What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.
You can also read the article here below:
Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.
Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.
In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.
Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.
Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas
Lulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.
Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?
Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.
Art by Lulu Allison
in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.
“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”
Vagabond Palace 1
Vagabond Palace 4
There are three types of art in literature:
1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.
2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.
3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.
This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.
“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”
Entropy: Value Added
Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.
Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.
“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”
Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who
“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.
“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”
These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.
Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along.Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.
This is a view of Bako National Park in Kuching, Borneo, home to millions of flora and fauna many of which are still undiscovered and unknown to humans. It seems the opposite of the Hong Kong in the photo below, yet both of these places are where Cry of the Flying Rhino was born.
Check out my SHOP where you can purchase SIGNED FIRST LIMITED EDITIONS of Cry of the Flying Rhino. Find out why this book won outright for the first time in 9 years of the International Proverse Prize competition.
Robert Raymer is an American writer and writing facilitator from Grove City, Pennsylvania, who now lives in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
I have met Robert just once. I mentioned him in another blog post called “My First Prize-winning Story was typed on this typewriter” about when I first started submitting my work to competitions and won a short story workshop as a prize for a story I entered. I was 17. I had travelled to the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the first time as part of the prize was attending this workshop. I had never been to KL on my own before. I was totally naive and he was the first American I had met and I thought hey, this glamorous guy must be a movie star from Hollywood as all Americans were movie stars, were they not? The only other white people I had ever met were three women preachers or missionaries from my mum’s home church who played the church organ, wore frocks and sandals and sang gospel hymns all in harmony. They were not film stars. They were Methodists from New Zealand.
It was thirty years ago. I am now 47. About twelve years ago, Robert was the editor for an anthology of short stories called Silverfish New Writing 4. He selected and edited my short story entitled “Friday Night at the Pheasant”. I have lost touch and found him again, thanks to the internet. It seems that life has its circular way of making sense.
I am really honoured that I got to interview Robert here. I have read most if not all of Robert’s stories and what comes across is that he really loves writing and his work is accessible. He writes with kindness, passion and humour. Here he shares with honesty his invaluable experience, hard work and expertise as a writer which he has gained over many decades, his lessons learned and re-learned, the dedication and sacrifices he and his family have made. Warning: This post is a treasure trove. Look away now if you do not wish to know the skill, hardship and labour of love that is the writing life.
1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Usually once you publish a book, you move onto the next one, but when the publisher, Heinemann Asia got bought out and the buyer got bought out, too, and dropped their whole line of fiction, I found my three-year-old collection of short stories orphaned. So I kept revising the individual stories, trying to sell them to markets outside of Malaysia/ Singapore. Then a Malaysian lecturer wanted to use my now-out-of-print book for his course on post-colonial writing, so I contacted another publisher that said yes. But first I took a hard look at the stories, hired an editor to rip them apart, and then I overhauled the stories, adding back-stories, changing endings, even doubling several stories in length. After moving to Sarawak and not finding the book in the stores, the Malaysian publisher blamed it on the Singapore distributor refusal to ship the books because of the additional costs, so with his blessing I switched to a third publisher, and revised everything again. That third collection, with the addition of two stories, won the 2009 Popular Reader’s Choice Award and was translated into French. Those original 15 stories (minus one, plus two) have been published 80 times in twelve countries. I even blogged a story-behind-the-stories series, pointing out the significant changes for each story that led to their publications locally and overseas.
The lesson, even though a book is published, doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.
That surely applies to unpublished novels that I felt could’ve been published a long time ago— I’ve had offers, but I didn’t think it would ever get out of Malaysia or Singapore. The heavily-revised books are so much better than what they would have been had I settled for a local publisher.
2. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Investing in myself by moving to Malaysia to write full time (and taking the slow route, backpacking nine months until I got dysentery),
after writing “Mat Salleh”, a short story about meeting my Malaysian-in-laws, later published in the UK, and completing the first draft of a terrible novel to prove that I could at least stick with it. As a footnote, that “Mat Salleh” story attracted the attention of Ohio University (USA) twenty years later who wanted to film it; instead they opted to film another story of mine, “Home for Hari Raya” in Malaysia.
3. How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
That’s a tricky question. I was a part time writer for a few years in the US but chose to move to Malaysia in order to write full time, though I was mostly living off savings. Once that money ran out, I went back to working/teaching full time and writing part-time for another twenty years.
Although I write full time now, I’m also a house husband looking after two boys, age 10 and 13.
For now, I’m not making enough to support myself full time, but that is a trade off we made….Living in Malaysia, in Borneo, as a writer is a lot cheaper than living in the US or the UK. Now and then, when my wife has a really bad day, she’ll ask me for a progress report to keep me honest…Luckily, one of the perks for her job is travelling every year to Germany and then taking an extra week to travel in Europe while I stay home with the kids…
4. How many hours a day do you write? Tell us about your day.
Writing full time when you have children rarely means writing full time.
