Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code hangs himself upside down to get inspiration for writing, Victor Hugo does it in the buff (The Hunchback of Notre Dame does have some twisted origins after all), and nobody asked but this writer likes to do it really drunk.
For Suffian Hakim — the man behind Harris bin Potter and The Stoned Philosopher and The Minorities — his latest source of inspiration for The Serial Short Story Project comes from opening the floor up to the people on Facebook (yeah ok, cool story) and a Reddit AMA thread (…dude has pretty big balls).
We leave it to Suffian Hakim to talk about it instead. Suffian, if you’re reading this, we want bloodshed!
Hi Suffian, we’re going to say this: it takes pretty big balls to trust the internet to give you ideas for a story.
I’m not looking at this through the lens of testicular heft, but through the lens of narrative experimentation. The internet is a fascinating place.
It is the birthplace of Slender Man, it is where Spongebob Squarepants gets elevated from Nickelodeon cartoon character to almighty meme, where, among all the by-products of rule 34, Lord Voldemort makes love to a 70-million-year-old pterodactyl (or so I hear).
I want to take whatever the Internet can throw at me just to see what story I can MacGyver out of it. Break a pile of turd down to its atomic particles, rearrange them into sets of 79 protons and electrons and you get gold.
So yeah, I’m coming into this both as an author and as a highly collaborative mad scientist (of the literary sciences).
The idea that the Internet is giving me ideas and story prompts actually excites me… intellectually speaking.
View this post on Instagram
In September I’ll be teaming up with @tusitalabooks @theartshouse and YOU (yes YOU) as part of a fully interactive, collaborative short story writing experience. I’ll be dropping two story ideas for you to vote on in early September (both chilling, hair-raising experiences👻👻👻) so watch this space!
How did The Serial Short Story Project come about? Have you always enjoyed interacting with your audience?
I was approached by Christine Chong of Tusitala, a digital publisher who specialise in eBooks and transmedia stories. I last worked with them for another collaboration they did with The Arts House called Sorta Scary Singapore Stories. That one was brilliant.
They got local illustrator Jolene Tan to illustrate a scene from my second novel The Minorities. It’s one of my favourite scenes, where the protagonists attended a session of the Convention Of Metaphysical Entities (or COME), which is essentially a support group for ghosts, pontianaks, djinns and other supernatural entities that reside in Singapore.
But what’s cool about it is that it’s a 360 illustration, so guests have to put on a VR headset and fully immerse into the world. Local YouTuber Hirzi narrated the story for the experience, which made it extra special because he’s really one of my favourit-est people in the world.
I digress. The Serial Short Story Project is an experience put together by the wonderful people at Tusitala and The Arts House. They wanted to find new ways to engage the audience beyond what’s currently being offered online. They wanted an experience in which the audience can be directly involved. I completely agreed and I was on board as soon as they reached out to me.
I’ve always enjoyed interacting with my audience, definitely. Nobody ever writes into a vacuum.
I’ve always taken the time to listen to my readers and hear their personal responses to my books. Good or bad, there is always value to their ideas. I may not always act on their feedback, but it does expand my horizons and gives me a better understanding of the emotional and intellectual spectrum that my readers operate in.
The difference with The Serial Short Story Project that the interaction happens as I’m writing the story, not after everything is done and dusted, and published. Some of my readers become close friends and advisors. My first European reader, for example, is a man named Markus Meyer. He bought a copy of The Minorities (directly from me, via Twitter) just before he came to Singapore to teach philosophy and language at the German European School, because he wanted to engage with Singapore’s literary arts (I don’t think I’m a good springboard for that).
We met to discuss the book, found out we had other things in common, and he’s now one of my dearest friends and the main populator of my to-read list. He’s the voice of my intellectual conscience. When I have to choose between reading a good book or watching another Cardi B video, Markus’ gentle voice will ring inside my head going, “Suffian, my friend, will you like yourself if you make that choice?”
I’ve been liking myself a lot since I met Markus.
Facebook Live seems pretty apt for The Serial Short Story Project but have you actually been on a Reddit AMA? It’s pretty whack, are you a frequent Reddit surfer?
I’m a frequent Reddit surfer, but I’ve been pretty sheltered. I’m mostly on r/reddevils (I’m a Manchester United fan, Eric Cantona is my lord and saviour) and r/Screenwriting (because I’m trying to level up that particular skill), so my time on reddit is pretty vanilla.
The AMAs I followed were Liam Gallagher (my other lord and saviour… I’m culturally polytheistic) and Danny Pudi (Community’s Abed, who is my spirit animal) and they were pretty tame compared to the Woody Harrelson or Perez Hilton ones.
In that sense, I haven’t been exposed to the more chaotic side of Reddit.
I think I’m ready, though. You don’t get to your third novel without some seriously thick skin.
Is there some kind of theme to The Serial Short Story Project? What kind of ideas would hook you?
The themes will be determined by the authors who’ll be leading the experiment for that month. I’m leading September, so the themes lean towards the stuff that fascinate me.
Horror has fascinated me for a long time, both for its visceral scares and its ability to repackage the issues of our zeitgeist into a monster or ghost that we can very nearly, but never fully, make sense of. I’m looking for ideas and visuals that scare you. I’ve had a recurring nightmare since I went cross-America (east coast to west coast and back) with my uncle when I was eight years old.
