Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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

I was attending a Chinese funeral at someone’s house with several Malaysian Toastmaster friends, when my friends started swapping “death” stories. One lady told about the time that her father had died; for several days afterwards, out of habit, she would wait up for him to come home from work, only to remember that he was not coming home anymore.

In the back of my mind, I played with that idea.

Earlier that evening, I had been fascinated by a lionhead goldfish, having never seen one before, so I worked in some details about the fish into the story and added some additional details about another Toastmaster friend who, on another occasion, told me about the goldfish that he used to raise and sell as a boy.

Also, around the same time, there was a construction site close to where I was living and there was this constant metal hitting metal sound that was driving me crazy, so I incorporated that into the story as well.

Sometimes that’s all you need to get a story going: a few random details, a few elements of truth to anchor the story, and then you’re off...

Shortly after “Waiting” was written it was published in 1988 (the fastest that any of my stories had been published, except for maybe “The Stare”), not once but twice, in Her World in Malaysia and Hot in Singapore. It was published twice again in the 1990’s in the UK and Australia, and then twenty years after it was first written, it was published in the US, in Thema (Autumn 2008).

Maybe because it got published so fast, I didn’t make a lot of changes in the story, compared to all the others in this collection; some having undergone massive rewrites where I introduced new scenes, backstories, and totally revamped the endings by adding several additional pages! I did change the main character’s name, which started out as Miss Lai and remained so in the original Lovers and Strangers. Since she needed a suitable, “important” job, I made her a secretary for a legal firm.

An editor in the UK made a comment about the “Miss” part of the name, which he felt sounded a bit dated; however, it’s very common among the working class in Malaysia. Either way, I dropped it for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, since I was using Miss Valerie as a title of one of the stories. So I changed Miss Lai’s name to Agnes Chen.

I also revised the ending of “Waiting”, which hadn’t changed all that much from the Her World ending. Below is how it appeared in the original Lovers and Strangers collection:

Why doesn’t Dad come in? Why is he making her wait? Edward made her wait. Doesn’t dad know? Doesn’t he know she hates to be kept waiting?

When I revisited the story for Silverfish, I wanted to break up her thoughts with some action. I also wanted her to say exactly what she was thinking about Edward all along. I kept this same ending for MPH and also Thema:

Why doesn’t Dad come in? Doesn’t he know it’s raining? Agnes waited a little longer. She got up and went to the door, but Paul stopped her from opening it. “Sis, you have to accept this.” “But we made plans. We planned to get married. Edward promised me. He promised me!”

As a footnote, 21 years after I wrote “Waiting”, I got an email from a Toastmaster who, coincidentally, read my story at a recent Toastmaster meeting in Shah Alam as part of the Interpretive Reading module that she’s doing, thus bringing the story full circle. She also said, “The tingling tone of suspense and Agnes' helplessness and waiting in vain kept the audience focused on the story from start to finish.” For a writer that’s quite an honor to have someone (who I don't know) not only read your story but also to present it a way that I had never imagined.

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. Sarah wrote to my website email.

    "During a Toastmasters session, I read
    'Waiting' to the audience as part of the Interpretive Reading module I am presenting
    doing. The tingling tone of suspense and Agnes' helplessness and waiting in vain
    kept the audience focused on the story from start to finish. Congrats for having
    crafted it so well. You've swayed the main character gently back and forth through a
    spectrum of emotions which border between sanity and insanity. She sounds so typical
    of some working ladies who have a void in their lives to fill and are caught in a
    rut. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it to my fellow toastmasters in the Shah Alam

  2. Sarah,
    Hi, I was updating my blog series, The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited when I made this weird connection to your reading "Waiting" as part of your Toastmaster speech. The original idea behind this story came from a Toastmaster over 20 years ago while we were attending a Chinese funeral of one of the Toastmaster's parents in Penang!