Thursday, November 16, 2017

INTERVIEW IVY NGEOW: Robert Raymer Chats with London-based Malaysian Author Ivy Ngeow on Writing and Publishing Two Novels

It’s always an exciting time for a writer when your first novel is about to be published, but when you have two novels coming out from two separate publishers—one a prize-winner in Hong Kong, an­other crowdfunded in London—that’s really exciting..

Thirty years ago, when Ivy Ngeow was 17, I met her at two-day workshop in Kuala Lumpur conducted by noted Malaysian author K.S. Maniam.  Seventeen years later, as an editor for the anthology Silverfish 4, I happened to choose one of Ivy’s short stories.  I didn’t connect the writer from the UK with the writer I had met from Johor until she pointed it out to me.

I was fortunate to have read the advance copy of Ivy’s forthcoming novel, Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize, for her Proverse Hong Kong publisher.  The book was written in a lyrical style infused with Borneo folklore, Iban dreams, and peppered with startling fresh similes and meta­phors both illuminating and culturally apt....Ivy has an eye for rich telling detail and a deft ear for dialogue.  I’m looking forward to reading Heart of Glass.

Born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and a graduate of the Middlesex Uni­ver­sity Writing MA program, Ivy won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Prize out of nearly 1500 entrants worldwide.  Her short stories have appeared in two Silverfish New Writing anthologies, in Fixi Novo’s anthology Hungry in Ipoh, The New Writer, and on the BBC World Service.  She won first prize in the Com­mon­wealth Essay Writing Competition 1994, first prize in the Barnes and Noble Career Essay Writing competition 1998 and was shortlisted for the David T K Wong Fellowship 1998 and the Ian St James Award 1999.  She even won fifth prize (out of 850 en­trants) in the 2006 1-MIC (Music Industry Charts) UK Award for her original song, ‘Celebrity’.  An architect by profession, Ivy lives and writes in London with her family.

After being interviewed on Ivy’s blog, I’m delighted to return the favor.

RR: I can’t imagine what’s going through your mind right now knowing that your first and second novels, Cry of the Flying Rhino and Heart of Glass, are both coming out in 2017, so please tell us...

IVY:  I feel I am being whacked about the head every morning.  I remind myself that although I have had short stories published, I have put in the five ingredients of writing a novel:  in­spi­ration, time, effort, commitment and energy.  After many decades, in which at no stage was it easy, another journey has begun for me—that as a novelist.

RR:  About time, I’m sure....I know the feeling all too well and so do plenty of other writers.  You’ve also cleverly managed to bypass that whole second novel syndrome—two at one time.  Smart!  Tell us a little about each novel, their similarities and differences?  I know one is set in Malaysia.  The other?

IVY:  Cry of the Flying Rhino is set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s.  The protagonist is a Malaysian Chinese doctor, a middle-class Western-educated professional.  However he is entangled in his wife’s past secrets and has to disentangle himself and his family.  Heart of Glass is set in Chicago and Macau in the 1980s.  The protagonist is a mixed American Chinese girl, a petty criminal, a school dropout who has to find a way of coming clean by taking on a gig abroad in Macau.  Both main characters have to find their own sense of belonging; both are decultured in their own natural settings.  The themes of imprisonment, displacement, cultural identity and diversity are prevalent in my novels.  They are both slightly gothic literary thrillers taking place in the denseness and darkness of cities or jungles at night, steeped in rich cultural references and atmospheric settings.

RR:  The settings for Cry of the Flying Rhino were palpable.  I was thinking, when did Ivy come to Borneo?  Why didn’t she visit me!  How did crowdfunding Heart of Glass come about?  Was that your idea, the publisher, or is it a new trend that you tapped into—a com­promise between traditional publishing versus self-publish­ing—a win-win, I assume, for both the writer and the publisher?

IVY:  I first heard of Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher through a mailing list that I was on and I thought what the hell.  I sent them the entire manuscript in October 2016 and they accepted it on 18 November 2016.  The idea behind crowdfunding was simply to pre-sell 175 to 300 copies of your book through direct sales.  I thought—I can’t do that!  I could sell 10.  Maybe 20.  But then I asked myself, wait a minute, what if I could sell 175 copies?  Would I not want that?  Why don’t I give it a go?  I could always quit if I could not make the target.  Since no one, in­clud­ing the publisher, knew what could happen in the future, I signed the contract.  If I pre-sold the copies, I would have a real book and an ebook.  This was the deal.  And it was a top London publisher.  I started my crowdfunding campaign on 12 December 2016.  The project was fully funded on 30 March 2017.

From the start I knew this is the exact opposite of vanity or self-publishing.  No self-published book would exist in a real bookshop even an indie.  Unbound’s books do.  It can’t be vanity as it was as humble as you would ever have to be.  You’re selling your hard work.  How to be proud when you’re selling?  And in sales, the customer must at least feel comfortable to spend his or her hard-earned money on you.  The publisher?  Unbound would be editing, design­ing, copy­edit­ing, proofing, publishing, distributing as per tradition.  You?  The writer?  You write the book and you sell the copies.  The contract was very transparent and clear.  My contact who I was deal­­ing with was friendly, helpful and kind.  They were always there to answer my questions or to assist me with the steps I was taking.  On top of that, I had access to the Unbound Social Club, the online forum of the authors and a treasure trove of experience, sounding boards, tips and advice. 

