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The Writing Life: Sandi Tan switches genres for 'The Black Isle'

Sandi Tan's past is teeming with ghosts. The Pasadena-based filmmaker-turned-novelist isn't a "seer" herself — she's a self-described scaredy-cat and doesn't particularly enjoy supernatural books and movies — but her childhood in Singapore in the 1980s was populated with vivid ghost stories and family members who saw spirits. Even her elementary school, a dank former World War II-era military hospital, was said to be haunted.

"It's such a big part of people's lives in that part of the world," says Tan, picking over a plate of tea sandwiches at Little Tokyo's Chado Tea Room. "Whether you believe or not, whether you're religious or not, it's perceived to be there all the time."

It's no wonder, then, that Tan's debut novel, "The Black Isle" (Grand Central: 480 pp., $24.99), conjures the afterlife. The book, which comes out Tuesday and was a Publishers Weekly pick of the week in May, is an ambitious, supernatural coming-of-age story set on a fictional island in Southeast Asia and spanning more than 60 politically charged years. It's a classic story of identity — albeit one set against an ethereal tapestry of apparitions, voodoo rites and superstition — about a young medium, Cassandra, whose family relocates to an island in the Indonesian archipelago from their native Shanghai. But it's equally a story about national identity; as the island evolves from a swampy but peaceful British colony in the '20s, through the destruction of World War II, to a postwar cultural and economic hub in the '50s and '60s, one gets an intimate portrait of a small country coming into its own.

"It's a fictional amalgamation of things I knew about Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia," Tan says. "It's not supposed to be accurate. It's an imagined past, an affection for this romanticized idea of Malaysia in the '30s and '40s."

Tan is a former film critic at Singapore's the Straits Times; she studied screenwriting at Columbia University, and her short films have played around the world, including at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France and the New York Film Festival. The book is fittingly visual. So acute is Cassandra's love of her new home in the tropics — and so pungent are Tan's descriptions of its discombobulated urban center, abandoned graveyards and overgrown rubber plantations — that the island is very much a character of its own in the book.

"The images come first, then the words" says Tan, who's married to film critic John Powers. "I saw it as a film that was playing in my head, as directed by a dream team of my favorite directors — David Lynch, P.T. Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Alfonso Cuarón, '70s-era Francis Ford Coppola and maybe Jane Campion too."

Once it had taken root, Tan couldn't get the idea for "The Black Isle" out of her head. But telling this particular story, a sweeping period piece set abroad, as a movie would not have been possible in today's film climate, she says. "It's just too unwieldy and expensive; no one would ever make it." So she penned it as a novel, something she found unexpectedly liberating compared with the collaborative nature of film.

With its paranormal-meets-goth sensibility and angsty, flawed-but-fierce heroine, "The Black Isle" is a natural fit for the "Twilight" crowd. Her publisher has even released the ebook a month early to generate blog buzz among target audiences. But the book is decidedly darker than the vampire series and not without social commentary. Real life on the black isle is far more horrific than the shell-shocked poltergeists that roam its terrain. The bloody war years are rife with torture, rape and gratuitous murder; and Cassandra, who was engaged in an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, is haunted by loneliness. There's even a memorable cephalopodic sex scene between a housewife and an octopus.

"The island was going awry, and nature was going amok — all before history goes amok," Tan says. "I had to have some very memorable symbol of that."

Tan, who describes herself as "first a movie geek, secondly a reader and thirdly a writer," is clearly a skilled storyteller at heart, no matter its manifestations. She's a third of the way through her next novel, though it's not a sequel to "The Black Isle," or even supernatural, and she'd like to return to filmmaking. The goal, she says, is to move fluidly between genres, though with a cohesive sensibility.

"My work is dark," she says. "I'm interested in ghosts of various kinds — not just the phantoms Cassandra sees, but regrets, things left undone, people left behind, the past. I think that's universal."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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