The eagerly anticipated Heart of Glass will be out on or around Tuesday 5 June 2018. Watch out! The ‘Eighties are back. If you do not know what a heart of glass is, you will find out soon. Thank you for your patience during this difficult and trying time of manuscript editing while also launching and promoting my award-winning debut Cry of the Flying Rhino. No pain, no gain, no sweat, no cake. The plane is now ready to depart.
“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
A warm welcome to my guest, the legendary Bill Colegrave,
who has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series.
And now over to Bill…
The unforeseen complications of a one-night stand
are the foundations of this tale and the adventure that ensues. Benjie, a Chinese Malaysian Doctor is quickly diverted by his new assistant, a tattooed Iban, an indigenous Bornean; once hooked, he remains on the line. The more he discovers of her history, the deeper he becomes embroiled.
Children tattoo children to ensure the art never dies.
Debut novelist, Ivy Ngeow is Malaysian and international and she uses all her multicultural skills to explore the interaction of her character cast of Chinese, Malay, Scottish and Iban. The latter are the catalysts for the drama.
“A man or a woman without tattoos is invisible to the gods.” – Iban proverb
Elderly Sea Dayak woman of Borneo with thigh, feet and hands tattoo
Everyone has heard of Borneo, but most can’t place it on the map.
That is because Borneo is the name of an island, which is not a country; 75% of it is the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, the rest is the Malaysian outposts of Sabah and Sarawak plus the tiny but powerfully oil-rich Kingdom of Brunei. The Borneo of Cry is Sarawak, the home of the Iban.
The story engaged my attention but I was also learning about the Iban,
and learning to admire the Iban. Marriage, we learn, should be considered in practical terms:
“Every boy should look to marry a girl that is top class at weaving…..Boys want girls that are good at weaving, because it is a tough, tough life in the jungle. The girls, they weave to make clothes for war and for every day. They weave pua and the blankets make you dream well. In Iban, dreams are the most important gift from the Gods.”
Traditional Sarawak weaving of Pua Kumbu
A traditional Borneo longhouse
Central to the tale are the two Iban boys, Minos and Watan, who are taken under the wing of a English pastor, who has not understood that the 19th century ended a few years ago and that he is not helping anyone by trying to convert Iban to Christianity. But what he can offer is attractive to the eager Iban. Minos complains that there is no TV.
“Ingland says no. If plentymoney says No, it means No. But Pastor says Yes. Someone from the church give a TV. It is only the size of a chicken.”
I hope I remember to use that splendid simile when I am next buying a TV. Let me also remember Minos’ advice about mushroom gathering:
“….if all rotten and covered in worms, means OK to eat. If fresh and untouched, means poisonous.”
Cry of the Flying Rhino is charming as well as compelling
as a story, partly because the author creates her own moral code, as a result of which almost all crimes committed by her characters can be forgiven, so long as they can be held to be avenging a greater wrong.
The charm of the book and its insights into the ways of the jungle people of Borneo have drawn me to the island.
When I get there I will be thanking Ivy and two other writers:
My friend Robin Hanbury Tenison, whose Finding Eden – A Journey into the Heart of Borneo, has just been published. It tells the story of his time leading the Royal Geographical Society expedition to the same area in 1977 and starts with his chance meeting with Nayapun, a Penan tribesman:
“The Penan have a quality of stillness….They melt into the shadows and that is their life”.
2. and the American, CS Godshalk, whose novel Kalimantaan, brought back to vivid but fictional life the time of Rajah Brooke, the Briton who became an effective Rajah of Sarawak in the mid 19th Century.
“When we affect to condemn savages, we should remember that by doing so we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also. Who can swear that among the naked British barbarians sent to Rome to be stared at more than 1500 years ago, the ancestor of Bacon might not have been found?–Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us–Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians–sprung from one head and made in one image.” – Herman Melville
Have you been to Borneo and have you met an Iban before? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. We would love to hear from you.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhinois a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novelHeart of Glassis published by Unbound in 2018. Find me at www.writengeow.com, tweet me @ivyngeow, or write to me here: ivy_ngeow at yahoo dot com
Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published by Unbound on 16 November 2017. Write to him here: scrapsofwool at gmail dot com
This is the first time I am reading from Cry of the Flying Rhino. It is also the first time I am reading in a Scottish accent (Ian’s voice). I first had the idea in the car on the way to Brixton, and I just thought, what the hell. Let’s do it.