RR:  This all sounds intriguing—you get a publisher, an in-house support group and a social network, something you can plug into at any moment, ideal for isolated writers in the far flung corners of the world like me in Borneo....What are the benefits and the drawbacks to crowd­funding a novel?  Do you recommend it for other writers?  Would you do it again?


-publication by a top quality London publisher via traditional publishing process
-high quality, professional production
-access to top editorial team and design team
-access to the authors’ forum and network
-gaining wide readership or fans through campaigning
-gaining new skill of crowdfunding through the process
-attract media attention, publicity and promotion
-books distributed widely, or by Penguin if hardback
-authors get 50-50 with publisher (high royalties) after target reached

-crowdfunding is direct marketing, sales campaign and self-promotion all in one
-not being able to find/reach out to enough readers/investors/supporters/patrons
-social media over-use
-extremely time consuming
-annoying people you know (to buy your book)
-annoying people you don’t know (to buy your book)
-risk of not reaching target (shame/embarrassment)
-no advance
-high target

Despite the cons, I would definitely recommend crowdfunding to new authors who have written a truly original piece of work or something which straddles genres (like mine) or something that has a moral heart which is hard to place in the market.  For previously published authors crowd­funding would work well if you have an established readership.  There are many well-known authors crowd­funding.

RR:  With publishing industry being what it is today, I’m not surprised.  If a writer can guarantee sales by crowdfunding, it removes a lot of the risk for the publisher; also the writer will be getting that second chance that may have eluded them if their first book or early work, for one reason or another, didn’t sell up to expectations....I was amazed by all these writers whose books had gone out of print, by how quickly they jumped into the eBook market.  Suddenly they were back in business, eager to find new readers, putting in the hard work to market themselves, proving to publishers who let their work go out of print—see, I knew I had readers out there; they just happened to be scattered around the world!

Tell us little about your background, growing up in Johor, and what led you into writing at a young age.  Do you draw upon that experience in your fiction?

IVY:  I was born and raised in Johor Bahru.  My house overlooks the Straits of Johor.  I attended the local Convent school (Holy Infant Jesus Convent).  I was so fortunate that when we moved into the house where my parents still live, one room was filled with the previous owner’s books from floor to ceiling.  I did not know what these books were, but I started to read every one of them and by the time I was fourteen I believe I had read them all.  There were classics, block­busters, books on religion, biology, science, maths, astronomy, law, and teaching yourself (French, Yoga, Music, Chinese, Malay, English, Islam, Christianity, Swahili etc).  There was even a Kama Sutra (I remember being so horrified as I thought it was yoga!)  The books were very old, dating from the forties to the mid-seventies....I could slip into the past quite easily; even now I still see myself as a vintage person.

My mother, who was a school teacher, also brought home six hardback books every week from her school library.  She knew I loved humour, mysteries and crime so she brought home Agatha Christie, P G Wodehouse, Enid Blyton books.  There was also the Sultan Ismail library which I remember my mother took me to join when I was eight or nine.

RR:  Lucky you!  My parents weren’t readers, so we had zero books at home.  My grand­mother, who went to college but my parents didn’t, had a thick children book that I learned to read.  Luckily we had a library next door to one of my pri­mary schools (we moved a lot) and a decent library in junior and senior high school and my older brother had books assigned to him in college that I would read.  But I was never a voracious reader and envied those who had cultivated that wonderful habit.  I didn’t start reading on a regular basis un­til I backpacked through Europe after university—I would swap books with other back­packers.  Nor did I start to write until my mid-twenties.

IVY:  I started writing really young.  This is pretty much the perfect age to begin living in an imaginary world.  Initially it was to entertain my toddler brothers because they were bored with the stories they had heard (so was I), so I started writing down stories that I made up.  I found it quite entertaining....I sort of cared and did not care if they liked my stories or not.  My only read­er was my dad.  He was a doctor and quite a serious critical thinker.  He would read them and give me feedback on plot or character weak­nesses and I remember that I went back to fix the gram­mar or spelling, but not to improve or change the stories because I just wanted to start a new one.  The door to many other worlds opened when I discovered reading and, from then on, I really did not want to look back or to stop to come back to the real world. 

RR:  I left the “real world” in my late twenties when I moved to Malaysia (after travelling for nine months) to make myself a writer.  I had read an autobiography by Norman Hall who had moved to Tahiti and wrote the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy with Charles Nord­hoff, and thought, now there’s an idea!  I thought I’d give it two years and if it didn’t work out, return to the com­pany I had worked with....I’m still here, but now living in Borneo....

Living so long in London, do you consider yourself a Ma­laysian writer or an expat writer or just a writer who happens to be living in London?

IVY:  Now that’s tough, Robert!  Someone once said patriotism is the love of the food one ate as a child.  I have been away too long.  I now only have dim glimpses and snatches of details of Malaysian life and culture.  I would consider myself a London writer of Malaysian origin.

