Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tropical Affairs: Dying Alone in a Far Away Land

-imagine an expat living in this house until he died days before I took this photo

-yes, this is the same place, turning something decrepit into something new: Ferringhi Walk

Let this be a symbol of how we can transform ourselves from what we have been up until the end of 2009, even those with seemingly no hope in sight, and, by using the same basic foundation of our lives yet with a new cosmetic outlook (happier, positive thinking attitude)imagine what we can be for 2010!

All the best! Happy New Year!!

Whenever I see an abandoned house in Malaysia, I often wonder if the former occupant was an expat like me, and did he die alone? Was he forgotten? This is a fear that many expats have – dying alone in some far-flung country. But then I met a man who did just that ten years ago: Bill McVeigh.

When he was alive, thousands of tourists would walk past his house in Batu Ferringhi without even knowing they were walking past a house. Even if they looked beyond the stalls offering souvenirs and fake watches, they would be hard pressed to make out a house sequestered behind a wall of trees and shrubbery (on all sides) that sealed off Bill McVeigh from the rest of the world.

On several occasions, I had heard about McVeigh, this modern-day recluse and his mélange of exotic animals, including otters, golden gibbons, and a hornbill, who lived in direct defiance to the hotels that had squeezed in around him. It was said that when he took walks along the beach, his two otters would follow him. When a friend of ours was visiting from Holland, she bumped into him. I knew I had to seek him out and meet him for myself.

Although his house was next to the Casuarina Hotel, finding an entrance among the shrubbery was difficult, so I went around back and eventually found an opening. The house was the size of a small cottage and looked unlivable – doors were off their hinges, windows were broken, and large parts of the roof had collapsed inside. Debris lay everywhere inside. Yet as I glimpsed through the broken bars of two moon windows, a semblance of a home emerged – scattered furniture, framed pictures, and book¬shelves full of books and magazines. I knocked on the front door and called out, “Hello?”

Drawn to a large cage with a beautiful golden gibbon, I ventured around to have a look. The double doors to the servants’ portion of the house were missing. Thinking there had to be a beach access, I circled around to the other side, where there were more cages, although each was empty. Feeling uncomfortable at trespassing, I made my way to the back gate, past an old donation box for tourists who wished to view his animals.

While walking along the beach, I saw a scruffy westerner with a fisherman’s air about him. His white beard was short and patchy and his top teeth were missing save for a few stumps, as if someone had bashed them in; his lower teeth were intact. He was walking at a fast clip with a large black dog that struggled to keep pace. I stopped and asked him if he owned the house by the Casuarina Hotel.

“No,” he replied, “but I’ve live there – if you can call it a house.” He then looked at me curiously for awhile. “You’re Robert.”

Taken aback that he knew my name, I looked at him – amazed. He said he recognized my face from The Star newspaper; two weeks earlier, they had featured me for winning third prize in a short story contest.
. . .
Of course, Bill McVeigh didn’t actually die alone – he had his animals, including his snakes. Nor was he forgotten either. Anni had painstakingly restored the trunk back to its original condition. Whenever I saw it, we’d reminisce about him and his house. His spirit also stayed alive in my journals, in my memories, and in my writing, and now inside my book Tropical Affairs, Episodes of an Expat’s life in Malaysia (MPH 2009).

His house, by the way, survived, too, at least the foundation and some of the walls. It had been converted into a bistro called Ferringhi Walk. On the wall are framed photographs that I took of Bill McVeigh’s house, taken a few days after he had died, after the land had been cleared. I’ll even donate a copy of this article, so the patrons can read about him. Perhaps they’ll raise a toast:
To Bill McVeigh, who lived and died in a far away land.
              -excerpt from "Dying Alone in a Far Away Land", Tropical Affairs by Robert Raymer
 * full article, posted 15 January 2011

**Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
***Here's 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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wrriting Novels: Talent, Luck, and Discipline

I was leafing through my 2003 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market (which I'll be updating soon) and came across this quote from Michael Chabon:

"I like to say there are three things that are required for success as a writer: talent, luck, discipline. It can be in any combination, but there's nothing you can do to influence the first two. Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling. You just have to hope and trust in the other two."

This is so true and it gives those of us who may worry about our talent (am I good enough?) or question our luck (why is everyone against me!) Discipline also applies to many other areas. The discipline to write every day, to market your work, to remain focused on one task at a time. I wrestle with these on most days. It’s so easy while writing a novel to jump back and forth to other projects. For one, the novel takes so long and when you’re in the thick of it, you don’t see much progress, let alone an end in sight. Whereas an essay or a short story or even a blog post such as this, can be written fairly quickly. Finally, I finished something!

Many writers equate writing the novel to marriage, and short stories to the occasional fling or a one night stand. The temptation is always there (the grass is always greener on the other side…). But if you ever hope to succeed in completing, let alone selling your novel, it’s important to get back to the novel, if that is where your true heart lies, and not be tempted by all the other sideshows, too, whether it’s Facebook, twitter, blogs or email. All of these chew up your novel writing time.

