Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"On Fridays": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Over the years, I’ve often been asked about the short stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), winner of the 2009 Popular-The Star Reader's Choice Award in Fiction, previously published by Silverfish (2005), and originally as Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia 1993). Where I got the ideas? How I wrote them? Why I revise them even after they’ve been published! And are the stories true?

In the preface to the original collection I wrote, “There’s a lot of truth in all fiction and a lot of fiction in all truth, so what may seem real may, in fact, be made up, and what may seem made up could very well be based on fact. The characters in this collection only exist in the author’s and the reader’s mind and if they bear a resemblance to anyone you know, then it’s merely a coincidence.”

As we all know there’s a blurry line between truth and fiction. Some stories that I wrote started out based on fact and got changed along the way to make it a better story. Others started out as pure fiction but some truth got added in to make the story seem more realistic. I tried to make all the stories seem real, as if they had happened. Maybe that’s why these 15 – now 17 stories – have been published, at last count, 78 times in eleven countries (updated, 2 September 2010), taught in numerous Malaysian universities, private colleges, in SPM literature, and even a high school in Canada.

So with the new version of Lovers and Strangers Revisited published by MPH, I thought I would do a series of blogs on the stories – the story behind the story – which I hope will answer these questions about truth and fiction and also, perhaps, inspire some of you who write to take another look at your own story ideas, to see if you can make them resonate with the reader, and perhaps even break you from your own truth, which often gets in the way of a good short story.

Already I can hear protests, “But that’s the way it really happened!” Yes, no doubt, but to get to the essential story, the “real” story, sometimes you need to take a step back from your truth and ask yourself, does your truth serve the story, or does it hamper it? Of course, I’m referring to writing fiction not a memoir. And by making the necessary changes, you never know where you’re story will take you. For example, I started a story about a man riding in a taxi and it ended up being published 13 times, and now it’s the lead story in this collection.

The original idea for “On Fridays” came when I was part-time adviser for MACEE, Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange. Every Friday I would take a sixteen kilometer taxi ride into George Town. It was a share taxi, whereby we share it with other passengers, who get on and off at various locations.

I saw this taxi as a metaphor for multiracial Malaysia, where people of various races live and work in close proximity and in relative harmony. So I added an unnamed Westerner, an expat, who becomes interested in a Malay woman sitting beside him in a taxi, yet because of the other passengers, he feels too self-conscious to act.

Although I normally write in the third person, I chose to write this story in the first person at the expense of people assuming that it’s autobiographical. As many of you know, when you use the first person “I” as the narrator, people naturally assume it’s the author or in this case, it’s “me”. Unlike the character, by the way, I don’t paint, and the character taught English years before I ever did.

The effect I was going for, I felt, would be better served using “I”, because I wanted the reader to closely identify with the narrator, to see himself in this, or in a similar situation, and think about what he or she would do - to make the story more personal. From the comments I got in the past – it works. This was the one story from my collection that people would bring up and then relate a similar experience of their own.

Another choice I made was not using the past tense and opting for the present tense, because I felt it would give the story more immediacy, and hopefully a timeless quality. And perhaps make it linger, as does the ending, so it would seem that this just happened.

Also from the hundreds of taxi rides I took while living in Penang, I chose to “create” one that was representative of all those rides. By using the senses – see, hear, feel, taste and smell – I tried to make this one taxi ride as realistic as possible by putting the reader in that taxi with me. If they believe in that taxi ride, then they’ll believe in the story. That it’s the “truth”; that it “happened”; that there really was “a girl”; and that I’m still “searching” for her....When my creative writing students read this story, they inevitably ask me, “Have you found her yet?”

When I first wrote the story I had a lot of details describing the sights along the way. An editor from the UK made the comment that it read too much like a travelogue. So I cut out the descriptions that weren’t necessary. It was also suggested that I make the character single. His being married raised some moral issues – like is he cheating on his wife? Good advice, which I took, and an example of how "facts" or "truth" can have unforeseen consequences in your fiction. This is the version that first got published in Female in Singapore, Plaza in Japan and Going Down Swinging Australia.

