In conversation with... Tabatha Stirling

Hi Tabatha! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the upcoming publication of Bitter Leaves! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A:  Bitter Leaves is a uncompromising examination of maid abuse in Singapore but one of the major themes is how women survive in very brutal circumstances – how that changes them and how it effects their relationships with other women.   

Can you please describe your journey to publication?

A: Loooooooong. It wasn’t until I was properly medicated for my Bi-Polar that I was able to focus enough to complete my first novel. Writing has become much easier since then and my published body of work has grown. I first put up an extract of Bitter Leaves on the writing platform, Authonomy, and met many writers who are still very good friends. From there I subbed to 4 agents (1 polite dismissal, 2 interested but not publishing ‘this’ sort of fiction and the other one I never heard from again!). Then I saw a friend on Twitter had posted that Scott Pack from Unbound was accepting pitches so I sent in my synopsis and 6 weeks later he signed me.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: There are three types of writers. A ‘pantser’, a ‘plotter’ and a hybrid of the two. I’m definitely a ‘pantser’ meaning you write by the seat of your pants. So I start with an idea, a character, a tiny scene, colour, observation – anything really that interests me and off I go!  

What kind of research did you have to do for this book? 

A: I lived in Singapore for 4 years so that in itself I hope  bought a realism to the scenes. I talked with my helper, Clarie, who Lucilla is based on, about her frankly horrific experiences but were so common in the years before I arrived. I spoke to some of the abused maids in sanctuary at HOME – an NGO in Singapore that helps repatriate & counsel frightened maids - and kept my eyes and ears painfully open. Very easy to close your eyes and distract yourself with the pampered existence.

Your title changed from Blood on the Banana Leaf to Bitter Leaves. How did this process work?

A: I was washing up at my sink in our first house (as you do!) in Singapore and I remember thinking what if a ‘maid’ had an affair with her ‘Sir’ and she became pregnant? What would happen and I envisaged a sort of hard-boiled, tropical thriller. So when it was written and obviously not a detective novel my publisher asked me about changing the name to something more genre appropriate and I decided on Bitter Leaves. You may remember the line ‘and their faces are full of Bitter Leaves’ when Shammi is talking about the children? It seemed appropriate.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write? 

A: I had to choke back tears during many of Shammi’s scenes because I was witnessing similar things around the neighbourhood and country. Lesley’s joy at the new arrival was wonderful to write and gave me hope for her.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: A rather brutal rape scene. I didn’t think it would add anything to the novel and it’s quite a challenging read already – I didn’t need to add to that.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: Yes! I’m so excited about it. A historical fiction that takes a well-known classic novel and explores the stories of the secondary characters who are incredibly colourful. There may be a few tears at the end.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I’m lucky – I enjoy the social media side of things and run a small indie press so I understand how vital these interactions are. I love connecting with my readers, fellow writers, my writing crushes (I have so many) and I’m very friendly so please come and say hello on Twitter or FB. 

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Don’t be afraid to find unconventional ways to being traditionally published. Look for indie presses with a good rep and if you’ve been rejected by countless agents & well-known publishers – do not despair. Rejection really hurts at the beginning. It feels raw and personal because, well, it is. But as you move further along your literary path rejections become much less hurtful and barely sting because you get to see it as a valid part of your writing career.  

Thank you for your time!

A: It was my absolute pleasure. Thank you!


  1. Question: The popular movie 'Crazy Rich Asians' depicts Singapore as a glittery Utopia of happy wealth. Is that at odds with the society depicted in 'Bitter Leaves', or is it a merely a posing of glass half-full, half-empty?


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