My aim had always been to be a published author. I have achieved my aim. Now what? Writing a novel or two is the biggest time, energy and mental pressure you can undertake. In fact to write this blog post I had to take two Nurofen and a double espresso macchiato in order to steady myself. I have been writing for 40 years on and off, therefore I am not a new writer. But I still put wine, blood, paracetamol, sweat, caffeine, cortisol, endorphins and tears into it. Now I have learned that as a newly-published author, I still have more to learn.
1/ Sales of the book won’t make you a living.
Even bestseller authors have to work another job – usually related to writing such as journalism or teaching and lecturing in a related subject. The reason why writers write is because it is an incurable mental illness, an obsession, a love. It’s like asking the obsessive compulsive cleaner – “hey, why do you clean so much? It’s clean already.” Those who start out thinking this is a fun hobby will either quit or realise it is not a fun hobby, and then quit. If that obsession is there, the writer will carry on writing in spite of everything. That is how you know you have the bug.Therefore no writers can aim to do it as a means of livelihood, as they mostly earn less than the minimum wage. In the Guardian article ‘Most UK authors’ annual incomes still well below minimum wage‘ on 9 Oct 2016,
…life is less than super for many authors in the UK, with average annual incomes for writers languishing at £12,500.
This figure is just 55% of average earnings in the UK, coming in below the minimum wage for a full-time job at £18,000 and well below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard of £17,100.
In an industry that is becoming increasingly unequal, those at the bottom of the income distribution continue to struggle. Only half of the 317 UK authors who responded to the survey said writing was their main source of income, with respondents who offered a figure reporting total earnings from their latest book averaging at £7,000.
This is not a ‘new thing’. Writers we know and love from the past also had to hold day jobs:
Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and other “literary nonsense,” was also a mathematician, photographer and teacher.
Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” taught in New York City high schools and colleges during his entire career.
Jorge Luis Borges Argentinian author of “Ficciones” worked as an assistant in the Buenos Aires Municipal Library, and eventually became the director of the National Library.
2/ What you wanted to publish will not be published and what you didn’t want to publish will be published
Caveat: Unless you self-published. No building is built exactly as the plans, unless you built it yourself. Publishing is a collaborative process. You are only one cog in the wheel and no doubt the most important cog but there are other cogs turning that wheel. There will be changes along the way, usually due to budget, darling-killing and changes of vision. This is down to the contract. The contract is the agreement between you and the publisher to create the book. Both you and the teams will work together and have a say in the end product. You can put your foot down but usually they are right. They are the professionals. My day job is being an architect. I tell my clients what they should do all the time and if they don’t do it, I will do it anyway. Otherwise you will have no overall cohesive design ethos and you will end up with substandard junk which you will get blamed for so you may as well get blamed for something great than some substandard junk caused by them.
When you hand over the manuscript, the multiple levels of editing begin. At the moment I am coming out of editing hell, and this is why it is fresh in my mind and I am well-equipped to inform those who have not entered the seven gates of editing hell. Every sentence, punctuation marks and word will be examined. Every sentence has to flow logically into the next and there must not be a single discrepancy, inconsistency, continuity error or nonsensical or cop-out statement. You must not sound like a madman. Even books about madness are written by the sane, and has to appear compos mentis. The editing process is like ironing. You go back and forth and back and forth between the editorial department and you until the product is smooth. My first book has gone through 19 rounds of editing (not even accounting for the 12 years of editing before those rounds before I made any submissions). My second book is currently on 9 rounds (also excluding the years of my own editing). Sometimes you are blind to your own errors because you have seen them too many times and you don’t realise they are actual errors.
3/ You wrote the book and and now you do everything else
A big deal for little words
Nowadays publishers want to know how many followers you have before they even take you on.This is why anything that Jamie Oliver or Joe Wicks write will sell, will have a publisher. Their follower count is in the millions. If only 10% bought their books, that is still a substantial earner. I had to learn this while pitching my book. The Unbound pitch has questionnaire questions relating to your network, real or virtual. If the publisher likes your brilliant book, they also like, in the back of their minds, your follower count and your social media platforms.
Because of the competitive and declining market these days, in order to be successful, most writers have to work hard at promoting their own books much more than the publisher. This is because there are too many books, put simply. Because they are a business, they have to take on a lot of books in case a few become ‘hits’, the rest can die, no worries. One publisher has to handle between 10 to 40 books each, and though they are spread out through the year, they have to promote all of them. Naturally their focus is divided. If you had 36 children (at the rate of 3 being born a month) you will also not be able to give much attention to each.
