Debut Author Interview: Sandi Tan, Author of the Literary Horror Novel, THE BLACK ISLE

This edition of our Debut Author Interviews is with the very successful 2012 first-time novelist, Sandi Tan, who penned the acclaimed ghost story, THE BLACK ISLE (August 2012, Grand Central). The Library Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer both called the book “beautifully written,” while Publishers Weekly chose it as a “pick of the week.”

Author Sandi Tan was born in Singapore and has an MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University. Her short films have been shown around the world at venues such as the New York Film Festival, Clermont-Ferrand, MoMA, and on European television. She lives in Pasadena, California, with her husband, the critic John Powers, and their bossy Siamese, Nico. THE BLACK ISLE is her debut novel.



sandi-tan-author-writer         the-black-isle-novel



What is the book’s genre/category?

Literary horror.

(See a list of horror agents.)

Please describe what the story/book is about.

The sweeping coming-of-age story of Cassandra, a young woman gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the dead, set against war, peace, and the dramatic transformations of the 20th century in Asia.

Where do you write from?

I write from my desk and often my front porch (surrounded by the neighborhood cats–all thanked at the back of my book) in Pasadena, Calif.

Briefly, what led up to this book?

I usually get a good idea about once a week, but most don’t linger or have much of a life in my head. The line, “I was seven years old when I saw my first ghost” entered my mind and refused to let go. I was working on another novel that’s since been abandoned, and I pursued this one, researching for years (books, travel and online) as the narrative voice built itself inside my head (and across several notebooks). I had been a film critic and journalist in my early 20s, then a filmmaker (with an MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University). I hadn’t given much thought to writing a novel but as this story grew, I felt there was no way it would fit into a conventional 100-120 page screenplay, nor would such a screenplay see a chance of getting turned into a film–it’s got war, ghosts, demons in the tropical jungle, plus a haunted ocean liner…and that’s just the first half of the book!

What was the time frame for writing this book? 

I wrote the first half of it (200+ pages) over two years and then my agent thought it was strong enough that we could go out with it. So we did. It sold within a few days to my wonderful editor Mitch Hoffman at Grand Central. It was a mix of oddly-timed things: Mitch was at home on paternity leave at the time–his wife had just had a baby–and his assistant ran the manuscript over to him. He had to break his own rule to never buy an unfinished novel from a novice author, and I am so thankful that he did. I was then given a deadline to complete the book within the following year, which I did.

(Can your query be longer than one page?)

How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?

My agent is Barbara Braun. I was so naive I sent out query letters alphabetically (!). Barbara was one of the first people I contacted and the first to reply.


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 4.12.53 PM

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What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

That most of my “writing” was actually best done during what I would have previously considered “editing.” I became a relentless multi-drafter–and to my surprise, found the process fun. My editor, Mitch Hoffman, specializes in thrillers–he does all the David Baldacci and now the Robert Ludlum-Jason Bourne books–and it was terrifically energizing to work with a gifted mind who asked the right questions. And then, after he gave my final draft his stamp of approval, I realized that it was just the beginning of a whole new arc: publicity and promotion.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

Getting the draft as fine-tuned as humanly possible before sending it out. This applies to every stage of the process, but especially when you’re putting it up for sale.

(Adapt your book into a movie script — here’s how.)

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

I might try to complete the novel before trying to sell it–because many editors at the major houses do not accept unfinished manuscripts from a novice. That said, the remaining year or two of uncertainty and torment as I worked to complete it might have driven me insane, and I cannot imagine polishing the book without the guidance of plot-meister Mitch Hoffman.

Did you have an author platform in place?  On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?

I have a website and a couple of book trailers, each done in very different styles. The moody one is the one above: I also maintain a public Facebook page for the book that has fans from around the globe. (The book sold well in Canada, and was a Top 10 bestseller in Singapore for six weeks.)

Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?

Know what’s out there before you leap into the lake, and always be the best you can be before you even dip your toe in there. But I find that the most important thing you need (and which I struggle to have) is this: patience.

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

I may have written a ghost story but I’m really a pathetic scaredy-cat. I made my sad confession to the Los Angeles Times.

Favorite movie?

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.


What’s next?

I’ve had to set aside my next book for the moment because I’m currently creating and writing a historical mini-series for a major international cable broadcaster. It’s still in the development stage so I’m superstitious about talking about it too much. But it’s epic and fun and full of young love, high action and black magic!


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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