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.
About Robert Raymer:
After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he was a regional manager for Kinko, in charge of 11 stores in three states before moving to Penang, Malaysia where he lived for 21 years and taught creative writing at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He also taught creative writing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. He is the author of a collection of short stories set in Malaysia (Lovers and Strangers Revisited, MPH Group, 2008), a collection of creative nonfiction (Tropical Affairs, MPH, 2009), and a travel book (Spirit of Malaysia, Editions Didier Millet, 2011).
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.