A Philosophy and Psychology Professor Delves Into Fiction

cover of book "Forbidden Hill" by Graduate Center Professor John D. GreenwoodForbidden Hill (Singapore Saga: Vol. 1), the debut novel by Professor John D. Greenwood (GC, Philosophy/Psychology), is a detailed portrait — backed by meticulous research — of the early Europeans, Malay, Chinese, and Indian pioneers whose competing interests propelled the expansion of Singapore in the early 19th century.
Greenwood is also the author of numerous books, articles, and reviews in his fields of research, which include history of psychology and philosophy of social science. He recently spoke to The Graduate Center about his writing process, his plans for future books, and the nearly two decades of research that went into Forbidden Hill.
GC: Could you explain your connection to Singapore and your interest in its history?
Greenwood: I first became interested in the history of Singapore during the time I taught at the National University of Singapore in the mid-’80s, and later from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2009. Shortly before I left in 2000, a Scottish friend returned my copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s historical novel about London, and commented that someone should write a book like that about Glasgow or Edinburgh. My immediate response was that someone should write a book like that about Singapore. Once the thought was out, it became an obsession. That night I could not sleep, and rose at 2:00 a.m. to write the story that forms the prologue of the book.
GC: Is Vol. 2 already complete? And are you planning additional volumes?
Greenwood: Vol. 2 is pretty much complete. I had originally planned to cover the first hundred years of the settlement, but when I reached half a million words I found had only covered the first 50 years! I was persuaded by an established historical novelist that no publisher was going to accept a manuscript of that length from an unknown author, so I carved the present work out of the first third, which runs from 1819, when the settlement was founded, to 1836, the year of the (fictional) sea-battle with the Illanun pirates that forms the climax of the book. I am now carving Vol 2: Chasing the Dragon out of the second third, which takes the story up to 1854. I hope to have this completed by the end of the year, in time for the bicentennial celebrations of the founding of Singapore in February 2019. Then on to Vol. 3: Night of the Hungry Ghosts from the last third — and after that I hope to begin work on the second half of the first century. Which will probably take me into retirement!
GC: Writing this book required a lot of research (an understatement, we’re sure). At what point did you decide that you were ready to start writing?
GreenwoodA lot of research! For the last 18 years. But I did the research and writing in parallel rather than in series, making adjustments as I went along.
GC: Why did you choose to write a historical novel, rather than a straightforward history?  
Greenwood: The inspiration was for a novel. There were a number of decent histories, but no novel about the founding and early development of Singapore that was true to its history.
GC: You study and teach in the psychology and philosophy departments. Did you always want to write fiction as well? How did you find the time to complete the novel?
Greenwood: I never had any intention of writing a novel until I was inspired to write this one that night in 2000. I worked on it pretty much every free moment I had since then (never neglecting my teaching and scholarship at the GC!), with numerous trips back to Singapore to do research, including reading the early newspapers from the 1820s.

Submitted on: MAY 22, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Philosophy | Psychology