Wednesday, June 3, 2009

“The Station Hotel”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

When I entered my room at The Station Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, I had this overwhelming feeling of déjà vu; I was sure that I had stayed there before, in the same room. I can’t actually recall ever staying at the hotel before that (although I may have), but I did transfer that strong feeling I had to my character Michele Yeap. (I gave her my groggy feeling of spending a night on the train, too!) Right away, I knew that the hotel would make a great setting for a short story and began taking photographs and describing everything inside the room.

My original characters were a married couple who had stayed there years before, but now their marriage was falling apart. The story wasn’t working. I hated the characters and tossed them out, but I kept the setting! So I brought in two more characters, one of whom had spend a night there en route to her honeymoon in Hong Kong; this time she’s here with her lover from Penang. She was only joking when she suggested they stay at The Station Hotel but the joke backfired.

Although my original working title was "The Station Hotel", I switched it to “Inevitable" and then to "The Joke” which was the title of this story when it appeared in Her World (Oct ‘89). Back then Michele’s last name was Loo. I changed the title again to “Joking” when it appeared in Northern Perspective (Australia, 1992) and kept it for the first Lovers and Strangers collection (but dropped the name Loo – it reminded me too much of a toilet! Names, and their connotations, are important.) Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish collection, I changed the title back to “The Station Hotel” (and added Yeap to Michele’s name).

This story was about contrasting moods and I was careful in choosing the details to highlight this: Michele’s mood when she first entered the hotel with her lover and then later, when she returned to the hotel that evening. It was the same physical place but she saw it all differently because her mood was totally different. Everything that she saw was no longer the same: the bell desk clerk, a young man eager to please, and then the grumpy old woman; the long, high-ceiling corridor, and then an endless tunnel; the spacious room and freshly painted bathroom, and then the dull, simple room and the poor paint job; a flock of swallows and palm trees, and then the cluster of cars and trash strewn everywhere).

To make the characters seem more real, I modeled Michele and Lee on a pair of friends from Penang, neither of whom were married. Recognizing themselves in the book, they brought it to my attention. They were ok with it, but felt odd – like, how in the world did I know so much about them? Several other friends thought I was writing about them, too, and I couldn’t convince them otherwise, so I must’ve done a really good job!

One couple thought I wrote about the husband because he wore glasses, hid behind his smile and his name was “Lee”. He’s American, and in the original version it was clearly stated that Lee was Chinese. (Later, I dropped the reference so readers could picture him as they wished.) The wife was quite upset with me (and suspicious of him!) until I dug up the original Her World story written years before I had met them (to the relief of the husband!). Another lady, whom I didn’t know very well, thought I was writing about her because she fit the general description and worked in the hotel line. So did another woman, also in the hotel line. Since this was a story about a woman having an affair with a married man, I kept wondering, oh, so who are you having an affair with?

While revisiting the stories for the Silverfish collection I had to go to KL for a book launch/reading at Silverfish, and I thought it might be interesting to stay at the refurbished (and renamed) The Heritage Station Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. I hadn’t touched the story, “The Station Hotel”, in a dozen years and was having some problems with it, so I brought along a working draft of the story. After wandering around the hotel and taking copious notes to give the story more depth, I began to edit it. There’s nothing like being at the physical setting of a story to get the juices flowing. In fact, the ideas were coming fast and I stayed up half the night scribbling away, adding all this new material.

I had always felt that the ending was rushed, and it needed to be a bigger moment. So I played with it and expanded the last two paragraphs to two and a half pages! Throughout the story, I added in more details about Michele’s first marriage to Barry. This was an important counterpoint to Lee, whom she was having an affair with. By the end the story, and rather ironically, Barry was becoming the solution. In order for this to be convincing, I needed to introduce a lot more backstory about this early marriage, how they had met, why they got married, why they separated and why they remained close friends. Prior to this, the marriage had merely been mentioned a couple of times in passing.

After I had given my reading at Silverfish, I woman came late and when she found out that I had already read, expressed her disappointment.

“I do have another story with me that I’ve been rewriting,” I said, but added that it’s full of handwritten notes. The others also wanted me to read it, so I did. I was taking a big risk because the story was getting to be rather long and my hand-written notes, squeezed in here and there, with arrows all over the place, were hard to read. Nevertheless, I persevered.

The reception was much better than I had imagined. In fact, one woman I didn’t know gushed, “Oh, I wish my friend was here. She stayed at the Station Hotel for six months and she would’ve loved it! Is this going to be in your book? I’ll make sure she gets a copy!”

I knew I was on the right track. With all these new additions, I ended up doubling the length of the original story. I was glad that I had decided to stay at The Station Hotel that first (and possibly second) time and definitely while revisiting the story!

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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