4/ You are your own Book and Blog Tour Organizer
Of course you can get on a plane. You will get what you pay for, and touring around the world is expensive and you may only sell twelve copies, if any. You might sell one. I have not much motivation in touring as I have been a musician with my band Satsuma and the gigs take an enormous amount of time loading and unloading, driving around, soundchecking, eating backstage, not to mention hair and makeup and the actual rehearsals, even when you have a cold and in all kinds of weather conditions – all for a 22 minute gig (if you are the headlining act) in which you are not sure if anybody will turn up if the weather is terrible. Therefore authors have to use effective internet marketing such as virtual book tours. There are very few real bookshop or real events being offered by publishers. I am now involved in a ‘blog tour’ with five of my fellow Unbound author whom I see as friends, colleagues and associates. It is a ‘tour’ where we move around and each write for each other’s site in a guest post on set dates. It’s very enjoyable and I am traveling the world from my armchair, involving no Bureaux de Change or visas queues. I have just completed writing my blog about Bill Colegrave’s Scraps of Wool, on the golden age of travel writing focusing on Central Asia, Indochina and the Maghreb (read the blog post here). Scraps of Wool was published recently by Unbound and shares the same publication date asmy debut – 16 November 2017. Also completed is Carrie Jo Howe’sIsland Life Sentence which is fiction set in Florida. You cannot get more destinations than these in four weeks, what more do you want from a tour?
5/ You are your own Launch Party Sponsor/Organizer/Host
Launch parties are for fun and they do not lead to sales. Only because people don’t want to carry a book while munching on greasy snacks with one hand and holding a drink in the other hand. There is no hand left for the book. Even successful authors have to throw their own parties, if they can be bothered. If they are successful they would have been to and done a lot of parties already so they may be partied out.
I put my own money into the London launch of my short story “Funny Mountain” in Hungry in Ipoh anthology held at my friend Sunita’s and Rufus’ art gallery Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton. If you are interested you can read the blow by blow account of how I did It, where I bought cheap drinks and so on. I even brought in the snacks and my friend Sunita kindly heated up the snacks in the vintage oven. Being a writer means there has to be family and friends who care about you being in fantasyland and living the writer life. You are not some banker. Even if you were, they will wonder why you need any help, but still help you. The party will be for them too. It is not for getting new people in, not for selling books, it is for thanking your own loved ones, your publisher. Without them, you would not be a writer. They may or may not buy your books, read your books but it does not matter. Most of all they know you want to be a writer, and they will want to celebrate with you. They will help you with the launch. You only need to ask.
View towards front of gallery
6/ Be grateful… the party has just begun
Being a published author means the party is not over…. the party has just begun! Long live writing and publishing. Do not get sucked in to what other writers are doing or not doing and feel you are not doing enough or you are doing too much. Your job as a writer is to write the best bloody book that you can. Your job is not to sell stuff, do ironing, be a bartender, organize events or do catering. Every writer is different and thank God for that. Know and recognize what you have achieved. Remember how hard it was to get published (camel, eye of needle etc)? For me to get my first novel out took 12 years, 89 rejections and an award. It is a feat and a celebration in itself. Every day I remind myself that I have earned my right to exist as an author, to tell the story that had to be told, in the way that I wanted it told, so that now it exists not just on my hard drive but in the world. It was what I fought hard for.
Are you a published author? How do you think you have been transformed by the experience? If you are unpublished, what are your expectations of being published? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share and do drop me a line. As usual I would love to hear from you.
Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. – Benjamin Disraeli
Memory decides our journeys long before we do. It is the narrative drive of our travels and forms the organisation of our experience.
Bill Colegrave has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series. I was fortunate to meet Bill at the bar in Charlotte Street Hotel in London a year ago with other fellow authors.
All reading and writing helps us travel to somewhere else. The escape alone is part of what drives my memory, experience and curiosity. Scraps of Woolis about choices, about discovery, about life on the road, about dreams. Bill was 8 when he first crossed the Channel. A few years later, his father took him and his twin sister on a boat called Braemar Castlefrom London’s Tilbury Docks to Gibraltar, Genoa. He wrote:
I had fallen in love with abroad. I still am.
The 5 top places which inspired Scraps of Wool are:
1. The Oxus River, Afghanistan
fascinated Bill when he was a teenager inspired by the epic poem Sohrab and Rustum by Mathew Arnold written in 1853:
AND the first grey of morning fill’d the east,
And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream.
But all the Tartar camp along the stream
Was hush’d, and still the men were plunged in sleep;
Sohrab alone, he slept not; all night long
He had lain wakeful, tossing on his bed;
But when the grey dawn stole into his tent,
He rose, and clad himself, and girt his sword,
And took his horseman’s cloak, and left his tent,
And went abroad into the cold wet fog,
Through the dim camp to Peran-Wisa’s tent.
