Sharlene Teo has a perfectly ordinary family—obviously not the inspiration for the wild bunch who populate her debut novel, Ponti. Ira Silverberg, Teo’s editor, tells me that when he brought the manuscript to Simon & Schuster, there were a few raised eyebrows. Marysue Rucci, v-p and editor-in-chief at S&S, said to Silverberg after reading it, “But Ira, this is so not you!”—referring, most likely, to Silverberg’s reputation as Mr. Literary, with a long career that includes stints at Grove/Atlantic and Serpent’s Tail.
Silverberg admits that Ponti is more commercial than his usual taste, but he counters that assessment by pointing to the book’s “freaky characters.” It’s “an edgy look at coming of age in a changing Singapore,” he says. Rucci dubs it “Ferrante in Singapore.”
The book ricochets between characters and years but introduces readers to Szu Min on her 16th birthday: “Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth.” She announces herself—“I am Miss Frankenstein, I am the bottom of the bell curve”—and Singapore, describing it as a city that “lies just one degree north of the equator and it feels like the bull’s eye where the sun is aiming a shot at the earth with the intention to kill it.”
Szu’s house, she says, is ugly and “stinks of cigarettes, incense, and my aunt’s slow-boiled fungus soup.” Her mother, Amisa, is the star of 1970s cult horror movies in which she played a beautiful female demon (a pontianak) with a thirst for male blood. Mom and toothless Aunt Yunxi conduct séances (“A sad face is an open wallet,” Aunt Yunxi says), while Szu endures school with her best friend Circe and a teacher who “looks like a houseplant that has been neglected over the holidays.”
Are you hooked? It’s just begun. The novel’s got the verve, charm, and energy of its writer. Teo, even being interviewed over the phone (she’s in London and I’m in New York), comes across as a spitfire with a mammoth imagination and a skewed vision.
Twelve years ago, Teo came to the U.K. to study; she became a lawyer but never practiced. “I’m definitely right-brain,” she says. “I’m emotive; I want to feel things. I’m not interested in impressing my ideas on people.”
Teo took an MFA (and a Ph.D.) in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and was at Iowa in the International Writing Program. When she won the 2013–2014 David T.K. Wong Fellowship at East Anglia, a nine-month fellowship awarded to an author to write fiction in English about the Far East, she decided it was a perfect time to work on her novel about a female cannibal monster that crawls into the internet.
“The problem was that the protagonist was already powerful—there was nowhere for her to go,” Teo says. Demoralized when the novel didn’t go well, she admits, “I had a fear of failure; 2015 was a shit year.”
She began again, abandoning the “cannibal novel” and inspired by low-budget exploitation horror films. Then she found out about the contest.
Rogers, Coleridge & White in the U.K. had set up a prize in honor of the literary agency’s founder, Deborah Rogers. The inaugural contest was set for 2016 and, according to Emma Patterson, who would become Teo’s U.K. agent, there were 900 entries of 25,000–30,000 words each. When the longlist was announced, agents started contacting Teo. Then she made the short list and momentum built. “Sharlene was one of three strong contenders,” Patterson says.
“I sent off this hulking stinky mess of a novel and never expected anything to happen,” Teo says. “I kept tweaking the first page over and over while I was watching the Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—I love that film—and sent it off 20 minutes before the deadline.” She saw the contest as something official and serious, a contrast to what was going on in her life at that moment.
When Ian McEwan announced that she was the winner, she says, “it was like a dream—I had the most ridiculous expression on my face.” The manuscript was about one-quarter written and the pressure kicked in when Teo began meeting agents. It was also, she says, “very romantic meeting agents—like dating.” But, she adds, “Emma really understood what I was trying to do.”
At RCW, the feeling was that Teo would be, as Paterson puts it, “simpatico with my list,” which was composed of debut authors, lots of women, literary fiction, and the international fiction that she’s particularly interested in. Teo decided on RCW in May 2016. “I sent Emma batches of 10,000 words, and in five months, by October 2016, we were done,” she says. “The last two weeks were crazy. I was in a fog, compelled by desperation and self-loathing, but when it was finished I was proud that I had done my best and was ready to have it taken apart.”
The goal, Paterson says, was always to get the manuscript to publishers before the October 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair. She sent it out right before the fair, and the first offer for the U.K. arrived overnight, followed by seven more. Teo was ebullient: “I was freaking out; it was unbelievable.”
Ponti went to Sophie Jonathan, senior commissioning editor at Picador UK, in an auction. “The auction was enormously exciting,” Jonathan says. “I’d known that Ponti was coming for a while and had been badgering poor Emma about it for months, so when she submitted, I was ready to pounce. The novel enthralled me. Sharlene is so good on the convolutions of teenage loyalty, on the emotional complexity of being an almost-adult, and that tension is in the novel’s atmosphere too: sticky, sweaty, dank—the smog of Singapore and the heavy heated press of classrooms. This is a vibrant, modern novel, and yet Malaysia’s past is here too. The voice of Ponti is sharp, simultaneously viciously funny and poignant, and the world Sharlene builds is utterly enveloping.”
As the U.K. auction went on, Jonathan continues, “rights were selling abroad by the day, and that certainly made the whole experience more intense.” She adds, “I’m just over the moon to be publishing Sharlene in the U.K.”
To date, Ponti has sold in six foreign territories: to Intrinseca in Brazil, Buchet Chastel in France, Aufbau in Germany, De Bezige Bij in Holland, E/O in Italy, and Hep Kitap in Turkey.
Paterson sent the manuscript out to 16 publishers in the U.S. and Silverberg tells me that he loves that it was sent to him. He preempted it in 2016, the weekend before Frankfurt. “I wanted that book for the fair,” he says Silverberg and Jonathan worked together on the manuscript, and Ponti will be published in April 2018 in the U.K. and September 2018 in the U.S.
Teo’s take is that anything that happens now is “a bonus and it’s out of my control.” She adds, “I hope for the book to resonate with readers’ emotions: pleasure, disgust, all of it.”
I ask Teo about numbers, and she says the mention of money makes her want to vomit. But, as a way of answering politely, she does tell me she isn’t about to get a clerk job anytime soon.