Saturday, December 8, 2007

Networking to a New Book

I just networked myself to a new book. OK, the idea for the book wasn’t new. It had been on the backburner for about ten years, one of those one-of-these-days-I-want-to-compile-my-articles-into-a-book-but-never-found-the-time-nor-the-inclination-to-get-around-to-it. Sound familiar? This could apply to any creative endeavor including starting your own business, or taking an exotic vacation, or…

Two things need to happen when you network. One is you have to listen. We can all talk and share our ideas with others – that’s the easy part. But how well do we listen? How well do we act upon what we hear? That’s the second part of network­ing, the most critical part, too – action. Or as Jim Rohn, the success guru for an entire generation of world class speakers and self-help motivators would say, “take massive action”. Ideas are as common as clichés about ideas, starting with “they’re a dime a dozen”. But without action, they’re just that – ideas that can sit on the back burner of your life and follow you to your grave.

A sad thought.

I didn’t want that to happen to this book, nor to all the other novels, narratives, and screenplays that I have written and rewritten over the last twenty-two years. A ton of work, but little to show for it other than a collection of short stories.

When networking with others, sometimes fate can give you a nudge. Having made the move to Sarawak in order to shake up the complacency of my writing life (and to make my wife happy), I was starting to feel restless, and found myself procrastinating on a number of writing projects. So when Krista Goon, my blog­ging men­tor, ex-student, and website designer (along with her husband Nic) sent me a link to a blog by Lydia Teh, whom I haven’t met but whose book Honk! If You’re Malaysian was climbing the best­sellers list in Malaysia, I decided to check it out.

Lydia wrote in “What Sells Books” (April 30, 2007) the three things you need to sell a book and the most important, it seems, is having a good book distributor. You can have great ideas, great publicity (even great book launches), but if the books aren’t in the stores they won’t sell (not in the quantities you’d like). Lydia’s blog was inspired by a blog that a friend of mine, Sharon Bakar, had written “What We Need” (April 29, 2007), which I also checked out. Both blogs struck a chord with me, so I wrote on Lydia’s blog a rather lengthy comment-cum-article “Publishing Books in Malaysia/Singapore” based on my twenty years of publishing experience in Malaysia. I then started my own blog on writing with the same article, something else I had been meaning to get around to.

In the article I wrote about my frustration of getting my book Lovers and Strangers Revisited into bookstores in Kuching (mainly a distribution problem because of the additional expenses for getting the books shipped to Sarawak from Peninsular Malaysia). The publisher Silverfish was willing, but its distributor who would incur the additional expenses, was not. Lydia wrote in response to my article that she felt that her publisher MPH was doing a great job of getting her books into bookstores. (The fact that they have a lot of bookstores help; but sadly, at the time of this writing, none in Kuching.)

Either way, I listened.

Two months later, at the end of July, I was attending a conference in Penang to give a creative writing workshop, and while autographing books, I heard a passing comment from one of the book distributors that MPH was opening a new bookstore in Kuching. I listened and asked for more details.

Then while standing in the food line, Lee Su Kim introduced herself. Having written three books, including the very successful Malaysian Flavours, she had nothing but praise for Eric Forbes at MPH whom she worked with at her previous publisher, I believe, and urged me to contact him.

Again, I listened.

Since I was in Penang I met up with several Penang Players friends including Mary Schneider, the columnist for The Star who mentioned that Eric Forbes expressed an interest in turning the articles from her popular column into a book, but at the time she was unsure whether or not to do this – it would require sifting through over 500 articles and organizing them into various categories, a massive amount of work.

I listened and also offered some advice. Fortunately, ten years ago I had already organized about a 100 articles into various potential categories, so I had a head start.

That evening Mary and I and a few Penang Players friends had dinner with Joelle Saint-Arnoult and the subject of The Secret came up, so we all went to her place and watched it. That really got us thinking about our lives. The possibilities seemed endless, if only we learned how to ask, how to be grateful for what we do have, and to have faith in the universe by using the Law of Attraction. I listened very carefully – my whole future was at stake!

While in Penang, I attended the Little Penang Street Market to sell the remainder of my books so I wouldn’t have to carry them back to Kuching. As fate would have it, Penang Players was involved in reading some work by Beth Yahp, who also happened to be in Penang to conduct a workshop of her own. Although we had never met, as the fiction editor of Off The Edge, she had accepted my short story “Following the Cat” for their July 2006 issue. I attended the reading along with Mary and Krista (who decided to join me at the last minute since I was in Penang). After­wards, Beth mentioned in passing that MPH is bringing out her novel Crocodile Fury, which was originally published in 1992, a year before my own collection of short stories.

Again I listened.

The following day, back in Kuching, I took action. I googled Eric Forbes, read his blog, and emailed him about the idea for this book Twenty-Two Years in Malaysia: Movie Magic, Mysterious Musings and Melodramatic Moments. Being familiar with my work, he seemed eager to see it (or maybe he was just being polite.) Suddenly I had taken this ten-year-back-burner idea and moved it to the front burner. This now required massive action on my part since half of the articles needed to be retyped (written in my pre-computer days), and the other half needed some serious editing, plus some new articles that I had meant to write a long time ago needed to be written.