Now and then, after you’ve locked in a couple of hours, you can reward yourself with a writing timeout to check all of the above. You’ve earned it. But keep it brief and then get back to your novel. If you don’t, you can kiss that sweet novel goodbye. Whatever urgency or excitement or enthusiasm you first had to get it going, will soon be gone. Out of sight, out of mind. Without that day in and day out discipline, your novel will never get written (and rewritten), let alone published and in the bookstores.

It also takes discipline to find that perfect balance for writing, for family and friends, and for living. Don’t play the martyr. Get your novel written but get a life, too!

*Update: I managed to turn that discipline into some luck, too. The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady just.  advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012!  It was all those rewrites in 2010, 2011, and 2012 that got me there.

**Here's 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, December 18, 2009

Tropical Affairs: Santa Claus Forever

Robert Raymer at St. Christopher's International School in Penang

When I was asked to fill Santa’s shoes as a last minute replacement at St. Christopher’s International School in Penang, Malaysia, I tried to beg off. Who has time for this? “You’ll get to ride in a fire truck,” Angela said, twisting my arm, knowing she was running out of expats to ask.

“You mean a real fire truck?”

My adult expat eyes lit up like Christmas ornaments.

I was so excited about the fire truck and meeting Santa Claus personally (and I do mean personally), I could hardly stand still while Angela and Anni (let’s call them elves) dressed me in a red flannel Santa outfit, complete with one stuffed pillow, and an old pair of black boots. Next came a scruffy white beard and a long red stocking cap.

Only the large-buckled black belt was missing. Instead of having a black belt (not even brown), my trusty elves wrapped a black scarf around my pillow-shaped waist – a black scarf that later unwrapped itself as I stood proudly on top of the fire truck waving to three hundred and sixty expat children from all over the world.
All three hundred and sixty of them laughed as I re-wrapped my scarf. Sud¬den¬ly I had this not-so-Christmassy feeling that this was going to be very long day.

I gingerly climbed down the fire truck, careful not to fall; nor did I wish to trip as I entered the auditorium and land on my face. Just when I began to relax, my beard started to slip.

Now which of these little monsters, I wondered, was going to try to yank it off? The little monsters promptly transformed themselves into angels as they sang for me three Christ¬mas songs, including a favorite, “Jingle Bells”.

All of them sang beautifully except this cute little girl in front, who kept asking me in her skeptical five-year-old voice, “Are you really Santa Claus?”

Deep-down inside, having walked in Santa’s shoes, I really did feel like Santa Claus. For suddenly I had this overwhelming desire to give children all over the world, no matter their race, color or creed, new toys. I wanted to give them plenty of food to eat, and plenty of love, so they’ll grow up to be loving adults who can later bestow the gift of love onto their children, and their children’s children.

The real Santa Claus can do all that, and more. A lot more.

Beneath my Santa outfit, I was merely a humble expat trying to bring a little joy to the school children, who wanted to believe that somewhere there really is a Santa Claus. Not one who arrives in a fire truck (though that’s not a bad way to go), but in an open sleigh pulled by reindeers that can really fly.
-excerpt from "Santa Claus Forever" Tropical Affairs: Episodes of an Expat's Life in Malaysia

***Here's 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, December 13, 2009

Writing a Novel Draft after Draft

As early as possible, after I’ve already started to write what’s looking like a novel (as opposed to a long short story) I try to force out a very rough chapter by chapter outline. What this does is force me to think ahead in terms of scenes, of plot twists. It also gives me is something to shoot for. More importantly, it convinces me that I do in fact have a novel on my hands and there’s an ending on the horizon. Naturally, in the writing process other stuff is going to crop up, new scenes, new characters, new plot twists, and that original outline will get revised along the way. I’m not locked into, it’s merely a guesstimate as to where I’m going and it helps to prevent that inevitable panic that, oh my god I’ve painted myself into a dead-end and I’m finished as a writer!

I write short, which means my first draft are pretty sketchy, bare boned as I make my way to the end. Without an end, I have nothing (I have several of those that have gone past 400 pages). That first draft only tells me that I have a novel. Then it’s the rewriting, draft after draft, where I start adding scenes, flushing out storylines, and each subsequent draft gets fatter and fatter. My “drafts” by the way, are not a mere one pass through, but several detailed edits on the computer and a printed out copy that I really rip into it), so when I have “ten drafts” I’ve gone through it about 30 times! When I do get around to that tenth draft, I focus on trimming off the fat and the excesses and tighten the writing, and the story, wherever I can. I keep doing this for a few more drafts.