Oxus River and Pamir Mountains
Bill’s interest in Central Asia began when he read a copy of Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, mentioned in his previous book Halfway House to Heaven (2011) which tells of his journey up the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to find the source of the Oxus River in the High Pamirs. Bill first went to Afghanistan in 1990. He explored the Oxus and Pamirs in 2007 when he was 59. But aged 17, he was lying one evening in a bunk in a yacht club in Cowes, Isle of Wight, with “wind-blown rain on the porthole windows” when he read Chapter 16 of The Marsh Arabs.
I had left in the last week of July 1952 and it was not an early afternoon in February. Seven months later; it seemed longer. In that time I had crossed high passes through the snows of the Hindu Kush to the cold blue lake of Korombar where the Chitral river rises; I had looked out over Wakand from the Borogil Pass and seen in the distance a glint that was the Oxus; I had slept on the glaciers at the foot of Tirich Mir, and in dark, verminous houses among mulberry orchards, where the last of the Black Kafirs lived on the borders of Nuristan.
Marsh Arabs of the Euphrates
The Marsh Arabs AKA the Maʻdān or shroog (derogatory terms) – are inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands in the south and east of Iraq and along the Iranian border. During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Bill at the time did not know of these places but he at once was bitten by the travel bug. His dream was to find these places.
2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Jon Swain’s River of Time (1996) took Bill to Cambodia. Here it is all about love, love, love. The unforgettable experience, memory, the eternal quest, the eternal question of falling in love with Indo-China.
Colonial architecture of Phnom Penh
I felt I had entered a beautiful garden… I forgot about Paris and began a love affair with Indo-China, to which I have been faithful ever since… I stepped into an enchanting world of tropical scents, the evening silence broken only by a bevy of girls in the cyclos who crowded round offering to pass the night with us. ‘Indo-China is like a beautiful woman; she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why,’ his companion said with unashamed tenderness. ‘Sometimes a man can lose his heart to a place, one that lured him back again and again.’
It was also a place of memories… of opium:
In those hard-bitten days, a number of us smoked opium. It seemed natural to do so after a day at the front. Opium had been legal in Indo-China just a few years before, and while it was now officialy prohibited, was still widely smoked among the French colonels. The most famous fumerie in Phnom Penh was Madame Chum’s. Madame Chum, a one-time mistress of a former president oft he national assembly, was Cambodia’s Opium Queen. She ran the fumerie for more than thirty years until her death in September 1970, aged 67, and earned a small fortune from the pipe-dreams of others.
3. The Karakorums
Karakorum Mountain Range
The Heart of a Continent (1896) by Francis Younghusband crossing the Mustagh took Bill to the Karakorums. The Karakoram, or Karakorum is a large mountain range spanning the borders of Pakistan, India, and China, with the northwest extremity of the range extending to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is located in the regions of Gilgit–Baltistan(Pakistan), Ladakh (India), and southern Xinjiang (China), and reaches the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan).
This chapter is a gripping adventure story:
We reached the bottom of the cliff without accident, and then found ourselves at the head of a long ice-slope extending down to the glacier below. Protruding through the ice were three pieces of rock, which would serve us as successive halting-places, and we determined upon taking a line which led by them. We had brought with us every scrap of rope that could be spared from the ponies’ gear, and we tied these and all the men’s turbans and waist-clothes together into one long rope, by which we let a man down the ice-slope on to the first projecting rock. As he went down the steps, and when he had reached the rock we tied the upper end of the rope firmly onto rock above, and then one by one we can down the slope, hanging on to the rope and making use of the steps which had been cut.
4. The Maghreb
The citadel in Essaouira, Morocco, the Maghreb
I have fond memories of this word “Maghreb”. Before I knew anything of the world, as a child of 5, I had already heard of “Maghreb” because I had grown up in a Muslim country, Malaysia. In Arabic it means ‘the West’. Usually at tea time or my dinner time as a child in Segamat, Johor, I remember my favourite Merry Melodies or Hekyll and Jekyll cartoons on TVbeing interrupted by the Waktu Maghreb or Time of the West muezzin’s call to prayer. Incidentally, Segamat is also the setting for Cry of the Flying Rhino. TheMaghrib prayer(Arabic: صلاة المغرب ṣalāt al-maġrib, “Westprayer“) is the prayer time which is prayed just after sunset. It is the fourth of five obligatory dailyprayers(salat) performed by practicing Muslims. I was very interested in this cross-dressing aristocratic heiress Isabelle Eberhardt in Chapter 17 which took Bill to the Maghreb. The Maghreb is a region of northern Africa that consists primarily of the countries Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. It is considered the Western region of the Arabic world.
