Thursday, July 31, 2008

"The Future Barrister": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

In the mid-80s I was standing outside Komtar in Penang, Malaysia at the bus stop, a rather seedy, smelly, low-lit area, late at night, when a young Indian man started in a one-sided conversation about his studying to be a barrister in the UK. He had this Clark Gable look about him, with a neatly trimmed moustache and sideburns. He was handsome and he knew it and he also had this way of winking as he talked, as if he was letting you in on a secret. He was also full of contradictions.

In the middle of our conversation, an attractive woman approached him and tried to pick him up. She totally ignored me. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. I’m thinking, this guy is a real character! As soon as I got on the bus, I started making notes to turn him into a story. I even used one of his lines to open the story, “There are seven hundred barristers in Penang, and I will be number seven hundred and one!”

I changed the location of the story from a bus stop to a pub, 20 Leith Street, and I had him invite an American to join him at his table. I used the American as a minor first person viewpoint character merely as a witness to give the Future Barrister and his story credibility. I purposely didn’t give the American or the Future Barrister a name, though I referred to him as Clark Gable. Near the end of the story, I even say, “I was glad that I didn’t know his name.”

The biggest problem when I began to write it was the backstory, his relating about what had happened to him in the UK, why he was back in Malaysia and not continuing his studies. He mentioned he had run out of money and that there was a girl involved, Sarah. (I don’t remember if that was her actual name or if that was merely the name that I gave her in the story.) I had a feeling he was not telling me the real reason, as if he was hiding something, and that something was sinister, a skeleton in the closet. Maybe it was my imagination or the way he kept winking at me. So I needed to fill in the gaps and create a believable backstory.

Also I needed to break up his monologue into smaller chunks with descriptions that could showcase his character. I wanted to show how he interacted with the American and the other patrons, including a boy selling newspapers, dismissing him, as he did the woman at the bus stop, with a disdainful wave of his hand. I also wanted to show the irony, that he had become like the British Raj to his own people, a racist and a snob.

I entered this story in the 1987 Star/Nestle Short Story Awards here in Malaysia, but the contest got cancelled when the newspaper got cancelled for political reasons. Fortunate­ly, the newspaper got reinstated the following year, so when they announced the 1988 contest, I reworked the story – glad for the opportunity to do so. It won third place and was published in The Star.

Despite the early success of the story and it being published in Malaysia, India and Australia, I felt it needed something more. The random numbers on the lottery ticket didn’t seem all that confusing, even when drunk, so I changed them to 5355353, whereby the 3s and 5s, if published close together, could blur into one another. It was recently pointed out to me that there are a couple of thousand barristers in Penang, but that’s nearly twenty years later, so I kept the original quote.

While revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I introduced a minor subplot with the American being interested in an Indian woman sitting at the next table who reminded him of his ex-wife, but who later rebuffed him. In contrast, I also added an attractive Western woman who walked into the pub with several friends, and she caught the Future Barrister’s eye. Later, he asked her to dance and she accepted. Of course, this gets him talking more about his ex-girlfriend in the UK, so more of the story, the truth, comes out.

Still the story never sat well with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. By then I had been experimenting with the present tense in a novel that I was working on, and it seemed to solve some problems. I tried it out on “The Future Barrister” and it felt right, so for this latest MPH collection, I rewrote the story in the present tense. This was then published by Descant in Canada in 2010.

This is the fifth time that one of my short stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited was published in the USA or Canada twenty years after I first wrote it. So the lesson here is, never give up on your stories, especially if you have been revising them all along.

As a footnote, the story and the interview of me in The Star proved to be a catalyst when I met another Penang character, an expat, shortly thereafter, and later wrote a lengthy non-fiction piece about him as a tribute to someone who had died alone in a far away land in my book Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat’s Life in Malaysia. (MPH 2009) For me, “The Future Barrister” and this expat will always be intertwined in a way I could never have imagined.