RR:  Me, I’m an expat writer who happens to be American.  I felt more Malaysian early on when I was writing the stories that became Lovers and Strangers Revisited, many written from the viewpoint of Malaysians.  Then I began working on an expat novel.  I wrote two expat novels.  Lately, my novels are mostly set in the US....Perhaps, in a way, I’m miss­ing home, though I feel more at home here with my wife and two children (I have a third work­ing in West Malaysia).  I have a hard time relating to what is going on in America these days, socially, politically...

Something I do miss is a literary scene.  Penang and Kuala Lumpur held literary events now and then, readings, well-known writers from overseas stopping by as part of an Asian tour....I used to meet with two expat novelists and the three of us would get together and exchange our work in these marathon meetings that were fantastic until I accidentally offended one of them, who was very sensitive about her novel (she had a traumatic, war-torn childhood).  Then soon after, she moved away.  She was very talented and years later her novel sold and did very well in the US and now she has another novel out.  I just wished we didn’t have that falling out because we had a good thing going....I did teach creative writing in Penang and Kuching at the university level and that was fun workshopping their stories.  We all learned.

Are you actively involved in the London literary scene, regularly attending readings or work­­shops or being part of a writing group?  Does it help with your writing or can it be more of a distraction or an excuse not to write?  (I’ll never be as good as so-and-so, or who has time to write with all of these literary events going on?)

IVY:  I am in the London literary scene both virtual and real.  I prefer real face to face inter­action as opposed to online groups.  For example, I am attending the Brixton Book Jam this month.  I am also a member of the South London Writers’ Group.  I joined the City Lit Writers’ Club when I first arrived in the UK and I completed my MA in Writing at Middlesex University.  Let’s face it, writing is a solitary profession.  I attend groups or workshops when I am not writing or need motivation, encouragement or just a drink, without any real aim.  I am attending the Lon­don Lit Lab in Hackney in October for a weekend workshop which I am really looking forward to.  Meeting writers in the flesh is the most inspiring experience.  I meet my fellow Unbound authors every few months or so in a pub room in London.  Online I am a member of Facebook groups such as the Book Connectors, The Crime Book Club and the Unbound Social Club.  These are fine, but they are still social media and can suck up time.  There is no end to it. 

RR:  How do you keep yourself motivated to write novels, especially when you feel the novel is not going as well as you had intended?  Do you share your early drafts with other writers or friends?  If so, is it encouraging or discouraging?

IVY:  It is never going as well as intended.  No first draft does.  I am just a simple jovial pessi­mist like any other writer.  For me the first motivation comes from turning up at the job.  If I just sit there, and think, it’s already a hundred per cent better than not sitting there and thinking, even if I do not write a word.  If you can’t think, you can’t write.  And if you don’t think, you will write rubbish.  The second motivation comes from knowing the ending.  I have to know the end­ing for me to proceed.  Better still, I need to know the “twist” at the end (but this is just a bonus).  I don’t share any drafts with anyone.  Period.  I trust my own instincts to get to the end of the first draft and do at least another two before it’s ready. 

The reason being I got my fingers burnt by an early experience.  About twelve years ago I was very nearly signed by a prominent agent.  She read the first 10,000 words of my novel and said this is the most amazing thing she had ever read, was thrilled to bits and she asked to see “the rest”.  I was even asked to go in to their very grand offices in Soho Square.  You can imagine my excitement, stupidity and naiveté.  However, I had not written this mysterious thing called “the rest”.  In a big rush I com­pleted the novel and showed her the worst first draft ever known in publishing history.  I was dropped.  She did not even return my calls.  And “the rest” as they say is history. 

RR:  Sorry, I had to laugh.  It reminded me of Lisa Jewell who, on a bet, wrote three chap­ters of her first novel Ralph’s Party and submitted it to an agent, who then requested “the rest”.  Taking it on faith that she “had” an agent, she rearranged her life and for the next year wrote “the rest” and hand delivered it to this agent who was flabber­gasted when she showed up at her office.  You just don’t do that, and a year later!  No shame!  Lucky for her, the book was well written and it launched her career.   Sometimes you just have to write on faith that some­one really wants your book and is willing to wait a year to re­ceive it!  You just have to make sure it’s worth the wait!  Rushing your work to pass to someone, as you and I and others have learned the hard way, merely backfires.  Get it right first because you only get one shot to make a first impression—impressing the right agent.

You learn by writing (and rewriting), by finishing, and by sub­mitting...

IVY:  What a way to learn, but in those days there was no social media or any kind of detailed advice that you could get about the submission process.  You just bungle along and learn as you screw up.  That book became my first novel Cry of the Flying Rhino after 14 drafts and 12 years and won a prize.   Heart of Glass went through nine.  I am getting better at doing fewer drafts because I am thinking clearer with each draft, rather than randomly drafting and changing direc­tion with every whim.  I am aiming for five to seven drafts for my third book, which I am now a third of the way through.

RR:  Is it a sequel to one of the other two novels, or is it a stand alone?  Can you tell us a little about it?

IVY:  It is a modern literary suspense novel told in multiple voices and view­points on the themes of memory and loss.  A vulgar wealthy London banker in his early fifties leaves his wife and daughter for a hedonistic lifestyle under the pretext of a career move to Sing­a­pore.  He gets a Thai girlfriend, a yacht, a luxury penthouse and lives the dream until one day there is a storm.  He crashes the yacht and is shipwrecked.  He loses his memory and when he gains consciousness he has to live the life of the person they “think” he is.

