Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"The Future Barrister": The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

In the mid-80s I was standing outside Komtar in Penang, Malaysia at the bus stop, a rather seedy, smelly, low-lit area, late at night, when a young Indian man started in a one-sided conversation about his studying to be a barrister in the UK. He had this Clark Gable look about him, with a neatly trimmed moustache and sideburns. He was handsome and he knew it and he also had this way of winking as he talked, as if he was letting you in on a secret. He was also full of contradictions.

In the middle of our conversation, an attractive woman approached him and tried to pick him up. She totally ignored me. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. I’m thinking, this guy is a real character! As soon as I got on the bus, I started making notes to turn him into a story. I even used one of his lines to open the story, “There are seven hundred barristers in Penang, and I will be number seven hundred and one!”

I changed the location of the story from a bus stop to a pub, 20 Leith Street, and I had him invite an American to join him at his table. I used the American as a minor first person viewpoint character merely as a witness to give the Future Barrister and his story credibility. I purposely didn’t give the American or the Future Barrister a name, though I referred to him as Clark Gable. Near the end of the story, I even say, “I was glad that I didn’t know his name.”

The biggest problem when I began to write it was the backstory, his relating about what had happened to him in the UK, why he was back in Malaysia and not continuing his studies. He mentioned he had run out of money and that there was a girl involved, Sarah. (I don’t remember if that was her actual name or if that was merely the name that I gave her in the story.) I had a feeling he was not telling me the real reason, as if he was hiding something, and that something was sinister, a skeleton in the closet. Maybe it was my imagination or the way he kept winking at me. So I needed to fill in the gaps and create a believable backstory.

Also I needed to break up his monologue into smaller chunks with descriptions that could showcase his character. I wanted to show how he interacted with the American and the other patrons, including a boy selling newspapers, dismissing him, as he did the woman at the bus stop, with a disdainful wave of his hand. I also wanted to show the irony, that he had become like the British Raj to his own people, a racist and a snob.

I entered this story in the 1987 Star/Nestle Short Story Awards here in Malaysia, but the contest got cancelled when the newspaper got cancelled for political reasons. Fortunate­ly, the newspaper got reinstated the following year, so when they announced the 1988 contest, I reworked the story – glad for the opportunity to do so. It won third place and was published in The Star.

Despite the early success of the story and it being published in Malaysia, India and Australia, I felt it needed something more. The random numbers on the lottery ticket didn’t seem all that confusing, even when drunk, so I changed them to 5355353, whereby the 3s and 5s, if published close together, could blur into one another. It was recently pointed out to me that there are a couple of thousand barristers in Penang, but that’s nearly twenty years later, so I kept the original quote.

While revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I introduced a minor subplot with the American being interested in an Indian woman sitting at the next table who reminded him of his ex-wife, but who later rebuffed him. In contrast, I also added an attractive Western woman who walked into the pub with several friends, and she caught the Future Barrister’s eye. Later, he asked her to dance and she accepted. Of course, this gets him talking more about his ex-girlfriend in the UK, so more of the story, the truth, comes out.

Still the story never sat well with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. By then I had been experimenting with the present tense in a novel that I was working on, and it seemed to solve some problems. I tried it out on “The Future Barrister” and it felt right, so for this latest MPH collection, I rewrote the story in the present tense. This was then published by Descant in Canada in 2010.

This is the fifth time that one of my short stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited was published in the USA or Canada twenty years after I first wrote it. So the lesson here is, never give up on your stories, especially if you have been revising them all along.

As a footnote, the story and the interview of me in The Star proved to be a catalyst when I met another Penang character, an expat, shortly thereafter, and later wrote a lengthy non-fiction piece about him as a tribute to someone who had died alone in a far away land in my book Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat’s Life in Malaysia. (MPH 2009) For me, “The Future Barrister” and this expat will always be intertwined in a way I could never have imagined.

In case you’re wondering, do I always write about people I meet? No, but when a good character walks into your life, take plenty of notes, especially if the character is a story waiting to happen. By the way, I never did bump into the Future Barrister again, though I feel he would have been pleased with the story. After all, it was all about him.

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.


  1. MayaKirana said...
    Hi Robert: I always knew you were the observer, waiting to find that delicious character to make your story come alive. I believe that happens to writers and closet writers (like me lah). Remember when I took Beth's writing class? Observation about the minute details of life, re-thinking the ways I saw things...that in itself would make us all better humans who truly paid attention to their surroundings. Now I know the background to your stories which I think are stories in themselves!
    AUGUST 28, 2008 11:58 PM

  2. BorneoExpatWriter said...
    Hi Phooi Kheng. Yes the stories are out there just waiting for us to find. They've always been there, but do we recognize them even when they confront us face to face? Trust your instincts and always take down notes when an interesting/bizarre person comes into your life, or when you see a potential location for a story or you get caught up in an unusual situation. Later these can become the jumping off point for new stories or the missing piece for old, unfinished stories. You just never know....I'm glad I followed my instincts while waiting for the bus that night. I'm glad I always carry a pen and pocket-size notebook with me so when the idea strikes, I can quickly write it down. Good ideas evaporate in less than a minute. If you hesitate to make a note, it'll be gone forever. A sad thought.
    AUGUST 31, 2008 7:13 PM