Had I waited until I rewrote, reedited, rethought the placement of the articles in the various categories (and wrote the new ones, too), I may have given up on the idea, or something else may have come up – life often gets in the way of action, not to mention success. Then once again on the back burner the book would go, and for how long? Another ten years?

Instead, I forced my own hand. Having committed myself to this book (and not wanting MPH to change their minds), I put everything else aside and made the time to complete the project, which took me two months of working in the evenings and on the weekends (sorry, no TV). For my efforts, I’ll have something to show and hold onto, and it all began by networking with some writers. So thank you Krista, Lydia, Sharon, Su Kim, Mary, Beth, Eric and even Joelle for sharing The Secret. If I hadn’t listened nor taken swift action, I wouldn’t have this new book coming out.

Oh, by the way, I managed to turn this into a two-book deal, an additional idea sparked by listening to Beth. Lovers and Strangers Revisited, featuring a couple of new stories and possibly a play based on the story “Neighbors”, will be reissued in 2008 by MPH. There’s even a possibility of a third book, a novel set in Penang, which again will take some more massive action on my part to take it off the back burner and whip it into shape.

Yes, networking with other writers does pay off. But it involves more than just talking about writing. You must listen, and more importantly, you must be willing to take action – massive action – and that will necessitate some actual writing. But isn’t that what we all want? Our projects being completed? Our work being published? So start networking and put your ideas to action! That’s what I did and so can you. Just let me know when your new book comes out.
    --Borneo Expat Writer

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Don't Moan, Improvise!

“No wind, row!” barked Winston Churchill, no doubt to a group of hapless sailors bemoaning the lack of wind to fill their sails. Although I’m no sailor, I often apply this nautical advice to other facets of my life. When things don’t go according to plan, instead of moaning, I force myself to make a new plan by improvising. In other words, I do whatever I have to do to get what needs done and completed on time.

For instance, in Malaysia where I live as an expat, we occasionally have power shortages, so if I’m in the middle of writing, I’ll permit myself to groan a little, then I’ll say, “No computer, type!”

I’ll dust off my ever dependable manual typewriter and get the job done. If the typing isn’t urgent, I’ll take advantage of the down time by completing other
non-typing tasks, like editing or brain storming new ideas for articles, short stories,
screenplays or novels.

This is also the time to reorganize my writing notes, straighten out my files, update my non-computer records, and clear away everything that has been accumulating on my desk, so when the power – and especially my computer – is back on, I’m raring to go with a clear mind and an uncluttered office.

Then on those days when I have errands to run and my car refuses to cooperate, which happens a lot with my less-than-trusty old car, I’ll boldly announce, “No car, walk!”

By walking, I still get to my destination and pick up some much needed exercise in the process. If the distance is too far, as is often the case, I’ll take a bus or a taxi, or – if I feel truly inspired – I’ll ride my bicycle. I just do what I have to do to get wherever I have to go. Instead of complaining that I have no car and use that as an excuse, I get on with my life.

To make sure that I get to my destination or to my appointment on time, I’ll leave early to allow for delays, and will often bring along an umbrella in case of rain as well as a book or a magazine to read while waiting for the bus or taxi.

Every now and then when I go to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, I’ll make my rounds visiting magazine editors and publishers, and if I can’t make an appoint­ment ahead of time because the editor is out or if I just happened to be in the area, I’ll stop in and present myself and my work. If the person I want to see is busy, which is usually the case, and if coming back later or the next day is inconvenient or impossible, I’ll tell myself, “No appointment, wait!”

While waiting, I’ll browse through the publishers’ latest publications, go over my manuscripts, and rehearse my selling pitch – for articles, short stories, or a book proposal.

Invariably I get to meet the person whom I came to see, even if it’s only for a few minutes while they are rushing out of the building to make their own appoint­ments. More importantly I’ve put a face behind my words and have established contact, which later will lead to sales.

Now that I’m teaching writing full time and freelancing part time, I have these days, weeks, months, when there’s just not enough time to complete all of my tasks, so I think back to a time management seminar I once attended and say to myself, “No time, make time!”

So I’ll get up an hour earlier, shorten my lunch hour, cut out unnecessary breaks, limit phone calls, cut short e-mails, avoid idle chatter with colleagues, leave the TV off, and just try to work more efficiently both at work and at home.

Then during those intense periods of my life when I feel that all I ever do is work, I’ll use my final battle cry, “No life, get one!”

So I’ll go to a movie, play tennis, visit a beach, read a novel or just play with my son who’s always so full of life.

Now whenever I find myself in the middle of the sea of life and there’s no wind, I rarely moan or shrug my shoulders in defeat and say, “What to do?” I just do my best Winston Churchill imitation and get on with my life and gain a little life in the process.

                        --Borneo Expat Writer

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mottos to Live and Write By

As a writer I try to keep myself motivated. But it’s not easy when you’re working all alone and the only one around to talk to is the cat. So I resort to mottos – mottos haphazardly scrawled and strategically placed around my office.