RR:  Sounds intriguing, especially if they are manipulating him for their personal gain!   I’ve met expats like that, who end up ruining their lives (and their families).  Some work out okay, but many gets played by their “girlfriend and girlfriend’s family”, or end up losing their high flying job over a low lying maid or a prostitute, forget­ting why they came to South­east Asia in the first place (to advance their career), drawn into that hedonis­tic life­style.  Some end up as a drug addict, in prison or dead.  I guess it was fun while it lasted... sad, though.  Somerset Maugham wrote about them, too....Some people just never learn.   Good luck with your book.

Tell us about your typical day or week as a writer.   Do you anticipate any major changes in your working schedule once your books come out?

IVY:  I don’t have a rigid routine as my day job number one, being a freelance architect, is dead­line-oriented.  Also if I wake up with an interesting dream, I will write that down instead.  I am a slow writer.  I can’t do what other people do such as write 2,000 words at a go, per day.  If I man­age 500 I am really ecstatic.  I try to write by hand about 10 to 30 minutes when I wake up (in the winter months at 06:45 or 07:00 if I am lazy; in the summer months 05:45).  Using my trusted fountain pen, it could be stream of consciousness type thing or it may be just thinking and note-taking.  I stop and I make the children their breakfast before they go to school and do my day job number one, where I have a degree of flexibility.  In mid morning to mid afternoon I usually cannot write a word so I may as well work.

On Tuesday and Wednesday after­noons I teach music (piano or guitar) to children and adults.  This is my day job number two.  I really love my jobs and I don’t know what to do without them as they are a great displacement activity from writing.  After cooking and eating dinner and the children’s bedtime, I may bash away again for another thirty minutes to an hour.  A writer never really stops working, so while I may not be writing, it still counts as my thinking time.  Once my books come out, I anticipate cutting back on new projects or commissions for my day job num­ber one.  I would like to be writing in the day time for longer periods.  This would be for me living the dream.  Writing is like having homework forever and ever.

RR:  I laughed out loud.  My children, age 10 and 12, refer to my writing as homework, some­thing they can relate to.  “Don’t disturb Daddy, he’s doing his homework!” In a sense, it’s true.  I’m working from home; hence homework!  Now and then they get a glimpse that maybe what I’m doing is important like when a French crew recently came to my house to interview me while filming a documentary on Somerset Maugham in Malaysia for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte. 

What advice would you give your 17-year-old self before you attended that first work­shop in Kuala Lumpur?  What would you have done differently?  Also, what advice would you give to an aspiring novelist just starting out?

IVY:  I would tell myself to not have so much fun and at least be taking notes or collecting name cards.  What I would have done differently:  I would have not used writing as a past time or a subsidiary extension of reading, rather taken it more seriously.  I did not know that you could take it seriously or be taken seriously.  I thought that writing was something that you stumbled into like Alice down the rabbit hole.  What advice I would give to an aspiring novelist just starting out:  Firstly, read, read, read.  Read anything and everything.  Secondly, nothing has changed—the five ingredients still apply—inspiration, time, effort, commitment and energy.  Thirdly, don’t obsess about social media.  It really doesn’t matter.  Only the writing matters.

            —Borneo Expat Writer

Amazon links for Ivy Ngeow's books will be added when available. 

Ivy Ngeow interviewing Robert Raymer

Other interviews with Novelists by me: Golda Mowe 

Five part Maugham and Me series

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

INTERVIEW GOLDA MOWE: Robert Raymer Chats with Sarawak Author Golda Mowe on Writing and Publishing her Novels

I met Golda Mowe in Kuching in 2009.  As one of the judges for the MPH contest I was conduc­ting  a short story workshop on their behalf, when Golda Mowe told me that she was working on a novel about Sarawak.  Later she published not one, but two—Iban Dream and Iban Journey—and a collection of science fiction stories for children, The Nanobots and Other Stories.

Born and raised in Sarawak on the island of Borneo to an Iban mother and Melanau father, Golda Mowe has always been interested in the culture and traditions of Borneo’s indigenous people.  After graduating from Waseda University in Japan and enduring ten years of corporate life, the author found herself yearning for childhood evenings spent in the longhouse, sitting in a pool of lamplight, listening to her great-aunt tell tales of jungle animals or her father recount his hunting adventures.  This led her back to writing and she is now living in Sibu, a town on the Rejang River in Sarawak, where she expends large portions of her time researching ideas for books and short stories.

          “I have loved folklore, myths and spooky stories since I was a child growing up in Sarawak…living on Borneo allows me to explore the beliefs and superstitions of multiple cultures, our own Asian ones and being exposed to western beliefs from our colonial heritage.”
          — Golda Mowe, author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey


RR: At the MPH workshop in Kuching, you stood out because you told me that you wanted to write a novel about Sarawak.  Every other workshop, I get at least one writer who tells me of their plans, but few seen to pan out for one reason or another, so I was doubly impressed when you published not only Iban Dream but also Iban Journey!  Congrats!  I hope in some small way I may have inspired you…

Golda: Of course you did, Robert.  Remember that time when I asked you about “Neighbours”?  I was so surprised when you wrote back a long and patient reply.  That story of yours is still my gold standard.  The words flow so smoothly, I forget I am reading.  I now redraft my stories over and over until I reach that level of smoothness before I show them to anyone else.

