Arts Books By The Book Interview literature Singapore

By The Book: An Interview with The Good Guys author Darren Chen

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The Good Guys cover image, and author Darren Chen (Photo Credit: Facebook)

With the rise of superhero flicks, the growing recognition of hobbies like toy collection, and fandoms sprouting up from every corner, it seems that one day, the geeks will inherit the earth. And here in sunny Singapore, the literary scene is about to welcome one such author to its ranks, as third year NUS law undergraduate Darren Chen debuts with his superhero novel The Good Guys.

“It all comes down to how you want to achieve these things. Yes, the writing and publishing process can be very strenuous, but for me, it’s also the outlet for my creativity, and with discipline and structure, I believe I can take it forward.”

Published by Epigram Books, The Good Guys is a novel set in an underground psych facility, in a not so distant future Singapore where superheroes are the norm. Here, these heroes receive therapy for their trauma and stress, hidden away from the world in their own private sanctuary. But everything threatens to go to pieces when there’s a sudden death of one of the patients, the facility goes into lockdown, and the heroes must work together to find the culprit, before all hell breaks loose.

Before reviewing the book, we sat down with Darren and found out more about why he decided to pen this novel, and how he even got onto this path in the first place. “My parents tell me that I’ve always been a creative kid, always drawing when I was younger,” says Darren. “But it was in Secondary school that I had a teacher who encouraged me to sign up for the Creative Arts Programme (CAP). I submitted a few short stories, got accepted, and for me, that was a key opportunity to start writing, and realise how important it was to surround yourself with people willing to support you in that journey.”

Friends I showed it to told me to submit it for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and I thought, this was a good opportunity to put it out there, and I was surprised to get onto the longlist!

“Back in junior college, I eventually did write a book, because I thought I should have, but you know, it’s the sort of writing I wanted to do just to explore whether I could even do it,” he admits. “While that will probably never see the light of day again, around the tail end of 2018, I decided to try writing again, and came up with the manuscript for The Good Guys. Friends I showed it to told me to submit it for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and I thought, this was a good opportunity to put it out there, and I was surprised to get onto the longlist! That was something that made me realise there are people out there who think I have something worth saying, and it’s gotten me interested to continue that journey and keep writing.”

Darren emphasises how much creative control he maintained over the novel, with the editing process that went into it primarily focusing on removing grammatical errors and keeping the language tight. “That’s where the bulk of the work went, and also towards ensuring it remained thematically consistent,” he says. “Growing up, I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, and I’m happy I was able to tell the story I wanted to, where I would deal with different tropes and cliches we see in typical movies, and for my main characters to tell their stories of survival, and how they manage to make it through to the end.”

“Across my characters, I do think that they each embody facets of myself in them, and it’s important to have a personal connection to your characters, as you decide why you want to write them, and take them on a journey through this book.”

Speaking of the process, Darren shares about his main characters, each one a superhero with their own powers, and broken in their own way, distinct in their personalities and trauma. “While I do have three ‘main’ characters, I did know that I wanted the person we followed around to be more ‘grounded’, so we have Landslide, whose geo-kinetic powers means he’s connected to the earth, and links back to his personality too,” explains Darren. “This story, while being unabashedly one about superheroes, was also one that meant something personal to me. Across my characters, I do think that they each embody facets of myself in them, and it’s important to have a personal connection to your characters, as you decide why you want to write them, and take them on a journey through this book.”

“Going into this book, I did have a clear idea of all three characters, in terms of how they looked and talked, and to primarily use the writing to focus on the arcs they’re going through,” he adds. “The plot is really just salad dressing, told through these characters, with the intent of having readers genuinely identify with them, empathise with them, and understand them. While Landslide is our ‘protagonist’, I’d say both Seraph and Legion are just as important as he is, and all help reflect these aspects of me, and the full story I want to tell in The Good Guys.”

In terms of the setting, while much of the book does take place in an underground facility with very few obviously Singaporean things, Darren did have our island city in mind when writing it. “In its original iteration, The Good Guys existed in its own dystopian environment in this generic city, but as I continued to go through the process of shaping the story, I wanted to ground it in a place that was more identifiable, so readers could imagine that locale and context, and add realism to a fairly universal story,” says Darren.

Perhaps even more appropriately, this idea of being trapped in lockdown coincides perfectly with the mad 2020 the world has just been through, as COVID-19 ravaged the globe. “I definitely didn’t foresee a future state where we were all locked away and isolated, but now that it’s 2021, after lockdown and circuit breaker, readers can really understand what it’s like to be trapped in a small room and cut off from the wider world,” he says. “Even in describing the facility, I was imagining this clinical, sterile, white environment where they treat people for the pain and harm they’ve suffered, and it is the characters, through their stories, who transport the readers to different places, and you can almost see the changes in colour palette along the way.”

As for the future of his writing career, Darren does understand that it will be difficult to juggle a law career with a literary one, but is confident that he has a way of doing both. “It all comes down to how you want to achieve these things. Yes, the writing and publishing process can be very strenuous, but for me, it’s also the outlet for my creativity, and with discipline and structure, I believe I can take it forward, and still set aside time to do it even as a law trainee,” says Darren. “As of now, The Good Guys is a standalone novel, but I might revisit the idea in future. For now, I’m writing other books, and comfortable being where I am, and to continue having room to explore different stories and ways of telling them.”

“I’d like people to read and appreciate my book because of the story it tells, about the experiences we’ve all had. Plus, it should be pretty fun, after all, it’s still about superheroes!”

“You know, I do think that there’s some perceptions surrounding how foreign work might be superior to local work, but I think that geographical location does not determine the quality,” he concludes. “I’ve read both good local and foreign literature, and we should all assess individual work based on their merits. I’d like people to read and appreciate my book because of the story it tells, about the experiences we’ve all had. Plus, it should be pretty fun, after all, it’s still about superheroes!”

The Good Guys is published by Epigram and available here

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