Finding Her #ownvoice: A Conversation with Ivy Ngeow

July 19, 2023

A photograph of Ivy Ngeow and the cover to her book The American BoyfriendIvy Ngeow grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and now makes her home in London. An architect and interior designer by trade, she is also a novelist with five books under her belt, the latest a thriller set in Florida. The American Boyfriend is the story of a British Chinese Malaysian single mother who flies across the Atlantic with her toddler to meet up with her long-distance American Jewish boyfriend. The book was captivating from the beginning, and I never figured out what was going to happen, which is always a great sign for a thriller. I recently corresponded with Ngeow via email to discuss her new novel, how she got into writing, and her thoughts on publishing in Asia versus the UK.

Susan Blumberg-Kason: Your latest novel takes place in the resort town of Key West, Florida. Can you talk a little about how you chose Key West for your setting? Had you thought of other locations when you first thought about this story?

Ivy Ngeow: I was looking for a warm, isolated location for The American Boyfriend to disconnect both the main character and the reader from cold, harsh reality (literally). It had to be an enclosed world. I didn’t consider other locations because it had to “seem quite near to London” but be “far enough to be away from her mother” for Phoebe Wong, the main character, to find the trip with a toddler attractive in the middle of a bitter British winter. Let’s just face it, she is not going to Scotland. I found a visual, sensory, and literary connection with Key West, having been there before. The vibrant and colorful characters, the richness of cultures, and the laid-back island lifestyle of Key West set the stage and the mood for an unfolding psychological thriller. I also wanted a literary setting for the more esoteric readers. Key West is where Hemingway wrote many of his greatest works. The idyllic and picturesque façade of the island serves as a stark contrast to the dark and sinister events that take place, hence drawing the fine line between beauty and danger. Key West provides the dramatic, cinematic backdrop.

Blumberg-Kason: I’m glad you brought up Phoebe’s mother, because she is probably the most vivid character who is not actually present in Key West. Rather, she is someone Phoebe thinks about when she feels alone and afraid on her trip. There’s a part where Phoebe reflects on what her mother would say about wasting money and concludes that “the Cantonese had poetic ways with sarcasm.” I loved that. Can you talk a little about that and why it’s so special to Cantonese?

Cantonese is the language of witty repartee and deadpan banter.

Ngeow: Cantonese is the language of witty repartee and deadpan banter. You’d never need to give a straight answer with a straight face. Politeness would be out of place. Hence the mother’s naturally passive-aggressive tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. A great example of poetic sarcasm is if someone were standing in front of the TV, blocking your view. Instead of asking the person politely, Please, could you move, you would say, Sek bo lay tai, ah? (Were you raised eating glass?), meaning “WTH, are you transparent?”

Blumberg-Kason: I can completely picture Phoebe’s mom saying that! On another note, and one that could not be more different than lighthearted sarcasm, we can’t talk about your book without talking about gun culture in the US. You first bring up guns in passing when Phoebe sees guns for sale at a small convenience shop, but then later it’s as if most of the characters own guns. Now that I think of it, I can’t think offhand of other authors from outside the US writing about this when they write stories set here. It’s such a polarizing topic in the US, all while it’s become a horrible public health crisis. How did you decide to include gun culture in your story?

Ngeow: From the instant Phoebe notices guns on sale at the Sun and Fun convenience store, readers understand this is the reality in the US. I want to open their eyes as mine did when I first saw this for myself when I was in Florida, and immediately thought: “What makes someone walk into a store for sandwiches, tampons, and a gun?” As a writer, my aim is to create stories that reflect the diverse cultural nuances and complexities of the world in different societies. Gun culture is a distinct aspect of American society. Within the context of The American Boyfriend, I wanted to explore this idea in fiction because of my desire for authenticity and realism. By incorporating gun ownership, a polarizing and complex issue in the US, I am portraying the reality of the characters' experiences and their world. It is their cultural backdrop.

The guns that appear in the novel are plot devices, serving their narrative purpose. In the crime or thriller genres, weapons generate tension or highlight social issues. The inclusion of guns does not mean I endorse or promote any particular moral stance. Weapons are my storytelling tools for exploring the novel’s themes and character conflicts. As an international author, I respect different cultural perspectives. I write about US gun culture with an open mind and a genuine curiosity. I write to create the opportunity for readers to engage with another culture’s realities and to give insight into the diverse perspectives on this topic.

Blumberg-Kason: I read this book in May, which in the US is both Asian American Pacific Islander month and Jewish American Heritage Month. I found your story to be fitting for both. Phoebe is a British Chinese graphic designer with parents from Malaysia, and Carter, her boyfriend, is an American Jewish engineer. How did you come up with Carter’s character, and was he inspired by anyone you know?