RR:  Over the years, I probably rewrote that story about fifty times—for three book pub­lic­a­tions and the French translation.  I felt honored when the Education Depart­ment chose it to be taught in Malaysia for SPM literature, which they did for six years.  Mrs. Koh went on to become this stereo­type for a busybody neighbor, and was even featured in an article in the New Strait Times by Denis Harry, “Are You Mrs. Koh?”

When did you first begin to write Iban Dream and how long did it take to get that first draft done?  How much longer did it take before you got the novel to the point where you felt it was ready to be published?

Golda: I was working on the first draft part time from 2002 until the end of 2004, when I re­signed from my full time job.  It was exhausting to work 8-hour days then come home and work some more on the manuscript.  From then on, I did part-time work, earning just enough to cover my day-to-day living expenses.  I completed the first draft around the middle of 2005….I only sent out my manuscripts to publishers recommended in the writer's forums because all the ones I found advertised in magazines or newsletter were vanity presses.  After multiple rejec­tions, I took another hard, critical look at the story.  I changed some scenes, some plots and finished the second draft.

I promised myself I would rewrite the book each time I got a rejection…assuming it was not good enough.  Having said that, I must be very clear here:  I treated this period as a time of educating myself….You must have returned multiple drafts to your students for rewrites! So I treated these rejections as a request for redrafts from the publishing industry and did exactly that and resubmitted it to a new publisher or an agent.  I cannot remember how many redrafts I did.  I guess I would have saved a lot more time if I got advice from a professional, but at that point I was going into the industry blind.  It never occurred to me that I should have looked for an editor who would have guided me in the right direction.  The manuscript that I had put together by trial and error was finally accepted by Monsoon Books in January 2012.

RR: If only I could get those students and editing clients to take those rewrites seriously! Naturally they were less than pleased because they thought they were done or that it was ready to be published….It’s those rewrites that make your stories good and possibly pub­lish­able.  Without that self discipline to rewrite (without a teacher or an editor standing over you with a ruler), you won’t go very far….It’s also too easy (and rather tempting) to think, ah, what does he know!  See, this vanity press here (masquerading as a legitimate publisher) tells me my writing is good, that they’ll gladly publish my book (for a rather large fee upfront and minimal, if any, editing that they conveniently forget to point out!)

The Star called your book a fantasy novel, which it is, but having lived in Sarawak and having read various Dayak legends, I saw your book as an offshoot of the mysticism and animism that’s still prevalent today.  There are certain taboos that you don’t risk breaking whether in a long­house or in the jungle.  For me, your book seemed ‘natural’ in a Sarawak context and even ‘believ­able’.  I mean, you hear these fabulous stories that you just don’t question, that are prob­ably not all that far from the truth—at least according to legend.   Did you feel that way while you were writing, while trying to capture the ‘truth’ in your story or the ‘truth’ of certain Iban myths that per­haps you grew up with?

Golda:  I did not start out to explain the Iban culture…I was just writing what I know and what I have experienced.  Since their migration into Sarawak, the Ibans had been separated by geogra­phy and disputes for three to four generations before coming together again in modern times, so my biggest headache had been to keep track of the bits of differences between the groups.

I usually check and double check my facts to make sure that I have the appropriate taboo, custom, or belief for a particular region.  One time, I wrote that the gecko represents the creator god Selampadai. This is true for the Rajang region, but my hero is based in Batang Lupar. Among the Ibans there, the representative of Selampadai is the millipede. Now, every time when I feel like taking shortcuts, I’m reminded of that oversight on a certain page in Iban Dream.

Since you have been in Sarawak for so long, you must have noticed this strange combination of artistic freedom and restrictions among the Ibans.  I feel free to write as crazy a story as I can, and put the demons, gods, and spirits into any kind of trouble I wish, but I am not free to change their nature. For example, Sengalang Burong, the warpath god, brings great blessing and good fortune.  He does this all through the trophy head.  Even though I wish I could make him more sympathetic and become a fatherly figure to Bujang Maias, I could not.  Hence my protagonist had to disobey him in order to become a more modern and sympathetic hero. 

RR:  Did you do a lot of research before you began writing the first draft of Iban Dream or did most of it come later as you began writing and realized that you needed to delve into the subject deeper to make your story or scene more convincing, or did it just come natur­al­ly from growing up within your culture or through extensive reading over the years or from listening to oral tradition repeated over and over since you were a child?

Golda:  A combination of all the above….There was no research work in the early stages, only a need to write the story because I could not stop thinking about it. Then as the MS progressed I be­came curious about the why’s and the how’s of Iban life.  As you have mentioned, some things are just accepted as it is, and few people really knew why it was so. That was when I started look­ing for more information from books because very few people were willing to talk openly about some taboos. 

My real-life experience has helped me create characters who have a proper Iban attitude and beliefs. My love of Iban folklore has helped me create a protagonist who is typical of the Iban hero.  And my research work has not only given me a solid foundation for the theme of the story but it has also helped me explain the Iban taboos and customs to non-native readers.