Isabelle Eberhardt cross dressed as a sailor boy while working in the docks of Marseille to earn enough money to escape
Isabelle Eberhardt, penniless author of The Oblivion Seekers (1906), was only 27 when she drowned in a flash flood at Ain Sefra Algeria in 1904. She was 22 years old when she left an unhappy “sedentary” life in Switzerland, became a Sufi Muslim, and dressed as the male Arab she saw herself as. She explored the kif smoking dens of Kenadsa, then part of Morocco, subsequently absorbed into Algeria. She was supposedly a writer, a spy, an agitator and a sexual libertine.
Born in Geneva to an aristocratic mother and the family tutor—an ex-priest turned anarchist named Alexandre Trofimovsky—Isabelle Eberhardt was fluent in six languages, including Arabic, as a 16-year old. By the age of 20 she had converted to Islam. In the late 1890s both her parents died suddenly. Despite her family’s wealth, Eberhardt was an illegitimate baby and therefore not eligible for an inheritance. She had to earn passage to Algeria using her wits. Disguising herself as a boy—something she’d been doing from an early age with the encouragement of her father—she worked as a Marseille dockhand until she could afford the ferry crossing.
The kif dens are places of shelters “for Moroccan vagabonds, for nomads, and for every sort of person of dubious intent and questionable appearance.” As I understand, kif is cannabis, smoked til it produced a drowsy effect:
The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hand lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy.
5. The Hunza
Some facts: People are often surprised when they learn that the citizens of Hunza (also known as Burusho people) usually live up to the age 120. They can easily conceive even after 60 years and it is very rare for them to get tumors. They are also descendants of Alexander the Great. They bathe in glacier water. Cancer does not exist in the Hunza. Curious?
Batura Glacier in the Hunza
In George Curzon’s The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus (1996), he claims that the “ice cave found there was the source of the river. It was there, almost exactly as he had described it, a river emerging in full flow from the confluence of three glaciers. No one who has had the good fortune to visit the astonishing Hunza Valley would quarrel with Curzon’s florid opening description.”
Bill’s last trip was to South America – the conjunction of Peru, Colombia and Brazil where the Amazon is already 5 km across. He is now working on Scraps 2.
Scraps of Wool is an enjoyable read and an even more enjoyable blog post for me to write. It is a remarkable and moving compilation.Bill’s narrative is charming, tender and humorous and it never stops to examine the humanity in places, time and the characters Bill has encountered. It is also illuminating in that all our moments are to be treasured, each a jewel, a story. Each place is stunning in its own right. In fact, they are such fairytale fantasy settings, these places which beggar belief, still continue not only to exist but to shine like gems as they had always done, through the terrible world that we live in, with its despair, sad state of global destruction and political problems. Scraps of Wool gives hope that the world we live in is so ugly and yet so beautiful.
Do you think travel has shaped your experiences or do you think your experiences have been shaped by travel? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.
Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published recently by Unbound and shares the same publication date asmy debut – 16 November 2017.
Ivy Ngeow is third generation Chinese and was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is of mixed parentage of the nomadic Hakka tribe and Hokkien from the Fujian province. She lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018.
OXUS RIVER AND PAMIR MOUNTAINS
photo credit: Ricardo’s Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!) Afghanistan via photopin(license)
South London, are we ready? I am coming straight out of my garret to read from my new award-winning debut, CRY OF THE FLYING RHINO, at the Brixton Book Jam, on Monday 5 March 2018 7:30pm at The Hootananny. (95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF) – a large pub with a performance space that can hold 600 people. It also provides cooked food. The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) and buses 2, 3, 415, 432 and 196 will transport you very near to the venue. Guess what, it’s FREE to attend!
This will be the FIRST TIME that I am reading aloud from this book and answering any burning questions you may have about it or about me.
During the intervals, resident DJ Andy Carstairs will spin melodic stylings from his hard drive. Check out The Hootananny. See Brixton Book Jam for detailed biogs of each author and his/her book description.
Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.
Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?
You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:
“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”
Can you teach creative writing?
The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.
“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “
He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.
The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.
“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”
Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.
Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”
This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
My MA in Writing at Middlesex University
From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.
Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.
What about George Orwell?
What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.
is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.
Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?
Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.
William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.
What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.
Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.
A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.
Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?
Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.
The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…
By this these Angles from an evil sprite,
Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.
There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,
Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.
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.