Robert Raymer on Writing Short Stories in Malaysia

U.S. author Robert Raymer spoke to us about writing short stories and creative nonfiction in Malaysia, where he has been living for two decades and where he launched his literary career. You can learn more about Robert Raymer's life as an expat writer by reading his new book of essays, Tropical Affairs: Episodes From an Expat's Life in Malaysia.

A Conversation with Robert Raymer

Q: Why did you decide to live outside of the U.S.? How has that helped your career as a writer from a professional standpoint?

A: I did some backpacking in my 20’s and I thought if I lived overseas I’d gain a whole new perspective about life. Getting married to a Malaysian now made that possible. I also knew it’d be cheaper writing from Malaysia, where I had visited twice before. Then there’s the whole Hemingwayish-romantic side to being an expatriate. Borneo is not quite Paris or Spain, but people have remarked, “You’re doing what I’ve always wanted to do!”

Shortly after moving here, I published my first short story quickly followed by other set-in Malaysia stories in Malaysia and Singapore. Those early sales are exactly what I needed, self confidence as a writer. Gradually I started to sell those same stories to Australia, UK, and the US. In the US, where the competition is so fierce, the odds are so much against a writer just starting out unless they’ve gone through a creative writing program or are just naturally talented, so for me, finding markets outside the US was very helpful.

Q: Some of your stories which were originally published abroad now being published in the U.S. and Canada. What has that process been?

A: I constantly rewrote my stories; even those already published, to get them into better overseas markets, even those already compiled into a collection, Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia 1993 in Singapore)! Twelve years later when a professor wanted to teach my collection in Malaysia, I hired an American editor friend to rip the latest versions of those stories apart, stories that had been published 3 or 4 times! And then I revisited the stories in a big way. I went back to the original inspiration, even revisiting the settings, and overhauled them. Some stories I doubled the length by adding new endings, new scenes or back-stories. I had them republished in Malaysia as Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008). I even wrote a blog series about each story and about the major changes that I made to get them published, first over here and eventually overseas.

Twenty years later, those stories are still coming out in the US and Canada. One came out in Hong Kong in September. In fact, those 17 set-in-Malaysia stories have been published 78 times in 11 countries all because I was willing to rewrite published stories in my quest to make them better!

Q: How has living abroad affected your subject matter as a fiction writer? Do you think it has affected your style in any way? Has it made any aspects of writing short stories more difficult?

A: Writing short stories and novels set in Malaysia does make me stand out from your typical American writer living in the US, but 20 years ago, it also made them harder to publish. Malaysia, they would scratch their heads, where in the hell is that? Now that’s no longer the case. They want stories set overseas because they offer a very different perspective of the world and they are so different from those MFA writing programs churning out the same work-shopped kind of stuff by the thousands, stories often lacking in substance and depth; just a lot of really clever fluff. Impressive on one level, but empty on another, sort of like cotton candy. Of course, there are some brilliant exceptions.

The disadvantage of living so long overseas is that I really don’t know America anymore. I’m locked in a time warp 20-25 years ago from when I first left it.

Sending out stories, copying, mailing, using international reply coupons, used to be expensive and time consuming. Now the internet has changed all that with many markets now accepting (even insisting) on online submissions. Still, what I miss the most, are writing groups, readings and conferences, which are so readily available in the US. In 2006, I went to the Maui Writers Conference and was blown away; there you have access to top tier editors, agents. They had the previous year’s Oscar-winning screenplay writer and two Pulitzer-winning authors speaking! Plus you can pitch directly to agents. A guy I met there pitched to another agent at another conference two years later and now he has a two-book deal and the second book just came out! This speeds up the whole process. You’re not just another writer sending in a manuscript or online query, you’re a person they can talk to, connect with.

Living in Borneo I’m at a huge disadvantage, but I know a woman in Singapore who landed a UK agent and two book deal from Little, Brown. That gives me hope. It still comes down to—no matter where you live—how good is your story, your writing ability, and is there a market for what you write?

Q: You've published both fiction and nonfiction about contemporary life in Malaysia. Do you find yourself approaching the country in any way differently when writing short stories and writing nonfiction narratives?

A: Non-fiction, at least the stuff I write, is far easier; they’re narratives about my adventures and misadventures, so the viewpoint is all mine. I’m just telling what happened in an interesting way. In fiction, I need to get inside the head of my characters, many of whom are Malaysians. I need to get those details right, make them believable, so the reader believes in the stories. I also need to create the right ambiance, the right mood so you feel that you really are in Malaysia. While judging contests over here, I came across far too many of stories that could be set anywhere; you couldn’t tell if it was set in Alaska or the tropics!

Of the two forms, I prefer fiction. Anyone with some writing skill can write a non-fiction narrative about their own experiences, so long as those experiences are unusual or interesting -- but fiction, ah, not so easy! Some gifted writers just can’t seem to break away from their truth and this hampers their stories. They also cram extraneous stuff in because that’s the way it happened. I first wrote my Story Behind the Story blog series to separate the fact from the fiction, yet both are crucial to writing, to crafting the story into a fictional reality. Finding that perfect balance between fact and fiction is often the difference between a good story and publication.


Next steps

Did you enjoy this interview with Robert Raymer about writing short stories in Malaysia? You might also like our interview with Cynthia Harrison about her popular writing blog and the writing life.

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