RR:  A great book on taboo is The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer.  Occasionally I’ll come across a bizarre news story…about a teenager in Nepal dying while sequestered from her family in a hut because she is menstruating, and I’ll think, my god, they were doing that five hun­dred years ago…but now?  Still!

You could tell that a lot of research (and personal knowledge) went into this; there was little, if any, vagueness or generalizing.  It was rich with details.  It’s like stepping into a new world and feeling a part of the fabric.  You made it all seem believable and that takes considerable skill to pull off; you can only fake so much until people see through it—es­pecially those familiar with Sarawak.

Also, a lot of first time novelists write mostly about themselves (and there is nothing wrong with that) but you clearly did not.  How did your upbringing or your experience with those living in a longhouse influence you to become a writer or a novelist?

Golda:  My grandparents lived in a longhouse, so I visited during the school holidays. This has helped a lot in the sense that everything seemed so different, so I took notice of them.  I started reading seriously when I was around nine, including a lot of Enid Blyton books, and believed that I could find fairies in the longhouse and at my grandparents' orchard.  I pestered my grand­parents with questions and, of course, they obliged by telling me that a demon lived in the tapang tree, or that the kelansat demon would kidnap me if I stray too far from them. Their inten­tion was to scare me into behaving because I liked to roam off alone, but it had the opposite effect. 

I grew up poor in Sibu town.  We had a proper home but there was very little luxury.  I remem­ber one time when Mary Poppins was showing in the cinema.  Most of the kids in my class had gone to see it, and they would discuss bits of the story.  I would listen and then repeat the story to my toys….The vision of Mary Poppins floating down on a ray of light while holding an umbrella over her head is still very strong to this day.  I don't know if my vision is correct because I have not seen the movie yet.  (The green Chinese umbrella is definitely wrong, I think).  My imagin­ation was always running wild.  Whenever my friends discussed any movie or show they had watched, I would pretend to myself that I saw the same show and made up stories about them.

I think the most important factor that helped me become a novelist was the discipline of persis­tence that I accidentally turned into a habit.  The school and public library only had classics during my school days, so after my Form 3 exam, I started reading a book by Sir Walter Scott.  I did not understand most of the words he used, but the story was so interesting I started collecting dictionaries so I could read it.  I think this habit is what gave me the discipline to stubbornly per­sist on learning grammar when I started writing seriously in 2004.  Ivanhoe is still one of my favorites.  I bought my own copy and still reread it every few years.

RR: Mary Poppins’ umbrella was black, but she had more than one….The idea of Mary Poppins floating down with an umbrella is surreal in any culture.  It sure captured the imagination of children.  Unfortunately some have tried it by jump­ing off their roofs think­ing they will float to the ground—with disastrous con­se­quences.  I wonder if any kids tried to fly out a window with a broom quidditch style like Harry Pot­ter?  Did Aladdin prompt any children to fly on a magic carpet?  I couldn’t get mine to levitate.  I was so bummed.

Did you study in a writing program or take a creative writing course or a writing work­shop with anyone who may have influenced you to become a writer?  (I learned from two fiction writing courses from Writer’s Digest because I was on the road a lot.)  Or did you just learn your craft on your own—there many excellent writing books and writing websites out there!

Golda:  I think about the only serious writing lesson I ever took was the workshop where I met you.  I registered for a writing course by post around 1996.  I paid the fees, got the materials but did not do any of the assignments.  Life got the better of me:  work was hectic and the night life was intoxicating.  Oh how I regretted not finishing the course with The Writing School.

It was really frustrating when I started writing the first draft for Iban Dream.  I read extensively, but I did not understand even the most rudimentary grammar structure.  I combed through the English grammar sites and tried to learn as much as I could.  Even though I eventually under­stood how English worked, I still could not write the way I wanted to write.

Then I read that Jack London copied Rudyard Kipling to learn how to write like a master.  I love Jack London’s work, so I thought I should try it too.  Tolkien was my choice because his style of writing reminded me so much of the style of storytelling in Iban.  I copied every word of the first chapter of Lord of the Rings by hand, circled every punctuation in red ink and tried to figure out why a sentence was structured in a particular way.  It took me months to finally figure it out.

RR:  I’m impressed you actually did this….I’ve read of other writers doing the same.  It makes perfect sense.  I considered it but didn’t follow through.  I was al­ready married and on the road a lot setting up stores in the US, so I had little time to spare and was working on a novel about my experiences being on a road and setting up stores!  The novel was horrible (but a confidence builder) except the first chapter, which I turned into a short story (actually it was the other way around, I wrote the short story and thought, hey, this could be the first chapter of a novel!)  I think I would’ve learned more about writing novels had I copied Tolkien.

Speaking of learning, how did you end up studying in Japan?  What did you study.

Golda:  My father was an unskilled blue collar worker, so the only way to further my studies was to get a scholarship.  Malaysia had a Look East Policy and they were sending students to study in Japan and Korea.  I was lucky to be chosen….It was wonderful to be in Japan as a student.  I am quite reclusive, and Japan is the perfect culture for people like me.  There were secondhand book­stores everywhere, and the books were dirt cheap.  I did not have to sacrifice a meal or my rent for any copy I bought.  Then there were the well-stocked libraries.

