A bad encounter turned our columnist off authors. Then she met three who changed her mind.
We're halfway through our lamb shank when Frank kicks my leg.“Hey, isn’t that the author you admire? Go say hello,” he says, tipping his chin at the next table.
From the corner of my eye, I spot his square glasses, rangy frame and floppy mop of hair. My heart does a somersault. It is him.
Frank rolls his eyes. “Just do it. The worst he can do is ignore you.”
I sneak a sidelong glance at the author, and consider my options. There are only two things that can come out of barging into somebody’s dinner: make a new friend, or get snubbed.
I can’t recall the day I got the idea that authors were eccentric, flamboyant, hyper-intelligent beings. It could be the day I spotted a cartoon of a grouchy scribe glaring at a battered old typewriter in a countryside cottage, cigar hanging out of his mouth, surrounded by half-empty cans of baked beans. The image stuck in my mind. And, just my luck, for the early part of my career, the few authors I had met served only to perpetuate that illusion.
At one book-related event, I felt completely out of my league. How would I, an “Ipoh mali” girl who attended a local university, was weaned on a diet of TVB soap operas, had never watched a play in West End, and was more accustomed to apam balik than scones, ever fit in with this sophisticated and cultured crowd?
I would have spent the entire evening nibbling on my sandwiches in a corner, had my new friend Frank not dragged me out of that corner and introduced me to the author being feted in that event.
“Congratulations on your book,” I gushed, not so secretly admiring her polished demeanour. “I really enjoyed reading it.”
“Alex is a writer herself,” my friend eagerly volunteered.
“Oh, what do you write?”
“Travel, food, personality profiles ...”
“Oh, lifestyle. The easy beat.”
She uttered the words in an airy tone, yet I felt like she had just slapped me across my face.
Call me thin-skinned, but after that incident, I didn’t feel so keen to meet other authors and risk getting put down again. The next time I did meet another author, I didn’t know he was one.
With his shock of salt-and-pepper hair and occasionally ribald humour, I never imagined that Bobby wrote books – until a friend shoved Postcards From A Foreign Country in my face.
I read one page and was flummoxed by the vivid re-enactment of pre-colonial days. I was astounded by this Chinaman’s lush, voluptuous prose in immaculate Queen’s English, even with the generous heaping of local colloquialisms in it. Best of all, he was no intellectual snob who chewed aspiring writers’ egos for breakfast.
My next meeting with an author sprang from a combination of serendipity and curiosity, when Ellen e-mailed me for an interview for an education pullout. I was charmed that she introduced herself instead of taking for granted that I had read her columns – and even said she enjoyed my stories! As a thank-you after the article was published, she extended an open invitation for breakfast.
I took her up on her offer when I was in her neck of the woods, with some trepidation.
My nerves melted when she showed up in a dear little Volkswagen Beetle, golden hair fanning out and a twinkle in her eye. I didn’t have to wait until the end of our chee cheong fun breakfast to conclude, rightly, that she was one of the most down-to-earth and hilarious people I would ever meet. She had me at “Selamat pagi, Bunny (Good morning, Bunny).”
With these two trauma-free author encounters, I probably should have been more open when the next opportunity to meet one came along. But there was a catch: this author was a former air stewardess. I’ve got some baggage with air-stewardesses; when I was a pimply-faced 18-year-old, an air-stewardess friend told me to my face, “I know I’m prettier than you!”
The first time I saw Yvonne, all porcelain complexion and classic features, I assumed she was cut from the same cloth. Imagine my surprise when she dropped me an e-mail and asked if I could help her with her upcoming book. I pushed aside my personal prejudices; business was, after all, business. Besides, I was curious about what she was like.
She seemed nice enough on e-mail, but my chance to meet her in person only came after her book was published. Could we meet up so she could pass me a copy? She asked one day.
I waited for her at the entrance to The Star’s office, expecting a chauffeur-driven luxury car. Imagine my surprise when Yvonne herself drove up in a white Myvi and dropped off her book, along with an unexpected gift. “I thought you might enjoy them since you like to write about food,” she said with a smile that was as warm as the box of curry puffs she gave me. What a very small-town thing to do.
At our second meeting – much longer this time – I learnt that she was from a small town: Taiping. I was even more surprised when she confessed, “I feel that I’m so boring compared to my sister who’s a stage performer. I hardly go out except to run errands and pick up my kids. My life revolves around my kids and my husband only. So I told myself this year, I will accept all invitations to tea from my girlfriends!” she said ruefully and laughed. I had a lump in my throat when she shared how she gave half her writing fee to an old beggar she wrote about once.
I was so wrong about Yvonne, just like I was wrong about Ellen and Bobby. Since then, I’ve met many other authors who taught me that you can’t paint everybody with the same broad brush.
Possibly, I may have been wrong about the author who called lifestyle stories the easy beat. Perhaps, clouded by my own insecurity, I had misinterpreted her intentions. Or maybe she was just ignorant about the challenges of the nature of my work, just like I am about hers. But much more than that, I’ve accepted that writers should stop following in other people’s footsteps and, instead, develop their own identity and style.
In hindsight, coming to terms with my vernacular roots benefited my work enormously. Being multi-lingual means I can coax insights out of interview sources who may not be fluent in English but are treasure troves of stories. Of course, I didn’t know all this when I was starting out ...
“Oi. Are you going to sit there staring at him longingly all night or do I need to drag you there?” Frank’s impatient voice snaps me out of the past.
I get up, plaster a big smile on my face and walk over to the next table. “Hi, Thuan Chye, I just wanted to tell you that I’m a big fan of yours and I think you’re very brave.”
> Alexandra Wong (www.facebook.com/MadeinMalaysiabook) thinks most people are nice; you just need to work harder at getting to know them. Now that she has released her first book, Made In Malaysia: Stories Of Hometown Heroes And Hidden Gems, she hopes people won’t stereotype her, either.