Friday, May 29, 2009

“Transactions in Thai”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited



For about ten years, starting in 1985 I had to leave Malaysia every three months, so I would alternate between Singapore and Thailand. Long before I had ever been to Thailand, I had heard the stories about the prostitutes, about how travelers would fall in love with them and even marry them. How visitors would extend their visits from one or two weeks to several years, and this went all the way back to the Vietnam War. They say, jokingly, there are no real Missing in Action from the Vietnam War; they’re still living in Thailand!  That's pretty close to the truth.

In 1992, during one of my trips to Had Yai in southern Thailand, while staying at the King’s Hotel, I was having breakfast and catching up in my journal, when I observed these two Western men in their forties being befriended by the Thai manager. I knew what was going on, since the manager had approached me on numerous occasions, and I thought there’s a story here. Since I didn’t have any spare paper with me, I turned to the back of the journal and started writing the story out. It was one of the fastest stories I had ever written. Maybe because I was so familiar with not only the setup, but also the background knowledge of the working girls in Thailand, the expats and Malaysians coming up to Had Yai, and had even seen, at the behest of one of van drivers that plied the Penang/Had Yai route, a Tiger or Thai Girl show and the startling feats that the Thai women performed with their vagina.

So when I began to write the story it came easily. For one, I was in the actual setting of the story and from my table I could casually observe and describe first hand the characters, the Thai manager, the two men, and then the arrival of the two girls. I could observe the waitress who served them beer since she was the same woman who served me breakfast, and from my table I had an excellent view of the elevator, of the girls leaving with their dainty overnight bags. It was all there, and all I had to do was to piece the story together and imagine what they were saying. If I could only hear their actual words, it would’ve made my job even easier, but they were sitting at a different section from mine. But I had enough to go on to write out the story, at least the first rough draft while eating breakfast. Not a bad way to start the day!

“Transactions in Thai”, as all stories do, did require a lot of revising before it finally fell into place. I even managed to work in my presence into the story. An issue I did wrestle with was dialogue, should I make it direct or keep it indirect as it appeared in EM (Malaysia) in 1996. Later, while rewriting it, I added in some direct dialogue, though most of it remained indirect, which I thought better suited the mood of the story.

Long before I submitted it for the Silverfish New Writing 7 (2008), I realized I only had half the story told. I stopped way too soon, after the two men had bought the bus tickets. To make the story more effective, I needed to have the men think about this transaction they just made in terms of their marriages, in terms if their children, in terms of the other Thai women, as if wondering they could have made a better deal. I also needed to bring the girls back to the hotel, and even raise the doubt if they were coming back, as if the men had been conned.

I decided the end the story on the bus, because after that it would all be a little too predictable. Later, I plan to explore what all does happen to the typical Westerner, who for the first time, feels what it’s like walking into a bar and how all the girls turn to look at you and hope you’ll choose them. Plus the obvious downsides, from health risks, sexual exploitation, and the stupid decisions some people make, even killing themselves, when it all goes wrong! But for now, for this story, I wanted to capture merely the financial (and mental) transactions being made by these two men in Thailand.

For the MPH Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I made mostly minor changes, though I did delete the final line of the story since I thought it was clearly implied: “For now, that was all they wanted.” So now the story (as does the collection) ends:

The bus jerked as it pulled away, taking the two men and their companions on their journey. In no time, Noi and Mi Lai got the two men giggling as if they were back in high school with their whole lives ahead of them.

"Transactions in Thai" has now been translated into French as "Escapade en Thaïlande". Here's a link to the first translated page (and a contact for the rest of the story in French, which is free) In fact Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

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.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

“Only in Malaysia”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

“Only In Malaysia” is one of the two new stories that I added to the MPH version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. It was written around the same time as the others. When the story came out in Silverfish New Writing 7 (2008), I decided to include it into Lovers and Strangers Revisited since MPH had requested that I add a couple more stories to make it different and not just a reissue of the Silverfish collection.

Written in 1989, “Only in Malaysia” was loosely based on my experiences while I was advising at the Malaysian-American Commission of Educational Exchange. One day after coming out of work I was crossing the street when I nearly got run over by a car. That incident certainly got me thinking on many different levels. I combined that with a cross-cultural experience I had while traveling in Italy where I befriended an Indian woman named Moni who was doing her graduate studies there. I then added in the loneliness that expats have for their own culture, something that I was in the midst of experiencing. I knew I had a story and the start of something bigger on my hands.

In fact I conceived “Only in Malaysia” as the first story in a collection of inter-related stories, titled Life on Hold. I wrote three or four more stories but then got bogged down in one of them. Around that time, while traveling near Ipoh I left inside a taxi my notebook with about 150 pages of notes and sketches of several other stories and plans to tie them together. With the whole project stalled, I moved onto compiling the stories for the original collection of Lovers and Strangers. (Recently I revived two other stories from that aborted collection, one of which was runner-up in the 2007 Faulkner-Wisdom Short Story Contest.)