I studied accounting because the subject felt structured and systematic.  I think this is where I got my data organizing habit from.  I have always loved collecting information since I was young but was never good at organizing them.   In a strange way, learning how to balance books had helped me to categorize my bits of garbled information.

RR:  Book are horribly expensive in Malaysia.  That was a cul­ture shock for me and other expats.  Having the skill to gather and organize infor­mation and a system to retrieve it when you need it would be great.  For me, it’s like, I know I got it somewhere in this note­book or stuffed in this envelope or typed into the com­puter….Hours (days later)—aha!  I found it!  Now what did I need this for?

Did your corporate work or any previous work experience prepare you in some way to become a writer?  Or did it just make you realize, that this corporate life is not for me!

Golda:  I worked in a few local companies, but my most significant training was from Daiken Sarawak and 1st Silicon.  The people related stress did make me fantasize about being a hermit.  I once thought that it would be amazing if I could find a job like the one that Jack Torrance got in Stephen King's The Shining.

I did have two very good bosses in the Sales Department in 1st Silicon.  They trained me to think in terms of forecast and expectations.  This has helped me stay level headed about the prospects of success as a writer.  I understood then that the majority of writers are not dirt poor; neither are they J.K. Rowling rich.  It helped me decide how to choose the best strategy for myself when I was finally ready to look for a publisher.

RR: So long as that strategy didn’t involve breaking down publishers’ doors with an ax!  Tempting, I’m sure.  Stephen King’s and JK Rowling’s early struggles to sell their work and their astronomical success inspired a lot of writers to keep at it, this “discipline of per­sis­tence” as you had so aptly put it.  The odd are stacked against you but there are plenty of success stories out there, you included.

How old were you when you when you got the idea/notion that you wanted to be­come a writer?  Any early success getting your stories published?  Did any of your stories lead to one of your novels?

Golda:  I remember when I was 12, in primary 6, the teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I said, 'pengarang' or essayist.  People just assumed that I meant secre­tary.  I was so annoyed, I stopped thinking about it.  The idea was reignited when I was 17 while reading Hanta Yo by Ruth Bebe Hill.  This was the first time I read a novel about natives from the point of view of a native….It made me ask why I had not found an English novel from an Iban's perspective.
I tried to write, but I hated everything I wrote.  I was terribly disappointed with myself.  I was my worst critic, I guess.  I tried to pick up writing again in my late twenties.  That was why I registered for the writing course.  But I could not even mail out my first assignment.
Nowadays I write a lot of short stories.  Part of the reason is because I needed to get them out of my head, so I can focus better on whatever Manuscript I am currently working on. There had been stories I thought could be worked into a novel, but I have yet to return to them.  The first two stories I managed to get published were for anthologies that a group of writers had put to­gether.  I was getting rejection after rejection for Iban Dream, so seeing my work in print helped lift my spirits.

 My third short story, “A Jungle for My Backyard”, managed to get into a serious anthology on the effects of climate change called Facing the Change (Torrey House).  I also have one fantasy story for Remang edited by Daphne Lee and a second tale for The Principal Girl, to be pub­lished by Tutu Dutta and Sharifah Aishah bte Osman.  Then I wrote a collection of ten sci-fi stories for children for the Malay­sian publisher, Oyez Books, The Nanobots and Other Stories. 

RR:  I met Daphne Lee at a reading in Kuala Lumpur and she interviewed me for The Star, so I’m a fan.  For your novels, I noticed that instead of a Malaysian publisher, since you’re a Malay­sian, you went with Monsoon, a Singapore publisher.  How did that come about?  Have they managed to get your books outside of Malaysia/Singapore?

Golda:  Iban Dream is a culturally specific story, so it was really difficult for me to find a local pub­lisher willing to accept the book.  I got so many rejections that by 2011, I began to scour web­sites to see if any publisher had books on Borneo.  Monsoon Books has A Servant of Sarawak by Sir Peter Mooney, so I wrote them a query and a month later my MS was accepted.

I must admit when I decided to become a writer, I had decided that I will never self-publish my first book.  For one, I had no experience with the publishing industry, so I thought that if I can get a publisher to invest in my book then they will have a good idea for how to market the book. Then all I needed to do was to follow their lead.  Monsoon Books have already built a good reputation for publishing books about Southeast Asia, so that was a huge plus point.  I did not know that MPH and Silverfish were publishers, so it never occurred to me to approach them.

RR: I would’ve recommended both had you asked….It’s good that you’re getting sales out­side Malaysia and Singapore, one of the advantages of publisher websites and e-books!  From Singapore’s perspective, Sarawak sometimes feels like another country.  I once wrote a blog about the difficulties of getting my books stocked in Sarawak when I first moved here from Penang, and about publishing in Malaysia and Singapore in general, which I recently updated, including the aggressive tactics of some unscrupulous vanity presses. 

Are you working on anything else?

At the end of 2015, I entered the Scholastic Asian Book Award contest and my story The Bud­ding Traveller was shortlisted for the main prize.  I did not win but Scholastic will be publishing the MS under the title The Laughing Monster.  It is targeted to be out in the first half of next year.  On top of that, I have completed the first draft to Iban Woman, the final sequel to Iban Dream.

RR:  Sounds like you’ve been very productive, quite successful, too.  More importantly you’re finding a market for your work, even for “niche fantasy”.  Good writing is good writing and your fantasy comes off sounding believable which makes it work.

