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In our new column ‘A Book That Changed Me’, we’re asking some of our favourite authors to wax lyrical about a book that inspired their latest work or their writing practice. In this instalment, The Whitewash author Siang Lu shares how his writing life was influenced by Chris Flynn’s short story collection Mammoth (UQP, 2020).

Siang Lu. Image: Yuan Pan

How did this book come into your life?

I don’t know that anyone can recall the year that was 2020 without a quiet shudder. COVID, lockdown, WFH, toilet paper rationing, school Zooms, family Zooms, work Zooms, daily refreshing of ‘the numbers’, daily doomscrolls, daily listicles, daily listnessness, way too much UberEats.

But it wasn’t all bad. 2020 was a significant year for me. It was the year I finally reached legendary rank on Hearthstone with a Lucentbark-Gloop druid deck. Oh, it’s great. The trick is to play cheap defence in the early game, then when it’s time, you drop the Lucentbark-clone-heal combo and then… What’s that? No one reading KYD cares about that? Oh. Okay. Well they should. That deck was a work of art.

I suppose I could mention how 2020 was the year my unpublished manuscript for The Whitewash was winging its way through the Queensland Literary Awards. And how in the same year, at roughly the same time, I came across Chris Flynn’s Mammoth, my favourite book of 2020, and which was, unbeknownst to me until much later, also a UQP title. (Read KYD’s review here.)

Mammoth was a breath of fresh air in a year when the air around us was suss with respiratory viruses.

Mammoth was a breath of fresh air in a year when the air around us was suss with highly transmissible respiratory viruses.

What do you love most about it?

I especially love the book’s range of distinctive voices. And when I discovered that Wavesound had gotten the legendary voice actor Rupert Degas—whose Murakami audiobook renditions are so good—for the Mammoth audiobook I knew I had to listen to that as well. Degas did all the voices. A mind-bogglingly good performance.

That book was one of the rare bright spots in my year of reading in lockdown. It was funny, it was playful, it was informative, it made me question the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, it had a cast of memorable characters, and it was told from fresh perspectives I’d never read before.

And all this slowly trickled through my mind in 2021 when my publisher, the inestimable Aviva Tuffield, asked me in the early stages of the publishing process for The Whitewash: Who would I like to reach out to for a book endorsement?

At first I drew a blank. I really didn’t know anyone in the industry. Then I alt-tabbed out of my Hearthstone deck, which was tough because I was winning, but more importantly because I was starting to realise, hang on. Mammoth. The Whitewash. They couldn’t be more different on the face of it. But… Same publisher. Same focus on humour, same sense of play, same blurring of fiction and non-fiction, large cast, new perspectives.

Would Chris be willing to endorse The Whitewash? Does Chris play Hearthstone? And if so, which deck? In time, Aviva came back bearing answers: yes, no and not applicable, respectively.

Mammoth was one of the rare bright spots in my year of reading in lockdown.

Chris was gracious enough to agree to read the manuscript, and his endorsement was gold: ‘A literary star is born in Siang Lu, although he’ll probably be replaced by a white guy called Jeff at some point, so get in on this while you can.’ I’ve never been able to look at white guys called Jeff the same ever since. Even Geoffs are spoiled for me.

What elements of the book changed the way you think about writing?

I think the element of the book that changed the way I thought about things might just have been the author himself.

My brain melted in July this year when I received an email from Chris, completely out of the blue. He was in town on some publisher business, had heard I was in the vicinity, and wanted to catch up for a drink. I’d anticipated that we might cross paths professionally someday: I would thank him for the endorsement, he would say no sweat, we would shake hands tersely, I would somehow blurt the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong tone, and then we would duly part ways as confused frenemies. But it had never occurred to me that we might get to know each other as friends.

We caught up at a time of maximum impostor syndrome for me. The Whitewash wasn’t out in stores, I’d done precisely one radio interview to date—a pre-record, which hadn’t yet aired—I still had no idea what anything was. Chris gave me the score. We chatted for ages, and got along like a house on fire. He told me horror stories, showed me the proper way to sign books (pro tip: author signatures go on the page bearing the publisher’s logo, not the page with the author photo—whoopsies) and dropped some sage advice.

Stuff like, ‘When you do interviews at writers festivals one day, you should really try your best not to dribble saliva out the side of your mouth like you’re doing right now.’

Also, ‘Maybe don’t keep bringing up this Hearthstone thing so much?’

All great advice which I have since put into practice.

If you could choose, in what way would you hope you or your book could inspire other writers?

It’s a singular joy to hear from people who’ve read The Whitewash and say that the book has made them laugh, or think, or both.

Reading Jess Ho’s Raised By Wolves recently did the same for me, with its awesome combination of snark, and heart, and the way it interrogates colonialism through food and hospo culture—it is also not lost on me that The Whitewash and Raised by Wolves both feature Asian faces on their covers—so I am really feeling a sense of community within the industry, and a progression in publisher and reader attitudes about own voices stories. If books like these can inspire people to think more critically about mono-cultures and representation, or to check out an obscure kung fu film, or to Google Fu Manchu or Crazy Rich Asians, or, even, perhaps, to inspire readers to try their own hand at writing, then I would feel like I have done something very meaningful and worthwhile.

What’s next for you?

I’m aiming to join Chris on a small leg of his upcoming epic tour around regional Australia for his excellent collection of stories, Here Be Leviathans.

And for readers who enjoyed The Whitewash and are looking for more dumb hot takes about the film industry, check out The Beige Index, a big data exploration of diversity in popular film, which I co-created along with Jonathan O’Brien. We describe it as the Bechdel Test for race, exploring ethnic representation in the IMDb Top 250 films.

The Whitewash is available now from your local independent bookseller. Read an extract on KYD.

Read the previous instalments in our ‘A Book That Changed Me’ column, from Jane Harper and Chris Womersley.