Doing the Write Thing: Ng Swee San
Ng Swee San is no stranger to writing stories. For one thing, she has been writing scripts for both TV and movies, from primetime dramas such as The Pupil and Tanglin, to children's shows such as Whoopie 2 and Totally Totto.
Her first feature film screenplay, Funeral Ties, was awarded second prize at the MDA National Scriptwriting Competition 2003 (Feature Film category). But she created stage plays such as Marriage of Inconvenience, staged by Theatreworks in 2004; and Sangkuriang (an adaptation of an Indonesian folktale) and Bond-age.
This time around, she's back as a children's book author, with Book 2 of the Really Wheelie Buddies series, Chop-Chop the Trishaw. It tells the story of a trishaw suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out) when watching his modern automobile friends speed down the roads of Singapore much faster than him. So he builds an engine into his modest structure, but he soon starts to miss the good, old days of taking it slow.
Here, Swee San tells us all about her inspiration behind this series that champions the common transport vehicles on Singapore's roads that we often take for granted.
Tell us a little about Chop-Chop the Trishaw. What inspired this story about a trishaw? I came across a fleet of parked trishaws near Fortune Centre called Uncle Trishaw which tickled me. It sparked the idea to write about Aunty Trishaw. I also love the nostalgic charm of trishaws, the whole idea of slow journeys and really soaking in the view. Admittedly, actually soaking in your perspiration when riding a trishaw in the hot sun, isn’t so shiok! But when the wind is blowing, riding a trishaw is fun. Or rather, sitting in a trishaw “driven” by someone else is rather pleasant. I don’t actually recall the last time I rode a trishaw, but I do know that every time I see a trishaw, I smile and am convinced I had a good time on trishaws. Probably as a tourist somewhere!
Is it true you preferred toy vehicles to dolls when you were young? Oh yes! I don’t think I owned a single doll. I had a few Matchbox cars, the majority of which were hand-me-downs from my older brothers. Even though I was quite a girly girl until I was nine or so, happily wearing pretty dresses chosen by my mother, I didn’t like playing with dolls. I enjoyed helping my brothers to build their airplane models.
When I was about nine, I fell in love with George from Enid Blyton's The Famous Five and became a tomboy. From that day on, my neutral attitude towards dolls switched to disdain. I remember that when I was around nine or ten, my Dad drove the family to Malaysia. We made frequent trips to Malacca, Kota Tinggi, and further afield. One time, I got into a small accident. My Dad panicked and drove into a petrol kiosk and begged the mechanic to help. “My daughter’s finger is trapped in a tyre!” The mechanic was incredulous until he saw that my finger was trapped in a Matchbox toy car! We all had a good laugh about it.
What would you say is the most challenging part about writing the Really Wheelie Buddies series? Thinking about the appropriate illustrations to accompany the text, so that the illustrations do not duplicate the text is one. Coming up with catchy titles, that's another. Thanks must go to the Epigram team for their help, they deserve the credit for the awesome series title Really Wheelie Buddies. Deciding what vehicle to feature was also another challenge. I wanted the trishaw to be the first book, but it ended up being a double-decker bus. For a while, I thought I might not get my wish to feature a trishaw. But deciding what to cut, that is, writing fewer words to make it look deceptively simple is perhaps the main challenge.
What are some lessons you hope to impart with Chop-Chop? Be careful what you wish for. There’s joy in being slow and living slowly. Fast is not always best or appropriate.
What's next in the Really Wheelie Buddies series? Could you give us a little sneak peek into the third book? The third book is about Suka Suka the cement truck.
Apart from children's books, you've also written for TV and the stage, and you were the president of the Screenwriters Association. Which role do you prefer? I have stepped down as president of Screenwriters Association (Singapore) since January of this year. I served for eight years and I wanted to spend more time creating stories rather than doing admin work. And I wanted to do more travelling this year. But it looks like that plan has to be put on the back burner.
With regards to what type of work I like … the answer varies, depending on the client and project. TV work is collaborative and less satisfying in the sense that the writer has less creative control and the final product can be very different from what you wrote. Playwrights generally get more love and respect from the rest of the team, in comparison, and we have a bit more creative control than screen work. Writing for books gives the most creative control, but the approval and development process might be slower than for a tv series.
Do you have any advice for budding children’s book writers out there? Read the classics like The Giving Tree, The Little Prince, the Dr Seuss books and The Day the Crayons Quit. Hear how kids talk, what they talk about. Or sign up for my Writing for Young Kids course at Lasalle. I look forward to teaching the course again in 2021. Or maybe even later this year.