I have been working on the cover design with the graphic designer who has designed bestsellers like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. As a designer myself, I find it both easy and hard to take the back seat and let someone do the driving. I’ve even done a moodboard, see below, as the designer inside me always kicks in when you don’t want it to, like at 5 am. The last update I wrote was 24 May just before half term break. I seem to be making updates just before the end of term. Today is the last week of term. Subliminally I don’t know if I will survive school holidays. That is why I have to do my updates just before school breaks up. Question time: “Where’s. Me. Book. Where’s. Your. Book. Where’s. OUR. book.” Answer: It will be out soon – follow these updates closely from now. The clock is ticking. Baby will arrive soon. Parents, be brave! Writers, be braver!
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.
Because I am a control freak, I decided to have a stab at cover design myself. The first one, the black and red one is inspired by Iban tattoo pattern and Alfred Hitchcock film posters by illustrator/artist Saul Bass. But I think it might be deemed too London, too retro. The second and the third are variations on the same which the idea of the rich mystery of the deep, dark jungle.
Guess which one the publisher chose? It surprised me too.
… celebrating for the first time with Unbound authors. It has been 12 or 13 years since I did my MA and listened to ‘readings’ from a writers’ group. I was touched that my new international writer friends had travelled from all over- Italy, Coventry, Winchester, Oxford and London of course, to my corner of SW London. It reminded me of the old days (1990s) of writers group where you meet in writers’ homes. There were no photos because no one carried such as thing as a camera around let alone a phone. I deliberately did not take photos of our secret gig on Sat 10th June. And definitely none of food!
In the old days you actually had to call people on their landlines (Hello? Hello? Are you coming tonight? Did you know it is tonight? I left so many messages on your ansaphone? I gotta go now, the boss is back. Click.) during your lunch hour from your office phones as there was no mobile phones or email then, or you had to actually use your landlines in the evenings from home. Today’s gig was intimately organised via Messenger, and not EventBrite or other invitation platforms.
For this event I invited everyone but I naturally hoped that not everyone of the 201 UB authors would turn up. During lunch we chatted about writing, publishing, agents, everybody’s experiences of the C-word*. After pizzas, salads, chicken legs and mojitos, we heard everyone’s work interspersed with cake, prosecco and tea break. We heard Jessica Duchen‘s new magical realist writing (Jessica is author of Ghost Variations), from Tamsen Courtenay, author of Four Feet Under, about the plight of the homeless, the only non-fiction writing in the group, an ‘uncut’ exclusive excerpt from Patrick Kincaid‘s The Continuity Girl. Jennie Ensor read stalker-point-of-view excerpts from her thriller Blind Side. Damon Wakes, author of Ten Little Astronauts, read interactive fiction from his 150,000 word “Girth Loinhammer’s Most Exponential Adventure” coming out this year on a Spanish label. I didn’t read from my Unbound book, Heart of Glass, instead read an old short story published in the Silverfish New Writing 4 anthology called“Friday Night at the Pheasant”. For those of you who did not hear but would like to read it, click on the link. Yvonne Lyon left her Prologue from the Burning Road: Book One: Moorland on the bus so she didn’t get to read it! For those of you who would like to read it, it is here. Yvonne is a friend from 2001 and we met in south of France on a writers’ retreat week.
It was a really heartwarming experience and support group which reminded us that before social media and all this nonsense, we were and are writers, and after social media and all this nonsense, we were and are friends. I can probably qualify as a tea girl now that I managed to make English tea. I think some of the other writers from the southern contingent would be fighting and elbowing their way to host the next secret gig. Whose turn next? Tune in to find out!
If you liked my blog post and would like to receive occasional news, please do sign up.
PS. No one even mentioned the elections which is unbelievable? How retro is that? Remember the ancient caveat: Do not talk politix at writers’ do’s.
This is the Proverse Spring Reception on 27 April 2017. The film is 53:09 minutes long. The section where they announce the prize winners is from 4:32 to 9:10.
However, you may wish to watch to the end. It is actually very entertaining, especially as new books are being launched, and there are readings by writers and poets from all over the world. It is an evening celebrating writing, writers and books and a special treat for book lovers everywhere.
This is probably the worst meal I have ever had. I think my shoe is tastier. It cost 5.80 the princely sum for the worst meal I have ever had. I am also MSGed up to the eyeballs so will need a walking stick for the next few hours while my eyes adjust to natural daylight. It is starchy, bland and gloopy. It’s like eating hot clothes which have just come out of the washing machine.
When you are craving Seafood Wat Tan Hor and it’s on the menu, of course you order it. They had the cheek to offer me chilli sauce at the extra charge of 50p a serving. Nothing can save this dish so I politely or maybe impolitely declined. If this place was in Malaysia it would have shut down straightaway! The vegetables were nearly raw (this is the best bit, at least it was healthy). And I am a good girl, always have been, I ate all the vegetables. There were two prawns from a packet, a few crab sticks, a few squid slices, all from a packet. I don’t understand this business with the two slices of cucumber. Since when did Wat Tan Hor have cucumber?
I am thrilled my first novel Cry of the Flying Rhino has won this prestigious international literary prize for an unpublished full-length work of prose fiction.
Winning the 2016 Proverse Prize is important in promoting excellence in literature and the love of and for books, across all boundaries of race, country, creed. International writing is still at the heart of postcolonial literature, which as a Commonwealth writer, I am proud to represent. Results were announced in the spring reception in Hong Kong on the evening of Thursday 27 April 2017. Cry (89,119 words) will be published in November in Hong Kong this year. I will travel there to receive the prize, to meet the judges, the publishers, readers, writers, guests, the organisers and finally,my book.
