Wednesday, February 28, 2007

And this is what we saw...

We went to Poring today where there are two Rafflesia keithii, the parasitic Rafflesia flowers - the second one was more than half a metre across. It was my first sight of a flower in bloom (somehow all I ever seemed to come across before were dead ones!)

The host plant is Tetrastigma tuberculatum. The local Dusun name is Yaya'a.

Absolutely beautiful. Worth the long drive on my sister's last full day in Sabah.

Off to look at some Rafflesia today.

In the meantime, here's another tree to look at (and, oh, yes, my husband's in there too somewhere.) They grow 'em big in Tawau Hills Park. Trees, that is, not husbands.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Shadow of Tyr gets reprinted.

Lovely email from my agent in amongst the hundreds of ideas for enlarging my penis, obtaining a mortgage, buying shares, contributing to poverty-stricken widows of African politicians and numerous other suggestions aimed at parting me from my hard-earned not-so-filthy lucre - all of which were awaiting me when I arrived back in civilization.

The Shadow of Tyr has gone into second edition in less than two months. Which I guess means that people really, really liked book 1, Heart of the Mirage. I'm thrilled to bits.

One of the crazy things about being a writer is that one has to survive an awful long time after each publication before you actually discover how a book is doing. Publishers normally send a statement every six months, at the end of December and the end of June - but a statement covering sales from January 1st to the end of June is only going to arrive at the end of September! So I won't have a clue how well The Shadow of Tyr sold until then. (Any wonder authors have a perpetually harried look?)

The other crazy thing is this. You never seem to get told how large your print run was. So when I say the book has gone into second printing, it could mean just about anything...
You've sold out a first print run of 5,000? 50,000? 500,000? Wh0 knows? Well, your publisher does, but the poor author is left in the dark till the statement comes...

I love this business. It is so delightfully unexpected.

Anyway, some more tantalising photos of our trip to Tawau Hills Park... This was all part of a wonderful joint expedition between the Institute of Tropical Biology and Conservation of Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and Sabah Parks, with the basic aim of studying the forest biodiversity of the three extinct volcanoes of Tawau - Mt Magdalena, Mt Lucia and Mt Maria, which go up to 1,310 m. (No roads, folk. More than fourteen kms up. And up. And up. All using knees. Which in my case, are woefully ancient.)

More to come. I'm still doing the washing, airing the sleeping bags, scrubbing the boots, finding the odd dried leech mixed up with my socks, cleaning out the frig, (the door was inadvertently left slightly ajar while we were gone - ten days... oh, yuk).

Photos: rainforest leaves and seeds, and one very very large tree and me.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

I'm back!

Photo: My sister and I chat about whether we really should get on to a bright pink bus with fringed pink curtains and blue seventies plush seating, while student Fiffy - who will spend a large part of the next 10 days collecting mammal shit - chats on the phone.

I have just spent 10 days or so gadding about the rainforest and assorted islands and forests and mountains and so forth, most of it out of telephone range, let alone internet connection.

(Sorry, Tash, did try to phone from assorted
places, including the mountain, but couldn't get through...)

Will regale you all with my numerous mishaps (missteps?) in the next few days, as soon as I wade through 590 emails, and dispose of 580 of them, and get a mountain of washing stuffed into my pocket-sized washing machine. The smell emanating from my back pack practically fuminated the house on our return... wet sweaty clothes stuffed in the bottom of a pack. Nothing like it for killing roaches or curling your hair.

Anyway, all of you, thanks for bearing with me and returning to my blog after my absence! I shall be reading all your comments and replying soon. In the meantime, here's a glimpse or two of what I've been up to. It all started with the bordello bus from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau, down in Sabah's south-eastern corner not far from Indonesia...

And included braving leeches
and climbing mountains
and one part involved lots of bananas

Back tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In what ways does the fantasy genre explore discrimination and persecution?

Now there's a question for you.

My feeling is that fantasy is ideally situated to do just that. Moreover, SFF has a better chance of making a point with the very people who need to think deeply about these kind of issues.

Let's face it, people from, let's say, the backstreets of XYZ, who practise discrimination, or who live influenced by baseless prejudices, aren't going to read too many novels that point out how stupid the backstreets people of XYZ are. But they may read - and possibly learn - from reading about the characters from, say, Upper Fantasia. I know that reading LeGuin's "Left Hand of Darkness" opened my eyes to gender discrimination.

What do you think?

And if you think sff does have a role to play - which does it better? Fantasy or SF?