Over the years, as my moods have changed, new mottos have replaced the old. Others have faded beyond readability, or have fallen behind my desk. The majority of my mottos are inspirational, like, IF YOU THINK YOU CAN, YOU CAN. This one got me into writing, and, hopefully, will keep me there.

Others are simple and direct, like, COURAGE! which I need to get through a tough chapter or a particularly trying day. Or CHUTZPAH – you got nothing to lose, so go for it!

Some mottos are downright desperate: STAY ORGANIZED OR DIE! Organi­zation has been a BIG problem.

Here’s a motto I borrowed from my management days: PLAN YOUR WORK AND WORK YOUR PLAN. FAILING TO PLAN MEANS YOU’RE PLANNING TO FAIL. This applies to most human endeavors, including my own – writing a novel.

Some mottos are nothing more than reminders: ENJOY LIFE ALONG THE WAY. Sort of like, “Stop and smell the roses,” which I don’t do often enough, especially when I’m in the midst of a lengthy novel that’s taking me forever.

Or, DON’T LET THE DISAPPOINTMENTS OVERRIDE THE SURPRISES. Too often I let minor setbacks, like a rejection slip, color my day and I forget all about the encouraging notes at the bottom of those same rejections, or a letter from a long lost friend praising my latest short story, thus giving me hope.

Other mottos are subtle: WINNERS FIGHT FOR THEIR DREAMS, LOSERS SURRENDER. My dream is to write a good novel (who wants to write a bad one?) which is why I left my regional manager position at Kinko’s and moved to Malaysia.

OTHERS HAVE DONE IT, SO CAN YOU: All novelists, I like to remind myself, even the famous ones, were at one time struggling, unknown writers. Another motto is for encouragement: FOCUS ON THE POSSIBILITIES AND NOT THE REALITIES, REALITIES CAN CHANGE.

For example, there’s a possibility that my novel will get accepted soon and published in the near future. (So long as I keep improving it and sending it out.) The reality is that the odds are over­whelmingly against it, so why bother? That reality can change quickly, if the agent who’s reading my novel (and my screenplays) decides to take me on as a client, this will increase my chances significantly.

Other mottos are purely motivational: DON’T WAIT FOR THINGS TO HAPPEN, MAKE THEM HAPPEN. I can sit around and dream all I want but the novel won’t get written (or rewritten) unless I work on it.

ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE TO SUCCEED: Write the best you can and keep at it – pure and simple.

WANT IT BAD ENOUGH! Be willing to work harder and smarter at writing than everyone else. Sort of like, “Go that extra mile.” Isn’t that what great writers, past and present, do?

And DON’T LET THE SIDESHOWS DISTRACT YOU FROM THE MAIN EVENT. It’s easy to get distracted along the way – temptations are everywhere and time is limited. Emails and surfing the Internet are fun but if you have “no time” to write, where are your priorities? So, as a reminder, I post my latest motto right on my computer: EMAIL OR NOVEL – YOUR CHOICE!

This leads me to my biggest motto: YOU ONLY FAIL WHEN YOU STOP TRYING (including failing to get around to it), SO NEVER GIVE UP!

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Friday, August 31, 2007

Writing in Restaurants and Other Odd Locations

“I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde once said, “one should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Or in a plane, I hasten to add. Nor do I travel without writing paper.

“Excuse me, are you a writer?” asked a Singapore waiter hovering over my table, my pages spilled everywhere.

“How did you know?”

“There’s no place to put your food!”

When I’m on the road, writing in restaurants and other odd locations is one of my many bad habits. Maybe it’s the long wait for the food, or the bill, or for the weather outside to change. Once while having lunch in Dubrovnik, it was still raining outside, so I shoved the dishes aside and wrote a sunny article about that centuries-old city. By the time I was done, it was time for dinner, so I flagged over the waiter who hours earlier had stopped asking me if I wanted anything else. Instead of paying the bill, I asked to see the menu.

In Jerusalem, while having lunch at the home of an American friend, she and her Israeli boy­friend had a tiff. Not wanting this quarrel to turn into an ugly threesome, I steered clear of the personal laundry they were airing by writing a funny story at their kitchen table. I tried not to let their shouting interrupt the fun I was having, though ­­I did keep an eye out for flying objects.

I’ll be the first to admit that when consumed with writing, hardly anything can deter me; I can be quite unsociable, too. For example, if the airline passen­ger next to me asks, “What are you writing?” I’m liable to reply, “See this pen? If you disturb me again I’ll turn you into a character that jumps out of a plane with­out a parachute.”

Of course I’ve never had to resort to violence, nor am I a violent person by nature. Yet once while in Penang, Malaysia, writing a lengthy letter to a friend between sips of shredded chicken soup, I noticed that this Chinese woman was not only watching me write but also glaring at me as if I were eating her soup. She came over to my table and demanded to know if I was writing about her.

“No,” I said, smiled politely, and went back to my letter. When she refused to budge, I wrote to my friend about the psychotic woman standing inches from me, praying that she didn’t have a fork behind her back, let alone a chop stick. I had just finished my soup when she grabbed my letter and ran out of the restaurant.