I entered the competition on 19 May 2016 before I even wrote to Unbound regarding Heart of Glass. It is a cash prize of 10K HK dollars (look it up, pound has gone down) and publication of the book. Having written for some 40 years with so much blood, sweat and tears (cliche, sorry, yes I know, but how else to put it?), indeed I am crying and my skin is thick as a rhino’s. I have managed to get not just one book out, but both, this year. Although it seems like a coincidence, it is not. I only started submitting my work with any seriousness last year and despite everything,
I carried on like some kind of bumper sticker. (“If life gives you lemons” etc). Rejection after rejection (the holy grail of all writers) and eventually acceptance.
About the book:Cry of the Flying Rhino, told from multiple viewpoints and in multiple voices, is set in 1996 in Malaysia and Borneo. Malaysian Chinese GP Benjie Lee has had a careless one night stand with his new employee – mysterious, teenaged Talisa, the adopted daughter of a wealthy, crass Scottish plantation owner, Ian, in the provincial Malaysian town of Segamat. Talisa’s arms are covered in elaborate tattoos, symbolic of great personal achievements among the Iban tribe in her native Borneo. Talisa has fallen pregnant and Ian forces Benjie to marry her. Benjie, who relished his previous life as a carefree, cosmopolitan bachelor, struggles to adapt to life as a husband and father. Meanwhile, an Iban called Minos has languished in a Borneo prison for 10 years for a murder he didn’t commit, and is released into English missionary Bernard’s care. When one day, a Minos and his sidekick Watan appear in Segamat, Benjie has to confront his wife’s true identity and ultimately his own fears. He has only just noticed that he is losing money in large amounts. Could the tattoos be the key to her secrets?
About the publishers: Proverse Hong Kong is based in Hong Kong with regional and international connections. The International Proverse Prize for Unpublished Non-fiction, Fiction and Poetry is open to all irrespective of residence, citizenship or nationality. The Publishers were born in the UK and have lived and worked in many countries. They visit Australia, Europe, Japan, Mainland China, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the USA.
Previous winners of the Proverse Prize: Rebecca Tomasis, for her novel, “Mishpacha – Family” Laura Solomon, for her young adult novella, “Instant Messages” Gillian Jones, for her novel, “A Misted Mirror” David Diskin, for his novel, “The Village in the Mountains” Peter Gregoire, for his novel, “Article 109” Sophronia Liu, for her collection of sketches, “A Shimmering Sea” Birgit Linder, for her illustrated poetry collection, “Shadows in Deferment” James McCarthy, for his biography, “The Diplomat of Kashgar” Philip Chatting, for “The Snow Bridge and Other Stories” Celia Claase, for her essay and poetry collection, “The Layers Between” Lawrence Gray, for his novel, “Adam’s Franchise” Gustav Preller, for his novel, “Curveball: Life never comes at you straight”
The Flying Rhino is not a prehistoric dinosaur but it does look like one, with its large, mad staring eyes.
The rhinoceros hornbill is the largest hornbill, aka the flying rhino. It has one of the largest and most impressive casques — a feature they share with hadrosaurids from more than 60 million years ago.
The flying rhino and other hornbills practise one of the most ingenious nesting rituals of any bird. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, she goes into a hollow tree cavity and helps the male seal the entrance with a paste made of fruit, mud, and feces. The pair leaves only a small slit, through which the male feeds the female (and later the chicks) for the next four to five months. The female keeps the inside of the nest cavity clean by pushing uneaten food and fecal matter back out through the same slit. When the chicks are about three months old, the female breaks herself out…and both parents and offspring collaborate to re-seal the chicks inside for another three months. Both parents continue to care for the chicks until they are old enough to break out of the nest on their own and fly free.
The cry is a hollow honk. The Rhinoceros Hornbill’s casque is an amp! The cry of the hornbill is amplified so they can be heard all throughout the rainforest. This feature has led paleontologists to believe that maybe harosaurs used their fancy head crests in the same way. So when you hear a Rhinoceros Hornbill’s echoing honk from somewhere out of sight, you might just be hearing the voice of this great bird’s inner dinosaur. They call only to defend their territories from other breeding pairs. It is warning, so you have been warned what Cry of the Flying Rhino is about!
There has got to be a thrill to be subjected to a six hour wait to get one’s new passport in this day and age. And that thrill is Dapur, a Malaysian diner about three minutes’ walk from the visa and consular office at the Malaysian High Commission in London.
Dapur means kitchen. It’s perfect for those who want an honest no frills lunch street food treat. And I seem to have had this same meal twice in the two times I’ve been here – nasi lemak. Also on the menu is lamb kurma and butter chicken, see the blackboard menu. But I really just like a simple meal. Actually except for the cardboard box it came in, it is very authentic but I do miss the pyramidal banana leaf package that it SHOULD traditionally come in. As I have a loyalty card I will definitely be back!
A trip to Dapur helps to break up the staggeringly mind-numbing six hour wait at the immigration office and you really cannot get cross with them because they are all, the adiks, kaks, enciks, all the officers, clerks whoever they are, very sweet and kind. Service with the Malaysian smile so you might have to forgive them the terrible system issues and errors and delays.
Blogger Peggy Loh is a writer herself. She is, like me, born a writer, and born and raised in Johor Bahru. She is a writer with the New Straits Times.
Read Peggy’s detailed and insightful write-up here of Heart of Glass and of me. Check out her blog also at peggyloh.com which is called MY Johor Stories. Her blog has a wonderful vintage feel as she knows the old world well and tells her stories vividly and with so much atmosphere.