Interview with Clarissa Goenawan

One of the most highly anticipated books of 2018, Rainbirds won a ton of awards even before its publication. Written by Indonesian-born Singaporean writer Clarissa Goenawan, Rainbirds came out on March 6, and Clarissa graciously agreed to answer a few questions from The Unpublishables.

Publisher’s summary:

Clarissa Goenawan’s dark, spellbinding literary debut opens with a murder and shines a spotlight onto life in fictional small-town Japan.

Ren Ishida is nearly finished with graduate school when he receives news of his sister, Keiko’s, sudden death. She was viciously stabbed one rainy night on her way home, and there are no leads. Ren heads to Akakawa to conclude his sister’s affairs, still failing to understand why she chose to abandon the family and Tokyo for this desolate town years ago.

But Ren soon finds himself picking up where Keiko left off, accepting both her teaching position at a local cram school and the bizarre arrangement of free lodging at a wealthy politician’s mansion in exchange for reading to the man’s catatonic wife.

As he comes to know the figures in Akakawa, from the enigmatic politician to his fellow teachers and a rebellious, alluring student named Rio, Ren delves into his shared childhood with Keiko and what followed, trying to piece together what happened the night of her death. Haunted in his dreams by a young girl who is desperately trying to tell him something, Ren struggles to find solace in the void his sister has left behind.


Can you tell us about your start as a writer? When did you begin writing and what made you decide that this was the path that you wanted to pursue?

Ever since I was a kid, I’d always enjoyed reading and writing. Being a writer was my childhood dream.

However, as I grew up, I got more and more preoccupied with the mounting academic work. I also became more ‘realistic’, questioning the feasibility of becoming a writer. In the end, I kind of abandoned the idea.

I spent several years working in marketing, sales, and banking.

When I got pregnant with my second child, I decided to take a sabbatical. And since I was going to stay at home anyway, I wanted to give myself at least one last chance to pursue my dream.

How long did it take you to write Rainbirds, and what was your writing process like? 

I first wrote Rainbirds in November 2013—it was my NaNoWriMo novel. I spent about one and a half months writing the first draft, and one and a half years editing it. Querying and finding a publisher took more than a year. The publishing process was around two years. In total, it took me five years from the first draft to publication.

I was never a plotter. I usually have a clear idea of a beginning, a sense of the ending, and some sort of key scenes—but nothing coherent to connect them. I simply write the first draft, letting the characters lead me. The story often only reveals itself after rounds and rounds of editing.

What was the inspiration behind Rainbirds?

One day, a question floated into my mind: What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?

The idea left a deep impression, and I knew I had to tell this story.

What made you choose Japan as a setting? Did you do a lot of research for the book on Japan?

I wanted the story to take place in an Asian country that has four seasons and a wide range of natural backdrops. Forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, things like that…

Japan became a top choice because I studied the language and was part of the Japanese cultural club in high school. I’m also an avid reader of Japanese contemporary literature and manga (Japanese comic).

The Japanese culture wasn’t something totally new to me, but I wanted all the details to be as accurate as possible. I consulted a number of books and article on customs I wasn’t familiar with. As Rainbirds is set in 1994, I also studied what happened during that year. I have print-outs of the historical weather reports and the moon phase data in my research folder. Some friends who were familiar with the culture also helped me by being my beta readers.

Ren and Keiko are both very self-contained and private characters who open up very very slowly—did you always envision them this way or did they evolve as you wrote the story?

In the beginning, I pictured Keiko as an enigmatic woman who kept many secrets behind her flawless façade. Ren, on the other hand, was content with his reasonably acceptable mundane lifestyle.

However, as I wrote Rainbirds, I learned that both of them were, in fact, strongly dependent on each other. When Keiko was murdered, the precarious balance in Ren’s life shattered.

What was the most challenging part about writing Rainbirds? What was the most enjoyable? 

I love writing the first draft. I’m often pleasantly surprised by the unexpected places my characters lead me to.

On the other hand, the last few edits are the hardest for me. By then, I have grown too familiar with my work. It’s hard to discern the trees from the forest.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers living in Southeast Asia who’d like to be published overseas?

Get a good literary agent who embraces and celebrates diversity. I’m proud and honored to be represented by Pontas Agency. Anna, the founder, is very passionate towards promoting women writers and diverse voices from all over the world.

Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. She studied novel-writing with Curtis Brown Creative and was formerly a mentee on the WoMentoring Project. Her first novel, Rainbirds, won the 2015 Bath Novel Award for best unpublished novelists across the globe and since then has been acquired by 10 international publishers. She loves rainy days, pretty books and hot green tea.

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