Letting Go of What We Love: Talking with Rachel Heng

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I read Rachel Heng’s gripping debut novel, Suicide Club (forthcoming July 10 from Henry Holt & Co.) with a mix of fear and wonder. The book’s central premise takes a rhetorical question, the one we’ve been asking ourselves since we were children—what if we could live forever?—and answers it. And the result is, well, terrifying.

New York City, just faintly recognizable on the cusp of “the Third Wave”—that is, full immortality for its prized “lifers,” citizens with perfect genetic compositions—is teeming with health to such a degree that, beneath its shiny surfaces, it appears to be rotting. Every moment, exchange, feeling, and relationship has become a metric in service to longevity, and those who question it are condemned as “antisanct.” The story follows the lives and memories of Lea and Anja, two outsiders from vastly different backgrounds who find one another out of a desperate need for freedom—both from oppressive societal constraints, and from the horror of a life without end. At its heart, though, Suicide Club is a moving story about family, love, and letting go, universal themes that find unique expression in Heng’s memorable dystopia.

Born and raised in Singapore, Heng is a James A. Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, pursuing her MFA in fiction and screenwriting.

I corresponded with Heng Rachel via email over several weeks about her writing and reading life, her thoughts on “wellness,” and the genesis of Suicide Club.

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The Rumpus: When people ask you what Suicide Club is “about,” how do you respond?

Rachel Heng: I usually start by telling people it’s a dystopian novel set in near future New York, where life expectancies average three-hundred years and the pursuit for immortality has become all-consuming. The novel follows Lea Kirino, a high-powered organ trader whose perfect genetic code means she has the potential to live forever―if she does everything right. Things get complicated when she her estranged father re-enters her life after having been missing for eighty-eight years. His return marks the beginning of her downfall as she is drawn into his mysterious world of the Suicide Club, a network of powerful individuals and rebels who reject society’s pursuit of immortality, and instead choose to live―and die―on their own terms.

Suicide Club is a novel about our relationship with death, both our own and that of our loved ones. It explores the commoditization of wellness culture and the deep fear we seem to have of our oozing, shedding bodies, as well as the resulting desire to control them. At its core, I also think it is a book about family and loss—in particular, what it means to let go of those we love.

Rumpus: Endlessly fascinating to me is the idea, which your book vivisects so intelligently, that any thoughtful examination of suicide is, essentially, an examination of life itself—in all of its, as you say, oozing and shedding mystery. Do you see your novel as any kind of cautionary tale?

Heng: I think it’s a cautionary tale for myself! Death and loss have always been obsessions of mine, and writing this book was my way of confronting my own deep fear of mortality. I think I wrote the book to convince myself that living forever would come with its own set of problems, that dying is okay, and that in many ways it is death that shapes and gives our lives meaning. When I started imagining the kind of world in which immortality would be attainable, other obsessions and fears began to come into it. I started thinking about the way healthcare resources are allocated in a capitalist society, the way wellness has become a kind of moral imperative and luxury status symbol. So I suppose eventually, it also evolved into a cautionary tale about the path we’re on as a society, in terms of the way we think of and value human life.

Rumpus: Anja and Lea are tormented in different ways by their memories. What are your thoughts on the function of memory—the importance of it not only in Suicide Club, but to you personally, and in your writing in general?

Heng: I’ve always been terrified of losing things. Memories, in particular, are some of those things, so I do a lot of journaling. There was a certain period in my childhood when I compulsively recorded every thought, feeling, meal, friend, conversation I had, filling notebook upon notebook with trivia. So while I only began writing fiction relatively late in life—roughly four years ago—I had always been writing about my life in those diaries. I’ve gotten less fanatical about journaling now, but the fact that we forget so much of our lives still makes me sad. I cannot shake the feeling that when we lose memories, we’re losing parts of ourselves, our loved ones. But I think there’s something vital in this fear, as terrifying as it is, because it imbues our lives with meaning. You mention the way collective memory is threatened by forever-ness in Suicide Club—I love the way you put it. Collective memory is at risk because a world where life doesn’t end is also one that is no longer afraid of loss, and therefore no longer concerned with the effort of remembering.

Rumpus: Suicide Club is rife with amazingly penetrating sentences: “Then the pain came, hot and selfish and demanding. Suddenly she was nothing.” and “She felt his delicate ribs under the flesh and fur, thin bones interlocking like puzzle pieces, protecting some squirming secret within.”

