Singapore’s best-selling author (and Esquire Singapore’s monthly columnist) Neil Humphreys is pretty indefatigable. With some 20 titles to his name, bylines in magazines and newspapers both here and abroad, the co-hosting of a breakfast radio show, and the giving of writing lectures and workshops in schools and universities, the describe him as busy is to put it mildly. But as he releases the third book in his beloved Princess Incognito children’s series – Wrong Time to Fight Crime – Humphreys spoke with us about the challenges of publishing in the time of a pandemic, and reflected on the unique turning point we’re at as readers.
What's it like to be putting a book out in what is probably the strangest moment of our lives?
That's a fascinating question. Putting out the third book in a series during a global pandemic isn't a typical strategy in any marketing book. Initially, I was apprehensive. The second book in the series was released in mid-February, literally as the first Covid-19 wave came ashore, and it got lost. Then my latest Inspector Low thriller launch in London got cancelled in June. To say that I was a tad despondent was an understatement. Yes, others are in a more precarious predicament. I know that. But when you've spent a year of your life working on anything creative and there's no release, no climax, well, all the sexual metaphors work here.
And yet sometimes just the act of producing something creative – even without the fanfare – can be fulfilling.
Yes, I needed to get a book out now. We all need to put out creative work now. A sense of normalcy has to return. Otherwise, the nihilism can be overwhelming. Remember, authors and artists live with a degree of nihilism all the time. Will this work even get published? Will anyone even buy it or like it? What's the point?… Covid-19 has sent those nihilistic tendencies to the moon. So, yes, it had reached the point where I had to publish the book. Yes, it's a children's book and I cannot currently cannot visit schools in the flesh. But I'm doing virtual presentations and workshops to promote children's literature. We have to do something. Anything. Inertia is the real enemy here.
Are we reading more, in your opinion, because of the lockdown and isolation measures?
Anecdotally, the answer seems to be yes. We're certainly watching more great writing, on streaming platforms and so on. I've started reading Little Women with my daughter (partly to help us make sense of Greta Gerwig's movie adaptation), and I think nostalgia plays a role here. My recent Esquire Singapore column was about the power of nostalgia during Covid-19. When the present is so bleak, we might as well look back, right? The past feels like a comforting security blanket. So I've been re-reading fiction and non-fiction. Funnily enough, I've just re-watched The Sopranos and The Wire, simply because I find the writing so crushingly flawless in both shows. I'm looking for inspiration and something familiar. I'm not alone. Through lockdown, the highest rated HBO show in the US was The Sopranos, which started more than 20 years ago. On Netflix, the sitcom Friends was right up there. Whatever the medium, we'll take whatever temporary escape we can get.
Have these past few months been conducive to creativity for you, or as a freelancer not too distinctly different to usual?
Yes and no. Ironically, I was most productive during the circuit breaker, when my wife and daughter were home with me. The freelancer's guilt made me more productive. Ordinarily, I'll get up, drink tea, watch the news, write a chapter in the morning and a column in the afternoon and consider that a very productive day. But when I'm in an apartment with people getting up at 6am for almost 12 hours of 'working from home' stress (my wife is a teacher), I was more reluctant to swan around in my boxer shorts sipping tea. So I worked even harder. The trickier part for me – and many other freelancers I suspect – comes now. Regular workers have mostly gone back to their workplaces and I'm Macaulay Culkin again, an overaged man-child home alone and looking for things to do in a struggling economy. Keeping busy, maintaining a daily writing discipline with regular exercise breaks help to keep that sneaky nihilism at bay.
Do physical books still matter?
It's funny, just five or six years ago, I sat on literature panels with tech gurus pointing at their hockey stick graphs and showing the audience that this was the future of e-books. The obituary for the physical books had been written. The trouble is it's been written for years, if not decades. The movies, the talkies, TV, colour TV, cable TV, the Internet, the smart phone and then streaming services have all been queuing up with their latest weapons, like those passengers in the movie Airplane!, lining up to silence the hysterical woman (or in this case, hysterical publishers). But we're still here! Just. No one is downplaying the obvious decline of book sales and Covid-19's impact upon bricks and mortar bookstores around the world has been devastating. But certain genres endure and, in one or two cases, are thriving. Crime thrillers still sell well. Romance novels do OK. And the cherry on the cake are our priceless middle grade readers, eager to read anything before PSLE exams, secondary school and puberty come calling. They still want that tactile experience. Anecdotal evidence shows that the youngest and most proficient tech generation still want to read their Wimpy Kids and their Princess Incognitos in physical form.
Why is that?
They've spent all day on laptops and digital devices. Laptops and iPads mean school studies and homework. A physical book means a brief escape from all that. So as long as they keep reading physical books, I can keep writing them. At this stage of my career, I'm not sure what other jobs are looking for a middle-aged white man with the ability to sit in front of his laptop all day, in his underwear, whilst making up stuff, apart from the American Presidency. And I'm not American. So I'll stick with writing novels for now.