A reader, unfamiliar with Malaysia, asked me what’s the big deal if he does touch her in the taxi, so while revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I worked in the character’s concerns about being arrested for “outraging her modesty” since he’s an expat in a Muslim country, something that many people outside of Malaysia who are not familiar with Muslim countries would know. As a writer, you can't always assume that overseas readers, if that is who you also want to reach, will "get it".

Then I got to thinking, why doesn't he get out of the taxi at the jetty and follow her (I would!), and if he does, I would also need to make it clear why he has to return to the taxi, for fear of losing his job, something difficult for an expat to get without a work permit. So I added this new scene to the story.

A US editor suggested that I lop off the final paragraph. I didn’t like his suggestion, yet I felt he had a point, so we compromised by rearranging a couple of paragraphs at the end, to make the story more effective, so the focus wasn’t on the man’s loneliness, but on his obsession. This became the version that was published simultaneously, as a joint-venture, between a literary magazine in France, Frank, and The Literary Review in the US, and with some minor editing, this MPH collection, and now Cha: An Asian Literary Review

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.

8 comments:

  1. KeeMan said...
    Hello Mr. Raymer,

    Just got your latest "edition" of Lovers and Strangers last 2 days. I guess i'm among the first few to get hold of the book as i pre-order it from MPH online last couple of weeks. Love the cover too (perhaps it's mainly because i love red!) :p

    And yeah, "On Fridays" is one of my favourite story in your "Lovers and Strangers" collection. As a beginning writer myself, i do like your style of writing.
    JULY 29, 2008 7:16 PM

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  2. BorneoExpatWriter said...
    Keeman,
    Thanks. That's one story that a lot of people can identify with. We've all been in that situation, sitting beside someone we feel drawn to, though unlike the character we don't turn it into an obsession! Just a tinge of regret, perhaps!
    JULY 29, 2008 7:31 PM

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  3. © EM Muhammad said...
    Hello Robert,
    Love your short story - On Fridays. I'm a Malay woman (not the one you were searching for, though) living in Perth. Your story makes me cry. I miss Penang.
    I am very comfortable with your writing technique. Easy and yet, it grips you to read the story to the end. Quite frustrated when I reached the end of the story, though. I want a happy ending!!!
    FYI, I'm a novice writer. I wrote children books in Malay and published them in Malaysia. At the moment, I'm trying to write a romance novel. Wish me luck. Wish you were my lecturer.
    AUGUST 1, 2008 11:12 PM

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  4. BorneoExpatWriter said...
    Hi,
    Thanks. For romance you do need a happy ending, but too often as in the situation in "On Fridays", there's always that what if. What if I spoke to her, touched her, followed her out of the taxi and became friends, lovers. Then there's that desire to go back in time and get it right the first time. But what if she rebuffed him for the intrusion into her private moment or thought he was stalking her at the jetty. I wanted the reader to think, well, if that was me, I would have...Then they're involved with the story. Good luck with your novel. The fact that you've published some children books, regardless of the language, is good. Built on that and finish the book. Also, don't use the word "trying", it's a hedge word. Tell yourself and others that "I'm writing a romance book." And do so!
    AUGUST 2, 2008 12:05 AM

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  5. Hi Raymer,
    I am curious as to how you get your stories published overseas. Could you please kindly enlighten me on this.

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  6. Wonda,
    Basically I fine markets that I feel are suitable and send the story to the editor. There are writing magazines and books you can buy that list out markets (magazines/journals and online) where you can send your work, fiction or nonfiction, what type of stories they're interested in, lenght requirements, pay (sometimers just in copies), etc etc. It's a competitive market in the US, UK, Australia, but new writers break in all the time, so long as the story is good and it suits that magazine's needs/interests. Some good magazines to start with are The Writer and Writer's Digest, for US markets and books to buy that will explain the nuts and bolts of the process, so you come across like you know what you're doing. In the beginning, we all make mistakes!

    You can also do google searches and find plenty of contests, too.

    All the best!

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  7. rtfgvb763,
    Thanks, I just updated the post for On Fridays since it's being published online out of Hong Kong with a link to this blog about the story. Other's are using these blogs to complement the stories being taught in universities, so I'll be updating the rest, too.

    ReplyDelete