Every week we ask a creative, artisan, or musician to share what music gets them going from dawn to dusk. This week, Daniel Yeo, writer and author of The Impermanence of Lilies list songs that paced his day.
Every flower blooms and withers but culminates in the process, like the lily. Love does emulate this too.
Writer Daniel Yeo’s debut novel of youth, romance and melancholia involves the iconic Titanic and its captain. Tracing memories through poetic accounts of a relationship that impacted his life, it cements that two-way street that can only exist between two individuals.
We spoke to Yeo on what got him to pursue writing and how he cultivated The Impermanence of Lily into fruition.Jump to Yeo's 'Dawn to Dusk' playlist here.
ESQ: Tell us who Daniel Yeo, the author, is and when did you start to develop an interest in writing?
Daniel Yeo: Launching The Impermanence of Lilies was actually quite simple. I turned up. Questions were thrown at me. I tried to throw the answers back as hard as I could—and by that, I mean that I dug deep to find the most honest, truest answers I possibly could. If my guests could sit on those hard plastic chairs for an hour to hear me speak, the least I could do was bare my soul.
Daniel Yeo the author is a secretive nocturnal creature that sleepwalks in the day. When night falls, he scurries out and finds a dark, safe corner where he would not be surprised by predatory animals that might cut him short. It is always dark. There is always a laptop in front of him. This music is always playing. Sometimes, there is a small shot glass of single malt scotch whiskey on the desk. He says ‘sometimes’ because he does not want to be labelled an alcoholic. He will stare into the darkness and see things that are not there. The things that are not there are always the most interesting ones. He writes them down before they disappear forever.
I started to develop an interest in writing when I discovered that the page does not begrudge your words. It does not make an excuse—maybe it left the gas on at home—and make an escape. It does not have somewhere better to be. It does not get boring. There were so many thoughts and words in my mind, and no one to share them with. I developed an interest in writing, and thankfully for me, it seemed that writing was also interested in me.
ESQ: Have you written any stories before The Impermanence of Lilies? Why did you want to debut with this novel?
Daniel Yeo: Before The Impermanence of Lilies, there was nothing. I did not write down any stories, short or long, or in between. I debuted with this novel because it was the only one there was. The only complete stories were the ones that start and end in my mind, to be replaced by newer ones, almost as quickly as they ended. The figments of imagination and scraps of words that made it to the page, I did not really consider to be stories, and as they were for me and me only, I just kept writing over them.
There came to be a point, when I felt I wanted to write a story, for keeping. So I sat down and started writing. I went and went, until I reached another point, which is when I felt I could not add another word without ruining the story. So then I stopped. And there were seventy thousand words, which was what people would consider a novel. I think I was doing it for around five years, and in between I vaguely remember also doing other things I was less keen on—but was supposed to—such as going to work, meeting other humans, and consuming food.
ESQ: So you write to live and live to write. Are they balanced or does your day job takes away the joy from writing?
Daniel Yeo: Balance is an illusion, and the scales are tilted in different ways for every person. Only the truly talented can make writing for joy their full-time occupation. By truly talented, I mean, ‘people who have slogged for years prior in a ludicrously lucrative profession’, or ‘people with rich parents’.
When I write to live, the joy comes from knowing that I am earning the capability to write for pure joy. The day is filled with anticipation for when the sun sets and I get to write at night. I am not sure if I would still appreciate as much those nighttime writing hours, if I had not slogged the entire day to earn them.
ESQ: What are the key messages you wish to convey with The Impermanence of Lilies?
Daniel Yeo: The key messages I wish to convey with The Impermanence of Lilies, are exactly, nothing. Anything with key messages is propaganda or advertising. It is a tool, crafted to tell you that you should think a certain way, or act a certain way – most likely in ways advantageous to the ones who crafted the tool—who oftentimes cannot countenance or imagine ways other than their own. I do not like to waste my time reading things with key messages—the only time I do, is when I want to know what those key messages tell me about the motives and interests of the ones who created them.
In some of the copies of The Impermanence of Lilies, I signed, “May this book unlock the secrets of your heart.” That is all the book is meant to do. “It was a mirror, and in its cracked surface I caught a fuller glimpse of myself, in a thousand reflected glimpses.” This line from the book reflects all I hope it does.
ESQ: How did you select the topic or genre to pursue when writing or the decision is spontaneous?
