Tuesday, June 2, 2009

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

The original title for “Lovers and Strangers” was “Miss Valerie”, but while trying to come up with a unifying title for the collection I came up with Lovers and Strangers since some stories were about lovers and others about strangers. I then went through each story and worked in either the word “lover” or “stranger”. For this particular story I worked in the dialogue between Glasgow and Valerie that produced the line, “Last night we made love, so we’re lovers and strangers,” thus linking it both to the story and the title of the collection.

I began the idea for the story “Lovers and Strangers” by playing ‘what-if.’ What if a Chinese woman found out that her husband was having an affair and to get back at him, she decided to have her own affair. So she set her sights on the unsuspecting writer, Jason Glasgow, an American based in Singapore. To add another level to the story I had him haunted by the suicide of a former Chinese lover, Rebecca, that he feels responsible for.

In the original version published in both Femina (India) and in the first collection, the story was told from Valerie’s point of view. When I revised it for Lovers and Strangers Revisited (Silverfish), I not only changed the title back to “Miss Valerie”, but also changed the viewpoint from Valerie to Glasgow. In doing so, I had to change the entire story from beginning to the end. I did keep a lot of the dialogue, particularly Valerie’s. Because of that, even though the viewpoint was Glasgow, someone I could identify with, the dialogue, as has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions, is very balanced. In fact, she gets all the best lines and really puts Glasgow, deservingy, in his place!

The story originally ended with Valerie being back in Penang and discovering that she was pregnant. For her this was pure delight since she’s always wanted to have a baby. It’s also the ultimate revenge on her philandering husband. But this time I wanted to push the story further. I wanted Valerie to follow in the footsteps of Rebecca, which was Glasgow’s worst fear. Then to add to that fear, he now had this baby that he didn’t want and was expected to raise.

To tie the new beginning to the new end, I played with the idea, or the imagery of a ghost. For Glasgow, when he first saw Valerie he thought he was seeing the ghost of Rebecca. Throughout the story, Valerie would tease him about this. She also vowed to come back to Singapore to “haunt” him. She even named their child, Rebecca.

The story also doubled in length and became the longest story in the collection, so I made it the final story, replacing “Mat Salleh”. I reshuffled the placement of most of the stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Then I kept the order for the MPH version but then added the two new stories to the end.

For the MPH collection, at the urging of the editor, I did change the title “Miss Valerie” back to “Lovers and Strangers”. I also spent a lot of time rewriting the new ending, showing that it did take him some time to come around to the fact that he had this daughter living in Penang. But first he needed to reconcile himself with Valerie’s death; only then was he able to contemplate shifting his future from being a confirmed bachelor to a single father.

It has been suggested by several writer friends that I could turn this story into novel by starting with Glasgow’s first love affair with Rebecca. Perhaps, in the future I will do that.

As a note, a young lady from Iran who was doing her graduate work in Malaysia, was so taken with this story, identifying closely with Miss Valerie, that she was quite upset with her death, and she insisted on talking to me about this story at lenght, so we set an appointment. This was the second time that someone really, personally, took my story to heart, a great learning experience for me about the power writers have, so it's important to get the story just right, your readers depend on it.

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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