Or am I being naive? Do the folk who need to have their eyes opened the most, read the least? After all, we have the religious right refusing to let their kids read anything - like Harry Potter - that doesn't preach their narrow view of the world. In other words, there are stacks of people out there who are terrified of reading anything which might expand their world view because their belief is so weak they think it is easily subverted. There are even some religious fanatics here in Malaysia who think that stepping foot in the house of someone of another faith during their festivals will somehow weaken their own faith. Huh? Have they any idea how ridiculous that makes their own faith appear?

Or do people who have closed minds not "get" it even if they do read a book that tackles problems of prejudice and racial or gender discrimination, simply because they don't recognise themselves?

I have tried to look at some of these problems, even as I try never to allow my own pet themes to diminish a great story.

In The Isles of Glory trilogy I deal with the dismaying similarities between different forms of extremism (religious and environmental and racial); the importance of balance in politics; what makes a truly "good" religious person; how too much power is dangerous etc, etc.

In The Mirage Makers trilogy I look more at cultural differences and adaptation; how we are all moulded by our upbringing and the more subtle forms of prejudice - and how one culture does not have the "best" of everything. Of how we need to see that other peoples' way of life can be just as valid as our own, even if it is substantially different.

I'm off tomorrow, so chat on folk. I'll be back.

Song of the Shiver Barrens

Oh, I meant to add on previous post...wait for the drum roll...I have sent off the corrected MS for Book 3 of The Mirage Makers, "Song of the Shiver Barrens". It should now go to the copy editor.

The sequence for writing a book is like this:
  • "Finish" MS.
  • Realise it is far from finished.
  • Repeat above two steps 20 or so times.
  • Send to beta readers for comment.
  • "Finish" MS all over again after taking on beta reader comments.
  • Send to main editor and my agent.
  • Be informed that your MS is far from finished by said editor and agent.
  • "Finish" MS all over again, based on their suggestions.
  • Send off to main editor...(Step taken today)
  • ...who might then send it to copy editor...
  • ...who sends it back covered in pencil marks and question marks. And questions like, 'Did you know you've used the word "sigh" or "sighed" 221 times? Would you perhaps like to alter this?'
  • "Finish" Ms all over again by taking on board 98% of copy edit suggestions (I have a very good copy editor).
  • Send back to main editor.
  • Receive phone call from editor who wants to change some more stuff. Agree with editor. (I'm very tactful.)
  • Receive galley proofs and realise that you weren't finished after all.
  • Make corrections to proofs and send back.
  • Receive finished book.
  • Decline to read it ever again.
All this is then followed by:
  • Cowering at home waiting (largely in vain) for ...
  1. great reviews,
  2. favourable reader comments on internet,
  3. ecstatic fan mail,
  4. wonderful sales rankings from books stores,
  5. glorious sales figures from publisher,
  6. expensive champagne from publisher because you've just sold 500,000 copies...
  7. record-breaking new contract for next book.
And some of you think writing is glamorous???

Lizard in a bin; MS to editor

When I climbed out of the car the day we arrived back from Pulau Tiga, it was to the sound of a desperate scrabbling - rather like the noise made by one of the those TV lotto draw thingys with all the balls inside being spun.

So nosey me had to investigate. Of course.

And paid dearly. Just as I was ascertaining the cause - a huge monitor lizard unable to climb out of the empty rubbish skip - I slipped on the wet and mould-slimy pavement and pulled ligaments in my foot. Ouch. And tomorrow I leave for a twelve day expedition to Tawau Hills Park and Sebatek Island (a border island, half Indonesian). I am supposed to be surveying the avifauna of a mountain, which activity entails climbing the blessed mountain first.... Double ouch.

Anyway, I am off tomorrow, so if I don't post for a while, you know why. I shall be leaving up a nice meaty subject for you to talk about though, so do chat to one another while I am gone.

Which reminds me. I started this blog a year back. And I want to say thanks to all of you, especially all you quiet lurkers who faithfully and quietly drop by. You are the reason I write. Love y'all.

Photo: sunset, Pulau Tiga. All these latest island photos were taken by my sister, Margaret.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sisters and memory

Sisters know things about your life that no one else remembers any more, especially after your parents are gone. They know where you are coming from. Everyone should have a sister. Talking with mine beings back such memories...

I had a birthday this week and birthdays always seem to lend themselves to reminiscing.

I remember the bedroom I slept in as a child on the farm. In fact, we never called it a room. It was "The Sleepout", an unlined addition built by my dad on to the verandah and it remained my bedroom until we moved when I was eleven.

The roof was corrugated iron with no ceiling. The walls were asbestos sheets, unlined, except for the end wall out onto the verandah - that was made of canvas, with a canvas roll-up door. No lock of course. There was one louvred window. The uneven board floor was covered with newspaper to even it up, then linoleum laid over the top. It was green and patterned. I thought it pretty.