In case you’re wondering, do I always write about people I meet? No, but when a good character walks into your life, take plenty of notes, especially if the character is a story waiting to happen. By the way, I never did bump into the Future Barrister again, though I feel he would have been pleased with the story. After all, it was all about him.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"On Fridays": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Over the years, I’ve often been asked about the short stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), previously published by Silverfish (2005), and originally  as Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia 1993). Where I got the ideas? How I wrote them? Why I revise them even after they’ve been published! And are the stories true?

In the preface to the original collection I wrote, “There’s a lot of truth in all fiction and a lot of fiction in all truth, so what may seem real may, in fact, be made up, and what may seem made up could very well be based on fact. The characters in this collection only exist in the author’s and the reader’s mind and if they bear a resemblance to anyone you know, then it’s merely a coincidence.”

As we all know there’s a blurry line between truth and fiction. Some stories that I wrote started out based on fact and got changed along the way to make it a better story. Others started out as pure fiction but some truth got added in to make the story seem more realistic. I tried to make all the stories seem real, as if they had happened. Maybe that’s why these 15 – now 17 stories – have been published, at last count, 78 times in eleven countries (updated, 2 September 2010), taught in numerous Malaysian universities, private colleges, in SPM literature, and even a high school in Canada.

So with the new version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited published by MPH, I thought I would do a series of blogs on the stories – the story behind the story – which I hope will answer these questions about truth and fiction and also, perhaps, inspire some of you who write to take another look at your own story ideas, to see if you can make them resonate with the reader, and perhaps even break you from your own truth, which often gets in the way of a good short story.

Already I can hear protests, “But that’s the way it really happened!” Yes, no doubt, but to get to the essential story, the “real” story, sometimes you need to take a step back from your truth and ask yourself, does your truth serve the story, or does it hamper it? Of course, I’m referring to writing fiction not a memoir. And by making the necessary changes, you never know where you’re story will take you. For example, I started a story about a man riding in a taxi and it ended up being published 13 times, and now it’s the lead story in this collection.

The original idea for “On Fridays” came when I was part-time adviser for MACEE, Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange. Every Friday I would take a sixteen kilometer taxi ride into George Town. It was a share taxi, whereby we share it with other passengers, who get on and off at various locations.

I saw this taxi as a metaphor for multiracial Malaysia, where people of various races live and work in close proximity and in relative harmony. So I added an unnamed Westerner, an expat, who becomes interested in a Malay woman sitting beside him in a taxi, yet because of the other passengers, he feels too self-conscious to act.

Although I normally write in the third person, I chose to write this story in the first person at the expense of people assuming that it’s autobiographical. As many of you know, when you use the first person “I” as the narrator, people naturally assume it’s the author or in this case, it’s “me”. Unlike the character, by the way, I don’t paint, and the character taught English years before I ever did.

The effect I was going for, I felt, would be better served using “I”, because I wanted the reader to closely identify with the narrator, to see himself in this, or in a similar situation, and think about what he or she would do - to make the story more personal. From the comments I got in the past – it works. This was the one story from my collection that people would bring up and then relate a similar experience of their own.

Another choice I made was not using the past tense and opting for the present tense, because I felt it would give the story more immediacy, and hopefully a timeless quality. And perhaps make it linger, as does the ending, so it would seem that this just happened.

Also from the hundreds of taxi rides I took while living in Penang, I chose to “create” one that was representative of all those rides. By using the senses – see, hear, feel, taste and smell – I tried to make this one taxi ride as realistic as possible by putting the reader in that taxi with me. If they believe in that taxi ride, then they’ll believe in the story. That it’s the “truth”; that it “happened”; that there really was “a girl”; and that I’m still “searching” for her....When my creative writing students read this story, they inevitably ask me, “Have you found her yet?”