“Hey!” I shouted, and ran after her. The waiter then ran after me, no doubt thinking this was a clever ruse to avoid paying for my meal. So did several passers-by, amused by the sight of a wild-eyed Chinese woman running with a letter, a frantic tourist chasing her with a soup spoon, and a Malay waiter waving a bill.

By the time I caught up with her, a sizable crowd had encircled us. As I tried to explain what was going on, the woman, in an effort to conceal the evidence, stuffed it down her blouse. Since I dared not tread in no-man’s land in public, I appealed to others to intervene. After much prompting, the mad woman finally produced the letter, and then promptly tore it up.

Since I was on page four, I wasn’t about to start all over again, so I pieced it together, taped it up, and added a few lines to explain why the letter was crumpled, torn, taped, and wreaked of stale perfume. Naturally I wrote about the whole episode in my journal for some future sensational reading. Oscar Wilde would’ve been proud.

                         -- Borneo Expat Writer

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lovers and Strangers Revisited, Silverfish cover

* As a footnote, when I posted the top cover it was supposed to be with the following article, Never Judge a Book by It's Cover.  As an update, I switched publishers to MPH and got a new cover.  The book also went on to win an award.  And now it's coming out in French.

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Never Judge a Book by Its...Title

Ok, I admit it, I googled myself. Shameful, I know. I caught myself in a weak moment. Curiosity got the better of me. To be honest I googled not just me but also my book, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, a collection of short stories set in Malaysia. I wanted to see if it was creating any kind of buzz, even if it was merely a single bee.

Then a blog entry caught my eye and caught me by surprise, too – so that’s what people are thinking about my book! A Malay student at Universiti Sains Malaysia, whom I don’t know, wrote about her conversation with another Malay woman who worked at the USM bookstore about my book. By the way, isn’t Internet a wonder­ful way to eavesdrop on private thoughts made public?

I won’t mention the student’s name or her blog to protect her privacy, although by the fact that she wrote it in a blog instead of in her diary, she was hardly keeping it private. To make it easier to follow (and less confusing, and to help distinguish between the two speakers), I separated the lines and added quotation marks. The teacher in me also cleaned up some minor grammar mistakes, though I left in a few “u” for you.

A year ago (how was I to know?), the student posted in her blog: I just bought a storybook after 4 years of buying and photocopying chemistry books! Thanks to [my friend], who succeeded in influencing me lately to read more books. We need to brush up our English! Her influence really hit me hard on my brain. It's true. I have not touched any fiction or nonfiction books for a VERY LONG TIME. At last, on the 17 of March at 1.15 pm, I went to USM's bookshop to buy a storybook entitled Lovers and Strangers Revisited written by Robert Raymer, a lecturer in my [university] teaching Creative Writing.

I went to the counter to pay for the book and the cashier suddenly looked at me with a blunt look on her face.

“Who recommended this book?”‌ she said to me, her right hand holding my book.

I looked back at her with a blur curved smile on my face. “A friend of mine. She just bought that book yesterday. I found it really interesting...”

And then she got a little bit excited, and we started a short conversation as she seemed to be so deadly interested about the book. Actually, I've never talked to her before cause she looked a bit serious most of the time.

“What do u think of the title? Do u feel uncomfortable when u look at the title?”
I didn't get the idea of her asking me like that.

“Don't u feel a bit shy (or ashamed) to buy this book when u looked at the title?”‌

I looked at her with my sleepy eyes and said, “Why, it’s just a book.” (Small grin again)

“Yeah that's right!” she said. “I answered the same thing too to some customers who felt uncomfortable to buy this book cause of the title.”‌

In my heart, I never knew some people are like that! It’s just a book...‌.

Then she continued, “Yeah…the contents are more important than the title, right?”

“Yeah, right! Anyway, the title doesn't reflect the cover of the book. Unless the cover is ... you know. It just didn't make any sense why these people felt uncomfortable about it. ‌ A sketch of [the KL railroad station] is the cover illustration which is so dull.
“I just read half of it,” ‌she said with a friendly smile.

“I just read ‘On Fridays’. It was really interesting and I bought this book to read his other stories.”

“I like ‘On Fridays!’” Now she sounded more excited than before. It makes me feel like I was there! Her eyes glowed with excitement.

And me? Yeah me, too. “I think it's worth to buy.” ‌

I smiled at her as she handed the book and walked out from the bookstore as she was saying salam to me. I walked hurriedly to my hostel as I was hungry and I got a class at three. In my heart I was really happy, not because of the book but my conversation with that cashier.
                                                               *  *  *

After reading this blog entry, I had to smile, too – so that's why the book wasn't selling well at USM bookstore! People were too embarrassed by the title. Sounds like others would stare or glare at them for even picking up the book (let a lone trying to buy it!), as if to say, "How dare you read something like that! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?"

But as the blogger had pointed out, wasn’t the cover a giveaway? A boring railway station – no hint of scandal or bad taste there! I chose the railway station because one of the short stories is set there, “The Station Hotel”. (Ok, the main character was having an affair.)

