An adolescent author surprises Amanda Suriya Ariffin with her charming mix of innocence and maturity
THE moment Kathryn Chua responds to my conversational cracker about some latent scepticism I harboured prior to our meeting (about how a 17-year-old could achieve credible success with her first novel) with “Scepticism is good, it’s the only way you can improve,” I know I’m in for an interesting afternoon.
With flawless alabaster skin, fetching tartan skirt and candy orange nail polish, Chua is the picture of a young woman on the threshold of full bloom.
Rather than the expected surliness of a brash, confident teen who may have developed a sheen of blase knowingness, she is, delightfully, more ready smiles and quirky intelligence.
While she acknowledges “Publishing is so hard to break into” and that her success is part luck and chance, she is effusively grateful to her family. “A lot has to do with my family who has been emotionally and financially supportive,” she shares, while throwing an affectionate glance at her chaperon nearby. That support resulted in Chua’s first novel, Midnight Walking (2011), published by Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong.
Had she always known she had a novel inside her and needed to get it out?
“I’ve wanted to write a book since I was seven — it’s always been a dream and an aspiration,” she says, “and the idea for this particular story came out in the summer of 2010.”
While her father worked in Hong Kong, Chua had “no work for three weeks” that summer. She picked up a fantasy novel at the airport and knew with adult conviction and irrepressible enthusiasm that is the domain of youth, “I can do better than that”. While some may regard such candour negatively, others may see it as the impetus to kickstart a long-held dream. After all, if you never try, how will you know?
“When my generation thinks of fantasy, it’s often associated with horror,” she opines with just a trace of exasperation. Chua’s first tome was “an attempt to shed that preconception of fantasy in our generation — that it’s not all teen angst, going back to the scariness of it.”
“Horror and fantasy have a literary background — Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 18!”
I attempt to push her buttons about comparisons to a certain vampire novel, which results in a lively discussion with much hilarity. The words “kitschy, formulaic, shallow and predictable” bounce between us and I like her a little more.
“I thought,” she winces, “why are we reading this and what is the message that is being conveyed here? Is it really all that sensible for a guy to come in to a girl’s room at night and watch her sleep? That’s kind of creepy.”
With her impeccable and fluid grasp of language, Chua writes of Lucy the teenager who is faced with the antagonist Cyrus — “who is beautiful on the outside, but inside, he’s all tortured, black and scarred,” shares Chua. “Cyrus is a commentary on characters that are perfect on the surface but imperfect inside.”
He is the personification of the voice (in her head) of internal angst: “That’s what makes them more dangerous,” she explains. “That’s what makes him so scary — he can hide himself in the image of this ‘perfect’ person.”
“We need to learn to look past appearances,” Chua points out levelly, “and just because someone looks good on the outside doesn’t mean their intentions are pure.”
This observation adds a new dimension to her charm. “I didn’t want the antagonist to read like a pseudo-love interest,” she adds.
“I wanted him to be scary. He’s a bad person who wanted to hurt Lucy. The scariest thing about him is that he targets emotional insecurity. That’s a scary thing for people our age.”
And speaking of important lessons faced by her peers at an age where the glamorisation of dark, brooding characters may represent the wrong message, Chua is anything but hesitant when the subject of adolescent-related issues is broached. “Most of the characters were, in some way, influenced by my friends,” she admits.
From her observations, Chua elaborates that her peers face issues such as loneliness, isolation, insecurity, not fitting in, feelings of inadequacy and — as she herself faced — a lack of confidence.
“The big idea that I wanted to tackle in this book was insecurity,” she shares. “That idea of not knowing whether you’re good enough for someone. The character Cyrus is the embodiment of that insecurity — that voice in your head that tells you, over and over, that you’re not good enough. It’s easy for that to take over (someone).”
She hopes, by the end of the book that the readers realise, as Lucy does, that they are good enough and can defeat “the little monster inside (her) head”.
Midnight Walking is available at all major bookstores nationwide, priced at RM29.90.