When I first wrote the story I had a lot of details describing the sights along the way. An editor from the UK made the comment that it read too much like a travelogue. So I cut out the descriptions that weren’t necessary. It was also suggested that I make the character single. His being married raised some moral issues – like is he cheating on his wife? Good advice, which I took, and an example of how "facts" or "truth" can have unforeseen consequences in your fiction. This is the version that first got published in Female in Singapore, Plaza in Japan and Going Down Swinging Australia.

A reader, unfamiliar with Malaysia, asked me what’s the big deal if he does touch her in the taxi, so while revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I worked in the character’s concerns about being arrested for “outraging her modesty” since he’s an expat in a Muslim country, something that many people outside of Malaysia who are not familiar with Muslim countries would know. As a writer, you can't always assume that overseas readers, if that is who you also want to reach, will "get it".

Then I got to thinking, why doesn't he get out of the taxi at the jetty and follow her (I would!), and if he does, I would also need to make it clear why he has to return to the taxi, for fear of losing his job, something difficult for an expat to get without a work permit. So I added this new scene to the story.

A US editor suggested that I lop off the final paragraph. I didn’t like his suggestion, yet I felt he had a point, so we compromised by rearranging a couple of paragraphs at the end, to make the story more effective, so the focus wasn’t on the man’s loneliness, but on his obsession. This became the version that was published simultaneously, as a joint-venture, between a literary magazine in France, Frank, and The Literary Review in the US, and with some minor editing, this MPH collection, and now Cha: An Asian Literary Review

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited 

 ** Here's the link to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Getting Ready for Change

Change in my writing life is coming – I can feel it. Call it the law of cause and effect, the law of sowing and reaping, or even the law of attraction. It’s happening, and I’m trying my best to get ready for this change. To accept it with open arms and not stress myself out trying to cope with new demands on my writing time, compounded by a full time job and two toddlers demanding my full attention. Just ask, believe and receive. The universe will provide, or so they say. It’s a matter of faith.

On Monday I got only one piece of mail and it was from National Writers Association informing me that my novel The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady won fourth place in their 2008 Novel contest. This may open up a few agents’ doors. More importantly, it tells me that my novel is on the right track – two readers’ scoring checklists confirm this, since I received an average score of 91.5. Also, back in April I spent a month heavily revising that version and I’m in the midst of revising it yet again, having started last week, which means the novel is even better, even closer to publication. This too is a matter of faith.

On Tuesday, after someone left, I got put in charge of a second course at UNIMAS. This is not necessarily a good thing, though it will force me to get better organized and use better time management skills, and this will carry over into my writing life. On Wednesday it was confirmed that the third version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH, now with 17 stories) will be coming out in late July, and not August, and that my introduction by Eric Forbes for his MPH Breakfast Club in Kuala Lumpur will be on July 26. On Thursday, I agreed to give a reading at Seksan’s Design with Sharon Bakar later that same afternoon.
Below is Eric’s blog announcing all this along with the new cover (above):
The 15th MPH Breakfast Club on Saturday, July 26, 2008, at 11.00a.m. to 12.30p.m., will be featuring short-story writer Robert Raymer, the author of Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH Publishing, 2008). In this collection of 17 stories, Kuching-based Raymer portrays the traditional in modernity, the unexpected in relationships both familiar and strange, and the recurring theme of race even as contemporary Malaysia finds ways to understand its multicultural milieu.

In the title story, a selfish writer gets more than he bargained for when former lovers haunt him in more ways than one. In another story, a man's loneliness turns into obsession when he shares a taxi ride with a Malay woman. A Clark Gable lookalike is a barrister wannabe with a shocking secret and gossipy neighbours reveal more about themselves than the man who commits suicide. Elsewhere, expats cross the border to Had Yai to experience a good bargain in the Thai flesh trade before going home to their wives in America.

In this republished edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, Raymer's snapshots of scenes from various walks of life provide an insider-outsider view on love, family and culture, and urges a second look at ourselves in the mirror of self-awareness.

