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.
“Do not enter when light is on!” Structural edit: that means blasting, incision, internal tissue re-organisation and cosmetic surgery. But of course, I am not talking metaphorically at all. I am talking about the body of work. Words. I’ve created strict exam conditions in the attic AKA the cutting room. There’s no furniture. I sit on the floor monk-like so it’s not very comfortable and I cannot fall asleep. The only distractions I am surrounding myself with are:
Junk food, some “guilt-free”, if you believe the wrappers;
Only two musical instruments for when the going gets tougher (limited to only two, otherwise it will turn into a party);
Vintage Sennheiser headphones to listen to the music from the book to remind myself of the great songs which inspired the story. Playlist? Yes? A musical? Maybe?!
My editor, who has worked in top publishing houses such as Orion, Hodder & Stoughton, Headline and Bantam in New York, is a specialist in this genre and has editted bestselling authors such as Linwood Barclay, Tess Gerritsen et al. We are in this together, me, you and him, and we are going to make Heart of Glass the best that it can be. And a tight deadline. I started on this process 10 days ago. I should be done with this edit in another two weeks. 79,000 words in three weeks, right? What do you mean “Vitamin D deficiency”? OK. Until then…
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!
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.
If you have been wondering “why Chicago, why Macau?” why not take a look at the original, vintage settings? See inside the excitingly rare1964 book found in a wet market (Chowrasta) in Georgetown, Penang, which inspired the ideas and setting of Heart of Glass. Hope you are “stirred, not shaken.” (HINT)
Welcome to everyone on board HMS Ivy boat, especially those who have just embarked. “Why crime?” Indeed. Without further delay, make yourself a cup of coffee or a martini and watch it now. It’s only 5 minutes long, packed full of ideas and most of all contains ORIGINAL vintage material not available anywhere on the internet!
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.