Daniel Yeo: As with the key messages that did not exist, neither did the selected topic or genre. I have trouble explaining the story, as I did not start out with a map of where I wanted to go—simply with the feeling that I wanted to reach somewhere. I sat down to write and the words came. When I felt the urge to write about something I was of yet acquainted, I would just read and read about it – until I felt I could read no more – and then I would write.
ESQ: Fate is one of the anchor themes of The Impermanence of Lilies. So, do you believe in resigning to fate or going against it? Why?
Daniel Yeo: The scientific part of me knows that nothing occurs out of nothing, and that everything is a result of something else. Which would mean that, possibly, dismally, that none of our actions and thoughts are truly of our own will. However, that would also mean, remarkably, that we are linked, inextricably, to anything and everything that has come before. In touch, still, with the very first human or living thing that has walked the earth. And that there is a single everlasting thread that ties us all together.
Think back, to the Big Bang. If energy does not come into existence out of no other form of energy, then, every form of energy or force today, is linked back, through countless millennia, to that original source of energy, the Big Bang. If you and I were to talk, we would simply be exchanging echoes of that original sound.
The romantic part of me knows the thoughts and ideas in my mind, and much as I can imagine, I cannot imagine them being mere equations, the simple results of things put together, matter of fact. I cannot accept that the feeling we call love is the result of evolutionary selection, of pheromones and dopamine, of fixed sequences of neurons firing in my brain, drawing me to a person I thought I chose.
Is there inevitable fate? Or is there unanswerable free will? I do not have the answer. But such questions sometimes lead us down some paths that might bring us somewhere we never knew.
ESQ: Tell us more about the significance of 'Did the Captain of the Titanic Cry?' by The New Radicals and how does music inspire your writings?
Daniel Yeo: Around 2000 (I do not know for sure, for I have reached an age when years blend into each other, and what is one decade, from another?), the radio asked me, “Did the captain of the Titanic cry?” I am one who seeks answers, or rather I am haunted by things I do not know. Therefore I felt compelled to find the answer. That answer-seeking session took a little longer than I expected, several years in fact. But I ended up with something more than the answer. It is only after that I realised that there were other questions too: “Someday we’ll know, if love can move a mountain?” “Someday we’ll know, is true love just once in a lifetime?” “Someday we’ll know, why I wasn’t meant for you?” The answers that come easily never take us anywhere worthwhile. My hope is that others might reach that someday, on their own, and find their own answers when they read the story.
How does music inspire my writing? Well, without music, my writing would not exist. Every artist or writer needs a drug. Mine is music, in the main. I can be brought to tears, or sent to fury, by music. Music is where your ordinary life goes to die. When you listen to music, you do not think, “Oh, I need to do the laundry.”
Rather, you might think, “I am a star, flying through space, bleeding stardust across the universe, and I see this little blue-green orb, and I wonder how is it like to be standing upon it, thinking of laundry.”
Music does not inspire, as much as it channels from within you those hidden worlds, and bring them to the surface.
ESQ: Why do you think literary works still matter in this modern-day and age where everything is digitalized and information is consumed in bite-sizes?
Daniel Yeo: Whether something is digital or not, does not change the content in the work. A 100,000-word work is 100,000 words long in digital form, just as it is in physical form. It takes the same time to read. And to digest.
If we are taking about length, you are correct – information in its shallow form, like empirical facts and figures, can be consumed in bite-size format, to be regurgitated without understanding. Information can be repeated, copied, spit out to impress. But information like that can never inspire something new, or uncover new relationships between seemingly disparate things. The next time you have surgery, ask yourself if you would rather your surgeon be trained on bite-sized nuggets and factoids, or educated on extensive medical papers and textbooks, and you will find your answer.
As for whether literary works still matter, it depends on the individual. Some feel called to by art, some by music. And there will always be those who feel called to by words beautifully strung together, one by one, forming entire worlds.
ESQ: Short stories are gaining traction in recent years. Have you ever explored them and what made you choose to pen a full-length fiction instead of releasing a compilation of short stories?
Daniel Yeo: I have never met a short story that did not beg to become a longer one. A short story starts from a sentence, grows into a story, and if it is not killed before time, it might grow to its full story-adulthood. Short stories leave me with the feeling of being left hanging for no good reason. Like being invited to a party, and the host is not there. I could have either penned many short stories and not be happy with any of them. Or choose one story and brought it to its conclusion.
ESQ: What is the gutsiest you’ve done as a writer?
Daniel Yeo: Answering this interview honestly, knowing I might be judged by strangers, and not changing a word despite.
