Delayed Rays of a Star: Amanda Lee Koe on her debut novel, life in New York, and why she relates to Marlene Dietrich
Four years in the making, author Amanda Lee Koe is finally able to talk about her debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star, which was released in July. Delayed Rays of a Star has already been recognised for being one of the most anticipated book of the season.
Koe is no newcomer to accolades though. She was the youngest ever winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for her short story collection, Ministry of Moral Panic. She also took home the 2017 Henfield Prize (awarded to the best work of fiction from Columbia University's Writing Program) for her working manuscript of this novel. "We publish literature that we think can stand the test of time. Amanda has a very bright future ahead of her, and it is a privilege to introduce her to American readers," shared her publisher Nan A. Talese editor, Dan Meyer.
Having called New York home for the last five years, Koe will be back in Singapore later this month for a series of promotional events. Like the three trailblazing women in her novel, we think Koe is well on her way to leaving her own indelible mark on how women are perceived, understood, and celebrated. We caught up with her to get some insight on the sense of play evident in the rich, nuanced lives of her books' characters, not to mention the ones she humorously embodies on her Instagram account.
Congratulations on your debut novel! What was the genesis of this story?
When I first moved to New York in 2014, a place that I often went to was the Strand, which is an used bookstore in Union Square. I came across an Alfred Eisenstaedt monograph. You probably would have seen his work even if his name does not ring a bell at the moment. One of his more iconic works was the picture of a nurse kissing a sailor with her back arched. Marlene Dietrich was on the cover of the monograph. She was my icon when I was growing up in Singapore.
Diving deeper into the monograph I saw this photo of Marlene with Anna May Wong (the first Asian-American film star), and Leni Riefenstahl, who would later go on to become Hitler's propagandist. At this point in 1928, they were at a party in Berlin, and none of them are actually famous for all the things they would later go on to achieve. The photo was a secret wormhole in time, and that was my starting point in terms of entering this historical re-imagining.
How did you decide on the title?
It's actually taken directly from the end of a Roland Barthes quote. He is talking to Susan Sontag about photography, and Sontag says, "The photograph of the missing being will touch me like the delayed rays of a star". If you step outside on a sunny day and you feel the sunlight on your skin, those photons took about eight minutes to touch you from the surface of the sun. Before they could undergo that journey to reach your skin, they were in the core of the sun banging against each other for at least 10,000 years before they found a way to get out to the surface to reach you. I found that so unspeakably touching and beautiful. The title speaks to the idea of interrogating stardom, in terms of these three women as cinematic icons, and it could also talk about photography as a medium.
Your last book was the short story collection, Ministry of Moral Panic. How different was the writing process for this novel?
It's vastly different working on a short story collection and a novel. It's almost like the difference between riding a bicycle and driving a car; I love both bicycles and cars, but there is definitely a vast difference in terms of what you can and can't do with a bicycle versus a car. For the short stories, I was in my early to mid 20s, so a lot of it was raw and quite unrevised. It was really like puking on a canvas, seeing what stuck, and working with that. Whereas for the novel, I was bit older and I had moved to New York by then. I was more thoughtful of the process, and knew what I wanted or didn't want to do within the form. I do hold both forms and works very dearly, but they are very different.
Of the three protagonists in your novel — Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Reifenstahl — whom do you most identify with?
The one I identify the most with is Marlene Dietrich, because she allowed herself to be the most free. When she was young, for example, she was infatuated with a German film actress called Henny Porten. She would take her violin, stand outside Porten's window, and play ballads to her. She was willing to wear her heart on her sleeve.
What is your favourite line of prose from your book?
One of my favourite lines in the book wasn't even something that I wrote, but something Marlene Dietrich said in real life. I utilized it in a scene close to the end.
"Darling, the legs aren't so beautiful", she said. "I just know what to do with them."
You're based in New York now, how has this impacted your writing?
New York for me is really a microcosm of cultures and I do feel freer here, and able to explore what I want to, but it's only my fifth year here, and I might still have my rose-tinted lenses on. My partner, filmmaker Kirsten Tan of Pop Aye (2017), who has been living in New York for more than a decade, will be able to speak on this a little more.
Kirsten: Being in New York has been quite inspiring. It's a city that draws dreamers from everywhere. You come here to dream, and to go in pursuit of that dream. I feel like most people in New York come here to self-actualize. As a result, the people who are always here are filled with a certain kind of fearless energy, and it's this fearless energy that I found very seductive.
In Singapore, practical concerns kick in very quickly. It's a place where we start to check ourselves. It's about leading a very practical adult life in Singapore. In a sense, New York has given me legs to dare to dream, in a way that's not just spoken, but echoed in the people around me.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I have always been telling stories since I was a small child. I used to make these crime scene collages from my mum's fashion magazines. I also asked her to be my pretend pen pal, and I gave us very distinct separate personas to communicate from. I would dress my younger siblings up, and we would go on these scripted adventures together.
Everyone that I was reading as a child were dead white people, which I think speaks to the importance of having a non-Euro-American centric curriculum. In terms of how society functions in Singapore, being a writer didn't seem to be an actual occupation. Even in my 20s as a writer in Singapore, when I would say that I'm a writer, people would ask me if I was a journalist or an editor. It didn't seem possible for me to be a fiction writer or a novelist, but I always knew that I had words in me.
Where can people find your book, and will you be doing any readings in Singapore?
Singapore carries the export edition of Delayed Rays Of A Star, which is published by Bloomsbury in a paperback format. You can get it at Kinokuniya or Takashimaya at Bugis, BooksActually in Tiong Bahru, WH Smith if you happen to be at the airport, and Popular in the heartlands. I'm excited to be back in Singapore on 24 August. I'll be doing events at Kinokuniya, Aesop, Straits Clan and BooksActually. I'm also very excited to bring Shanghai Express (1932) to the big screen at The Projector for one night only on 5 September. Come say hi!