Wednesday, June 3, 2009

“Dark Blue Thread”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers

For “Dark Blue Thread” I thought what if an expat writer found out that his Malay wife was cheating on him? Although my ex-wife, whom I loosely based my character on, as far as I know never cheated on me, the idea stuck. The story went on to be published four times (while we were still married), under its original title, “The Watermark”.

I used the Penang terrace house that I was living in back then as the setting, which made it easy since it was familiar territory. When it first appeared in The Her World Annual 92, the main character’s name was Dennis. A year later, when it was published in Singapore, I had changed the name to Eric, then to Eric Heywood in the first Lovers and Strangers collection, and back to Eric in London Magazine (January 1995). Although I liked the name Eric, I felt that the name Alan better suited the character, so I took the opportunity to change the name once again for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Alan’s wife also went through several name changes. She started out as Fatimah, then Sheela, and finally Salina in the original collection. Thankfully, Madison, our cat’s real name, remained the same.

The story was first published in the present tense, but soon afterwards I switched to past tense, which I felt worked better for this story. The biggest change was the ending. After cutting back on the various excesses in the early versions, for Lovers and Strangers, I settled on:

“Although he knew it was time to ask her about the letters, he was afraid of the answers. Afraid she might leave him. His crying woke Madison and she began to stir. He tried to hold her back, but she bounded over him and rushed for the opened door.”

While I was revisiting the story, I felt I needed a final confrontation with the wife. So I had her return to the house on the pretense that she had forgotten her office desk key. To set up this final confrontation, I added a lot more details about their backstory, their life in Malaysia, the financial sacrifices he had made, and the options that he was now facing.

It was becoming clear to me that the story wasn’t so much about “the watermark”; it was the dark blue thread, the main symbol of the story, too, which I felt would make a better, less confusing title. In Malaysia, bond paper isn’t all that common. The thread had also served as a constant reminder as to how fragile his life had become. Once he severed the thread with that knife, he was ready to face reality, no matter the consequences.

When the wife did come back, I had him slap her, which had not only surprised him, but also me as the writer. Until that very moment, I never thought he’d slap her. It was not something I was capable of doing, or would do, but for Alan, it was something he had to do. He had to make a point, even if that point backfired by losing his wife for good. But he had to take that risk. At stake was his very existence in Malaysia. Then in that final dialogue, he finally said what he had been holding back for the past two weeks.

The new ending thus became:

“He walked past [Madison] and went up to his office. He grabbed the paper. He didn’t care which way the watermark went. It really didn’t matter.”

With the expanded ending and all the additions I made, the story nearly doubled in length. For the MPH version, I added a couple more lines at the ending. I didn’t want the emphasis to fall on the watermark, but on him, as the writer and on his marriage:

“He began to type, but when he came to the letter p, he paused. Who in the hell was this P? Was it someone he knew? He decided right there and then that he didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter. He wanted to put these last two weeks behind him. He typed some more. Tears began to fall, but he kept on typing.”

This was the effect I was going for; he didn’t know what was going to happen to their marriage, now that she knew that he knew. It would all depend on her. She may leave him for this other man, or she way give up her lover and stay with her husband, and somehow they would work things out, whether returning to America or remained in Malaysia.

Note, I had now written in that final paragraph “It didn’t matter,” twice, knowing full well, the opposite was true.

As a footnote, I saw hope in this story. Hope in my own marriage, too, but alas that too came to an end, and it was time to move on. Unlike the character in the story, who was contemplating returning to America, that was never one of my options. I had decided to stay put in Malaysia. In real life, we had another factor to consider, a child, who came after the story was written. After our divorce, we shared raising our son (I had him during the week and she had him during the weekends) until my new job took me to Sarawak. My ex-wife got Madison, who was seventeen when she passed away, but in “Dark Blue Thread”, she still lives on, waiting to be fed.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

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