500 words from...is a series of guest posts from authors writing about Asia, or published by Asia-based, or Asia-focused, publishing houses, in which they talk about their latest books. Here UK-based Mike Stoner talks about his novel Jalan Jalan, set in Indonesia. He initially self-published, but after Jalan Jalan was noticed by the prestigious UK newspaper, the Guardian, and awarded its monthly prize for the best self-published novel, it was picked up by the conventional publisher, Tuttle, which specialises in books linking East and West.
Newbie is on the run. From England. From the past. From memories of his dead girlfriend, Laura. He knows little about distant Indonesia, but, after a five minute phone interview, he takes a teaching job there. He soon finds it is as good a place as any to reinvent himself: cheap beer; landscapes he finds exotic; a beautiful Indonesian girlfriend; and a bunch of misfit mates all masquerading as English teachers.
Jalan Jalan, meaning just walking, or out for a stroll, is an Indonesian phrase that sums up Newbie's quest to block out the pain of the past. But Laura won't leave him alone: her ghost haunts him; her voice fills his head; her gaze follows him everywhere. It will take a breakdown and an exorcism at the hands of an Indonesian shaman to make Newbie realise that the events of the past might not always be what they seem.
So: over to Mike…
I started writing Jalan Jalan in England, when I was studying as a mature student for an MA in Creative Writing, while also working full-time. I was a third of the way through a dystopian book when I was advised by my course convener to write from life experiences. This upset me a bit as I wanted to be a fiction writer and completely make stuff up. However, I had previously lived in Indonesia, and once I started rolling memories and experiences around my head I realised that there was potential to nearly completely make stuff up from a few of my Indonesian factual moments.
Although it had been ten years since my time in Asia, the memories, scenery, smells, people and experiences were still very vivid and fresh. It had been a year of mixed emotions, wonderful and also sometimes difficult times. But due to the fact that I was, at first, a stranger to everyone I met there, many of my inhibitions and cares went out the window. So I decided to create a protagonist (Newbie) who consciously tried to do what I had done subconsciously, to reinvent himself. His reasons for doing so came about from remorse; this being something else I wanted to explore. Everyone handles grief in different ways, and Newbie’s way was to run away from it. However, grief is such a strong and relentless emotion that it had to follow him there. Indonesia is a very spiritual country and I heard many ghost stories while on North Sumatra. I wanted to add some of this supernatural aspect to my story and involve a little shaman magic. I also tried to touch on what happens when people are let loose from the constraints of Western society; some become idiots, some become wiser, some just lose it, and some manage all three.
Having written the book came the slog of getting it published. After sending it off everywhere and getting all the rejections, I decided to self-publish. Any writer wants to be taken on by an agent or publisher, and to self-publish for me was almost a sell-out to my dream. But I have no regrets. Through Jalan Jalan winning the Guardian self-published book of the month award I was contacted by a very decent bloke, the equivalent of a completely free agent, Tim Hannigan*. He is the author of A Brief History of Indonesia and someone who had faith in my book and gave me all the right contacts in Asia; a part of the world I had never considered sending my book to. Why I hadn’t, I don’t really know. Brainwashing that Britain is the only place for new British writers? I’m really not sure. But anyway, thanks to Tim, Tuttle took me on.
It’s amusing having people I know guess which bits of the book are real and which aren’t. I try not to let on. I’d just like to say that it is a work of fiction sprinkled with bits and pieces of the author. Which I suppose is what most books are.
*For 500 words from Tim Hannigan click here.