In the morning, I am listening to music while riding my bike to work. I tend to ride to the pace of the music. The traffic is heavy and the drivers are murderous, and I do wish to hang around for a bit longer to write, so I need some relaxing tunes.
1. 'Easy'—The Commodores
Lionel Richie wrote this song, which is actually about feeling ‘easy’ and light-hearted after breaking up from a relationship that had felt too heavy on him—like a gangster’s gold-plated chains (my own words). Theme-wise, it has a more generalised meaning, of casting off certain heavy thoughts that are weighing you down—singing that life isn’t that bad—to try to make it less so.
2. 'September'—Earth, Wind & Fire
September is the best month. Or at least, that is what this song makes you feel. September starts to play, and it sounds so groovy that soon your body too starts grooving to the beat – the actual month be damned – it doesn’t matter that it mostly goes, “Ba-dee-ya-dee-ya-dee-ya….” like a drunk Klingon.
3. 'Deezy Daisy'—Portland
Deezy Daisy is the song that plays in your mind when you are old, but want to feel young. When you are down, but want to feel up. When things are burning down, but you know you will get through it. It is the song you sing when you’ll never give up.
In the day, I like to take a little of the cornmeal porridge that Bob Marley sings about – something simple and honest and not-dressed-up. While I see the Maseratis and Jaguars racing down the city roads, past the towers of glass and concrete and stock prices ticker-taping down their sides, a serving of that audio cornmeal porridge is just what the doctor did not order – and that’s really fine with me.
1. Freedom—Bobi Wine
Bobi Wine is a Ugandan. His driver was shot to death by the police when trying to kill him. His body was tortured, and his balls were crushed by the army. His fellow citizens suffered worse. He had a chance to escape, but chose to stay and change things, and he unites his people through his songs. He sings, “We are fighting for freedom.” He also happens to be a truly good singer and this happens to be a really good song.
2. Expensive Shit—Fela Kuti
Things seem slightly better now, but in the 1970s, the Nigerian government and police’s main occupation was corruption, and Fela Kuti raged against it the only way he knew how – through his music. Police tried to get rid of this thorn in their side, by planting some grass in his home when they raided it, but when confronted with the false evidence, Fela Kuti promptly grabbed and swallowed it. They threw him into the brig, planning to test his turds for proof.
Fela Kuti somehow managed to take stealth dumps under surveillance, and they had to release him eventually. After that, he wrote and sang a fantastic song about his government-sponsored ‘Expensive Shit’. You cannot help but respect a man like that.
3. No Woman, No Cry—Bob Marley
Bob Marley today is celebrated by marijuana-heads and non-marijuana-heads around the world. But Bob was a poor man (“My feet is my only carriage.”) And he never forgot that he was a poor man-hating the hypocrites in the government, and singing to tell the people (who were mostly poor), “Everything’s gonna be alright!” Because sometimes lies are needed, to get through the days made harder by those who lie for a profession.
Night falls. The city goes dark. The tired, dispassionate, starched-shirt office workers stream out of their cubicle-containing cubicle-buildings and go home to grumble to their families. The emails stop coming – for a while. Shadows reclaim the world and everyday details recede, giving ground to waiting stories—it is time to write, and writing-music is the lubricant that helps them flow.
1. 'Gymnopedie No. 1'—Erik Satie
For most of the weekday, our brains are moving too fast to have any original thought—any thought worth having. To begin to write, you must slow down the thoughts in your brain—give it time and space and oxygen to breathe. Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie slows downtime, and in doing so, opens doors to things beyond your present—beyond your here and now—to new times and new places, that call for new stories.
2. 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence'—Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of my favourite pianists and composers, with his distinct style of emotional piano pieces. I did not watch the film, but listening to this theme, the film plays in my mind. And I do not want to watch the actual film because I know it can never match the one I saw in my mind.
3. 'The Salt of the Earth'—Laurent Petitgirard
Sebastiao Selgado is one of my favourite photographers, and I had the privilege of watching the documentary, The Salt of the Earth, on his work. His photographs have been described as being able to “leave stains on your soul”, and although some of them were painfully poignant, but they were also hauntingly beautiful, and I felt that seeing them was worth those stains. The soundtrack was unhurried, meditative, yet compelling, and gave you the feeling that you were watching the slow, inescapable unfolding of something momentous and essential.
Enjoyed the tracks? Check out our other ‘Dawn to Dusk’ playlists curated by guest artists each week and follow our Apple Music profile to access our playlist first when it's out.