How I Became a Full-time Writer by Clarissa Goenawan

Rainbirds Cover

In this interview, the author of the newly-released Rainbirds shares how she become a full-time writer:

1. Dream BIG

Clarissa Goenawan decided she wanted to write when she was eight years old. When she was still in primary school, she wrote a horror short story about a group of kids who ventured into a haunted house. She sent the handwritten manuscript to an Indonesian daily newspaper based in Surabaya, her hometown. "I remember praying intently in front of a mailbox by the main road before dropping in my envelope. The manuscript was never returned—I didn’t know a thing about including a SASE." 

2. Start Small

Her most recent short story, "Retak" ('Cracked'), is a prize-winning romantic thriller written in Malay. If you can read Malay, you can read it here.

The two stories highlight Goenawan's first challenge as a writer: the multiple languages she works in. Her first language is Indonesian, her own mother speaks Malay, but now the primary language she uses is English (she moved to Singapore when she was sixteen). "When I started writing, I was insecure about my English. I saw my non-native status as a major weakness. Chris’ [Goenawan's mentor Chris Wakling), once told me, 'Your writing somehow reads like a translation.' My reaction to him was, 'Oh, is it that bad?' But he said, 'I didn’t mean it in a negative way. It’s actually refreshing and suits the kind of story you’re telling.'"

[Wakling's] words made me realize that perhaps, [not being a native speaker] is actually one of my strengths. My simple and sparse writing lends a unique color to my narrative."

3. Find Mentors

Goenawan has a design diploma and a marketing degree and worked in marketing, sales, and banking. She studied writing with Curtis Brown Creative, a UK-based literary agency that also offers writing courses. She was also mentored by Jenny Ashcroft through the UK based WoMentoring Project, a free mentorship for women writers. "I was lucky to be chosen as a mentee by the novelist Jenny Ashcroft. Not only did Jenny help me improve my writing technique and teach me about the publishing industry, she made me feel more confident with myself and my writing. To pass on Jenny’s generosity and give back to the writing community, I now volunteer as a mentor for #PitchWars." 

It was Ashcroft who encouraged Goenawan to submit Rainbirds for the Bath Novel Award. "I didn’t think I stood a chance. I knew they usually received hundreds of entries."

4. Don't Give Up

In 2015, the Bath Novel Award received 806 entries from writers from 41 countries. But Rainbirds was the winner. "Winning the competition has opened doors of opportunities and changed my life. I can’t thank Jenny enough for that."

5. Do It Your Way

The "Rainbirds" of the title is a leitmotif that starts out meaning birds, then refers to curtains, then to fish, and finally, back to birds. 

"I love looking at beautiful things and collecting them—be it a sketch, a photograph, a greeting card, a bookmark, a trinket, or a hairpiece—even if I know I won’t use them.

Rainbirds features a collection of my favorite things: delicious Japanese comfort food, desserts and chocolates, sports cars from the nineties, great jazz songs, classic books, rainy days, and amidst them—small, everyday moments that dazzle me by their beauty and simplicity. In a way, I’m turning them into words with the hope of capturing these precious memories forever."

6. Take Risks

Rainbirds is a mystery, with more than one murder to be solved. It also has some coming-of-age elements, and not just for the main character. And though it couldn't be called a romance, there is much in it about love. Goenawan described how she arrived at this blend of elements: "When I started Rainbirds, I didn’t really give much thought to how the novel would fit into the market. I simply had a story I really want to tell. It was only after several drafts that I realized Rainbirds had different elements from various genres, and does not fit into one particular category. My agent once described Rainbirds as ‘a book with crossover appeal’, and I’m crossing my fingers that the story will resonate with a wide audience."

Rainbirds is written from the first person perspective of a male character, a rare choice for a debut writer. "The first person perspective comes most naturally to me. It helps me to put myself inside my character’s head, getting to know them and the story they want to tell. Most of my first drafts are written in first person POV, though it’s not rare for me to rewrite them into another POV. When choosing a narrator for my story, my primary consideration is who will be the best person to tell this story—it can be a young man, or an old woman, or even a child."

7. Be Happy

Goenawan is now living her childhood dream: she is a full-time writer. She's currently working on two novels, one a literary suspense, the other a literary mystery. Both, like Rainbirds, are set in Japan. The three novels don't form a series, but they are interrelated, with characters in one book making appearances in others. 

Goenawan's favourite reading is Japanese manga, especially Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba. "It follows a genius high school student who discovers a supernatural notebook that grants its user the ability to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. The series has an interesting premise that makes a great plot, but what draws me the most are the main characters. They blur the line between what is a protagonist and an antagonist."

She's currently reading Tenkuu Shinpan (Highrise Invasion) by Tsuina Miura and Montage by Jun Watanabe. Her favorite book on writing is On Writing by Stephen King. "I love how honest he is when he shares his experience and his struggles, and it helped me form the right mentality when I decided to pursue writing. I highly recommend On Writing to all aspiring writers."