The room had no heating or fan - and temperatures could get over 100F in summer and fall to freezing in winter. I shared the room with my sister for many years until she had her own bedroom, and then the sleepout was mine. In winter I pushed the bed up against the back of the brick chimney and slept under a heap of heavy army blankets that really did have blanket stitching around the edge. A hot water bottle made all the difference on those cold nights...

In the distance, along the railway line, where water collected in the low ground on either side of the tracks, frogs burped an a cappella opera chorus. Rain was thunder on the iron, and when it stopped there was a drip that fell from the chimney with somnolent monotony for the rest of the night.

In summer the east wind would come sweeping down from the Darling Range at the back of our farm, hot and searing, to howl around the house corners. I loved the sound. I loved the way you had to lean into that wind if you crossed the back lawn to the creeper-covered dunny in the middle of the night. There was a redgum marri outside the window and the huge honkey nuts would bounce with shocking clangs on to the iron.

And I tell you one thing, we never thought we were poor. It never, ever, crossed our minds and I would have been outraged if anyone had said we were. I read books, and I knew what being poor was - it was when you didn't have enough to eat, and your clothes were ragged, and you were sick and didn't have enough money for the doctor, and there was a huge mortgage on the house which somehow meant someone could come and take it away from you.

Being poor wasn't eating porridge and chops and fried tomatoes and toast for breakfast. It wasn't getting a brand new bicycle for your eighth birthday so you could cycle to school instead of paying tuppence to catch the bus. It wasn't being happy and loved and well-fed and playing canasta around the fire with lumps of coal glowing in the fireplace (we found those along the railway line and brought them home) on a winter evening. It wasn't having a mother that read to you every night. It wasn't sneaking out of bed early so you could raid the plum tree before breakfast...

We were never poor. We were rich.

Photos: from Pulau Tiga - sunset, mud people, the TV Survivor beach.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The worst roundabout statues

I've already put up a few of these. The lobster in Sandakan came close to being the worst, I reckon. Jennifer Fallon had some success at finding some wonderful monstrosities in Australia, too. Try her blog entries for November 2006.

Before you read any further, take a good look at this pix. What do you reckon it is? A crumpled up chessboard? A piece of modern art made of scrap metal? Discworld on the back of Great A'Tuin upsidedown? Noah's ark as it might appear to an artist under methadone treatment?

I reckon anyone would be hard put to find one as, um, boringly unattractive as this one, found between Kuala Penyu and Papar in Sabah. I suspect it is supposed to portray the local version of a panama hat. Either that or a rather odd cake on a plate.

And whoever commissioned a sculpture of a panama hat needs to be banned from ever being involved in any kind of landscaping decisions for the rest of their life.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Skiving off

I've been back on Tiga Island again. Well, my sister wanted to go, you see, to do a bit of snorkelling. Twasn't me, really... I mean, I have to work. The final, final, really really final version of Song of the Shiver Barrens is due in on Tuesday absolutely without fail.

So there I was once more, writing under the Barringtonia trees again, lifting my head to see the frigatebirds drifting overhead, or waiting for the sun to set, gin and tonic in hand...

That dark speck in the water there is me taking a sunset swim. Eat your heart out, all you writers who don't live in Sabah.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kota Kinabalu Mystery

For those of you who aren't familiar with this part of the world, Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah State and it is a fast growing city on the waterfront. Land right in the centre of the city must surely be at a premium, because there isn't all that much flat land between hills and sea.

And yet, in the heart of prime real estate, there is a large vacant lot, littered with, um, pipes driven into the ground. They are, in wet weather, filled with stagnant water. I can't find any reference to this place in any guide book...

So I have decided one of the following is probably true:
  1. It is an artwork done by an artist of such renown that no one dares to use the land for anything else.
  2. It is an experiment to work out how fast you can kill off the population by using dengue fever (the vector of which loves small pools of stagnant water).
  3. It is a building site, started by a drunken architect and a drugged pile driver who a) couldn't put the piles in a straight line and b) couldn't decide how far to drive them into the ground.
  4. It's an example of what happens when you drive piles in too far into the ground in, say, Buenos Aires.
  5. It was an experiment to get rid of those weeds (Australian acacias) that you can see in the pix, and it went horribly wrong. The trees thrived and the pipes died.
  6. They are rubbish bins for people of differing height. After all, many of them appear to be filled with rubbish.
  7. They are all that remain of a clandestine landing of aliens.
  8. They are aliens and we haven't woken up to that fact yet.
So, while I wait for a Sabahan to enlighten me in the comments section, those are my theories...

