underrepresented writers. An editor from John Murray said she loved the book. She made an offer and suggested some changes that she thought would make the book stronger. I agreed, and here we are!

How many drafts did you write and how long was the process from first to final draft?

Ouch! This was a long process. I wrote an extended story of 60,000 words some thirteen years ago as a final-year undergraduate (I’m showing my age!). I knew that I had always wanted to expand on the project into a full novel, but I had life and some growing up to do. The project was shelved, with a few false starts here and there.

Finally, six years ago, I decided that the novel couldn’t be put off any longer. I wrote a fresh outline, which took a few months, and my actual first draft took three years to write! Baby and day job didn’t help! And I’m a very slow writer! By the time I finished the manuscript, I was a different person from when I started. I would look at the earlier parts of my manuscript and say, “Who wrote that??”

The revision process took another year, as I had to fix the plotlines which had evolved in writing. I would say I had three drafts before the manuscript was ready to be queried.

You’ve said the feedback from the judges on the earlier draft helped improve your manuscript. What was most helpful and how has We Could Not See the Stars changed since longlisting?

Some background: When I submitted the novel to BNA, I had finished the first draft a few months prior, and was in the thick of revising. So half of it was decent, and the other half… was written three years ago!

When I got the feedback from the judges, I agreed with a lot of their comments. For example, I rewrote the beginning as most of the comments said that the beginning was slow-paced. I also brought some of the speculative elements earlier, based on the judges’ feedback. And in general, the overall consensus was that my plot was loose, so I made an effort to tighten the tension. A lot of words were cut from that draft to the final draft: from a saggy 110,000 words, to a robust 80,000 words.

Your manuscript had a special place in our award hearts for your bold, ambitious speculative concept and unforgettable settings. Readers especially loved how you ground the story in hyper real locations – from sleepy fishing village to a dark and powerful forest – enabling your speculative moments to fly free. Do you have any tips on the craft of writing settings and speculative novels?

My tip would be to think of setting as if it was a character in its own right: its history, the people that have shaped this setting and how the setting has shaped them, its emotional colour, and finally, the details—lots of relevant details to heighten the emotion of the scene.

You studied at Yale, majoring in Geology and English and describe Geology as “not just about rocks, but the stories they contain.” Can you say a bit more about how your love of geology influences your creative writing?

Probably obvious by now but I love landscapes, both current ones and dreaming about ancient ones. There are so many strange and beautiful stories about our planet, and all we know is a brief snapshot of its life. My characters get to explore some of these weird and glorious places. For example, We Could Not See The Stars starts off in a fishing village, before the characters journey to faraway deserts and remote islands, some of which I have taken from my experiences in the field.

Describe We Could Not See the Stars….

The novel is a literary speculative fiction of remote villages, memory loss, and an incredible journey across seas and deserts. To discover the truth about his mother, Han must leave his village and venture to a group of islands which hold the answer to a long-held secret.

What sparked the idea behind the book?

For all my fiction, I start with a central image/ place/ emotion and build out the story from there. Growing up in Malaysia, I often see fishing villages all along the coastline: the heat, the mud, the infinite expanse of the sea. I spent two weeks in a fishing village to research the lives of these fishermen, so I got some realistic detail. I knew I wanted to write something on fishing villages and a golden tower. I only needed to figure out how to put them into the same story.

When and where do you write?

Pre-Covid, I had a set routine. I would drop off my kid at the nursery, then head to the Pret beneath my office to write on my iPad Mini for about 15-30 minutes (I would get the filter coffee and bring my own reusable cup). I would start off by revising yesterday’s work, which lets me get into a state of flow, and then I write new words for the day. It’s not many words, but I feel really good after that. After work, I would continue writing at night, targeting one to two hours, where most of the writing gets done. Also, I love the iPad Mini, I can put it into a medium-sized handbag, and it goes with me everywhere. If I have a free moment, I would try to get in a couple of sentences.

A lot of things have changed post-Covid, and I am still trying to figure out my routine!

What’s next for you?

I have recently left my corporate job. My plan now is to build a career as a freelance writer, author and geologist. I’m in the initial stages of planning and plotting for my second novel, which I think will take place in a dried-up sea (maybe). And I’m also planning for this “literary geology” project, where I would like to publish a newsletter to explore real stories of past Earths, and produce new short fiction, and poetry inspired by these stories. I don’t know whether any of these experiments will work, but I’ll never know until I try.

Elizabeth Wong grew up in the quiet suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and currently works as a geologist in London. She is interested in stories of Malaysia and also of this large world we live in – its deserts, rocks and seas. She has degrees in Geology and English from Yale University and Imperial College London. An early draft of We Could Not See the Stars was longlisted in Bath Novel Award 2018 and Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2019.

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Han’s uneventful life in a sleepy fishing village is disturbed when a strange man arrives, asking questions about Han’s mother. Han doesn’t trust Mr Ng, but his cousin Chong Meng is impressed with the stories of his travels and tales of a golden tower. Together they steal the only thing Han has left to remember his mother by, before disappearing.

On a faraway island, across the great Peninsula and across the seas, the forest of Suriyang is cursed. Wander in and you will return without your memories. Professor Toh has been researching the forest of Suriyang for years. He believes that the forest hides something that does not wish to be discovered. An ancient civilization. A mysterious golden tower.

Chong Meng is tangled up in the professor’s plans to discover the truth about Suriyang. Han travels the breadth of the Peninsula to find his cousin before it is too late. How much will Han sacrifice to discover who he really is?