Photo: Frenchescar Lim

We all know that old axiom about how everyone says they’ve always wanted “to be a writer”.

The only difference between people who spout that tired line and actual writers is that writers write. Which is what Jo-Ann Yeoh did.

Her manuscript, Impractical Uses of Cake, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize (2018) – and it was the competition’s submission deadline that was the catalyst she needed to propel her childhood dream to take flight.

“It was one of those things I never quite made time for. I’d always dreamt of being a novelist as a child, but what I didn’t know was how life gets in the way. And the thing is, we actually have a very finite amount of time,” the 37-year-old client operations director says.

ALSO READ: WHO IS MACKENZIE BEZOS? AMERICAN NOVELIST, FORMER WIFE OF JEFF BEZO AND POSSIBLY THE WORLD’S RICHEST WOMAN

The manuscript tells the tale of Sukhin, a lonely 35-year-old teacher who reads, works and visits his parents’ house, and has only one friend.

But one day in Chinatown (you’ll love her description of the place), Sukhin meets someone from his past who’s living a life so drastically different from his, it turns his own life upside down and forces him to question his choices as they bond over cake.

Jo-Ann (second from left) with the other finalists of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Photo: The Straits Times

“It’s a book about all the things we don’t ask ourselves. It questions all these expectations we have for ourselves because of societal norms,” Jo-Ann says.

But starting the writing process wasn’t effortless.

Jo-Ann cites Netflix as the “bane of her existence”. We understand – we’ve all succumbed to its bingeability.

All she needed to start on her first draft was discipline and time, which she found when she had to take time off work to attend to family matters.

ALSO READ: 3 SG CURATORS SHAPING THE ART WE SHOULD SEE: HOLLY TURNER WANTS TO BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN ART AND THE MASSES

Photo: The Straits Times

Whenever there were pockets of time, even at odd hours, she worked on her book: “I gave myself a target of writing 1,000 words every day. As long as I write something, even if it’s not great, I can work on it the next morning. When you know where your focus is, you can write quality stuff .”

And Jo-Ann is her own greatest critic. As a former magazine editor, editing on-the-go was almost innate to her.

But drawing the balance between obsessing over her work and enjoying the journey was important.

She didn’t fixate on the book’s ending because, to her, book characters are alive. “I didn’t know how to end it at the beginning, so I let my characters transform on their own.”

And she shared her preliminary work only with one friend, whom she describes as her “personal cheerleader”.

“He would say things like ‘I can’t wait to see what happens to this character’ or ‘I’m very excited to know what happens in the next chapter’. Without him, I’m not sure if I would’ve finished my book in time,” she says.

But finished it is, and Jo-Ann got to have her cake and you get to eat it.

Image credits

ART DIRECTION Shan

DIGITAL IMAGING Sebastian Lee

STYLING Violet Foo, assisted by Praveena Ravin

HAIR & MAKEUP Zoel Tee, using Hanz De Fuko & 3INA

This was first published in the May issue of our magazine.

ALSO READ: 3 SG CURATORS SHAPING THE ART WE SHOULD SEE: AUDREY YEO WANTS HER GALLERY TO GIVE SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS ARTISTS A VOICE

International Women's Day