Singlit Spotlight: Author Teo Xue Shen Wrote Two Books During NS Using His Phone
STORY: Diane Lam
15 February 2021
Like most of his peers, 22-year-old Teo Xue Shen spent his teenage years in front of a screen. But he wasn't playing mobile games or doomscrolling through social media - he was writing novels. While he was doing his National Service, no less.
He wrote his first published novel, 18 Walls, while doing BMT, and his second, Children Of The Ark, while on Exercise Wallaby in Australia. His latest book, Children Of The Ark, is set in a dystopian version of Singapore, where a teenage girl rescues children born with special abilities. This story was inspired largely by pre-trip briefings and conversations he had in Australia about racism.
After serving as an armoured signaller in a C4I Battalion, Teo enrolled in the National University of Singapore, where he is now pursuing a degree in environmental studies. 18 Walls and Children of the Ark were both longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, making Teo the youngest author from the Prize to date.
You’ve written 2 books at such a young age! When did you start writing, and who – or what – encouraged you along the way?
I started writing in Junior College and kept it up all the way to university as a fun way of relaxation. Not many people knew about my hobby, but I did have close friends who were always open to helping me out; be it reading and giving feedback on manuscripts or entertaining strange questions at unearthly hours of the night. I guess I write when I feel like there is an issue which should be discussed that I can put into a different perspective through a fictional world with fictional circumstances.
You wrote both books during your NS on your phone. How productive! What was that process like? And what prompted you to start writing during NS?
During NS, my military priorities took precedence over anything else so I could only write in the small pockets of spare time I had. Most of the time, I wrote using Microsoft Word on my phone and on instances when I did not have a phone, I would quickly jot down ideas or pointers on a notebook. When I first started writing in NS (the first novel, 18 Walls), I was writing more for practice and thought that my experiences in NS would help shape my manuscript which contained themes of war. Eventually it became an avenue for me to relax and something for me to work on since I did not have much else to keep myself occupied with during my free time.
How did you find the time to write between studying and serving NS? About how long did it take you to write each book?
While writing was not a priority, I made myself a rule that no matter what, I would write at least a word every day. On good days I could get down 10-20 pages while on bad days, 1-2 words. The initial manuscript for 18 Walls took about 6 months while the rough manuscript for Children of the Ark took about 3 months. The self-editing process took at least 7-8 months afterwards.
Anything positive about your NS experience that inspired you?
If anything, my NS experience has taught me that fairness is not something you can expect out of every situation and to sit tight, grit your teeth and learn as much as you can possibly learn no matter the circumstances.
What inspired Children of the Ark? Share with us how you thought of the story, characters, and themes
The main inspiration behind Children of the Ark was a briefing on racism I attended before an overseas exercise in the army. It made me wonder why, in this day and age, is something like that still necessary and made me want to try and confront the fact that peoples' actions, behaviours etc are not always based on rationality. This birthed the main protagonist and her narrative. The other characters are really just bits and pieces of myself which I give names and allow them to grow on their own throughout the story. Sometimes, a character I intended to turn out a certain way ends up going down a completely different route and I'm honestly quite fine with that too. Plot-wise, there were many aspects of world building which I had to adjust in order to support the themes which I was trying to express.
How does it feel being a part of the Singlit movement at such a young age? Have you ever tried getting your peers to read more local literature, and if so, how has that been?
Even after quite a long time since 18 Walls was published, it still feels rather surreal to be part of the Singlit movement. My friends are largely rather open to reading Singlit, albeit very busy, although I do suspect that this observation may hold true for quite a few authors out there.