English author Neil Humphreys has called Singapore home for many years. In that time, he has written bestselling books on Singapore, as well as fiction novels and countless newspaper columns. He also writes children’s books in Singapore, so we asked him about the latest release in his Princess Incognito series, Wrong Time to Fight Crime, and how he managed to negotiate a tricky 2020.
2020: Worst year ever?
Career-wise, it’s easily been the worst year of my professional life! My second Princess Incognito book was released in mid-February, just as COVID-19 hit, so all the book events were cancelled and I couldn’t visit schools for talks and workshops.
Then, after publishing 23 books in Asia, I was going to celebrate my first book launch in the UK. I was immensely proud that I was taking a Singaporean character – Inspector Low – to the country of my birth, essentially bringing my two worlds together. The launch was going to be up the road from where my parents grew up!
Still, I’m a working-class kid from an East London housing estate; perspective is never going to be a problem. Many, many people are having a tougher time right now. I’ll just keep my head down and keep scribbling.
Are things getting back on track now?
Yes! You can either give up or improvise some solutions. So like everyone else, I improvised. After COVID hit, I made some quick decisions. First, I recorded some of my school talks and workshops and sent my children’s book tour on the road without me. I was like Elvis Presley’s famous gold Cadillac. When he couldn’t get to places, he sent the gold Cadillac on tour. When I couldn’t get to schools, I sent the videos on tour.
I’m now doing live workshops and talks across the country, talking to students directly at their desks. And it’s been great! They are getting more productive and popular. In fact, just last night, six boxes of books were dropped off at my apartment to sign, before being delivered directly to students across the country. We’re all finding new, innovative ways to connect with our audiences. As a result, I felt confident enough to release the third Princess Incognito book – Wrong Time to Fight Crime – and it’s proving to be the most popular title yet, which is so rewarding.
Who’ll enjoy this new Princess Incognito book, and why?
The rough age range is between eight and 11, but that’s a loose guide. Both older and younger readers have enjoyed the series. Wrong Time to Fight Crime is a little darker and funnier, but very timely. It deals with the rich-poor divide and bullying – issues that I’ve encountered at many schools across Singapore.
We’d like to think bullying doesn’t exist in Singapore schools. It does, both in local and international schools. Teachers often ask me to discuss the subject. We also like to think that students are blind to the wealth gap. They are not. The rich-poor divide is getting wider and it’s important for students on both sides to recognise the gap. Of course, there are sensitive, thorny issues, so I wrap them up with lots of daft jokes about flatulence, which always goes down well.
How much observational “dad” stuff goes into your children’s books?
Everything. That’s actually a great question because I struggle with the guilt a little. I think all writers are vampires to a degree. I do sometimes feel that I’m sucking the soul and life experiences from my poor daughter. If I hear about an argument at school, or a funny incident, I’ll demand all the details like a journalist and then spin them like an author. One day, my daughter will either thank me or kill me. I’m leaning towards the latter.
How would Sabrina, the star of your book, deal with Circuit Breakers and lockdowns?
It would depend if she could chat online with her parents or not. Remember, she’s a princess incognito, fleeing a war-torn home and leaving her imperilled parents behind. So she’d miss her parents even more. If the lockdown has taught us anything, it’s the value of regular, physical communication with loved ones. As I type this, my mother is lying in a hospital bed in London, recovering from minor surgery. If the travel restrictions are not lifted by Christmas, as expected, then it’ll mean I haven’t seen my mother for more than two years. That’s what the Circuit Breaker and Sabrina have in common – they both highlight the true value of family.
You flit across genres seemingly with ease; how do you decide what to work on each day?
I only work on one book or genre at a time, which makes me very disciplined (and perhaps a pain for others wanting me to start on different projects). But I have to stay in the same “voice” until the book is finished. Ordinarily, I’ll write a chapter in the morning, have lunch and then write a column in the afternoon (which is my own voice, at least). Editing is the trickier part. I may be starting a new book in Inspector Low’s voice and then editing a book in Princess Sabrina’s voice. Switching from a middle-aged Chinese misanthrope to an 11-year-old exiled princess is not easy!
Have you been reading or writing less or more since spending more time at home?
Less reading, more writing, sadly. I don’t practice what I preach enough. I’m always telling students that you can’t run if you can’t walk. You can’t write if you can’t read enough… but I rarely get the time to read enough. Plus, I have a rule of not reading anything whilst I’m writing a novel, for fear of subconscious plagiarism. And I’m essentially writing for 12 months of every year!
What’s one great thing you’ve read or seen lately?
The Sopranos. It’s the greatest TV show ever written, by a country mile. There are many magnificent shows in my top 10 – The Wire, The Office, Breaking Bad – but I re-watched The Sopranos during lockdown and it’s in a league of its own.
Where is your home in SG, by the way, and what do you like about your neighbourhood?
I’ve lived in Toa Payoh, the East Coast and now Sengkang and there are pluses and minuses for all of them, but I do love my current home. Sengkang is a relatively new town, but it’s a river town. In Singapore, rivers mean reservoirs. Reservoirs mean a sliver of greenery on either side. So Sengkang offers me the greenest, breeziest outdoorsy lifestyle that my budget can afford. I’m surrounded by water and otters and I’m walking distance from half a dozen coffee shops and hawker centres. What more could a reclusive writer want?
How is it doing book promos and interviews via Zoom compared to the “real thing” of getting out there to festivals, launches and so on?
Like Ricky Gervais said, I love most of it! Doing interviews in my apartment, in my boxer shorts, eating a slice of toast and sipping a mug of tea suits me down to the ground! The loss of launches and festivals are a pain though. But again, we’re all conjuring solutions as we go along and making the best of it.
Wrong Time to Fight Crime is available at all good bookstores, or you can order online from Readers House. There are signed copies available, too, while stocks last.
This article first appeared in the November 2020 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!