Writers I read: The formidable Meihan Boey on writing and Asian Gothic
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Meihan Boey's 'The Formidable Miss Cassidy' has been making waves. It's the winner of the 2021 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and has just snagged one of 3 spots on the Singapore Books Award shortlist for Best Literary Work.
The novel is a truly delicious Singaporean rojak featuring a Scottish governess who's more than she seems, a British colonial administrator whose daughter needs to be exorcised, a black and white mansion, a Chinese towkay's family home, wild Greek gods and Scottish spirits, and an unlikely romance.
A lot to take on and yet, everything fuses seamlessly into a spooky and engaging romp. No wonder the awards it's garnered. Definitely well worth reading! And what an author as well . . .
I first met Meihan on 'Ghosted: A Seventh Month Date' , a SingLit Station panel to celebrate the Ghost Month. She'd such interesting things to say and I so enjoyed her novel I knew I had to interview her for Writers I Read.
Now that Ghost Month is rolling around again, it seems a timely thing to do. So, here we go - The formidable Meihan Boey!
Audrey: Hi Meihan. Thanks so much for agreeing to be featured in 'Writers I Read'. Could I start off with your beginnings please? What are the earliest inklings you had that you would become a writer?
Meihan: I’ve always known I wanted to tell stories. I was the typical introverted geek kid, always stuck in a book or comic or game, usually horror, fantasy, scifi, or what we now call ‘magical realism’.
I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was about 9 or 10. It was written on foolscap and stapled together, and I drew ‘illustrations’ too! It was about a doll who left her dollhouse at night, and got lost among the spiders and insects. Now I think of it, it was probably kinda gothy for a 9 year old to write, but I was always drawn to spooky things!
Audrey: But you weren't quite ready to be read then . . .
Meihan: No. I was very possessive and private about my scribbling. Although I kept so many diaries full of rambling stories I never let people read them. (I remember being very angry when my parents found and read my first 'book', a doll story!).
Audrey: Still, your writing journey has always flowed smoothly hasn't it?
Meihan: I never have problems with producing writing, in that I’ve never had ‘writer’s block’. I struggle with the complete opposite - reams and reams of enthusiastic writing (mostly overwrought descriptive passages which go on breathlessly for pages) which took me easily 20 years to learn how to calm down and edit effectively.
The biggest manuscript I ever finished was this crazy 600,000 word fantasy story, which I still have, printed single spaced, font 10, double sided, in a huge ring binder. I love it still, though it’s totally a wild mess, but elements of most things I now write have origins in this whopper of a failed manuscript.
Audrey: Tell us a bit about these pieces that are now published, and how they developed into your work with comics, your sci-fi novella The Messiah Virus and then the very wonderful Ms. Cassidy?
Meihan: It wasn’t really a shift - I have mounds of manuscripts and stories in both sci-fi and fantasy, and I submit a lot of short stories to indie presses and online zines. Most of these are within the horror, scifi and fantasy genres. I’m also a comic book scriptwriter, and all these genres tend to flow into one another in comics, where ‘genre’ isn’t such a fixed boundary.
There are elements that both Messiah Virus and Miss Cassidy share. Primarily, they both deal with ideas of what a ‘woman’s world’ is (Messiah Virus much more directly), and they both tackle the idea of what makes an entity masculine or feminine, god or monster, and what lies between the two.
Audrey: As a writer of Asian Gothic, I'd consider Ms.Cassidy an Asian Gothic ghost stor y myself. However, others have labelled it a 'comedy of manners'? What do you think? Or do you just write without giving a damn about genre?
Meihan: I actually love the idea of calling myself an ‘Asian Gothic’ writer!
I do actually pay attention to genre. Having been a bookseller for many years, I do know that it helps out both publishers and bookstores if you already have a reading audience in mind, and genre is the most efficient way to get your story to those you know will enjoy it most. It informs things like the book cover design (Epigram did a fantastic job) and appropriate placement in the bookstore.
Miss Cassidy deliberately draws from multiple genres, and both gothic traditions and the Victorian ‘comedy of manners’ are in there. She also has elements of historical fiction (albeit of a wildly alternate-universe sort) and, of course, a heavy dose of magical realism. I’ve by now met quite a lot of people who loved Miss Cassidy, and they are 100% of my tribe, so Epigram and I got something right!
Audrey: For sure! I think part of Ms. Cassidy's appeal is the layering of nusantara and foreign influences, for example the incorporation of Scottish seal spirit (selky) beings and Greek myths. I'm especially intrigued with the Scottish connection. Why?
Meihan: My husband is Scottish!
But, even before this nice convenient reason to return to Scotland every year I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the British isles, and of Europe in general.
Some of the most pervasive (and terrifying) fairytales we know are from this region. I studied the occult, and occult religions based in Europe (largely circa Roman Empire, since you can’t have ‘cults’ unless there is a recognised official state religion to be different from), and this is an onion that never stops peeling open. I think it started with my reading The Mists of Avalon when I was a teen - the most interesting family were from Lot and Orkney (Gawain, Gareth, Morgause etc), which are now northern Scottish islands, and which are still quite different from the rest of the UK.
Some of the oldest human settlements ever discovered, like Skara Brae, are from this region. There’s also a very strong Viking connection, and that’s always fun.
Audrey: Okay. So I get that Ms. Cassiday is from your particular personal link and stories you like. But what about your own experiences. I, for example, write ghosts stories because I've been visited by them. Do you believe in ghosts?
Meihan: I believe that ghosts are possible, that it is possible for something to persist after the mortal body is gone.
That said, I do think that 90% of ‘ghosts’ and ‘ghostly activity’ are not real. But the remaining 10%, well… who knows?
Audrey: Who knows indeed? Would that be a question you'll be exploring next? What else do we have to look forward to?
Meihan: I’ve just finished a sequel, which has made its way to Epigram; fingers crossed it will be in some decent shape for 2023’s publishing schedules! On a cue given by Jason, my editor (also an author himself, Jason Erik Lundberg), we’ll explore a little bit of Miss Cassidy’s past, and how/why she ended up in Southeast Asia as a governess. Three characters are ghost-seers (Mr Kay and his twin daughters) and they see some startling things this time.
Audrey: Sounds like something I'll be standing in line for Meihan. Mr. Kay is such a sweetie and I definitely want to see what's next for him and Miss Cassidy.
Meanwhile, thank you for this interview Meihan. And for those who've not read The Formidable Miss Cassidy, do have a go at it.
As for everyone who has read it and loved it don't forget to vote for it in the Readers Choice Award and get the chance of winning SGD 300 at - https://www.surveylegend.com/survey/-N4o1uOi6Pm-B42pAyub
Audrey Chin is an award-winning Singaporean writer whose work explores the intersections of culture, faith and gender. She believes in the imponderables including love, god and ghosts AND she's an omnivore when it comes to books.
Her latest book, The Ash House is about the plight of poor women in rich houses and features two foreign domestic workers. Proceeds from sales will be shared with HOME.
She is writing a sequel about mothers who die at childbirth and still-born children.
You can read about her other books here, and buy The Ash House here.