Elevator pitch. Tell me why I should buy your comic fiction? It’s funny — at least I thought so — thought-provoking, vaguely explores big issues and my wife wants you to know that none of the female characters are based on her.
What’s the big idea? Using comic fiction to sneak up on people and ask profound questions about who we are, what the universe is like, what we do with our sense of lostness, and what risks we take to love and be loved.
All the best comedy, or all the comedy that I like the best, is a bit of a ridge-walk: a carefree hike but with scary drops on either side.
What were you on when you wrote these? Nothing, honest.
Where did you get the ideas? Can’t remember. I’ve always liked the idea of exploring ‘the world behind our world’. We work hard to present our bodies attractively, because that’s the part of us people see. But what do our souls look like? How can they be pictured? They are so big and real, so much the essence of who we are, and yet so abstract. By setting my book with one foot on earth and one in the afterlife, I’m able to have fun making visible what’s normally hidden.
I’ve borrowed the afterlife scenery from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’ve carefully stripped it of all epic and noble content, and made my fictional Pandemonium a place of bureaucracy, vanity, power struggles and sales conferences.
How long have you been writing? All my life. My first non-fiction book was published when I was 24. My second, published when I was 26, went on to sell around 50,000 copies. I peaked early.
What authors have inspired you?
English comic writers like P G Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett. Then the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. When I saw him, a physicist and engineer, writing mind-stretching fiction and elegant and coherent non-fiction I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up studying the same subject at the same college as he did but pursuing a much less glittering career!
Who’s your favourite character in the book?
That would have to be Caroline, the ex-girlfriend of main protagonist, Jamie. She was supposed only to have a walk-on part, but I noticed that every time she appeared, Jamie lit up, and their relationship was irresistable to write about, limping along in its misunderstandings and asynchronous love. She’s so gorgeous and Jamie loves her so much, but he’s missed his chance. As I re-wrote drafts, Caroline kept insisting on having more scenes, and I saw how she could be a vehicle for Jamie’s gropings towards honesty about who he really was. How could I resist?
There’s a lot of food mentioned in the book: Afghan (murtabak), Indian (for example, roti prata), Singaporean Chinese (Hainanese Chicken Rice) and Malay (Mee Goreng, Laksa, Nasi Lemak). Have you eaten all these foods? Yes. It’s important.
And you’re campaigning for the word ‘murtabak’ to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Yes! Join the fight.