Features

In conversation with: Vicky Chong on publishing her debut collection of short stories

Vicky Chong reading at Shophouse, the MA Creative Writing graduate reading in 2018.

MA Creative Writing alumna Vicky Chong is now the third graduate from the programme to publish her debut book, following the footsteps of fellow alumni Olivier Castaignède and Seema Punwani. Vicky’s debut collection of short stories, Racket and Other Stories, was published by Penguin Random House in July 2021 and is now available in major bookstores. 

The collection is a culmination of Vicky’s time at LASALLE – several of the stories in the collection were workshopped during weekly classes and submitted as part of her final thesis, making Vicky’s book the first published work resulting from a thesis project.

What is surprising to hear is that being published was not the primary goal for Vicky in 2016 when she initially applied to the then newly-launched MA Creative Writing programme at LASALLE. “My reason for enrolling was primarily to sharpen my writing skill and see how else I could improve my writing,” says Vicky, reflecting on her decision to return to graduate school at the age of 52. “Publishing a book has been a validation of my standard of writing.”

We spoke to Vicky about her initial reservations pursuing a postgraduate degree in her fifties, the writing community she has gained from her time at LASALLE, as well as her advice for aspiring writers.
 


What was your background in writing prior to joining the MA Creative Writing programme?

I had taken part in various writing programmes and courses, including a correspondence course with The Writer's Bureau (UK) in 2007, a 12-month National Arts Council Mentor Access Programme (NAC-MAP) with Josephine Chia in 2015, as well as a six-week National Library Board Memoir Writing Programme with Verena Tay in 2016. I also had two creative non-fiction pieces that were published in two anthologies by Singapore's National Library Board in 2015 and 2016.  

What made you decide to pursue an MA?

I had just returned to full-time work with an NGO (non-governmental organisation) in February 2016 after more than a decade as a homemaker. While I enjoyed my job, it left me with little energy and time to pursue writing at night. Around that time, Verena Tay was also starting her PhD studies in Creative Writing and she inspired me to take the plunge to return to school at 52. So I began exploring Creative Writing master’s programmes around the world and when LASALLE announced that it was starting its MA Creative Writing programme it was like a prayer answered. I was just happy I didn't have to fly overseas and could do it locally. 

Did you have any hesitations about pursuing an MA?

Returning to full-time study was daunting, because unlike my classmates who were mostly younger, with many having graduated with degrees in English, law, journalism and communications etc., I was middle-aged, Chinese-educated, had never worked full-time, and had a limited reading repertoire of mainly drama and romance. 

Also, other than creative non-fiction and fiction, I had previously only ever dabbled (poorly) in poetry and had never tried playwriting or dramatic writing. I wasn't sure if my standard of writing would be good enough to see me to the end of the programme. 

Ultimately, I went in with an open mind and no expectations, but I was confident of LASALLE’s high standards. 

You workshopped several of the stories that appear in the final collection during your MA course. How did you find this process of workshopping and how did it help you to refine your work? 

Workshopping by my peers definitely helped since we were all taught by our lecturer how to give constructive feedback. Through the process of giving peer feedback, I also learnt to critique and edit my own work, which was the skill that I found most beneficial to my writing till today. What also helped was that my classmates and I had similar writing standards, which made workshop discussions more robust. I was enlightened many times by the different perspectives shared in response to a single piece of writing.

 

Vicky at the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards
Vicky and classmate Prachi Topiwala-Agarwal attending the awards ceremony for the Asia-Pacific Nick Joaquin Literary Awards, in which Vicky won third prize in the fiction category for her short story ‘The Uber Driver’.


Writing can feel like such a solitary activity, what is the value of community in the profession?

I am lucky to have met this group of writers who share the same enthusiasm for keeping our MA workshop going. My classmates and I meet fortnightly to critique each other's work, share books, movies and articles on writing and publishing, as well as celebrate each other's successes in being published or winning writing competitions. It also helps that there is fabulous food, liquor and juicy gossip served during our meetings! Being in the workshop also keeps me engaged in the literary world and motivates me to keep writing because we need to turn in a piece every fortnight.

Do you have any advice for aspiring MA Creative Writing candidates or writers?

Don't give up. I am a 55-year-old who took English as a second language (during my time in secondary school) and majored in chemistry in university, so the bar to be an English fiction writer was set high for me.

As for writing advice, my thesis supervisor, Dr Darryl Whetter, always started by asking me when I submitted my work, “Did you read this aloud?” I think that is the best advice anyone has given me – to read your work aloud. 

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a collection of short stories based on life in the COVID-19 pandemic (what else?) last year which is almost complete. I am also editing two complete novels which I had written in 2007 and 2015 but were shelved. 
 

cover for Racket and Other Stories