Ngeow: I am a big fan of American movies and TV. I draw inspiration from male characters like Seinfeld and Frasier for their intelligent, humorous, and neurotic personalities, and from Jewish friends who always make me laugh because our families are really more similar than they are different. In Carter I wanted to create a diverse, educated, and multidimensional character who adds depth and richness to the story. But I also wanted a Carter who would smash the stereotype. His neuroses and humor are not due to his Jewishness but to his personal struggles and pain. They brought on his oddness, and the fact that he was not going to ever be like “other guys.” He is a tormented antihero, chained to his work, and dates a shiksa. Oy vey. He is as afraid of her as she is of her mother. The emotional and relatable aspects of Carter’s character are universal values that resonate with readers, and this—to me—is respectful representation of his heritage and identity.

Blumberg-Kason: Your debut novel, Cry of the Flying Rhino, was published in Hong Kong, while your next three novels were published in England. The American Boyfriend is your first book with Penguin Random House. Can you talk about how this book deal came about and what you’ve found to be the greatest difference between publishing in the UK and Asia?

There is only one voice, and to discover and train that #ownvoice took me more than a decade, way past my MA.

Ngeow: Many years ago, when I first completed my MA in writing at Middlesex University, I identified a gap in the market. There were very few psychological thriller novels with diverse characters. I wanted more #ownvoices, modern culture, and diversity in creative writing, and to see and hear strong women characters. Frustrated, I wrote the books that I wanted to read. I went to Middlesex thinking that I was going to be Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, et al., as I thought that was what English literature was, and what writing was. During my MA, I understood that I was to be Ivy Ngeow. There is only one voice, and to discover and train that #ownvoice took me more than a decade, way past my MA.

My debut—Cry of the Flying Rhino, which I wrote while at Middlesex University—won the International Proverse Prize and was published in Hong Kong. It opened up opportunities for subsequent publications in England: Heart of Glass, Overboard, and White Crane Strikes. Each publishing experience has been unique and valuable in its own way, because with each I was building my readership, understanding the cultural context of each audience, and studying the target market. I was also writing better and better books.

The American Boyfriend is my fifth novel, written to enter in an international competition, The Avons x Mushens Entertainment Prize for Commercial Fiction by Writers of Color. When I made it to a longlist of twelve, I knew that I had hit the right market, although I did not win the competition. It meant that there was a demand for diverse commercial fiction and that Asian characters no longer belonged only in literary fiction or in World War II fiction.

I always get asked how I got the deal with Penguin. I am afraid there is no amusing anecdote, clever shortcut, or magic trick. It is through the traditional way of querying, grit, determination, and sheer hard work. Between round after round of submissions (and rejections), I sharpened my manuscript to make sure that it was the best that it could be. Each time, I failed better (Samuel Beckett). I wanted to challenge myself to exceed my own expectations, never mind the readers’. I made a submission to Penguin Random House Southeast Asia in November 2021. I did not hear from them for seven months, so I assumed it was a no. I had already begun writing my sixth novel, a London Asian domestic psychological thriller. In July 2022 I received the best email of all from the commissioning editor. It consisted of five words: “Has this manuscript been acquired?”

I grew up reading their orange-spined paperbacks. My book now belongs with the kind of books I was raised with. When the opportunity to work with Penguin presented itself, I felt grateful, honored, and thrilled to collaborate with a prestigious publisher known for their global reach and for their dedication to promoting diverse voices. They are the best publisher I have ever had. Their recognition of my writing, belief in me, and passion for my book have given me the gravitas, motivation, and oomph to write more books and to grow my readership. Publishing in both the UK and Asia has allowed me to reach diverse international audiences and engage unique readers. I am living—as Deputy Sharon Kaplinski quotes Albert Einstein in The American Boyfriend—as if “every day is a miracle.” I am engaging and connecting with readers from all over the world, and the rich experiences that I have gained are priceless. Thanks to Penguin Random House Southeast Asia, my #ownvoice is being heard. I am bringing to the world a novel with several strong female characters.

Blumberg-Kason: The American Boyfriend is so visual. I think a lot of that comes from your knack for writing thrillers, and also from your architecture and design training. The midcentury modern home in Key West and all the fabulous furniture and décor are so vivid. If you were to cast the film version of your novel, who would you choose for the main characters (and Phoebe’s mother!), and—maybe most important of all—who would you want to direct it?

I would be weeping and on my knees if the director could be David Lynch.

Ngeow: This would be a dream come true, of course it would. If any movie or TV producers are reading this right now, please get in touch with my publicist! But for now, please allow me to fantasize. For Phoebe, I would cast Zhou Xun (who has starred in Chen Kaige’s films) for her earnest appearance and slight stature. I would cast the hugely charismatic and angsty Jensen Ackles of the Supernatural series as Carter, Jackie Chan’s wife Joan Lin (Feng-Jiao Lin) as Phoebe’s mum, and the statuesque and androgynous Charlize Theron as Roberta, one of the other main characters in Key West. And I would be weeping and on my knees if the director could be David Lynch.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of the cross-cultural memoir Good Chinese Wife and the co-editor of a collection of short stories, Hong Kong Noir. She is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books, and her work has also appeared in the South China Morning Post, PopMatters, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’s China Channel.