Taxing matters...

As a result of yesterday's post, I just had an email from a truly delightful tax advisor, now located in Mongolia - who, tongue firmly planted in cheek - has given me some advice about filing Mongolian income tax returns.

Don't you just love the internet?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Please, please, can't I pay you some tax?

I spent a chunk of today at the city tax office. I wanted to work out a way to pay them some income tax. And they wouldn't accept it.

I went down on bended knee (well, metaphorically speaking - my knees actually don't like bending all that much these days, except perhaps for the odd knighthood that might come my way) and they still wouldn't take any of my hard-earned money.

Now how many tax offices do you know like that?

My problem is this: I publish books overseas, and there are certain overseas countries that don't much like publishers sending their lovely cash away to people who live in other countries, so they try to grab as much as they can back again in the form of tax. Like 33.3% - or more. And that's not on a sliding scale either. They mean one third of every darn penny, dollar or brass razoo I earn. And as I also have to pay not one, but two, agents along the way, that means that I see less than 50% of what I actually sold the book for. (I don't begrudge the agents, but boy those tax offices in countries I never visit are another matter...)

So I would prefer that I can pay here instead, under double taxation agreements, and claim on expenses like computers and ink and paper and stuff. But no, Malaysia won't tax money earned overseas. So here I am, paying an enormous amount of tax and not able to make a claim for a single tax deduction...

And somehow I have to find out if I can file a tax return in Upper Mongolia, Outer Silesia and Atlantis, after brushing up on my language skills in Mongolian, Silesian and Atlantisian. And how to get them to send me the tax forms in the first place? (OK, so I didn't really sell a book to Underwater's Publishing House in Atlantis, but you get the gist). And will they refund anything at all anyway? Some don't...

If anyone ever tries to tell you writers make money, tell them to get real.

Photos taken in Poring, where we went walking through the canopy. The last shot shows how a tree won't let neighbouring trees encroach into its crown space, but keeps an area cleared around its canopy. ("Crown shyness")

Sunday, February 04, 2007

On fitting in or being the outsider

Just got back from a weekend at the Kinabalu National Park, so be prepared to be bored with photos over the next few days. These shots are from the top of a Tualang tree (Koompasia excelsa, the highest emergent and also one of the most beautiful of our rainforest trees) looking down on to the forest canopy, and so to the forest floor 41 metres below. I went extravagantly mad taking photos looking straight down…don’t you love digital cameras?

Last week I said I was going to talk about why I gave up on adapting to my adopted country – why I went so far, and not that little bit further.

I guess the main reason is that I found I couldn’t – my skin colour and appearance is always going to keep me apart. I can never be anonymous. And just as a Malaysian friend living in Vienna used to grind her teeth over always being taken for a Filipina maid, so am I frustrated by always being taken for a tourist and treated differently on the basis of that. Hey, ten to one I have lived longer in Malaysia than the person speaking to me. After all, I first came here 37 years ago. And I probably know more about the rainforest, and can recognise more plants and animals than 99% of Malaysian citizens who have lived here all their lives. Point at a Tualang tree and ask the average citizen about it and they can’t tell you a thing, not even the name.

Yet people make immediate assumptions about me:
I am richer than they are (which sometimes translates into ‘therefore I can charge her more’)
I can’t speak the local language
I know nothing of the customs

And adapting outwardly makes no difference. If I wear a baju kurung, people stare. If I speak the local language, they reply in English or jump out of their skin. If I eat chillies they are impressed. If I make a local curry, they are astounded.

A second reason to draw the line is that officialdom has no interest in me whatsoever. They have refused me permanent residency (without giving a reason), so every year I have to go along with my husband to an immigration office, pay money, and beg to be allowed to stay yet another year. They offer awards and medals and titles to my husband for the effort he has made on behalf of his country, but treat his wife like she doesn’t exist. Over the years, I have done a tremendous amount of volunteer work, free of charge, yet they still obviously don’t want me here. (They won’t allow me to work for money without going through an incredible rigmarole – even when a government department wants to employ me!!)

So why should I go the extra mile?

Somehow when someone talks of discrimination and prejudice and poor treatment of immigrants etc etc, everyone jumps to the conclusion that they are talking about a Western country doling out insults to people with dark skins and/or non-Judae-Christian religions.

Oh? Tell me about it.

Don’t get me wrong – I love this country and its people (after all I married a Malaysian and I have two Malaysian daughters and I’m still here, even all these years later). But if they want me to fit in like a Malaysian, they’ve got to do better than that.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Bit pressed for blogging time at the moment...we are away for the weekend.