For example the first draft of A Season for Fools (*now An Unexpected Gift from a Growling Fool) ,was 268 pages. Draft 11 peaked at 464 pages. By draft 14 I got down to 343!  And that’s without cutting out a single scene or chapter. It’s merely shaving off words here and there, and occasionally a sentence or two, if I’m lucky. I have another novel set in the US that is up to 20 drafts, and one set in Malaysia that’s 13 drafts and waiting, (Then there are those that only went a few drafts and died out of sheer neglect while working on a new novel.

By the way, it’s all too tempting to shift your focus to a new novel idea, than to spend the time fixing one that’s full of problems and may not even be fixable! (Marriages and bad relationships are often the same way.) Yet by fixing those problems, you can take that dead-in-the-water manuscript to a whole new level. Sometime my drafts involve major rethinking of the novel, like adding on a whole new dimension, whether it’s an under¬current or an additional layer to the storyline, or changing it from third person to first person, past tense to present tense.

Some writers (and I think this is a great idea that I’m itching to try) will take a draft and focus just on those pesky verbs, turning a weak, passive verb laden with adverbs into a strong active verb. Otherwise, this verb correction process can get lost in the overall editing, and a lot of weak verbs and adverbs and needless adjectives can slip by unnoticed just because it’s grammatically correct and sounds good.

While editing, a good place to start is looking at those verbs and also those pronouns! Initially they were good, with a clear antecedent, but after some revising and adding in new stuff, the pronoun is either left hanging or it’s ambiguous. Every other draft should be a back to the basics, so basically good writing gets through each time!

***Here's 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, December 10, 2009

Tropical Affairs: Last Tango and Farewell to a Tango Dancer

Robert Raymer and Joelle dancing the tango at Runnymede

Robert Raymer and Angela Clark

Modeling at Equatorial Hotel, Robert Raymer and Anni Nordmann, 2nd and 3rd from left

Joelle, Robert, Anni

If expats are good at one thing it’s saying goodbye because we do it so often – to those expats leaving and to those staying behind. Expats come in two types: those who come to a country for a year or two before moving onto the next country, and those who come to one country and stay put. Anni Nordmann was both. She had been an expat in eight countries – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, Gabon, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore – before arriving in Penang, Malaysia where she ended up staying for sixteen years.
After being away from the United States for 28 years, she’s finally returning home. Like other long-stayers-in-one-country expats like myself, I was wondering, how do you say goodbye to a fellow expat whom you thought would never leave?
               -excerpt from Farewell to a Tango Dancer, Tropical Affairs: Episodes of an Expat's Life in Malaysia

***Here's 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, December 3, 2009

Tropical Affairs: Last Tango at the Runnymede

The Indochine Tango Dancers.  standing Robert Raymer, Joelle St-Arnoult, Angela and Lee Clark; seated Anni Nordmann, Andre Cluzaud, Laurence, Seibert Kubsch

Anni Nordmann, Robert Raymer and Joelle St-Arnoult

Anni Nordmann, Robert Raymer and Joelle St-Arnoult
The ballroom of the Runnymede Hotel had been chosen by the Penang Heritage Trust for its ‘Spirit of the Twenties’ Dinner and Dance gala that lured the tango dancers from Indochine out of retirement. Built on the site of the house that once belonged to Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore; the Runnymede boasted one of the finest ballrooms this side of the Suez Canal. Famous for its high ceilings, polished wood floor, stained glass window and resplendent chandeliers, the ballroom’s heyday was back in the 1920’s when it competed with its arch rival, the E & O Hotel.

Although it had been well over a year since the filming, five of the original tango dancers were still living in Penang: Lee and Angela Clark, Joelle Saint-Arnoult, Anni Nordmann and I. After dusting off our dancing shoes, we slipped into our 20’s style costumes. I had even grown a moustache and had my hair plastered down as was done in the film. We gave, as one of the 380 guests put it, “a dazzling performance befitting the occasion.”

Later that evening, a contest was held for the best dressed male and female. No less than four of the five tango dancers were nominated and two of them walked off with the top prizes, Angela Clark and I.

No wonder that during the filming of Indochine, while everyone else was busy trying to sneak a photograph of Catherine Deneuve, she took a picture of us – the tango dancers.
-excerpt from "Last Tango at the Runnymede" from Tropical Affairs: Episodes of an Expat's Life in Malaysia.

 Here are links to The Chistmas Party scene and the Racing Boat scene.

*Looks like I have another French connection.  Lovers and Strangers Revisited, my collection of short stories set in Malaysia, has been translated into French by Éditions GOPE!

**Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, my collection of short stories set in Malaysia

***Update: Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie  E-book orders.  Or recommend it to your friends, especially those who would like to know more about Malaysia or have an interest in Southeast Asia.
Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

****Here’s an update to the French blog about Trois autres Malaisie and my meeting the French translator Jerome Bouchaud in Kuching, and my involvement in a French documentary for Arte (June 2017) on The Sensual Malaysia of Somerset Maugham.

*****Here's 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.