When I chose the original title back in 1993, I was trying to find a way to tie in all of the stories; some of the stories were about lovers and other stories about strangers, so I chose Lovers and Strangers, after the title of one of the stories. Later, while hawking the book at two book fairs – KL and Singapore – I suspected that I chose the wrong title. Men would see the title and dismiss it as “romance”.

Several stories, I admit, are about affairs. But other stories are not. “Symmetry”, for example, is about a little girl finding a dead cockroach in someone’s empty glass of tea. “The Watcher” is about an elder Chinese man rediscovering life through his great grandson. Even the story that the two women liked, “On Fridays” is about a man feeling lonely after sitting beside a Malay woman in a share taxi, but nothing happens – they never meet. This story, by the way, has been published nine times in six countries including France and USA.

Now the title of the heavily revised collection is Lovers and Strangers Revisited, and the story “Neighbours” due to be published in the US in 2007, has even been chosen by the Ministry of Education to be taught in SPM literature in 2008. Obviously they didn’t let the title of the collection bother them. Nor did they judge the book by its cover – nor should we. Covers can influence you to pick it up and browse through it – that's the whole idea.

Also, we should never judge a book by the controversy surrounding it. Read the book for yourself, or at the very least skim through it to see what the fuss is about. Most people who make alarming statements about a particular book or about its author haven’t even bothered to glance through the book, let alone read it! They just jump on the not-so-literary bandwagon and let their emotions carry them away.

As for me, I greatly appreciate the fact that this student – after years of not buying any fiction – decided to buy my book. I feel honored. I also liked the fact that she had this semi-literary conversation with this other woman about the book, and they both liked the story “On Fridays”. If only more Malaysians would read and discuss books! But there is hope, judging from this blog, and other bloggers out there discussing the books they’ve been reading. I’m also glad that my book was able to bring these two ladies together. And to have them depart as friends, with smiles on their faces. What more can a writer ask for – other than being at the top of the bestseller’s list? Still, this blog entry made my day. Perhaps I should google myself more often, or at least my book, to see if anyone else is buzzing…

* As an update, when I switched publishers to MPH I got a new cover.  The book also went on to win an award.  And now it's coming out in French.

** A revised version of the above article found it's way into Tropical Affairs.

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Neighbors, A Suicide, and Making Choices or How to Turn Your Story into the Right Story

I learned firsthand when my neighbor committed suicide (the neighbor who inspired my short story “Neighbours” that featured the gossip Mrs. Koh (“Are You Mrs. Koh?”):  When someone dies, people will ask how did they die?  When someone commits suicide, people will tell you why they died… 

After discovering an unpleasant mess with my old website that sent all of my blog links to the story astray (to put it mildly), I re-posted the story and re-linked it to various blogs going back ten years…. While doing so, I got to thinking about “Neighbours”, why I wrote it and why I chose to focus on that aspect of the story and not the whole story.  I first touched upon this in an old blog (later published in Tropical Affairs) that I wrote soon after “Neighbors” (using the American spelling) had been accepted for publication in the American literary journal Thema — twenty years after I first wrote the story for a Malaysian contest. The story, from Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was then taught for six years (2008-2014) in SPM literature and in various private colleges and universities throughout Malaysia, and translated into French along with the rest of the collection.
Writing, I used to tell my students, is about making choices.  If you choose wisely you might surprise yourself with the story you end up with.  For example in “Neighbors”, I could’ve written a nonfiction narrative or a different story starting with my hearing some groans coming from my neighbor’s house, two doors away.  When I investigated, I found an elderly Chinese man lying helpless on the couch.  His door was locked, yet in between moaning he managed to tell me that the keys were by the sink, which I was able to obtain by reaching through the grille at the kitchen window.  With the help of another Chinese neighbor (whose wife was pregnant and very upset that he was getting involved), we took him to the General Hospital.

I could’ve written about the hospital’s reaction to me, a young white man attending to this elderly Chinese man who was dying, their giving me strange looks as I wrote in my journal, trying to get all the details and my impressions while they were still fresh — the writer part of me at work; and then my anger at the doctors and nurses who seemed indifferent about my neighbor’s plight.  He was dying and no one wanted to help!

Since the doctors didn’t know what poison he had taken, I volunteered to go back to his house. Although I often chatted with this neighbor across the gate or his fence, I had never ventured inside his house.  I could’ve written about the eerie feeling I had wandering inside this empty house where a man had just tried to kill himself.  Upstairs I located two glasses of beer and some green liquid, which I took to the hospital.

Since this was in the mid-80s before CSI, the doctors wanted me to go back to the house once more to find out what the green stuff was.  So back I went and eventually found, hidden behind a partition, a bottle of the weed killer, Paraquat. By then there was nothing the doctors could do, so I stayed with this man for several hours at the hospital, while we tried, without success, to contact his family.  I didn’t want him to die alone like another expat that I wrote about who had died alone in a faraway land.