Since my elder son started to attend afternoon school my day has become topsy-turvy. On school days I’m up by 5:30 and by 6:00 the children are en route to school and I’m free to write until about 10:15. Then I have to cook and feed my elder son and take him to school and pick up my younger son and feed us both lunch. By 2:30, I’m back to writing. On the evenings that I cook, I stop around 6:00 and if I’m lucky, I can get back to work by 8:45. By 10:00 I’m usually in bed. The days I don’t cook dinner, I can work from 2:30 until about 7:45 and be back to work by 8:30 until 10:00. Of course not all of that is sole writing time, since I do have children,
but when I’m pushing a self-imposed or a real deadline, I’m surprised by how much work I can get done when I focus on the work and ignore distractions, including my children, who naturally take advantage of me….
Weekends depend if they have any school activities (swimming) on Saturday morning or tuition in the afternoon and our plans to watch a movie or go out for dinner. Sundays, after cooking brunch, I usually write all afternoon, often into the evening, especially when pushing a deadline.
5. What advice would you give writers who are facing only rejections?
If you are getting rejections that means you are writing and submitting your work and that is good.
No rejections, usually translates into not writing or not submitting your work. It’s all about perseverance and writing better stories and revising and outlasting those rejections. They say you only fail as a writer when you stop writing, so don’t stop writing! Remember that every best-selling author, every published writer started out getting rejected again and again! They didn’t give up; they persevered. The question you have to ask yourself: will you give up or will you persevere? Also read widely and read successful books you would not normally read to see what makes them successful. Read, learn and apply what you have learned to your writing. Self-help books do help!
6. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Rarely do I read any book that doesn’t make me think differently about fiction.
When I read good non-fiction it can read like fiction, if it has a good story to tell in an interesting way. This used to surprise me, but good fiction can also read like non-fiction (think memoir—James Frey, anyone?) if your characters and setting and all the details ring true and seem real to the reader, even if you’re making most of it up, so long as the story is good.
7. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Other than financial, it is patience and knowing when your work is ready for publication and not just because you are tired of monkeying around with it and can’t wait to become rich and famous. It’s having the courage to accept that maybe it’s not the best it could be and then rolling up your sleeves and revising it yet again.
Having gone through it again, if done earnestly, you’re often glad that you did, surprised by how much you were able to improve the manuscript on nearly every single page!
So keep doing that! I now go through each chapter three times whether it’s my 5th, 10th or 20th draft, after I’ve printed it out and line edited it, and the changes I keep making are immense….And I thought it was already good, ready to be published! So you can either blame the agents and the publishers or get back to work and find out what’s missing or what could be fixed or improved.
8. What are you working on now and what are you planning on writing next? Tell us about your next project.
I have sequels planned for three novels that I wrote, including one set in Penang, which will be sandwiched between two other novels, part of a trilogy.
Originally I hadn’t planned a trilogy, or even a sequel, but when I realized both novels could be related, I changed the character in the second book to match that in a much earlier novel, and reconciled the dates, the back-stories; but then I realized that I had always planned to write a third novel set in Penang based on an incident that happened to me and I thought, this might work between the other two books, involving the same character. Since I had purposely introduced a new character at the end of the first book who would be one of the main characters in that now third book, she could be in the second book, too, along with several upcoming characters. So that second book is starting to feel like a prequel to that third book. Also, I had written a novel set in the US about a shooting incident involving a child, and I have two novels planned as sequels. Then last year I adapted a screenplay into a humorous novel about a hapless spirit helping a boy find a new mother. Of course, I have a sequel planned for that….In fact, I was itching to start either that or the other set in the US by mid-July while waiting for the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest where I have submitted five novels.
But two weeks ago, while showering, I suddenly found a way to begin another novel idea that I had been collecting notes on that I felt was more marketable, so I put everything else on hold.
Since I’m still in the early stages of writing the first draft, I don’t want to let the genie out of the bottle before I finish writing it. Based on past experience, the drive to write the story is gone once you start talking about the story. You can talk the story right out of your system. Write it first, talk about it later when the story is written or it’ll always be just another idea that you never got around to write. I figured if never got another new idea for another novel, I could spend the rest of my life happily writing sequels based on the notes I already typed into my computer (dozens of pages for most, others a whole lot more) and that’s not a bad feeling….I admit, at times, I do feel like that donkey that starves to death because it can’t decide between two stacks of hay. So finding a third stack can be a real life saver…
9. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Edit…which I do now and then. Having taught creative writing for thirteen years at two universities and having line edited about a thousand manuscripts, I know I can help other writers because I can see what they are missing. Of course, it’s always easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than your own, but after a while, you see similar flaws in your own work and because you were able to fix their work, you can now fix yours….
And if you had stopped writing for any reason, you would think, hell I can write better
than that, and this would lead you back into your own writing and editing your own
Thank you so much Robert for the incredible interview! I can’t wait to hear the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and please join me in wishing him every success. I hope he starts on the seeds of his new novel imminently. Find him at www.borneoexpatwriter.com. Read his entertaining and insightful blog here.
Named as one of the “50 Expats You Should Know in Malaysia” by Expatriate Lifestyle magazine (January 2010), Robert Raymer’s short stories and articles have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review, London Magazine, Thema, Descant, The Writer and Reader’s Digest. One story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited has been used for the Cambridge International Examinations and others have been taught in Malaysian universities, private colleges and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia literature in secondary schools, as well as in a high school in Canada. He was the editor of Silverfish New Writing 4. Three of his novels have been “short-list” finalists in the 2009 and 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Competition.