My last post (Jakarta Three Ways) was a review of +Ramadan Sky by Nichola Hunter. ‘A contemporary twist on a classic story of forbidden love, set in Jakarta, capital city of Indonesia.’
One of the attractions of the novel is its setting , seen not from the tourist’s point of view, but from inside the heart of Jakarta. In asking Nichola about the writing of this book I found that –under a different name – she has been a freelance travel writer for some years. This threw an interesting light on the dawning of the novel.
“Every editor’s tips page for travel writers begins with rule number one–write in the first person. After a few years of writing and reading travel articles I got tired of this rule. Many travel pieces start with the writer getting into a taxi/limousine, tuk tuk/rickshaw and the driver says “Where you go lady?” which sets the scene for the reader and then the driver disappears from the story. I always had an idea to turn this on its head one day and make one of those caricatured drivers the main character in a story instead of a recurring backdrop. Then it was one small step further to get the driver to actually be the narrator.”
Another attraction is the three perspectives. The westerner teacher, seen as rich and powerful by the Jakartans, her chauffeur, the handsome but feckless young driver and his traditional fiancée – the point of view of each of them in this tainted triangle clearly and fairly shown.
Nichola said: “I did not want any of the characters in this story to be victims, and I think that as an author I was tough on the characters – they all had choices, even within the confines of their individual circumstances and they made choices that were self-serving and even ignoble. I think that’s why they were not “likeable”. The reader is the only one who really knows what is going on and can watch the characters tell one story to the reader and another to the other protagonists. This was especially fun as one of the character is such a liar.”
The novel itself has an interesting journey. I saw it first on +Authonomy.com , a writer’s site. It can take a book literally years to reach the top 5 where the ‘prize’ is a full critique from a +Harper Collins editor. Ramadan Sky, however, was noticed by Authonomy well before this. Nichola was contacted and subsequently a contract was made.
“When I first posted Ramadan Sky on Authonomy, I only had half of my book. I thought I had some nice writing there, but it was basically a very long short story. I was a bit stuck on where to go with it, and worried that it would end up in my sock drawer for all eternity. Uploading it onto Authonomy was almost an act of desperation—I had to do something.
I really did benefit from advice from several authonomy members reviewing it and confidence from other writers’ enthusiasm for Ramadan Sky. It was chosen as “One to watch” after a few months on the site, which was a real boost and helped me to get cracking. At the same time I lost my job due to a restructure and I suddenly found I had the time to write for several hours every day. The story doubled in size and the book rose to a rating of 89 and then stayed between there and 120 for several months (ratings begin at around 5,000)
As a new job was by then taking up a lot of my time, I took my book down from the website. A few days later I had an email from Authonomy. “Where is your book – do you already have representation? If not, can you please send the full manuscript.
After a long wait I got the phone call I had been dreaming about for so many years.
The shift from manuscript to book was an amazing experience. Seeing the difference between the manuscript and the final product really made me want to tell other emerging writers how essential a professional editor is. There are so many ways that s/he can help your work shine. “
Many readers have contacted the author to express their enjoyment. There’s an excitement when a novel opens onto an unfamiliar world. Jakarta has its own culture and specific problems, which Nichola Hunter highlights through her narrative.
In a later post, I will be discussing another novel from a distant setting. Set in Japan, it is the forthcoming Ginza, by Catherine Strong, short-listed for the Luke Bitmead prize.