Doing the Write Thing: Jason Erik Lundberg (Most Excellent and Lamentable)
Jason Erik Lundberg has been involved in publishing Singlit stories for more than a decade, whether it's short fiction, children's stories or novels. As the fiction editor at Epigram, he has helped authors with their noteworthy novels, from The Gatekeeper to Impractical Uses of Cake.
He also created a children's book series, Bo Bo and Cha Cha, and helmed two anthology series of short fiction, LONTAR and Best New Singaporean Short Stories.
In 2019, he returned to his first love as a writer. His novella, Diary of One Who Disappeared, was released earlier in the year and he played series editor again for the fourth volume of Best New Singaporean Short Stories. And he has a novel prepped for next year!
But for now, he has his newest release, the compilation of short stories called Most Excellent and Lamentable. Here's what he had to say...
You have published many books already, so how is this collection different?
I’m very excited that this book is being released! I’ve been publishing short fiction since 2003 and filled three previous collections, but each one of them had a slightly different focus. Red Dot Irreal contained my Singaporean-influenced fiction, The Alchemy of Happiness brought together a triptych of stories featuring immortal elemental siblings, and Strange Mammals was my kitchen-sink collection of everything else.
Most Excellent and Lamentable represents the best of my career so far and gathers together what I consider my most affecting stories to date, all in one place. And since Red Dot Irreal is out of print in Singapore, and my other two collections are hard to find, this new book is now the best way for readers to discover and enjoy my short fiction.
There was a little nod to Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez after the end of the opening story “The Stargirl and the Potter”. Are you influenced by those two writers?
Not consciously, no, apart from that one story. "The Stargirl and the Potter” was written as a Christmas present for an ex-girlfriend, and was very specifically inspired by Marquez’s story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, and Neruda’s poem “Potter”. The confluence of a premise such as an otherworldly being unexpectedly arriving in town with the themes of romantic love and longing was very interesting to me and expressed quite well how I felt about my former lover.
I have frankly not read much of Marquez, beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude in an undergraduate lit class, although I still do vividly recall the bit at the beginning of that book when an ice delivery man disappears in a puff of smoke. And I came to Neruda quite late, for a long time equating him with the pretentious fawners who could extol on his virtues at agonising length and kicking myself afterwards for missing out on some of the most beautiful and sensual poetry ever written.
Which other creators are you influenced by?
Very specifically in this book: “Always a Risk” took as inspiration both The Legend of the White Snake and a science fiction story by Jack Kerouac called “cityCityCITY”.
“Wombat Fishbone” was written in response to an award-winning NSFW short film by Steve Sullivan called “A Heap of Trouble”; “Strange Mammals” was inspired by a limited-edition chapbook called Strange Birds, written by Gene Wolfe and illustrated by Lisa Snellings, as well as an incredible photography book called Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals by Rosamond Wolff Purcell.
“Great Responsibility” is an ekphrastic speculation on two gripping pictures by the photographer Nguan; “The Time Traveller’s Son” includes more than a dash of John Kessel’s novelette “Gulliver at Home”; “Bodhisattva at the Heat Death of the Universe” owes a debt to Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, and the title story draws both from Shakespeare (The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet is the full original title of that play) and the archetypal Italian dramatic form of the commedia dell'arte.
More generally, my fiction has been influenced by nearly every book I’ve ever read, over forty years worth of story mixed in the stew of my subconscious, but I must especially call out the following writers for their immeasurable impact on my writing: George Orwell, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Carroll, John Kessel, Salman Rushdie, Jeff VanderMeer, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Aimee Bender, Philip K. Dick, Terri Windling and Dr Seuss.
Was it easy picking the stories for this collection?
After a fashion. This book only came about because I pitched another one first; Red Dot Irreal was originally published by Math Paper Press in 2011, but it went out of print in Singapore in 2017 (though you can still find the expanded edition on Amazon through Infinity Plus Books). Being that it consists of Singaporean-themed speculative fiction, I felt that it should still be available here. However, Edmund Wee, the boss man of Epigram Books, wasn’t keen on bringing back something with “red dot” in the title, so he proposed a new collection from me instead. This set the wheels in motion of putting together a “greatest hits” book of my short stories instead, which went quite quickly.
Why did you pick these stories in particular?
When it came to the actual selection, I mined the contents of my three previous collections, choosing stories that had gotten critical and reader attention, as well as those that had the most emotional impact. I also wanted to include one story that had not yet been collected (“The Stargirl and the Potter”), because its publication was more recent. In addition, I felt that it was important to write a new story specifically for this book, in order to entice completists who might have already read my other books, as well as to reward readers with a piece that could not be found anywhere else; this became “Slowly Slowly Slowly”, which I’d been thinking about for years, and which I might expand into a novel at a later date.
What do you hope your readers will take away after reading your stories?
Just like Neo and Trinity in The Matrix, it’s the questions that drive me. There are far too many people in “authority” these days purporting to have all the answers—if only you put all of your trust in them. I find it much more helpful to have a healthy scepticism about, well, everything; to never take anything at face value, to continually ask questions. Whether it’s about a politician’s promises or the nature of the universe, that questioning is what makes us human, and I feel like we need much more humanity these days. If my stories encourage people to ask more questions, then I feel like I’ve done my job as a writer.