While growing up in Malaysia, William Tham used to travel to Kuala Selangor via coastal roads that were long-forgotten due to the highways that popped up around the peninsula. The roads leading to the town, famous for having one of the largest firefly colonies of the world, is where majority of The Scent of Dry Dust takes place. “I have a love of quiet, bypassed places, and a story about missed connections felt so natural in that particular setting,” Tham, now living in Vancouver, says.
On the side of a coastal road near Kuala Selangor, the unnamed protagonist, who works in an inorganics lab, waits for a tow truck with his old friend, Ling, a doctor that needs adventure. While they wait, the friends discuss their lives and ambitions. As the story shifts between past and present, the protagonist’s past is revealed, and Ling’s role in his life is called into question.
Tham, the non-fiction editor of Vancouver-based, Asian Canadian focused Ricepaper Magazine, wrote the story about two old friends based on “experiences of unrequited love and the uncertainty over missed connections” as an undergraduate. Tham says, “A lot of my fiction is semi-autobiographical. I find it easier and more accurate to modify real experiences and conversations than to invent them from scratch.” The story also helped him address his fears surrounding the “quarter-life trap,” where life after university isn’t any clearer, there’s a possibility that one could still find themselves in a position that makes them unhappy, and the struggle of achieving independence begins despite all of these existential issues. Tham notes, “[These are] Millennial problems, of course, but I felt better after fictionalizing these fears.”
No stranger to the editorial process, Tham published his first novel Kings of Petaling Street with Fixi London last year, and is a recurring short story contributor to Fixi. Two of his reading experiences in high school heavily influenced the way he writes today. The Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard “burned with a clinical eeriness and a sense of fatalism,” while Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory impressed Tham through the “power of multiple perspectives” and the author’s ability to “tease stories from familiar settings.” Tham also hides secrets in his stories for fun, writing Cheong from How not to Forget into The Scent of Dry Dust in the form of supervisor Cheong; interestingly, How not to Forget has a character who is struggling from the events of Kings of Petaling Street. Although an experienced writer and editor, one of the challenges the 25-year-old faces when working as a non-fiction editor is his background. “Since I am of Malaysian and southern Chinese descent, I have my limitations when it comes to judging submissions outside my area of expertise,” says Tham. He adds that by observing the world through reading or exposing himself to new experiences, Tham will be better able to judge submissions.
In The Scent of Dry Dust, Tham plays within his areas of expertise, showing that although action and inaction are important when it comes to pursuing love and a career, they aren’t the only things to consider. “Often times luck still plays a key role in determining how career and relationships work out. There is the matter of being in the right place at the right time, so despite how well laid out your plans are, sometimes opportunities vanish and other times they appear out of nowhere. Nothing is written, basically.”