Where has your muse taken you?
No dear reader … it wasn’t me, it was my muse.
When I re-launched Learning to Fly as an e-book, I hadn’t expected so many curious readers and a bunch of positive reviews. I hadn’t expected the positive reader engagement either, with so many people curious about how the story came about. So, here’s, the back story …
First the spoiler – this coming of age tale of a Chinatown girl’s affair with her Australian professor set in the rainforests of Borneo isn’t about me. The facts are stranger still.
It started with the Asian Financial crisis in 1996. Working in the financial sector then, and stressed from seeing the currencies of one neighbouring country after another entering free-fall, I’d spend my lunchtimes wandering around Fort Canning, the park fringed by the National Heritage Board, the National Environment Center, and the tower block that was my office. Following that I’d usually snatch a quick bite at a café housed in a nearby performing arts center.
It was after one of those lunches that I saw a poster in the lobby advertising a short story contest. It had been more than ten years since I’d put pen to paper and written a story, more than ten years since my marriage, children, and my hectic jobs working with numbers first as an economic consultant and then an investment strategist. I couldn’t resist. I went home and started writing that night.
My stories didn’t make it to the shortlist of the contest. But a librarian friend who’d been a beta reader suggested some changes and then recommended I send them to a publisher friend. They wrote back saying they loved my submission but could I write something longer please?
By this time, the International Monetary Fund was slamming budget cuts into the region; the newspapers were reporting the terrible impact of austerity cuts on widows, orphans and school children; and the stock markets were drowning in red. I needed my lunchtime breaks more than ever, and something to think about at lunch besides my daily after-lunch crisis meeting. I started writing and the first thing I wrote was the opening paragraph about the tree in Fort Canning Park. But where was the plot? I couldn’t get further.
Then, one afternoon at the café, I overheard a woman talking about the bethrothal visit of her fiancé to her parents’ home over the weekend. She didn’t care about it, she was saying. She’d rather know how he, her lunch partner, had spent his weekend and how his wife was….
I shifted my chair and saw out of the corner of my eye a manicured index finger insinuating itself into the starched sleeve of a white shirt, where the cuff-link held it all together. The voice continued talking about the bethrothal presents and the red clothes and lacquered baskets. The finger continued to stroke the lightly tanned skin inside the shirt. Then, the man spoke. He had to go, he sighed. She said, as always. There was my story, an affair!
After that, the words came without prompting. I wrote in the attic of my 90 year old town-house as if possessed. Perhaps I was possessed. I, who love plants but had never ventured into the rainforests, suddenly became consumed by thirst for them. I dragged my poor children and husband to holidays to Borneo and to rainforest reserves in neighbouring Malaya. I literally swallowed anthropology books and attended environmentalist meetings. It was easy waking up at 6.30 am to write before rushing off to work, and at lunch in-between my meetings. We survived the crisis. I finished the book.
My publisher called me after reading the manuscript to ask if I was acquainted with his uncle, a professor at the university who was the world’s expert on fireflies, a foreigner married to a Singapore woman. Of course, that professor had only ever been married to his one wife, but still…. I think he feared a scandal. This is a work of fiction, I replied. I had never heard of the professor before then.
When I picked the book up to re-read a few years ago, I could not believe I had written it. There was so little in it that I’d actually experienced. I did not go to the University on the hill that plays such a large part in the story; I’d gone to senior high school and college abroad. I did not grow up in teeming Chinatown but in a shady bungalow in the suburbs. I have never been attracted to large blond men with light eyes, preferring instead tanned skin and long dark-lashed eyes. True, I’m now a rabid environmentalist , but that was a consequence of the writing not a cause.
I repeat again, I wrote as if possessed. Perhaps I was possessed. At the time, I was living in a very old house with who knows what history…. Even today I wonder what muse it was that sent me this book.
Have you ever written and then been surprised by what the muse has given you? Do share. Leave a comment.