I could’ve written about my attending the three-day Chinese (Teochew) funeral held outside their house, which was very lively and noisy and attracted a lot of attention from the other Chinese neighbors.  When it was over, I was invited back to the house and given a gift, a token of appreciation for what I had done for this family.

The family, however, refused to live in the house anymore because of this suicide.  Months later, another family had moved in, but they kept hearing mysterious noises — like someone walking around upstairs in the master bedroom — and it was scaring the children.  The family didn’t know about the suicide until after they had decided to leave.  Malaysians, particularly the Chinese, take ghosts and spirits very seriously.

None of this mattered to the story that I wanted to write.  For me the story began when I returned from the hospital to the man’s house and found several neighbors gossiping.

I was fascinated by all of the comments the neighbors made, the wild speculations about the family and why the man had taken his life.  Some of the things they had said were mean and spiteful.  Later, when the man’s wife and daughter returned home, the neighbors quickly dispersed; they refused to inform them about the man’s death.  Even though I was the newest neighbor and an expat, I had to bear the bad tidings alone.

This was the story that fascinated me.  The story I wanted to tell was not a first person narrative of my finding this man and all that took place that day (although I could still write about it since it’s in my journal as either non-fiction or incorporate it into another story or as part of a novel — it’s all there to be used, grist for the mill as writers often say). 

Instead, I chose to write about the neighbors them­selves and what they said about this family in the aftermath of the suicide.  In fact ‘Aftermath’ was the original title when it was first published in Singapore and Australia and in Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia, 1993).  Again thanks to my journal, all the details were there, still fresh, including those that had completely slipped my memory after several years had already passed, one of the reasons I urged my writing students to keep a diary/journal.

Another choice I made was to leave me, as a character, out of the story.  I felt it would be better without a Westerner or a mat salleh in it.  I wanted the dialogue to be natural, spontaneous, and an expat present would alter the dynamics of the group, including the dialogue.  Also I wanted to shift the sympathy to this man and his family — even after hearing many bad things about them.  

I purposely wrote the story in a neutral tone with the viewpoint of an observer, to avoid racial bias, so no one race in this multi-racial society is talking down to another. Yet, at the same time, all Malaysians should be able to identify with these characters.  They could be your very own neighbor or a relative, hopefully distant....I wanted to make the story universal, so readers around the world could relate to the characters and also learn about Malaysia, where different races freely mix and socialize, and yes, gossip.

When writing your story, whether it is based on a true dramatic incident or nor, or whether it is fiction or nonfiction, ask yourself, do you want to write the whole story or just one aspect of that story?  Consider your choices carefully.  I did and thirty years later the story keeps paying off in unforeseen ways.

Then again, it is always hard to keep a good story down, especially when it involves a suicide and neighbors gossiping.  At times, we all love a good gossip.  Just ask Mrs. Koh.
                                                            #  #  #

Later I had blogged about the significant changes that I made in *“Neighbours” that led to its initial publication, and the subsequent revisions for publications overseas and in various book form (three publishers and a French translation), which I noted in the series The Story Behind the Storyused by teachers as an aide for their students.  MELTA (Malaysia English Language Teaching Association) had even created an on-line discus­sion for “Neighbours” for students and teachers on their literature forum, which had over 20,500 hits and 30 pages of comments about the story and Mrs. Koh before it was archived and later take down.

*The link to the short story “Neighbours”  is the revised version, written in the present tense, after the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited came out.

         —Borneo Expat Writer

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Saturday, May 19, 2007

SPM Literature in English Texts for 2008-2014

SPM Literature Text (6th cycle)

SPM 2008-1014: Titles for study Poems
Theme: Relationships
1.Tonight I Can Write - Pablo Neruda
2. Ways of Love - Chung Yee Chong
3. A Prayer for My Daughter - Yeats
4. The Way Things Are - Roger McGough
5. For My Old Amah - Wong Phui Nam
6. How Do I Love Thee? - Elizabeth Barret Browning

Theme: Perception of Life
1. Birches- Robert Frost
2. I Am - John Clare
3. This Is A Photograph of Me - Margaret Atwood
4. Waiting to Go On - Hugo Williams
5. Daring Tears - Craig Romkema
6.The Traveller - Muhammad hj Salleh

Theme: Conflicts
1. Dulce et Decorum Est- Wilfred Owen
2. The Man He Killed - Thomas Hardy
3. Death of A Rainforest - Cecil Rajendra
4. The War Against Trees - Stanley Kunitz
5. A Quarrel Between Day and Night - Omar Mohd Noor
6. "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together "- Shakespeare

Short Stories
1. Naukar - Anya Sitaram
2. Cinderella Girl - Vivien Alcock
3. The Landlady - Roald Dahl
4. Neighbours - Robert Raymer  (link to story)
5. Harrison Bergeron - Kurt Vonnegut Jr

1. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
2. Fasting, Feasting - Anita Desai
3. Holes - Louis Sachar

1. Julius Caesar - Shakespeare
2. The Lion and the Jewel - Wole Soyinka
3. An Inspector Calls - JB Priestly

*Update:  The 6th cycle has been extended through 2014!

