Have you ever strolled into a book shop and spotted the 'True Singapore Ghost Stories' (TSGS) series?
Hard to resist, right? Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?
Anyway, while strolling about KLCC (this was when COVID-19 numbers were low and the world was a slightly safer place) , we chanced upon the masked writer behind the TSGS series, Russell Lee.
Yes, if you didn't know, Russell Lee has always hidden his identity behind a mask.
He’s far from shy though. He speaks about his books, meets fans (usually at the bookfest@malaysia), gives talks related to writing, but the mask is always on.
A conversation with Mr Lee
After brief introductions and convincing Russell to agree to an interview, we settle for a cuppa, and this writer decides to just go for it.
"Why don't you take off your mask? Tak panas ke?," I asked him.
Without missing a beat (and probably scowling under his mask, I can't tell), Russell responded: "Do you have a death wish? Take a look at my right and left."
Two six-foot young men appear out of nowhere and stare at us, keeping a close eye on proceedings.
"OK, fine, KEEP the mask on," I replied, a little bit disappointed that my attempt to get the Russell Lee to finally reveal his face was turned down.
I awkwardly continue with the interview while secretly plotting to unmask the real Russell Lee - through questions, this time.
Who is Russell Lee?
Q1# Have you always had a fascination for ghost stories?
I have always wondered about life, death and if there is a hereafter. A few basic questions arose: What is the meaning and purpose of life? Is there a God? These questions inevitably lead to questions over the nature of reality. Does only science provide all the answers? If not, then what else is there, and how do we learn about the world that cannot be determined by looking through a microscope.
The supernatural world, which includes ghosts, is part of the answer. So, yes, in an oblique way, I have always been interested in the supernatural. A whole new world opened up for me when I used the eyes of faith to “see” the invisible. I understand now the reason for my existence.
Q2# How did True Singapore Ghost Stories start?
The idea was the publishers, Flame Of The Forest Publishing (Angsana Books), not mine. The publishers have a knack for publishing bestsellers. Besides the True Singapore Ghost Stories, Angsana Books also published the Mr Midnight and Mr Mystery series by James Lee, Excuse Me, Are You A Model? by Bonny Hicks and many other bestsellers.
Most publishers would have been happy to publish one or two bestsellers. Angsana Books has published almost 200 bestselling titles. True Singapore Ghost Stories Book 1 was published in 1989 and has been reprinted 35 times!
(*Note: More than 1.5 million copies of the series have been sold so far! Dayuuuummm.)
Q3# If you could read just one author, who would it be and why?
I read widely. An author I reread many times is John Bunyan, of Pilgrim’s Progress fame. He was a tinker, a person of low estate. He wasn’t respected by the establishment, but he had a wisdom and a keen mind that was admired by learned professors. Besides, he was a brilliant storyteller.
Q4# How do you get your stories? Do you actually speak to people face to face or do they write to you?
I receive submissions on an almost daily basis. My team of writers and I are also on the prowl for stories. We search every nook and cranny to unearth gems. The Silat Princess in TSGS Bk 26, for example, is the result of interviews, research and site visits. Interesting submissions are usually researched and developed. We are looking for interesting material, not literary genius. And they can come from any quarter. Each book is a massive undertaking and it’s not possible do it without a supporting team.
Q5# Why do you think TSGS is so popular?
I like to think that Russell Lee is a good storyteller. Lee has a voice that’s easily recognised. And he’s an expert on the supernatural. So he writes as one having authority. His style is spontaneous, his language simple. And most of all, Russell Lee’s heart is pure. It comes through in the stories.
Q6# Is there one particular story or ghost that really spooks you?
No. I have absolutely no fear of the supernatural. If fact, my best friend is a ghost, the Holy Ghost!
(Writer: *thinks to self* Is Russell Lee a priest? Hmm. *Googles* 'Father Lee' and 'exorcism' and 'writer' and 'Singapore'. The search comes up with nothing. Urgh!)
Q7# You’ve probably been asked this a lot but I HAVE to ask as well. Why the mask? Some say you’re trying to avoid being cursed by bomohs.
Nope. That’s not true. Don’t you realise that it is a privilege not to be recognised? A man with no face has many advantages. When I (and not Russell Lee) am in public, nobody knows me other than my friends. And even they don’t know who Russell Lee is.
I suppose Russell Lee and I exist in parallel universes, and never the twain shall meet. It is enough that the books are read. Also, it removes pride from the mix because a man with no face cannot possibly claim any credit. Funny, right?
Q8# From your social media posts, it seems like you love meeting your fans. Do you regret hiding behind a mask?
I absolutely love meeting readers. Being masked has its advantages. I try my best to remember readers that I have met. Many make it a point to meet me annually. Nothing like hearing from readers what they think of the books. Many offer interesting ideas as well. My readers don’t mind my getup at all.
Anyway, they know the importance of masking up and donning personal protective equipment to avoid catching nasty bugs! On a serious note, readers know who Russell Lee is. They know the way he thinks, his feelings, his very heart. How much more intimately can you know a person? Do you need to see a person’s face to be able to know a person? When sight is not available, our other senses compensate by becoming sharper.
Q9# How many people other than your family members know your real identity?
My family doesn’t know anything about Russell Lee. Only a handful know and that’s because it is absolutely needful for them to know.
Q10# Is Russell Lee one person or a group of people?
Russell Lee is one person. The last time I looked into the mirror, I saw one face, two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth… You could say he has multiple personalities but it is no disorder. It is exactly as it is supposed to be!
Q11# You mentioned in one of your books that you plan to reveal your identity after the release of the 50th TSGS book. Is that still the plan?
Yes, that’s the plan. But Book 50 is a long way off and I plod on one book at a time. Book 26 might well be my last book. You can never tell what the future holds. You can’t even tell what tomorrow holds? I don’t think readers are hung up over seeing my face.
Q12# When can we expect your next book to be published?
I’m working on it.
Q13# Is there anything else that you’d like to add about the TSGS series, your journey as a writer or maybe some words for your fans?
The challenge that I face is to make each book better than the previous ones. TSGS has evolved over 30 years. The series has become a part of the lives of readers. It’s good fun and for many Malaysians and Singaporeans, the books rekindle happy memories of growing up and home.
And I realise then that readers have allowed me to be a part of their lives. I am grateful for that. What a privilege and honour it is for me.
A new book
And with that, our short interview ended.
While I learnt a bit more about Russell Lee as a writer, there was not much which he revealed about his personal life.
What he did say is that his latest book, True Singapore Ghost Stories Book 26 is available at all our major local bookstores now.
Perhaps some clues are in there?
Who do you think Russell Lee is? Any guesses? Let us know in the comments.