Here is an Excerpt from Rainbirds:


She Crumbled and Turned to Ashes

At first, nothing was unusual.

I was on the phone with my sister. She sat at her desk by the window in her rented room in Akakawa. The sun shone through the curtain, casting brown highlights on her long dark hair. She asked me question after question, but I just mumbled one-word answers, impatient for the conversation to be over. But then, before my eyes, she crumbled and turned to ashes.


I woke up in a black sedan; the dream would have slipped from my mind, had it not been for the white porcelain urn in my lap. Resembling a short cylindrical vase, it was decorated with a painting of a flying cuckoo and chrysanthemums. Inside were the ashes of my sister, Keiko Ishida, who had been only thirty-three when she died.

I loosened my tie and asked Honda, “How much longer?”

He turned the steering wheel. “Almost there.”

“Mind putting on some music?”

“Of course not,” he answered, flicking a button.

The radio played Billie Holiday’s “Summertime.”

For a Friday afternoon, the journey was smooth. The sun was high, no traffic jam in sight. Even the music was relaxing, the kind meant to make you drum your fingers to the beat.

My hands tightened involuntarily around the urn, and I stared at it. Honda glanced at me for a second before turning his eyes back to the road.

“Keiko used to love jazz,” he said.

I nodded, unable to speak. The small stack of cassettes that made up her collection—what would happen to them now?

“The funny thing was, she couldn’t name a single jazz musician,” he continued.

I cleared my throat. “You don’t need to be knowledgeable to appreciate jazz.”

“Well said, Ishida.”

Actually, it was my sister who had first spoken those words to me.

Even now, I could picture her sitting at her desk, her hand twisting the phone cord. A self-satisfied smile on her face as she murmured, “You don’t need to be knowledgeable to appreciate jazz.”

Strange that this image was etched in my mind, though I’d never seen her rented room—I had no idea what it looked like.

“We’re here,” Honda said as the car pulled up to the entrance of the Katsuragi Hotel.

“Thank you for your help arranging the memorial service,” I said.

“Don’t mention it. Keiko’s done a lot for me in the past.”

I nodded and got out, still clutching the urn. I was already heading through the entrance when I heard him call after me.


I turned. Honda had already wound down the passenger window.

“What are you going to do with . . . ?” He scratched the back of his neck, looking at the urn.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“If you want the ashes scattered at sea, we can ask the crematorium staff. They’ll handle it for a small fee.”

“That won’t do,” I said. “My sister was afraid of water. She couldn’t swim.”


RAINBIRDS is a literary mystery sets in Japan. The rights have been sold to ten international publishers, including translation rights to Chinese, French, and German.

“Luminous, sinister, and page-turning all at once. I loved it.” 
—Kate Hamer, internationally bestselling author of The Girl in the Red Coat and The Doll Funeral 

“A beautiful, well-crafted story, Rainbirds is an exploration of grief, love and loss. Clarissa Goenawan has written a powerful debut novel that will leave readers craving more.” 
Hollie Overton, internationally bestselling author of Baby Doll and The Walls

“Like the imaginary town in Japan in which it takes place, Rainbirds possesses a charm that is at once cloistered, quiet, and mysterious. Carefully crafted and paced, the novel captivates with its reflective, dreamlike tone. A promising debut from Clarissa Goenawan.” 
—Dee Lestari, award-winning singer-songwriter and author of the Supernova series 

Rainbirds is that rarest of debut novels—confident, transportive, and utterly enthralling. Clarissa Goenawan explores the mysteries of small-town Japan, drawing readers in with understated prose, then ensnaring with a subtle spell, exposing, grain by grain, the secrets behind a young woman’s death.”  
—Barry Lancet, award-winning author of The Spy Across the Table and Japantown

”This literary debut is sure to spark your attention.”  

”With its dream sequences, chance encounters and leisurely attention to music and food, this debut novel evokes the simple joys of early Haruki Murakami . . . a satisfying heartfelt tale about letting go.” 

”Elegantly [combines] a suspenseful mystery with an eloquent meditation on love and loss.” —HuffPost 

«(A) Well-paced mystery… Goenawan’s debut balances a finely wrought plot with patient, measured portraits of fragile relationships, making for a spare yet inviting novel that grabs hold and doesn’t let go.» Publishers Weekly



Clarissa Goenawan


Clarissa Goenawan



This blog is part of a tour organized by the International Thriller Writer's Association FEARLESS BLOGGER tour. The Fearless Bloggers were created by Alison McMahan to help new thriller writers who were members of ITW promote their work. Blogs are written about new thrillers by thriller writers. All work is done on a volunteer basis. Other blogs in this tour include:

    Elena Hartwell

    Mark Bacon

    Bonus: Article in THE BIG THRILL