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

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Publishing Books in Malaysia and Singapore-Updated (2007-2017)

UPDATE: I originally wrote this as a comment for Lydia Teh’s blog about book publishing in Malaysia back in 2007.  Then I used it to start my own blog.  Since I still keep getting hits on a regular basis and had planned to link to an upcoming interview with a Malaysian writer publishing in Singapore, I thought I should update it.  It’s been ten years!

Yesterday, I was visiting bookstores in Kuching in order to convince them to stock my book, Lovers and Strangers Revisited (Silverfishbooks 2006), since tomorrow 20 May 2007, there will be a profile of me and a review of my book in The Borneo Post. I was told by both Times and Popular Bookstores that the KL office does the ordering for them, so they faxed a copy of my NST review (16 April 2006) with some cryptic notes from me, which I followed up today with a lengthy email to lobby my books into their Kuching stores (hopefully all over Sarawak and Sabah).

Having the interview/review coming out boosted my confidence and gave me credibility since I wasn’t known in Kuching, having recently moved here from Penang, as did the fact that “Neigh­bours”, one of my short stories from the collection, had been selected by the Ministry of Educa­tion to be taught in 2008 SPM Literature, thus guaranteeing a lot of interest among teachers and students.  Plus they will be discussing my story on an online forum on the MELTA website.

UPDATE: MELTA had over 20,500 hits and 276 comments on my story alone before it was archived and later removed. And “Neighbours” was taught from 2008-2014!  Denis Harry had written an article for New Straits Times about my character Mrs. Koh, who has become this stereotype for a busybody neighbor in Malaysia, “Are you Mrs.Koh?”

My Malaysian publisher Silverfishbooks had told me that their Singapore distributor was making excuses about sending my books to Sarawak because of the shipping costs.  For a publi­sher, having a good distributor is imperative or your books won’t be placed in bookstores.  Even getting the books into the stores in Penang (where I lived for twenty years) and on campus at USM (where I taught for ten years), took some arm-twisting and follow-ups on my behalf.  Now I have to start all over again in Kuching.  Hope­fully something will come of the contacts I made yesterday, the emails I wrote today, and phone calls I’ll be making on Monday.

One bookstore did agree to take 25 books on consignment basis.  The problem seemed to be the shipping costs between East and West Malaysia, making the books less profitable for the dis­tri­butor and the publisher, so I agreed to use my own stock and cut a deal with the bookstore. The owner re­quested that his bookstore be men­tioned in the review tomorrow to direct customers his way, which the Borneo Post reporter, who had interviewed me, arranged.  She had even approached the book­store on my behalf (bless her heart!).  I merely sealed the deal with a phone call and delivered the books so I would finally have some books in Kuching before the profile/interview hits.

Timing is everything.  Just wished they were in all of the stores throughout Sarawak and Sabah!

Previously, the original version of my book was published by Heinemann Asia in Singapore back in 1993. 75 copies of my book were sold by a Times Bookstore in Penang—a lot for local fiction.  So when I asked them to restock the book, the manager said no. He said their policy was not to stock second editions except their own (Times Editions) books. I looked at him as if he had a hole in his head. They sold 75 copies!  I was in the store regularly to buy books and to browse and would guide customers his way.  I even held a successful auto­graph signing in his store.  But he refused to make an exception—that was Times Editions policy back in 1993!

Lydia Teh, whom I later wrote the short story “Merdeka Miracle” with (along with Tunku Halim) for Going Places, said that MPH published her third book and she was real happy with them (later her book won the Popular Reader’s Choice Award).  MPH has a good working relationship with MPH Book­stores (not officially related) and they have stores all over Malaysia (but not in Sarawak).  MPH books seem to get good media coverage, good in-store promo­tions, and nice listing in MPH magazine. 

UPDATE:  MPH Bookstore did come to Sarawak and did a great job promoting my book when I later switched publishers to MPH with Silverfishbooks’ blessing since they ran out of stock (and still couldn’t get my books in Sarawak).  I even gave a talk in their store...for three of my books.

Still my big concern about switching publishers…will the books get out of Malaysia/Singa­pore market, a lament I’ve had since my first experience in Singapore.  At least Silverfishbooks has a web­site where you can order my books (with free shipping all over Malaysia including Sarawak and Sabah) and an online news­letter.  But so far, most (if not all) publishers in Malaysia and Singa­pore only sell here; although some, past and present, have tried to make inroads into the UK/US markets.

UPDATE: Websites, online access, and the e-book market has changed that somewhat. Technically anyone around the world can order your book/e-book from your publisher’s website, but in reality they mostly shop at Amazon and other large forums so if your books aren’t there….Some Malaysian and Singapore publishers have recently opened offices in the UK and that’s exciting news for local writers. 

