Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Robert Shares His Secrets

It was lovely to see author Robert Raymer on Saturday for MPH's Breakfast Club at the branch in Bangsar Village 2. These days he's so far away in Sarawak (teaching creative writing at UNIMAS), so it was nice that the launch of his revised collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers Revisited gave us the opportunity to meet up.

Remember how we talked about authors going back on earlier work to turn it into something much better? Well, our Robert is one such, and this is the third incarnation of the book. (In the picture, he's holding all three versions. The latest is published by MPH, and the previous edition by Silverfish.) His reason for rewriting is that when he started off, he was satisfied with writing for a local audience, but now want to take them to a higher standard and aim for an international readership.*

Robert is always very generous in sharing what he knows about writing, and in this session, he talked about how :
Ideas come from every place.
His short story Neighbours, now included on the SPM syllabus was based on a real-life incident. His neighbour had attempted suicide, and Robert drove him to hospital. (I don't think the guy made it.) When Robert got back, he found the neighbours gathered outside his neighbour's gate gossiping about him. Out came the note book, and the idea for the story was born. Another story came out of the strong sense of deja vu he felt when he visited KL's Station Hotel.

Then he talked about how important it is he finds the beginning of his stories and chooses the right point of view to tell the story from :
Each point of view is a different story entirely.
he says, and adds that if a story is going to go wrong (as it does for many of the students he teaches) it usually goes wrong on the first page.

In his stories he often finds himself inside the skin of a Malaysian character and in fact he says he once felt very flattered when a judge in a competition organised by the New Straits Times disqualified his entry believing it plagiarised, because how could a Mat Salleh write so convincingly about a Malay character?

Robert also talked about the importance of maintaining momentum :
Even if it's crap writing, stick with it. As parents we know that crap can be cleaned up. It's part of the editing process. When you've cleaned up that crap you find there's a cute little butt in there!
He reckons too that some of the stories that give you the biggest grief can be your best stories.

He urged his audience to take writing off the backburner of life and said write for yourself first before you do other things in the day (like answering email or checking your blog!).

Robert's hard work and commitment is clearly paying off, his novel The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady won 4th place in the 2008 National Writers Association Novel Contest (USA), there is going to be a play based on Lovers and Strangers, and he has a book about 20 years living in Malaysia coming out soon.

Those of you in Penang who would like to catch Robert can find him at Little Penang Street Market on August 31st, selling books on one of the stalls and giving a reading at 11am.

*Aiyoh! This got misinterpreted (thanks to my own clumsy writing) in the comments and Robert steps in to clarify how and why he rewrote his work.


k said...

" when he started off, he was satisfied with writing for a local audience, but now want to take them to a higher standard and aim for an international readership"

Sorry, have not read his work, but is he rewriting from a contextual point or on the basis of quality? I don't see why a local audience should not be entitled to an international standard in the first round.

bibliobibuli said...

maybe i didn't word that so well! clearly he got better as a writer and wants to do justice to his stories. (this is what happened in the case of the other authors i mentioned in an earlier post)

also i think it's true that the horizon has shifted for local writers of late. standards are getting higher because they have to. your competition on the bookstore shelves is top authors from everywhere else, not other local authors.

i think there could be some filling in of context too. robert will have to answer that.

i haven't yet read (to my shame) all the stories (some i read in first incarnation in other places) but intend to so i can review them.

Anonymous said...

Agree with K - patronising lah, if what Raymer said was correct.

Also ,the question: Is v.3 of the stories now better than v.1?

- Poppadumdum

bibliobibuli said...

it certainly wasn't meant as patronising - just the words of an author who has grown. maybe i have not expressed it very well.

a writer suceeds in malaysia and then realises there is a world out there.

Anonymous said...

I suppose he wouldn't have meant it in a patronising manner...I'm not sure I agree with reworking one's previously published works, but looking at my own, I'm tempted to! :-)

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks Sharon for the nice write up, but it sounds like you got me in trouble by the way you phrased that! Of course, that was not your intention nor was I being patronizing in any way. I was trying to inspire those present at the book talk to make their stories better, if possible. I wrote the 15 original short stories in Lovers and Strangers for the Malaysian and Singapore market in the mid-80’s early 90’s since I was based here and the stories are all set here, and I did try to make them the best as I could in the first round. Several of those early versions were, in fact, published in several countries, including Australia, UK and US.

