As 28-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton becomes the youngest winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Ellie Dyer gets some industry insight and advice from talented up-and-coming authors who have been inspired by Southeast Asia. Photography by Conor Wall.
Everyone has a book inside them, or so the saying goes. But of the many manuscripts written every year, only a lucky few will garner that all-important publishing deal and reach the shelves of the world’s bookstores and libraries.
“I have been pretty inspired by writers in Cambodia, who just keep on writing no matter what,” says Laura Jean McKay, the Australian author of Holiday in Cambodia — a newly released collection of short stories based around the interaction between expatriates and locals in the Kingdom.
“But I did get some great advice a few years ago: that the first ten years of your writing life is your apprenticeship,” adds the 35 year old. “Regardless of whether you publish books in that time, you are just starting out. Only after that you really know your stuff. I tend to agree.”
Penning a novel can undoubtedly be a long hard slog. Writing and editing takes time and, without a pre-arranged book deal, many have to consider how to make a living whilst inking their work. If that isn’t hard enough, there’s the challenge of finding an agent and getting the work produced in physical format. The advent of the Internet has enabled writers to self-publish more easily — 50 Shades of Grey started life as an e-book — but many would-be authors still tell nightmarish tales of endless rejections.
Thankfully, they are in good company. A young Stephen King famously placed his rejection letters on a nail on his wall, before the weight became too much. He went on to replace the nail with a spike and continued writing, eventually becoming one of the world’s most recognisable horror writers. Even boy magician Harry Potter had set-backs reaching the page. J K Rowling was reportedly rejected by 12 publishing houses before the manuscript was accepted by Bloomsbury.
“The overwhelming majority of people will meet rejection many times before finding success,” says Lucy Cruickshanks, 29, whose first novel The Trader of Saigon was released earlier this year and shortlisted for The Guardian newspaper’s Not the Booker Prize literary competition.
It took four years from setting pen to paper for the Englishwoman to see her fascinating fictional tale —exploring the line between matchmaking and trafficking in 1980s Vietnam through the experiences of US army deserter Alexander — in published form.
So, what’s the key to success? According to McKay, who travelled Cambodia to conduct interviews as research for her stories that tackle issues from mine clearing to the sex trade and aid work, sticking to your guns is important.
Ignore fashion and write in the style that suits your story best — be that poetry, essay writing or prose, she says. The author also recommends reading the Nou Hach Literary Journal, which is produced once a year in Khmer, English and French, to discover great writers working in Cambodia such as Chakriya Phou, Sok Chanphal — who won a prestigious SEA Write Award last month — and Tararith Kho.
For Cruickshanks, who recommends the “magnificent” The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh to readers, it’s simple: be confident in your work and write a good book. Having thick skin to face the inevitable challenges and reader reaction won’t go amiss, but ultimately talent will show.
“If you write a gripping, emotional story full of exciting and relatable characters, people will want to read it,” says the author, whose second novel set against the backdrop of the 1980s Burmese ruby trade is due for release next year. “Just write the best book that you possibly can and have the confidence in it to persevere if you get knocked back. In the end, cream rises.”
The Trader of Saigon (Heron Books) and Holiday in Cambodia (Black Inc) are available to buy at Monument Books.
Journalist Robert Carmichael gives his take on writing his first work of non-fiction, set to be published next year. Leaving: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Quest and Cambodia’s First War Criminal weaves the lives of five people to recount the damage done by the Khmer Rouge’s rule. It centres on the disappearance of a junior diplomat, Ouk Ket, who was recalled to Cambodia in 1977 and later died at S-21. Decades later his widow and daughter gave evidence at the trial of prison chief Comrade Duch.
I can pretty much guarantee that your enthusiasm will flag at some point, and for those moments it helps to have some uplifting quotes from other writers pinned near your desk.
I have this from the late Ray Bradbury: “Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think: Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad — you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”
What also works? Keeping home and work separate. I go to my office every workday and write from 8.30am until 6pm. I found staying offline was useful, as was limiting my social life. Obsession helps, so make sure you’re in love with the story you want to write. Have a daily target — say 1,000 words — and keep in mind Bradbury’s maxim.
Work out your structure beforehand. The current layout of Leaving is its fifth and, believe me, reworking what I had into a new structure every few months wasn’t fun. I swear by the low-tech method of index cards, one for each scene in each chapter, stuck to a window in my office.
Last tip: once you’ve completed each chapter to a reasonable degree, put it to one side and don’t go back to it until you’ve finished the book. Otherwise you risk ending up with two or three perfect chapters, and that’s probably not what you had in mind when you started.