From the years working at MACEE, I was able to tap into my firsthand experience of advising students, many whom like the characters Nora and Zainal, would go on to study in the US and even return to Malaysia with an American spouse, so I was familiar with the problems that it sometimes caused, as highlighted with the conversation with Miss Ooi.

When the story was first published in Her World in 1992 a well-meaning friend from KL called me up to express concern about the state of my marriage. I had a good laugh over it. Our marriage was fine. I was not writing about me and my wife, only using the knowledge of our cross-cultural marriage to root the story in reality. Yet while revising the story before it was accepted by Mattoid (1998 Australia), I knew where our marriage was heading. Ten years after first writing the story, we did get a divorce so perhaps the joke was on me.

For Mattoid, I made the story chronological. I shifted the near accident where the story originally began to after the conversation with Miss Ooi, so I wasn’t going back and forth several times in the story. This seemed more natural and less confusing, plus it showed that the character was preoccupied while crossing the road. I also changed the cat’s name from Sadie, which was the name of my brother’s cat, to Kalie, after Kalamazoo where he and his wife met. (I had met my ex-wife in Madison, which is why we had that name for our cat in “Dark Blue Thread”.)

For the Silverfish New Writing 7 (2008) version, I expanded the story by adding a lot more backstory about Ross’s reasons for being in Malaysia, his reasons for non-writing, and how he had lost his two younger brothers who had drowned. Although I had referred to Ross’s estranged wife many times, I felt I needed a scene with her in it, other than the flashback near the end. So I added the pivotal scene at the elevator at Komtar where he bumps into her, which shows his frazzled, desperate state of mind.

Other than some minor editing, this is also the version that I used for MPH, glad that it found a new home, though now and then, I still think about that other collection of stories that might have been; in fact, I'm thinking about reviving the second chapter, the title story...

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

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, May 15, 2009

The Novel Project: Rewriting Three Novels in Four Months!

Sometimes, it’s important to put your blog aside and everything else, including email, and make some serious time for your novel. That’s exactly what I did, and in less than four months, from mid-January to end of April, I edited, revised and rewrote 1,140 pages of three novels, while teaching full time and marking papers for 155 students. Okay, it was a bit insane, but I did prove to myself that it can be done, and it doesn’t require abandoning my family or going without food or sleep. Even if I only got through one of those novels, I would have felt great, a step closer to my goal!

It all begins with desire. I was tired of making excuses for not writing my novel. I started to sound too much like every other writer I’ve ever met who has a novel somewhere in progress or on the backburner or plan to write when they have more time. So instead of waiting for some black hole of time to magically appear, I decided to carve out a little time, at least one hour a day during the week on nothing but the novel, which I quickly upped to two hours.

An hour a day can go a long way, but if you think you can make up for a lost hour by writing two hours the next day, what happens instead, those missed hours start to snowball and before you know it, you’re so far behind in hours that first week you give up!

To be honest, I didn’t know if I could rewrite all three novels or not, since two of those novels I hadn’t really touched in five or six years and had tried to do so on several occasions. One of those novels, set in Penang, also would require a major rewriting since I was contemplating changing it from third person past to first person present.

But it’s that everyday consistency, the momentum of working your way through a book that gets the book written. Yeah, it can be slow going at first, but soon you get caught up in the story, and you start squeezing in extra minutes here and there, an occasionally staying up (or getting up early) to add an extra hour. Once that momentum kicks in, you become unstoppable. And then when you close to a deadline, I was amazed by how disciplined I could become! I would wake up in the middle of the night to squeeze in a couple more hours, and then get up at five in the morning.

Again it’s hard to call yourself a novelist without a published novel, and that won’t happen unless you’re willing to work on it, day in and day out. I know this. It was a matter of doing! Tired of making excuses, I decided in January to made 2009 my year of the novel. For an extra incentive, I added a contest dead­line, April 30th to ensure that it does happen. I was determined to enter all three novels into Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Competition. Last year one of them, The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady, was in the “almost finalist” category.

To get the momentum going, I once again set my sights on the James Jones First Novel Fellow­ship on March 1st since it only required the first 50 pages (plus the next 50 if you make it to the finals). And I knew I could manage that. So I entered all three, plus a fourth that’s I’ve been working, also set in Penang, which I also entered in the Faulkner novel-in-progress category last year and again this year, after another thorough edit.

Those small incre­ments of time during the week, an extra half hour here and there added up. More importantly it gave me momentum heading into the weekends, when I really poured in the hours!

I was truly amazed with the results. It can be done! The key is to get started! Then don’t focus your attention on the whole book (or on all three books in my case), just on the beginning and take it a paragraph, a page, a chapter at a time, and slowly though surely, you’ll have it completed. It’s like trying to lose weight. If you focus on the 50 kilos you want to lose, it’s seems overwhelming, but if you focus on losing two kilos, now that seems manageable. Then once you lose two kilos, you focus on losing another two kilos. Keep that up and those fifty kilos will be gone. This also applies to big projects, whereby you break it down to manageable parts.

