Ok, I admit when I first heard that there was another American writer in Kuching, I thought, well that’s going to be confusing! “Hey, have you met that American in Borneo? In Sarawak? In Kuching? You know, the writer? The one that just published a book?” I’m sure he feels the same way about me.
Shortly after Tom McLaughlin contacted me via my website, I saw his book, Borneo Tom at the airport in Miri. I also checked out his website and read quite a few of his blog postings. Right away, I liked what Tom did. From the outset he made up his mind to bypass the typical agent/traditional publisher route that could drag out for years (and never have a book); instead he self-published his blog series about his life and adventures since moving to Borneo and crafted it into a rather nice book.
First, he invested in setting up a professional website, hired an American publicist. He found his own editor (before he knew me) and also an illustrator. He knows success will take time, but he is laying down a good foundation. More importantly, he got his book, full of fun illustrations, into the marketplace fast. He is not only working with book distributors to get his books into bookstores throughout Malaysia and beyond, but also takes orders from his website and even offers free gifts as enticement.
After agreeing to meet, I suggested that we exchange books, which we did in October/November 2010 at his place by the river front. Although at the time Tropical Affairs was my latest book, I thought he would appreciate Lovers and Strangers Revisited, since he had recently married. I directed him to the story “Mat Salleh”.
Then we met again when Han, a poet from KL, came to town in January 2011, hoping to meet some other writers, and again in February. This is turning into a monthly affair.
Since Tom and I are approaching publishing from different angles (I’m publishing and writing mostly fiction and recently began earnestly seeking the services of an agent to bring my work, my novels into larger markets), we can learn from each other to see what works, what brings in the desired results. The publishing industry has changed so much in the last two years, bringing more challenges to writers, but also more opportunities (e-books/e-publishing). The more we discuss and keep abreast of these changes, particularly the opportunities that are now available to us (even though we’re based on the other side of the planet in Borneo of all places), the better we can position ourselves, our writing, our books, our marketing efforts. More importantly, we can bolster our confidence and nudge one another to try new things and keep focused on our writing goals.
Although Borneo, in terms of the publishing world of USA/UK, is a bit off the map, other American writers do occasionally pass through the region. For example last year, after a couple of near misses, I finally met with Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, author of The Sultan and the Mermaid for my first author exchange of books with a fellow American in Borneo as a way of introduction, a tradition I wouldn’t mind keeping up. In addition to publishing several other books, including a novel, Paul and Tom have two things in common, both are former Peace Corps volunteers in Sarawak and both have a passion for Alfred Russel Wallace.
After reading what both have written of Wallace in their respective books, I’m now intrigued. I had been meaning to read The Malay Archipelago when I first discovered it 25 years ago in the small bookstore that used to be just to the right of the entrance of The E & O Hotel in Penang before it was renovated. I spent an awful lot of time in that bookstore (dreaming of my own books) and even mentioned it in my yet-to-be published novel The Expatriate’s Choice (several major chapters are set inside the hotel, including the climax.)
The edition I finally bought last week wasn’t the Oxford University Press that I was seeking, but a Stanfords Travel Classics (Beaufoy Books), with an introduction by the Earl of Cranbrook, who I also, coincidentally, just missed in Kuching in 2009. We had spoken twice on the phone but somehow the date of his flight got miss-communicated and conflicted with a night class that I was teaching. Not long afterwards, I did finally get to see him, via the documentary The Airmen and the Headhunters, a fascinating account of the rescue mission of several American airmen shot down in Borneo during WWII.
Americans (and no doubt American writers) have been coming to Borneo for years. One of the first, Charles Lee Moses, even owned what is today Sabah, north of Sarawak. In 1865, Moses, the United States Consul to Brunei, obtained a 10-year lease for the territory of North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei. However, the post-Civil War United States wanted nothing to do with Asian colonies, so Moses sold his rights to the Hong Kong-based American Trading Company of Borneo, who eventually sold it to the North Borneo Chartered Company.
So for now, Tom and I just happen to be two American authors based in Borneo, though I have a feeling there are a few others out there in other parts of Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei or the Indonesian side, Kalimantan. I do know several American writers used to live here. Some have contacted me via my blog or my website. If you're an American writer passing through Kuching, bring a copy of your book along so we can exchange them.