What comes first for you—the language, or the image?

Heng: That is a hard question! But I think because reading has always been such a huge part of my life, that I understand my reality through the filter of language. I think even the most visual descriptions in fiction (or poetry) achieve something that transcends the visual image, that allow the fictional reality to exist on a different, more flexible plane, if that makes sense. I think that’s why movie adaptations are always so disappointing to readers—not because the visual representation fails to match what we have in our minds, but because we often don’t have specific, definite representations in our minds. When we read fiction, I don’t think it’s like the projection of a movie reel in our minds, I don’t think we see the story in actual images that correspond to real life. I think fictional language allows us live in the spaces that words can open up for us.

Rumpus: Procedures, routines, and ordinances are all measures used by “the Ministry” to exert control over the citizenry, all of which promote “well-being” and longevity. Earlier you mentioned the “moral imperative” of wellness. Sometimes, scrolling through social media, I feel assaulted by the amount of advice/research/products out there, all of which purport to have my good health in mind. Where do you fall, personally, on the “healthy living” spectrum?

Heng: Well, I ate my first salad when I was nineteen, and I used to barely eat vegetables at all. That’s a cautionary tale in itself and I do not recommend this! As I approach my thirties, I definitely am trying to live more healthily—for the most part now I eat a balanced diet, I try to exercise a couple of times a week, and so on. I think wellness becomes a compulsion when we punish ourselves for it, or when our self-worth becomes overly tied to what we ate and how much we ran and how low our cholesterol is. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to stay healthy, but I think there is a lot of guilt and shame in the way we talk about health and wellness, all of which strikes me as being incredibly unhealthy. Even the language around things like “clean eating” or “cheat days”—all of it is so loaded, and I’m not sure the implied morality of it ultimately serves us well.

Rumpus: How long did it take you to write Suicide Club? Can you talk a bit about the process, from conceiving of the initial idea, to drafting it, to selling it, especially given its widespread release?

Heng: The actual writing of it took a little over a year, but I think I’d been unconsciously working on it in my head for much longer. My first attempt at writing fiction was in fact a terrible novel draft for NaNoWriMo in November 2013, which I abandoned about 20,000 words of the way in. I’d thought of it as a totally different book but looking back now, it actually had a lot in common with Suicide Club. A few months later, I also wrote a short story that was set in a world where immortality was the norm. So although I only started my first draft of Suicide Club in late 2015, the idea for the book had been percolating in various forms for about two years before that.

Compared to my experience with trying to publish my short stories (I’ve accumulated over two-hundred rejections from journals to date), the process of getting Suicide Club published was unexpectedly smooth, so much so that I’m still pinching myself a year later. I’d taken a novel-writing night class at Faber Academy while living in London, and had started my first draft while on the course. The writing wasn’t going so well and I gave up on the novel about a few months in. But then Faber published an excerpt in an anthology and I started getting contacted by agents, even some acquiring editors who asked me to send them my manuscript once I found an agent. The only problem was, I didn’t actually have a manuscript, since I’d trashed it! So I spent the next nine months working intensely in every free moment I had. Eventually I signed with my agent, an inimitable young woman who had just left UTA to set up her own agency. I went through two rounds of edits with her before she submitted it to UK publishers. Within forty-eight hours of submission we had meeting requests from editors, a pre-empt, and an auction. The book also sold at auction in the US the following week and the foreign rights deals started coming in. My head was, as you say, spinning! I was stunned and overjoyed, but something that surprised me is how quickly that wears off. The goalposts shift in your mind so rapidly that it’s easy to get disappointed by what you didn’t get, rather than appreciate what you did. Even as all this amazing stuff was happening, I was constantly second guessing myself—what did it mean, for example, that this or that editor didn’t bid on the book or that it didn’t sell in this or that country? When I take a step back I can see how absolutely ridiculous I’m being, but in the moment it’s often hard for me not to get consumed by doubt and imposter syndrome. And now that we’re getting closer to publication, there’s also that fear of exposure, a feeling of total vulnerability that can be rather terrifying. As a wiser, older writer once said to me about having your first book published: “You get what you’ve always wanted, and then things get complicated.”

Rumpus: What section or sections of the book were the most difficult for you to write and/or edit, and why? 