Before you do anything though, make a commitment to yourself that you will in fact do this. I did! No com­mit­ment, you’ll back off at the first sign of trouble. (I had plenty of unplanned interruptions, including two hijacked weekends that I couldn’t get out of and a conference in Penang, but still managed to work in plenty of editing.) Then once you make that com­mit­ment, you must follow through with action every day. Soon, writing or rewriting the novel becomes a habit and that’s exactly where you want to be.

I wrote in the morning and in the evening before I checked email, and even those emails I wanted to reply, I had to remind myself, where are my priorities? If I can keep it short and get back to the novel, do so, but if time didn’t permit both, I wrote.

Remember, authors write books all the time, so why can’t you? Why can’t I? It’s a matter of choice, how we choose to spend our time. Emailing or writing? Watch­ing TV or writing? Reading the newspaper or, you guessed it. Writing.

“In the beginning was the Word…” it states in the Bible. So let’s make them your words that you plan to write in your own books. It all begins with you. So what are you waiting for? Got twenty minutes before that start of your favorite TV program or after you put the kids asleep, turn on your computer, bypass Facebook and Email, and start writing! You’ll be glad you did, especially if it’s that much-talked about novel you’ve always wanted to write!

Besides, haven’t you been talking about this for how many years? Well here’s your chance. “Saying is one thing and doing is another,” Montaigne wrote a couple of hundred years ago. Things haven’t changed all that much. People are also talking about writing their novels. Well, stop talking, and start writing. That’s exactly what I did and looks at the results of this year so far. In the first four months, I rewrote not one, but three novels and entered them into at least two novel contests, and my reward? Other than the satisfaction that I pulled off my goal which takes me even closer to my bigger goal of being a novelist, I also managed to sell a short story to Descant (Canada) as a bonus.
                    --Borneo Expat Writer

* Here's an update, showing that all this has begun to pay off, after rewriting those novels again in 2011.

*Update: The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012!  In 2010, an earlier version of The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady made it to Round Two (another novel made it in 2011). 

**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.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

“Lovers and Strangers”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

The original title for “Lovers and Strangers” was “Miss Valerie”, but while trying to come up with a unifying title for the collection I came up with Lovers and Strangers since some stories were about lovers and others about strangers. I then went through each story and worked in either the word “lover” or “stranger”. For this particular story I worked in the dialogue between Glasgow and Valerie that produced the line, “Last night we made love, so we’re lovers and strangers,” thus linking it both to the story and the title of the collection.

I began the idea for the story “Lovers and Strangers” by playing ‘what-if.’ What if a Chinese woman found out that her husband was having an affair and to get back at him, she decided to have her own affair. So she set her sights on the unsuspecting writer, Jason Glasgow, an American based in Singapore. To add another level to the story I had him haunted by the suicide of a former Chinese lover, Rebecca, that he feels responsible for.

In the original version published in both Femina (India) and in the first collection, the story was told from Valerie’s point of view. When I revised it for Lovers and Strangers Revisited (Silverfish), I not only changed the title back to “Miss Valerie”, but also changed the viewpoint from Valerie to Glasgow. In doing so, I had to change the entire story from beginning to the end. I did keep a lot of the dialogue, particularly Valerie’s. Because of that, even though the viewpoint was Glasgow, someone I could identify with, the dialogue, as has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions, is very balanced. In fact, she gets all the best lines and really puts Glasgow, deservingy, in his place!

The story originally ended with Valerie being back in Penang and discovering that she was pregnant. For her this was pure delight since she’s always wanted to have a baby. It’s also the ultimate revenge on her philandering husband. But this time I wanted to push the story further. I wanted Valerie to follow in the footsteps of Rebecca, which was Glasgow’s worst fear. Then to add to that fear, he now had this baby that he didn’t want and was expected to raise.

To tie the new beginning to the new end, I played with the idea, or the imagery of a ghost. For Glasgow, when he first saw Valerie he thought he was seeing the ghost of Rebecca. Throughout the story, Valerie would tease him about this. She also vowed to come back to Singapore to “haunt” him. She even named their child, Rebecca.

The story also doubled in length and became the longest story in the collection, so I made it the final story, replacing “Mat Salleh”. I reshuffled the placement of most of the stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Then I kept the order for the MPH version but then added the two new stories to the end.

For the MPH collection, at the urging of the editor, I did change the title “Miss Valerie” back to “Lovers and Strangers”. I also spent a lot of time rewriting the new ending, showing that it did take him some time to come around to the fact that he had this daughter living in Penang. But first he needed to reconcile himself with Valerie’s death; only then was he able to contemplate shifting his future from being a confirmed bachelor to a single father.

It has been suggested by several writer friends that I could turn this story into novel by starting with Glasgow’s first love affair with Rebecca. Perhaps, in the future I will do that.

As a note, a young lady from Iran who was doing her graduate work in Malaysia, was so taken with this story, identifying closely with Miss Valerie, that she was quite upset with her death, and she insisted on talking to me about this story at lenght, so we set an appointment. This was the second time that someone really, personally, took my story to heart, a great learning experience for me about the power writers have, so it's important to get the story just right, your readers depend on it.

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

*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.

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