What is your typical writing process?  Do you compose on a computer or write your first draft long hand?  Do you rough out a first draft or are you meticulous from beginning to end?  Do you keep a strict writing schedule that you have the discipline to adhere to?

Golda:  I used to draft long hand, but this was rather tedious for me because when I retype that draft into my computer I will become so engrossed with the details that the story will stay stuck until I am satisfied with the scene.  Writing straight into the computer does not work well either. When I stop to think I would play solitaire….Then my eyes were getting tired.  (Possibly too much solitaire).  Now I work on a simple word processor that has no internet connection and no games.  (It's a Japanese model called DM100…a word processor that is all work and no play.)  This works really well for me because I can transfer the files chapter by chapter to my PC so I don't have to look at the draft until I complete the whole project.

RR:  The internet for me has become this evil temptation.  It’s too easy to be sucked into sensational crime stories (past and present) or news in general—the daily (hourly) drama coming out of the US….It steals away valuable writing time, to­tally wrecks my writing schedule.  Or is it just my lack of discipline? I know…

Golda:  I don't stick to schedules very well, especially when I don't feel obligated to keep it.  That is why I keep my life as dull and as organized as possible.  This is like returning to my child­hood years when I could not go to the movies or watch a show on TV.  My best inspiration us­ual­ly comes from information.  Whenever I get an idea for a story, I will ready a large enve­lope for the project.   Loose bits of paper, articles, books (or title and page numbers), maps, etc. re­lated to the project is placed inside.  Every time I feel uninspired, I will go through these mater­ials to be rejuvenated….I cannot make myself write when I do not feel like it.  So I try to under­stand how and why I am inspired to write a story, then create an environment that will help me stay inspired.  Works quite well for me because it helps me write consistently.

RR: I like the fact that you’re focusing all of your en­ergy on Sara­wak and that is a good thing.  It’s not easy finding good novels set in Sarawak.  There’s a rich vein in Borneo non-fiction, the I-was-there-and-this-is-what-happened type stories.  I did come across a novel by a Frenchman, Borneo Fire, which I enjoyed, but from a native perspective, you’re pretty much it.  So keep writing those Sara­wak novels!  Read­ers will find you.  Singapore’s liter­ary scene, I gathered, has al­ready found you…

Golda:  Yes, I have done a few discussion panels at the Asian Festival for Children's Content in Singapore (2013 & 2015).  I also did a couple of discussion panels at the Singapore Writers' Festi­val in 2016.

RR:  How did it go?

Golda:  Are you asking a small town starry-eyed girl how it went?  Of course they were wonder­ful.  I don't know if anyone learned anything useful from me, but I got to talk with Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng last year.

RR:  I met Tan Twan Eng’s mother at the Popular Read­er’s Choice Awards back in 2009.  She was picking up an award in his honor and told me that I had taught her daughter creative writing at USM. I wished I had taught her brother, too!

If you were interviewing yourself, what one question would you ask?

Golda:  Are you ever afraid of running out of stories?  Yes, I am.  Absolutely terrified of it. There was one time two or three years back when I actually thought that I had run out of ideas.  I started some stories and could not finish them.  Those were really dark days, and it lasted for months.

RR:  For years I kept rewriting the same novels and short stories over and over again.  While in Penang, I wrote the first 100 pages of a new novel, but some­thing happened (we had a baby, I think) and I got sidetracked.  I had this nagging feeling as the years went by that if I never finished that book I would never write another novel.  Then my father died and while I was in America, I made a vow that I was going to finish the first draft of that book that very year.  I was going to do it for my father.  Since then I wrote two other novels (one com­pleted, the other, a first draft).

What advice would you give to your younger self when you first began to write fiction?  Would it be the same advice you would give to others?

Golda:  I would tell my younger self (and other aspiring novelists) – take care of your health.  Eat healthy and have an exercise routine that is light and easy to follow daily. After I published Iban Journey, the second book, my overall health slid.  It was my own fault.  I live in an area where there were coffee shops selling carbohydrate laden food. While working on Iban Journey, it was easy to just pop into one of these places, have a quick meal then go back to work on the story.

When the period of lethargy set in, it was all I could do to write.  I was unproductive for months. No stories, no joy, no sense of achievement for anything.  When I got my health back, and I be­came more sensible, the stories returned.

The best stories I have written, are ones done during times of clarity.  If I am feeling tired, or if I have a headache, or a stuffy nose, it will be hard to find the right words to describe the terror of jumping down a cliff or of swimming across a crocodile infested river.  So stay healthy.  Do all you can to keep your mind clear.

RR:  That sounds like pretty good advice, something we all take for granted—our health.  Eating right, exercising or you can work (or write) yourself to death, and who needs that when you have all these stories that you want to write!

With all of these books coming out (and others in the works), you’ve certainly come a long way since that work­shop where we first met.  I’m proud of you.  You’ve become an inspira­tion, not just to Sarawakians, but also Malaysians and Expats like me.

        —Borneo Expat Writer

To read the synopsis of Iban Dream and Iban Journey click here.  

To read sample chapters of Iban Dream.   Iban Journey.

Other Interviews with First Novelists:  Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.