And the nightmare is this: I’m looking out the hotel window. There is a man standing across the road. Caucasian-ish, but I can’t really tell. I can’t make out what he’s wearing either. Other than his face, the rest of the man seemed like pure shadow. Nobody seems to notice him. They just walk past him. He’s staring into my window, at me, with red glowing eyes. I’m afraid to look away, because staring at him means I know that he’s there, with an entire road between us.
And suddenly, the entire street is empty. No more cars. No more street vendors. Just me and the man with the glowing red eyes. Something in the hotel room would distract me. Sometimes, it’s my uncle. Sometimes, it’s the bed creaking. But it causes me to look away from the man. When I look back out the window, he’s gone. There’s just an empty walkway where he stood.
Then, the knob to the main door begins to slowly turn. At that point, I’ll wake up.
25 years on, I still have that nightmare sometimes, but I have never remained asleep long enough to see what happens after the knob turns. I’m looking for ideas like this: deep seated horrors, truly terrifying visuals and the nightmares that have latched on to you for years.
How are you planning to join all these ideas to form a world? How off-tangent do you want it to be? Is there a plot that would make you go, “I’d like two of what he or she is having”.
At this point, there’s no holds barred. Three-act structure? Let’s ditch the idea of three acts. Even better, let’s ditch the idea of structure.
Right now, the universe of the story we’re going to write together is made up of chaotic, swirling primordial material. There is no form, no colour, no laws of physics, no semblance of existence, just the whispers of what might be.
The readers, the redditors and I are the crazed gods of this new universe, more meddling than the deities of Mount Olympus, more unhinged than the divine warriors of Asgard, more influential than the gods who watch the Nile Delta.
View this post on Instagram
To me, storytelling is a union of minds. There is value in all ideas, just as there is value in all minds. But because we’re writing a horror story, let’s make sure those ideas prevent some people from sleeping at night.
View this post on Instagram
So as the birthday celebrations wind down, I want to pay tribute to a truly wonderful woman – my wife Shelby. In a world of agendas, of us versus them, of politicking, of hate, of inequality, of rich-poor divides, of corporate and individual greed, of elitism, your love shines ever brighter. You’re the best choice I’ve ever made and this birthday reinforces that. I love you always.
What’s next for you in the big old try-not-to-die-this-year of 2020?
2020 has been a wonderful year for me, honestly. I got married to the love of my life (before the circuit breaker), Harris Bin Potter got onto the Straits Times bestsellers list (before the circuit breaker) and was retailing really well in Malaysia (before the circuit breaker), my third novel got longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Writers’ Prize (before the circuit breaker), Bill and Ted Face The Music is finally out (right now!) and I bought a house (…during the circuit breaker).
I’m deep in the editing process for my third novel now and I can’t wait to bring it out to the world in January 2021.
I’ve also successfully pitched a new pilot for Mediacorp called Amaranthine. I can’t say much about that at this point other than that it’s an adventure-mystery and we’re about to enter pre-production. I’ve also written a screenplay for a culturally-driven bildungsroman film (working title: Crazy Poor Malays; not a parody of the Kevin Kwan book or movie), and a theatre script for an allegorical political comedy called The Second Coming, but I’m not ready to push them out there just yet.
There were some definite bummers this year. I didn’t get to go on my honeymoon because of the pandemic and I’ve seen friends and family suffer in different ways because of the repercussions of the coronavirus, but it was a good opportunity to reset and be extra productive.
I did get stir crazy, but now that football pitches are reopening, I am quickly regaining my sanity.
View this post on Instagram
I can finally make it public! Harris Bin Potter and The Stoned Philosopher, which I first wrote in a particularly boring lecture in polytechnic, is nominated for Best Literary Work in this year’s Singapore Book Awards. This is an amazing benchmark for a book that has evolved with me, from messy hodgepodge of disparate ideas to something more confident and more structured. HbP is in esteemed company, nominated alongside @yeohjoann’s brilliant Impractical Uses of Cake, Awakening by Natasha Oliver (part of The Evolved Ones series) and @laksmiwrites’ very beautiful, very moving Fall Baby. #sba2020 #singaporebookawards #harrisbinpotter
I’m going to ask this out of curiosity. What’s next for Harris bin Potter?!
As I’ve said above, my timetable right now is insane. I do want to revisit Harris bin Potter as well as the fictional universe of my second novel, The Minorities.
But with new projects coming in thick and fast (especially now, with circuit breaker measures easing), I think I’ll have to put that in the backburner for now.
There are several things I want to parody in the next Harris bin Potter book, from Trump’s America, to an ASEAN edition of the Triwizard Tournament to J.K. Rowling’s rather unfortunate tweets. But we’ll see and wait for the right time.
As the saying goes, kuih salah salah, which means, if the kuih is wrong, the kuih is wrong. Or is it que sera sera? I confuse the two sometimes.
When can you participate next in The Short Story Project by Suffian Hakim? 20th September between eight to 11pm here.
If you’re bored, listless or sick of doing your job or have just finished participating in The Short Story Project by Suffian Hakim, click here to catch up with our September 2020 issue!