But over the years, as I got better as writer and after teaching creative writing (now for twelve years), I knew I could make the stories even better. Some stories I changed titles, changed viewpoints, added back-stories, changed endings, changed from third to first person, changed from past to present tense, and even doubled the length of the original story in my quest to get them just right.

Now the stories in Lovers and Strangers Revisited, 17 in total, have been published 63 times in 9 countries, 5 have been taught in 4 Malaysian universities, at least 1 high school in Canada (that I know), and SPM literature. The collection is being taught in USM in course on Malaysian and Singapore literature. (Yes, the stories have improved vastly!) So far 9 stories have been published in Australia, 9 in the UK/Europe, and 6 in the US (including two this year – 20 years after I first wrote them!).

So the decision to revise them, after their initial publication, has paid off, and now I have this new, revised edition by MPH. This was what I spoke about, and I do hope that I do succeed in inspiring other writers to take another look at their stories to see if they can improve them for their Malaysian readers and for the world, too – hopefully at the same time! Several Malaysian writers have succeeded beautifully. That’s great!

Again, thanks Sharon. Had a great time in KL.
Robert Raymer

bibliobibuli said...

so glad you stopped by to clarify, robert. sorry if my own clumsiness with words caused you any grief. and i certainly came away inspired!

writers who work at their craft do become better over time and have every right to go back and make earlier stories better.

k said...

Hi Robert and Sharon

Thanks for that clarification - I get it now.

Not that I was overly offended in the first place.. the critical observation i made was partly due to my own ignorance of the context!

All the best. I'll be picking up my copy of Lovers and Strangers Revisited the next time I come down to KL :)

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Hi K.
Thanks. The point you raised was valid and I was glad I was able to clarify any confusion. By the way, you don't need to come to KL to pick up a copy, the book can come right to you if you order online from MPH. A student at Unimas in Kuching just told me he got his copy two days ago - faster than I thought! For the bookblurb and some reviews please go to:


Happy reading!
Robert raymer

husni said...

"He urged his audience to take writing off the backburner of life and said write for yourself first before you do other things in the day (like answering email or checking your blog!)"

Oh, the effort it takes to resist the temptation! Nevertheless, I'm going to start (trying) tomorrow.

Thanks for the advice :)

On being included on the SPM syllabus, I hope that does not involve the story being parsed down to point form in the reference books. It is such a disgrace sometimes to see good novels and stories mechanically taught and learned in classrooms.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Hi. The key word is "trying". It's a hedge word that lacks conviction, which means it won't happen. Instead say, "I'm going to start tomorrow." But "tomorrow" is a delay word. I'm going to start today! It doesn't have to be in the morning. It could be this evening! That's when I write -- I need to remind myself of this often, too!

Starting this evening, after I get home and talk to my wife, play with my two boys, and in between eating and cleaning up and most definitely before I go to bed, I'm going to write for one lovely hour. If not, then for half an hour, before I reward myself to check on my emails, blogs. Thankfully, they will wait for me, but my writing time will not. Either I use this time or it's gone forever -- a very sad thought.

I know temptation is a click away so don't even click on the internet! Often in the evening I write or edit in snatches of 15 minutes here and there, with one boy or the other demanding my attention! (Ages 4 and 1 1/2) And if I can write for an hour and half or more (5-6 hours a day on the weekend), I'll even treat myself to chocolate or more email or whatever. Incentive! Use whatever works to get you writing!

Good luck. I know I need it!

Anonymous said...


Well said. There're always people who say "I wish..." but they never start. They're in love with the idea of it, and not the reality of it. If you want for instance, to chat up that nice young lady, then do it. If you get rejected, at least you know, and life can go on.

And you have a right to be condescending. After all you're published and they're not. They can be condescending to when they are. It's part of the reward.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Hi, thanks, but I don't agree with that last part about being condescending. There's no good reason for a writer to be condescending not patronizing, for that matter. Just bad form.