A good place to find a publisher is to browse the Local or Asian fiction section.  I used to jot down unfamiliar or new publishers and then check them out at book fairs in KL and Sing­a­pore, picking up their catalogues, even visiting their offices.  Now it’s much easier via the internet.  Publishers, some promising ones, still come and go, and self-publishing your books has become somewhat ‘acceptable’ but the quality will depend largely on you and who you hire to edit your books—believe me poor or no editing really shows and it’s cringe worthy!  Then there is the problem of getting your books into bookstores and into the hands of potential readers…

Some of these so-called publishers have become aggressive, even contacting unsuspecting writers on their bogs, praising their writing style, convincing them to publish with them and then slapping them with a bank-breaking fee.  Hey, they’re in it for the upfront money!  Oh, you didn’t read the small print?  Sorry-lah, but you still have to pay!  An editing client of mine, despite my objections, found this out the hard way; she was con­vinced it was legit—a mainstream publisher—and had to cough up RM19,000!  She wasn’t so naïve the second time around and followed my advice and took her non-fiction book to MPH.

So beware, investigate, and Google for complaints—they are out there!  Know what you are signing up for!  Also crowdfunding your book has become a safe win-win trend for writers and publishers.  London-based Malaysian author Ivy Ngeow, whom I recently interviewed, crowdfunded a novel in the UK and talked about the pros and cons.

As authors, whether in Malaysia or Singapore, we have to promote our books any way that we can—through websites, blogs, readings, and networking with other writers. Last year, I practical­ly sold more books on my own through a book launch, creative writing workshops, and eager students that I taught, than I did in book­stores and online orders.

For book launches, by the way, you don’t just have one and expect everyone to show up to buy your book. You got to turn it into an event.  Last year in Penang, I asked Penang Players to help (I used to stage manage their plays) and they agreed to sponsor the launch, read excerpts from four short stories, and gave an animated reading of my play, “One Drink Too Many” a comedy that I wrote based on the story, “Neighbours”.  Still I was told I’d be lucky to have 30 people show up.  We had over 100!  But that took a lot of emailing, publicity, a great full page review in the NST mentioning the launch, and turning the launch into an “event” where people talked about attending in advance and brought along friends and enjoyed themselves.  Penang Players were a huge help and very entertaining!

But first, you have to write a book that people want to buy (and hopefully read), then do some homework in Malaysia/Singapore to see who is the best publisher for you and make sure they have a good distributor or your friends will complain, “I went all the way over to so-and-so bookstore to buy your book and they didn’t have it!” Then court the media.  In 2006, New Straits Times did a full page review with color and my photo, so did The Expat Magazine.  Plus I had a few online reviews.  I was grateful for all of them. 

UPDATE:  If someone asks you for an interview, take it seriously.  Don’t be flippant and risk turn­ing away potential readers.  Answering well thought out interview questions in advance or via email takes a lot of time, but the payoff can be huge, especially if others share that on Facebook and Twitter, which could lead to other interviews.  Respect the interviewer’s time and be courteous and grateful.  They could’ve easily interviewed some­one else instead of you. 

The Star, unfortunately, did not review the Silverfishbooks version, even though Silverfishbooks and I had sent them books in KL and I sent them books in Penang.  I also met with Star reporters (including a former student) and a friend who does book reviews for The Star who initially said yes, that she would review the book, but she was already overcommitted and the timing was bad for her, so I forgave her.

UPDATE: This was before Silverfishbooks began to earn nominations for some major awards in Malaysia and overseas.  Their short stories have appeared in anthologies and one of mine was even picked up to be used in a Cambridge Exam that paid quite nicely—thanks to Silverfishbooks.

But I’m not giving up on The Star. I will be contacting them again as soon as The Borneo Post comes out…It’s all about persistence and believing in your work.  So far the individual stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited have been published 54 times in nine countries, four of the stories have been taught in four universities in Malaysia.  Plus “Neighbours” will be taught all over the country.

UPDATE:  The seventeen individual stories from LSR have been published 80 times in 12 countries, taught in several Malaysian universities, private colleges and in secondary school literature, and also in Canada.  Two stories have been taught at Ohio University (USA) and students from Ohio University traveled to Malaysia to film one of the stories, “Home for Hari Raya”.  (For the MPH version, to help to promote the book, I wrote a blog series The Story Behind the Story that was taught along with the story itself.)

So it’s a bit frustrating that I’m having such a hard time in Kuching getting bookstores to stock my book that only came out last year!  Hopefully tomorrow when my interview/review comes out, all that will change.  I have to remain optimistic, and then build on that momentum for Sara­wak, if not all of Malaysia.  Maybe next time, instead of short stories, I’ll write on some­thing controversial, with a lot of sex and mayhem, so the media will jump all over it. Of course, that could backfire and get my book banned.  At least I could say, if only the book hadn’t gotten banned, it would have been on all of the bestsellers’ lists in Malaysia and Singapore!


UPDATE:  Later, thanks to Lee Su Kim whom I met at conference in Penang, I networked myself into a two-book deal with MPH, and the MPH version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited (with two stories added) was not only reviewed in The Star, but also won the 2009 Popular-The Star Reader’s Choice Award.  In 2011, it was translated into French.  So persistence does pay off! Never give up on your stories or your novel.  Just find another way.  I had to do that when I moved to Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

    —Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

My interviews with other first novelists, also about publishing in Malaysia and Sarawak

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day, finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009.

Chuah Guat Eng, author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I