Sandi Tan’s second novel, Lurkers, tells the story of a Los Angeles neighborhood peopled with immigrants and eccentrics. Through it twists dark humor and a particular feeling for American suburbia in the mid-2000s. Tan grew up in Singapore, where she produced fanzines, wrote film criticism, and worked on an unfinished film that eventually became the basis for the award-winning Shirkers (2018).
Shirkers is an autobiographical documentary film about her attempts to make an ambitious and rebellious film with her friends acting as cast and crew and how this project came to be sabotaged. Tan is also the author of The Black Isle (2011), an epic historical novel with magical realism elements. In conversation with PopMatters, Tan discusses her new book, its suburban L.A. setting, and the strange correspondence between the mid-’00s and the late medieval era.
After the epic scope and what must be the cathartic themes of The Black Isle, how did it feel to begin your second novel?
I wrote The Black Isle as a way of saying goodbye to a place, the kind of proper goodbye I tend to favor. It requires deep immersion and obsessive research, and a whole bag of mixed feelings including cruelty, sorrow, and rage.
Some might know the Black Isle to be the Singapore of my youth and my grandmother’s youth. (I stole the rough contours of her biography). Except transfigured it with my homemade lore. I wanted that accursed place out of my system, and so I wrote a goodbye book.
By the time I made my film Shirkers — another act of exorcism, this time revisiting my late teens in ecstatic detail — I had realized I’d become very cool about time. By which I mean where I’d been very anxious about getting things done before I turned a certain age, I was now calmer about chronology. I had once been a precocious teen who was now being viewed as a late-bloomer, and that’s OK. It really doesn’t matter. As long as you’re still alive and you actually get those things done, it’s not too late.
Being cool about time meant I felt free to go back and pick up where I’d left off with another project: a book I started writing in my early 30s as a way of formally saying hello to Los Angeles. And that is Lurkers.
Did having Shirkers come out between your two novels and seeing it much-discussed and winning awards change your approach to writing?
The first novel The Black Isle didn’t land. For whatever reason. I had a fantastic editor at a big imprint at Hachette who worked with big best-selling authors whose names you’ve seen in embossed foil at airports, including some good ones. But editors don’t control marketing decisions. And if you want your work to be noticed, marketing has to give a shit.
Maybe the book fell between “literary” and “historical fiction”. Maybe it had too much sex and horror for their focus groups. Maybe it was too, how do I put it, exotic. I don’t know. All I know is I wrote a book I would have enjoyed reading myself, or enjoyed seeing as a long-form television series: feisty ghost-hunter comes to terms with her growing powers against the backdrop of World War Two in Southeast Asia — and falls under the sway of a dangerous politician.
I like a yarn where people change, and things happen and time passes, you know? A yarn with sex and ambivalence and dark humor and set pieces that aren’t shoddily staged. The book did well in Singapore, the Philippines, and I think Turkey, but it didn’t land in the US, even with that big publisher. For whatever reason.
So while this earlier dismay didn’t change my approach to writing Lurkers, it did change the way I looked for a publisher: I didn’t. I emailed the manuscript to my friend Mark Doten, an editor at the more boutique Soho Press, who’d known about the book and asked to see it. I didn’t show it to anyone else. And that was that.
Do you have a routine for writing? What are the main challenges you face as a writer?
It’s mainly about making sure not too many crumbs fall to the ground en route from my head to the page. It’s not like I need to put on chain mail or step into a gorilla suit, but every creative day is a solitary battle.
I can’t work in cafes. I’m a monomaniac about polishing my sword, imagining the anguished faces of my enemies, and practicing my swing. One can’t do that in a crowded coffee shop without appearing a bit intense.
When outlining and broadly thinking up an idea and making notes, I leave myself playfully open to new inspirations and rabbit-hole down all kinds of research. Inventing is fun but exhausting, and I cannot do it for more than four or five hours a day.
After I have a rough blueprint, I give myself purposeful amnesia. (Time also takes care of this. I forget things.) By the time I return to pummel my scribbles into manuscript shape, especially in later edits, I’m a tougher, more skeptical customer. I’m also freed of the creative pressure of having to pull things out of thin air. Maybe because I tell myself I’m doing senseless, mechanical work — like sweeping or scrubbing — I can work longer hours and do an even greater amount of sentence-fixing, plot-shaping, much of the “real” writing.
By and large, I find that the lies I tell myself work. Either because I’m a superb liar or I’m a gullible mark.
Lurkers brings together a broad cast of characters that are united by the fact that they are neighbors. Where did the kernel of this story come from, and how did it develop?
I started the book as a way of forcing myself to get to know and get under the skin of my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood — I had moved to the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains (above Pasadena) around 2004. It’s hard for me to get interested in anything unless I give myself a creative task. So I imagined my way into my neighborhood, I guess — with skepticism and revulsion, not so much love.
Suburban L.A. is not very lovable, or at least not to me. It’s notoriously amorphous and elusive to originality despite the high number of creative people who live here. Rare is a movie such as Boogie Nights that captures aspects of it in any arresting, durable way. Most often it gets flattened into cliché (just look at the Instagram accounts of aspiring influencers) or sits around as the canned backdrop against which sitcoms play.
And familiarity breeds contempt. In the mid-2000s, my neighborhood was described as a “changing neighborhood”. It was a way of saying it didn’t yet have the guts or the stats to admit that it was gentrifying. People priced out of Silverlake were moving there, yet not the third wave coffee shops that service them.
These were the jumpy years following 9/11, when people still gazed at others with undue suspicion. I mean, I was guilty of staring down unmarked panel vans that crawled along my street. I’m fascinated by eras that are sort of inchoate in the popular imagination, that don’t yet have catchy names to cleave on to.
Living in an unincorporated part of L.A. county during that murky time, I thought, there had to be a there there — let me imagine myself into this soup. Then somebody in my neighborhood began playing terrible music very loudly every afternoon, an unclaimed blast of aggression that pierced through the mute tension of my unneighborly neighborhood.
The puzzle for me became how to work small, anonymized acts of terror into a portrait of a neighborhood where everybody already feels like they’re on the periphery of life, a lurker. What happens if one connects with one’s neighbor via a slap or gunshot rather than a handshake? What if that shocking act might not be entirely unwelcome because all we needed is for somebody to make the first move? I had to make that funny because otherwise it would be unbearable. Solipsists are frightful bores.