One rarely comes across a suspense thriller these days that is almost as brilliant as a good glass of old cognac, you know you might overindulge but you do so any whichever way because of how amazing it is. Ivy Ngeow’s recent book ‘The American Boyfriend’ fits literally under the same bracket. Each line in the book is worth all the time in the world, every minute you spend reading the book will only make you take out a little bit more time off your busy schedule to leave you engrossed in the book and how.
Ngeow’s writing is raw and will make your heart skip a beat almost every now and then hoping for what can actually be termed as rather ‘inevitable.’ ‘The American Boyfriend’ can one day be a chartbuster commercial film that you have read quite a few times but end up watching on the big screen possibly another 5-6 times without any regrets.
In an exclusive interview with News18, Ivy Ngeow talks about her impeccable writing, her understanding of the gun culture in the US and how she included that in the book, if she sees her book being turned into a film and what is to come next for her and much more.
Excerpts From The Interview-
Can we please begin by talking about the stunning setting that you chose for The American Boyfriend? What made you choose the same?
I have always been interested in the Southern Gothic genre of fiction, especially since I have been a fan of Anne Rice, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison. I’ve also particularly been inspired by Ernest Hemingway who wrote some of his masterpieces in Key West. Thirdly the climate, flora and fauna of Florida are very similar to Malaysia’s – rich and exquisite. The setting for The American Boyfriend thus came naturally to me when I was plotting because the boyfriend was as the name suggests, ‘American’ and what better place to have a farmhouse than in the heart of Florida which allowed for so many plot points to stem further – beautiful and boiling hot, yet stormy and unsettling – exactly what I had in mind.
What truly struck me was how visual the entire writing is. It would make for a stellar film, do you feel the same way? If so, who would you want to direct it and what are your thoughts on the cast?
I have loved movies since I was a child so it wouldn’t be wrong to say that my storytelling has been influenced by movies and TV that I have consumed growing up. In fact, I write novels by storyboarding scenes, which is a script-writing technique in essence.
And YES! It would be such a pleasure to see the characters on the silver screen, and I hope that it finds a suitable director/filmmaker’s attention soon.
Of course, I am fully aware that writers don’t often and not necessarily have a big say on these things, especially if you are just starting out as an author and haven’t gone ‘viral’ in the most literal sense but one can always dream. The book you read also started out as a mere dream and now it is part of the Penguin family. So, I wouldn’t think much and say if I really could hope for someone to direct this, then it would be my all-time favourite director Martin Scorsese or David Lynch. I think either of them will understand the nuances of the book and would do an excellent job of bringing it to a medium that they are masters of.
For the casting, I always think of Connie Wu of Crazy Rich Asians or Ashley Park of Joyride in the lead female character of Phoebe Wong, Jensen Ackles of the Supernatural series in the male lead character of Carter, and Charlize Theron as the supporting female lead, Roberta.
In one way or the other was there any incident from your real life that you fictionalised in the book?
There actually was one incident which perhaps in retrospect was a big catalyst for this book. When I visited Key West as a tourist a few years ago, I was in a mini supermarket or you could say one of the American convenience stores, and I saw that next to the sandwiches and tourist souvenir hearings, was a whole wall of guns in a display cabinet!!! Guns in a supermarket! I couldn’t believe it. It made me wonder what would make someone buy sandwiches, drinks, and a gun all at the same time. Or why would someone come walking into a supermarket to buy guns? The accessibility of guns to the people of the States baffled me. This culture shock gave me the seed of inspiration for writing about another country’s daily reality: guns and the hate crimes that one often reads about.
Which was that one character that you struggled with and how did you deal with the same?
I found the elusive character of Carter difficult to handle as he made Phoebe frustrated with his absence. His responses are glib. She can’t make him do anything. This drives her nuts. To handle this frustration, both in me and in Phoebe, I made him mysterious and slightly out of grasp. This is entirely within character as he is hiding a past and unmentionable secrets.
You brought up and spoke about the gun culture in the US in such an incredible way. How did you go about including such a poignant topic in your story?
I wanted to bring up guns in an objective, curious and open-minded way for readers to engage with another culture’s realities. As mentioned above, none of us is unaware of how gun violence is a persistent and rising problem in the States. Several people have been affected, and the most vulnerable continue to remain children and women, especially people of colour and/or of different ethnicities, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community among others. In my book, which is a suspense-thriller, but also falls under the larger crime fiction genre, the guns do act as an active narrative plot point to propel the story forward, but it also helps open up larger socio-political-cultural questions that I wanted readers to actively ponder about.
On a lighter note, how are you feeling about the success of your work? Did you expect people to accept your writing this way?
I’m really pleased with how things have gone. As a writer, you are never quite sure if your work will be well received. It is subjective to every reader. While it is true that no book can become big on itself, especially now more than ever when you have such excellent and diverse voices coming out from both big and small publishing houses, including self-published authors, strategizing on the book’s publicity and marketing outreach becomes paramount. Thankfully, I had an exciting time having lots of fun, sometimes also nervous, but mostly all good stuff that my publicist had set up such as a bookstagram tour, author tour, Goodreads activation, and press mentions among others.
But I also know that despite all good publicity and marketing, the book has to, in the end, appeal to the audience. There must be a reception. Markus Dohle, the former CEO of Penguin Random House group recently during the trials of Penguin Random House acquiring Simon and Schuster said in court, ‘Everything is random in publishing. Success is random. Bestsellers are random’.
So, I indeed was pleasantly surprised and delighted that I have received numerous positive feedback and reviews from readers, bookstagrammers and bloggers, some of which have even exceeded my expectations. I’ve kept an open mind since I am used to rejection and harsh criticism as a writer. My aim had always been to write the best book that I could, to surprise myself, before anyone else. I’m so thrilled that thousands have read my book now and loved it and hopefully, we will just go upward from here.
It has not been very long for you and your previous book to have received a lot of appreciation, looking back, how has the journey been so far?
It has been a fast, thought-provoking and astonishing journey, but it has been a steep climb too because so much has happened in a short time. I feel the thrill of a rollercoaster ride and the early self-doubt vanished. Every author thinks, what if they hate it? What if the book is actually awful? What if, what if, what if. My recent book tour of Southeast Asia is a head-spinning 11 stops in 20 days doing all sorts of events from official launch events, book talk sessions, discussions and meet and greet, and book signing. This period coincided with a virtual blog tour with 22 bookstagrammers talking about the book through their lovely posts and reels on social media across 11 days.
I also had to step up my own game as an author who is learning social media gimmicks! I have worked hard with my publicist to carefully understand what could appeal to my audience and how I can create content that would stand out from the rest. Sure, I haven’t perfected the skill, but it has been both exhausting and insightful learning and executing it. It changed how I thought of myself. The love of my readers for my characters and this book has me going. The overwhelming feeling of being appreciated makes me want to give more. I know I am on the right path in this life.
What do you have stored for yourself after the success of ‘The American Boyfriend’?
Like a lot of new authors, there is the pressure of writing a better and better book each time and we all know that it can only mean it gets harder and harder. Hence it will be a challenging time ahead to balance the day job, being a mum and writing, such that I will be able to put in a top-quality effort in whatever I do. The next step for me is to finish writing another gripping Asian psychological thriller which I started some time ago. Following the success of The American Boyfriend, writing will no longer be a hobby but a semi-professional activity. Now that I have established a set of readers and continue to build my profile as an author, I believe I am going to take some time to work on the nuances of the next book and what I want to do with it. What I can say for sure is that The American Boyfriend has been, in its own way, life-changing for me and I am so grateful for all of it.