Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
After reading the biography of Norman Hall who went off to Tahiti after WWI and wrote the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy with Charles Nordhoff, I felt inspired to do the same, to go off to some tropical island, especially after experiencing several harsh winters in Wisconsin.
I met my future wife, Jenny, a Bidayuh from Sarawak, in Penang, and after marrying her at an old wooden village church built in 1865, we felt it would be good to live closer to my wife’s family, so our sons Jason and Justin could grow up with their cousins.
After my ten-year contract at Universiti Sains Malaysia ended in June’06, I got an offer to teach at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, which I did for several years. I thought a change would be good for my writing.
What’s it like being an expat writer?
Living overseas as an expatriate you’re exposed to different cultures, different customs and different ways to view the world… none of which you’ll agree with, but there’s plenty of room for compromise. You’ll have experiences—not always good mind you but some that are wonderful and others absolutely unforgettable—that you will never have in your home country.
It also forces you to think about yourself, your culture, your beliefs, and your home country in a totally different way, and that’s not a bad thing for a writer. You’ll have these cross-cultural experiences, these unexplained reactions and emotions that you’ll be trying to make sense of and write about for the rest of your life.
The biggest headache used to be making decent photocopies and mailing in submissions and manuscripts and waiting for replies that seem to take forever to cross the Pacific, but now so much of this is done online. I do miss living in a thriving literary community where it’s easy to connect with other writers and attend writing workshops or conferences. Then again I don’t miss those Midwestern winters. And there’s also the Internet.
How did you get started as a writer?
While working with Kinko’s in the 80’s, I started writing and publishing articles on management, and then I took a pair of correspondent courses on the short story from Writer’s Digest. At the time I was on the road a lot setting up stores, so this allowed me to write on my own schedule and have a writer critique my stories.
It wasn’t until after I had this unique cross-cultural experience of getting married on a day’s notice in a Muslim country on Christmas Day that I realized that I actually had stories that are worth telling. That non-fiction short story “Mat Salleh” was quickly published in Malaysia and also in the UK, and became the first of fifteen stories set in Malaysia for the original collection of Lovers and Strangers published by Heinemann Asia in Singapore.
One of the first things I did when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I bought a diary/journal and wrote in it every day. I also bought a small notebook that I would carry around with me and randomly describe something in detail every day for fifteen minutes.
It’s not important what you describe, be a flower, an unusual object, patterns in the room, or even a person who just happens to be there, it’s the habit of focusing your attention and observing and digesting what you’re seeing. After a while you’ll get pretty good at this, and some of those descriptions may even turn into a short story—consider it as a gift to yourself.
If you want more writing tips and advice, a good place to start is at the Writing section of this website.
Why revisit your collection of short stories?
Since I had been revising the stories every couple of years, both before and after Lovers and Strangers was originally published in 1993, it seemed natural to me to revise the collection when the opportunity came along to re-issue the book.
I also wanted to give the stories, the characters, and myself as a writer a second chance to make the stories better, the details and descriptions more precise, and the endings more satisfying. I took the opportunity to add new scenes and back-stories in order to flush out both the characters and the story where necessary as I wrote about in the Introduction, Lovers and Strangers Revisited.
I also wrote a blog series The Story Behind the Story for all 17 stories whereby I noted the significant changes that led to their various publications (which have also been taught in universities as a companion to the stories).
So far the post-publication revisions have paid off. The collection not only won the 2009 Popular-The Star Readers Choice Awards, the stories have also been published 82 times in twelve countries, taught in several universities and private colleges, and translated into French.
What are the benefits of working with an editor or having a mentor?
Carelessness in details and grammar (or even formatting) can sink a promising story faster than the Titanic. Now and then we all need a little help, a little perspective that we’re on the right track. The wrong track can lead you in circles for years, even decades.
Writing is mostly about trial and error but it’s those errors that can hold your work back from publication, especially if you are not aware of the mistakes that you’re making. The errors may not be related to grammar, but more toward style, content, organization, viewpoint, or pace. Having someone point that out to you and suggest ways to resolve those issues can be invaluable to a writer.
Too often we think our work is a lot better or a lot worse than it really is. A mentor can give you a trusted perspective on where your work really stands, and what you need to do to get it where you want to go. They can also help to keep you on track.
A mentor is basically a writing coach, someone who will hold your work up to a higher standard than you are willing to do on your own. Now and then we all get careless or sloppy.
Having a mentor at the beginning of your career will not only save you years of time but also lay down a foundation to build your work upon. Maybe what you’re working on right now is not your best work, but the work could very well lead you to what may well be your best work in the future.
Here’s a link to a blog that I wrote about my experiences working with another published writer.
Tell me more about publishing in Malaysia/Singapore.
All writers have to start somewhere so when I opted to move to Malaysia to start my writing career (I was already married to a Malaysian, had published several articles, and completed the first draft of a novel), I knew the experience of living overseas would change me as a writer for the better.
Since writers have been moving abroad for generations, I also knew I wasn’t breaking any new ground. Not even in Malaysia. Anthony Burgess wrote his Malayan Trilogy here and Somerset Maugham visited Malaysia and Borneo several times and wrote extensively about it in his short stories. Paul Theroux spent a few years in nearby Singapore and wrote Saint Jack about Singapore and The Consul’s File about Malaysia. But I also knew, it’s been forty years since then…
Back in 2007 I wrote a lengthy blog post, my first foray into blogging, about my experiences publishing books in Malaysia and Singapore. I updated it with links to blogs about my experiences since then. Here’s the link.