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.
… 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!
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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.
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.
You can’t get more post-colonial, vintage and ironic than this! This photo was taken on my fifth birthday in Segamat, a little railway town in Johor, where we lived for a couple of years. It is on the line from Singapore to Bangkok via KL. We lived in a colonial bungalow which was the staff quarters of the hospital where my dad worked. The grounds were huge. There were fruit trees and frangipanni trees where my dad had made a makeshift swing using a couple of ropes and a short plank (with drill holes, naturally, to keep the seat dry). I knew all train time tables by heart. I waited for them each day, the whistles, the chink-chink, the bells. They were my friends. Even now I find the sound of trains very timeless and soothing. Beyond all trains, is the world. But first, the plantations. Rubber, pineapple, coffee. Segamat was all plantation.
I remember wearing the Scottish kilt, waistcoat and my first wristwatch that my dad bought on his trip to Edinburgh. It was probably the smartest outfit any child had ever worn in the entirety of Johor. Two years after this photo, I first started writing. The reason I know it was two years after was because I used a new unused diary and it had the year on it. Oral storytelling came first. I was only trying to entertain my toddler brothers. ‘And then what happened?’, ‘But who was the first girl?’ Once the stories were too long to tell, I had to write them down, with illustrations of course.
Subsequently, about twelve years ago, I wrote my first novel Cry of the Flying Rhino which was set in Segamat.
Please support my novel Heart of Glass here, become a patron today.
The first story which I wrote and submitted was for the 1984 New Straits Times Short Story Competition. It was called Miel and the Honey Bunch or something pretentious-sounding like that. The exact story and wording are all gone now. Success came to me early as a writer, to my detriment, as I since then I always thought I would be a professional and successful writer without much effort. I developed a complacency towards the creative act of writing.
I was then 14 years old and the youngest entrant. There was no such thing as YA genre at the time. You were either an adult or a child. I didn’t get a mention and didn’t win anything. I competed as an adult but any competition was as tough then as it is now. Out of hundreds and maybe thousands of entries, there can only be one winner and the rest runners up or in the commended list. I was fine. I remember thinking that I just wanted to send it out, no matter what.
In 1986 I entered the same competition again. I was now 16. As per two years before, I wrote the story by hand and dictated it to my mother who typed the story up in triplicate on this typewriter pictured, the Royal 240. My dad bought it in the Johor Bahru NAAFI in 1970*. It was attractively wood-panelled. It had red and black ribbons. I remember that distinctive strong fresh chemical smell of the typewriter ink. It had two discoloured or stained keys, I am not sure why. Graphic designers? Anybody? When I saw this photo (which is the same model but it is not the actual typewriter that was used) I noticed that it also had two discoloured keys! Imagine my excitement at the discovery. I could not type and neither could she. She used two fingers and typed out 1,500 to 2,000 words. I sat next to her and read out a paragraph first, where we would edit manually, orally or aurally, then a second reading word by word for it to be typed. It took some time but in those days you have time! Everybody had time! We used and re-used the carbon paper for the triplicate copies until it was transparent, until you could put it against a window and see the view beyond the window, until an abstract pattern was made by layers and lines of juxtaposed and superimposed text which no longer made sense, which no longer could be read legibly.
She was strangely a perfectionist and I did not know it then, I just thought ‘Damn! Mummy’s fussy!’. We quarreled, I sulked, we came back to the typing, we snapped, we sent it off. Now I feel grateful now that my mother was so supportive and meticulous about it too. When the words looked messy or clumsy on the page, she would rip the paper out and crush it into a ball like those cartoon caricatures of writers. And then we would start again. As she typed I remember her correcting my grammar and turns of phrases. ‘Is’ or ‘was’, ‘would be’ or ‘would have been’, she would ask, sometimes to herself, sometimes to me, and we would discuss. The final decision was sometimes hers, sometimes mine and sometimes joint. Letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, my story was typed out.