Heng: Finding Lea’s trajectory as a character was the most difficult for me. Most of the rewriting and editing centered around figuring this out, and I was still working on it with my editors after we sold the novel. I knew I wanted her to go from being “pro the system” to realizing the life she’s chasing is a sham, but the journey in getting there was a little more difficult. Her father, Kaito, wasn’t actually a main character in earlier drafts of the novel, and it was only later on that I realized her relationship with him was the lynchpin to her story. I don’t write with an outline (or at least every time I try to do one I can never stick to it), so the whole process of editing, rewriting, figuring out the plot was pretty arduous.

Rumpus: In terms of what you’ve learned, about yourself as a writer, about publishing a book—what advice would you give your three-years-ago self? Your one-year-ago self? What do you think you’ll carry forward as you undertake new projects?

Heng: I’m not sure there’s any writing advice I’d give my three-year-ago self, because I feel like so much of learning to write a novel is the actual writing of it. I read so many craft books when I was starting out, and I’d been reading novels all my life, but I think I only really began to learn when I was putting down words on the page and wrestling with why it wasn’t working. So I suppose I’d tell her to hang in there, that all the waking up before dawn and working late into the night would be worth it. I’d tell her to have faith in that terrible first draft, that with much trying and failing and trying again, it does get better. I’m not sure she would have believed me though. To my one-year-ago self, who would have just sold the book and been deliriously happy, I would just say to enjoy it! Drink more champagne! Eat more cake! When your friends and family are happy for you, don’t self-deprecate or dismiss what you’ve done.

As for what I’ll carry forward for new projects, I think the biggest thing I learned in this process is that the reward is truly in the writing itself. I say this as a person who has only ever managed to run a half-marathon—once, and extremely slowly—but I imagine writing a novel is something like running a marathon. There’s the euphoria of actually finishing the damn thing, of ‘success’, but that disappears pretty quickly. And maybe you get injured during the race, or you’ve eaten something bad, or your legs just don’t really feel like moving for another oh, four hours or so. But whether you complete the actual event or not, you still spent all those months prior waking up when the sky was dark, the air was freezing, and getting out of your warm bed nonetheless. You still remember the burn of your calves as you jog down a cracked sidewalk, the wind scraping your eyes watery as you cut your way through the cold morning. You still have—as you huff and wheeze and your lungs seem about to burst—the sunrises that take you by surprise, the ones that start as a soft grey glow but bleed into fiery gloriousness without warning. And no one can take that away from you.

Rumpus: Do you have any pre-writing rituals? Weird tics?

Heng: When I wrote Suicide Club, I was working a pretty intense full-time job, so I only had a short window of time before work to actually devote to writing. So my ritual then was to scramble out of bed at 6 a.m. and type desperately for about an hour while still half-asleep. I’ve since left my job and am now in an MFA program, which means my days are far more flexible and I’m still trying to figure out the best routine for myself. These days I still get up around 7 a.m. I make myself a large pot of strong Earl Grey, then I try to distract myself by harassing my cat and messing about on Twitter, and before I know it it’s noon and I’m consumed with self-loathing, so I write frantically for about an hour or so. Perhaps some better pre-writing rituals would help. I should really think of some.

Rumpus: Tell me about the beautiful pottery you post sometimes on Instagram.

Heng: You are far too kind! I am glad someone finds my stumpy lopsided pots beautiful, because my husband keeps making fun of them (though I did spot him furtively eating pistachios out of one of them yesterday). When I went from full-time job to MFA program, having that much free time really started getting me down. I also wasn’t used to having reading and writing being 100% of my time. While books used to be my escape, they were now my full-time job. So I took up pottery as a new escape, a way of getting out of my house and my head and working with my hands. The great thing about pottery is when you’re done making a pot, you have an actual physical object (wonky as it may be) that you can hold in your hands and even use for tea or snacks or whatever, and that’s very satisfying. So much of the daily work of writing is intangible, I think it’s nice to be able to produce things that you can touch and hold sometimes.

Rumpus: If you could live forever, would you?

Heng: Well, I did see a special offer on cryogenic freezing recently—no, I do not want to live forever. I think writing this novel finally cured me of that desire!


Kristen Iskandrian's debut novel Motherest was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a Best Book of 2017 by Publishers Weekly and Lenny. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, Zyzzyva, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, The Best American Short Stories 2018, and many other publications. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama. More from this author →