Eric Forbes will be introducing Robert Raymer while Janet Tay will be moderating the session.Date July 26, 2008 (Saturday)Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.Venue MPH Bangsar Village II Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2 Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaPhone (603) 2287 3600 Food and refreshments will be served

All lovers of literature are most welcome Robert Raymer will also be doing a reading at readings@seksan's at 3.30p.m. on the same day. Seksan Design is at No. 67 Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur

Praise for LOVERS AND STRANGERS REVISITED'Raymer not only writes from his own viewpoint as a foreigner and observer, but also delves into the minds of a desperate Malay woman, a young Indian girl, an adulterous Chinese couple, and an old Chinese man who survived the Japanese occupation ... He has an uncanny ability to hold a mirror up to the people of his adopted country, not as a foreigner but as one of us. His stories are full of personalities that you know—you work with them, or live next door to them, or eavesdrop on them at the kopi tiam.' The Borneo Post

'This account ("On Fridays") of a crammed ride with strangers in a taxi may well stand as a metaphor of Raymer's own experience of living among Malaysians .... He imbues each of the characters in his stories with a realistic, genuinely believable voice even as he tempers it with the valuable perspective of an observer.' New Straits Times

Raymer gives a lushly and rich and multi-layered rendition of the Malaysian way of life as coloured and influenced by his own experiences from his twenty years as an expat here .... These stories are some of the few authentic portrayals of the inner workings and inner plays of the average Malaysian's life in all of its robustness and unique cultural settings.' The Expat

Robert Raymer was born in the U.S. and has lived in Malaysia for over 20 years. His fiction and nonfiction have been widely published. He currently lives in Sarawak where he teaches creative writing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

--Posted By Eric Forbes to eric forbes's book addict's guide to good books at 7/01/2008 05:12:00 AM

Then Julia Tan of MPH asked me on Thursday to do a booktalk at MPH Spring in Kuching in August 17, at MPH Gurney Plaza in Penang August 30 (yet to be confirmed), and possibly a workshop in K.L. in August as part of their Local Authors' Month (she’s getting back to me on this).

In Penang, end of August, I’ll be doing a creative writing workshop at Institute Perguruan Persekutuan P.Pinang on Friday, 29th (confirmed on Friday, too), for PELLTA on Saturday, 30th, and giving a reading at Little Street Penang Market on Sunday, 31st. Also today I was asked to give a reading with several other writers with Words-Worth II at Bing! on August 3rd, which is incidentally my birthday. Phooi Kheng and Nic, my website designers and who have been nudging me in this success-oriented direction since 2006, are in Kuching that week, and I know they have big plans for me and my website.

Friday evening I attended my second meeting at Toastmasters, which my new friend Donna is nudging me to join, and where I met Tony whom I played tennis with twenty-one years ago in Penang. On Saturday and Sunday Jenny and I are attending the Rainforest World Music Festival, for the third year in a row!

Last night we ran into Earl, a friend from Hawaii, James, a friend from New Zealand, and Rob, a friend formerly of Kuching and visiting from the Gulf, whose son played base in the first group. Also bumped into one of my creative writing students from last semester, also Maggie who interviewed me for the Borneo Post last year, plus five members from Toastmasters. In the July 2008 issue of The Writer there was an article on why writers should join Toastmasters, which I’m now seriously considering. The networking and socializing alone is great.

Julita, a former tennis playing friend and ex-creative writing student, is visiting Kuching from Penang so we’ll see her at The Rainforest Festival tonight plus a host of other people too, no doubt an ex-writing student or two – last year had one visiting from K.L. and I have a feeling she’ll be back. Music and writing, now that’s a good combination.

This coming Monday, classes will begin for the new semester…but that will be another week. It can wait. I want to enjoy the present for now and try to get a handle on all this change that’s taking place this week in my life. I have a feeling, this is only the begin­ning, and I really need to get ready for change.
***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.