PETALING JAYA: Twenty-odd years ago, Ivy Ngeow went on a trip to the scenic island of Key West in Florida. As a newcomer to the United States, she experienced a bit of culture shock, especially when it came to the ubiquity of guns there.
Until today, she cannot forget the day she visited a drugstore in a remote and isolated area. “Next to the tampons and souvenir baby alligator-paw keyrings were guns,” she told FMT Lifestyle. “The image is seared into my memory.
“I wondered what would make someone walk into a chemist and buy a gun? You could buy dental floss, sandwiches, and weapons all at the same time. It was so easy. It scared and shocked me.”
Ngeow did not know it at the time, but this encounter would plant a seed of inspiration in her – and this seed would later blossom into a novel, “The American Boyfriend”.
Published by Penguin Random House SEA, the psychological thriller was released in Malaysia and Singapore on July 25, and is slated to be available in the US and United Kingdom next month.
The work of fiction tells the tale of Phoebe Wong, a Malaysian Chinese single mother from London who takes a trip to her long-distance boyfriend’s vacation home in Key West. But things immediately go wrong when she is robbed on her first night – and this turns out to be just the beginning of her problems.
A British businessman she meets at a local party is suddenly shot, and her delayed boyfriend makes a suspiciously timed arrival. What exactly is going on here? Will Phoebe manage to discover the truth, and get herself and her baby daughter out of danger?
Born in Johor Bahru, Ngeow is the author of three novels and other short stories, one of which has been performed and broadcast on the BBC World Service. She holds a Master of Arts from Middlesex University, where she was awarded the University’s Literary Press Prize in 2005.
Her debut novel, “Cry of the Flying Rhino”, won the 2016 International Proverse Prize, an annual international competition for unpublished book-length works.
“I read numerous thrillers growing up, but very few were truly diverse reads,” said Ngeow, 52, who is now based in London.
“‘The American Boyfriend’ is inspired by the psychological-thriller tropes my readers and I are familiar with, but with an Asian focus and main character. I wanted to write a romantic suspense thriller that Asian women would identify with and enjoy.”
Ngeow said the “feel” of her novel was influenced by the romantic suspense classic “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier, which conjures notions of a tropical storm over a creepy beautiful house in an isolated coastal setting: the perfect atmosphere for the slow, cinematic revelations of secrets and deception.
She was also inspired by the works of Ernest Hemingway, as “some of his masterpieces were written in Key West”.
“An American Boyfriend” is full of twists and turns, which are bound to keep the reader in constant suspense. To craft this compelling world, Ngeow drew storyboards and diagrams for the structure of her novel.
“I usually construct the plot in intricate detail before writing a single word. This is partly due to my training in architecture and design. No building can be built without the plans and a solid foundation. Everything else is style and decoration.”
What was most crucial for Ngeow, however, was that her protagonist was fleshed out properly.
She describes Phoebe as an “Asian antihero”: not a doctor, lawyer or accountant, and who had not built a successful career or marriage. For Ngeow, it was important to represent the “otherness” of Asians properly, and to smash common stereotypes imposed upon them.
Phoebe was thus made to be as imperfect as possible and, according to the author, is heavily based on herself.
“We’ve taken a long time to be the Asian women that we are today. Because of this, we empathise with this character, we feel we want to support her and follow her journey.
“The strong Asian female protagonist is the story,” Ngeow concluded. “She is more relevant than ever.”
‘The American Boyfriend’ is available at MPH Online and other major book retailers.