This time I won a prize of a weekend writing workshop at the New Straits Times headquarters: 31 Jalan Riong, 51000 Kuala Lumpur. I got to meet the amazingly kind and funny writer Robert Raymer, a poet called Jeya and a film critic called Kee Thuan Chye. You must remember that I was born and raised in Johor Bahru where nothing happens and most definitely, nothing exciting. It is like saying you are from Hull. The address and postcode of The New Straits Times office is etched in my memory forever. I referred to the letter until I memorised it. It went everywhere I went. It was more valuable than money or keys. I just had to have it with me. I held it in my hand, my school bag, my drawer until it tore at the creases where it once folded. I do not have it anymore. Sometimes I wish I still have it but maybe it was the right thing after all that it has perished over time. The letter had served its purpose which was to endorse me as a writer when I was still young.
*The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI /ˈnæfiː/) is an organisation created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families.
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.
Today you can take a look inside the original handwritten manuscript of Heart of Glass, my MUSIC CRIME NOIR NOVEL set in Chicago and Macau in the Reagan era of 1980s.
Piano soundtrack is by yours truly of course: Aquellos Ojos Verdes. Watch out for it.
I really love this song.
See how the novel started, see how it was written. Of course it’s handwritten. I did not even have a smart phone until last year. I still believe in
” the pen is mightier than the touchtyping.”
Wanna read more? Please pledge your support for me here and pre-order a copy. Starts at only 10 pounds.
I was very lucky to have been given an invitation to attend Ewan Lawrie’s book launch in Islington. This would be the first time I am meeting an Unbound author and in fact the first time I would be meeting an author that I had got to know first through social media.
Times have indeed changed. The first time I met an author was Catherine Lim, bestselling author of The Bondmaid, in Singapore, when I was a schoolgirl, a tweenie (this is somewhat anachronistic: there was no such word at the time, you were either a child or you weren’t). I was very impressed that she was not only leggy and slim, she wore killer stilettos and the traditional tight-fitting cheongsam with high slits. This was the 80s after all. Phwoar! I thought she was glamorous and that I probably should be a writer. Little did I realise. It is so totally not glamorous. It is 16:52 on Sunday and I am in my pajamas, typing this blog, sipping a moscow mule.
Gibbous House is about the adventures and misadventures of this thug called Moffat who has just inherited some assets and is making the journey up north to claim his goodies. It is very rich in atmosphere and detail. I have not got to the point why the book is named so, because gibbous means hunchbacked. I am on Chapter 5. Because of the florid Victorian lingo and voice, I have to slow down and take it all in.
I got to know Ewan through Unbound. I bought his book because I really love the Victorian gothic genre. I had read all of Sarah Waters’ books. I read up to page 12 of the book on the underground on my way to the launch, as I received it from Amazon that day itself. Ewan is also a supporter of my book Heart of Glass on Unbound. The evening was well-organised and very pleasant. Watch a couple of clips here: IMG_4671IMG_4673 Ewan was there to greet all the guests. I got to meet Rachel his editor, who introduced him. I was disappointed he did not do a reading and there was no Q & A session as I had burning questions to ask. He was kind, friendly and soft-spoken with his twinkling blue eyes. We talked about Unbound, crowdfunding, books, reading and all the usual lark. I may even have gained some tips. The pub, aptly named The Blacksmith and Toffeemaker, is an old Victorian boozer, amped up to modern trendy standards that we are now accustomed to. I think the venue was well-chosen, spacious, bright, with a back area that could be cordoned off.
Hello! #Vintage alert! Watch this homemade SILENT MOVIE update on Week 3 of project Heart of Glass the Novel with a piano soundtrack by yours truly. But please! Don’t be too critical, it’s my acting debut! I am experimenting with the silent movie concept as I love the Artist and I love the music of Woody Allen movies. Don’t you?
If you haven’t yet please help me by pre-ordering a copy to fund my book. It is about a piano-playing musician in Chicago and Macau in the 1980s. It is about East and West. It has a Chinese girl, an Italian bloke and a Jewish bloke. All the crazy, quarrelsome racial stereotypes (It’s PC. I’m allowed to say this, I am one of them). It is funny, it is sad, it is amoral. It is #literary#music – themed #crimenoir. #heartofglass#supportafriend#postcolonial#fiction#chinesenewyear . Support a friend, an RGS girl, a mum, a UNSW, Middlesex, Kingston graduate, a musician, a writer, an architect, makeup artist, and now, (so, so shocking) an amateur silent actress! Click here or cut and paste link to support me: https://unbound.com/books/heart-of-glass
Please share, tag, show! Please comment, #askmeanything. (Within reason, please) I will answer them in my next vlog!