A tribute to Dennis Yong’s Big Bird Year

Now I know a lot of people, including Malaysians, are going to look at that title and wonder what the hell I am going on about now. But there will also be a lot of people out there – from all corners of the world – who will instantly know the name Dennis Yong. He is, in his field, famous. Dennis is the consumate birdwatcher and knows more about Malaysian birds than any person alive. He is one half of a bird guiding tour company located in Kuala Lumpur (Kingfisher Tours), but he is much more than that – he is an environmentalist and the best field naturalist we have. He can tell you about everything from bears to ants to freshwater fish (another passion of his).

Going out into the rainforest with Dennis is always a fascinating learning experience. And I am always reluctant to turn in for the night on a camping trip if Dennis is there – the sitting around and yarning after a day’s work is all part of that learning. When it comes to birding and understanding the ecology of the rainforest and other tropical habitats, he has been my mentor.

And it’s been such a fun ride at the same time. I have so many memories:
Dennis spending the night in the car with two unwashed local forest guides when sun bears raided the camp kitchen; Dennis showing me my first pitta, way back when, by calling the bird in; me pulling a huge thorn out of his scalp after a peat swamp foray; us discussing whether we could really put a bottle of french wine on the expensive account when we were working for one of the world’s most exclusive (and expensive) island getaways; us getting eaten alive by sandflies one night down on that mangrove project; Dennis driving a fourwheel drive across a bridge that was more holes than boards – while I got out and walked…

So what is his Big Bird Year all about?

Malaysia has 742 birds on its national list (of which Dennis was one of the compilers.) And in 2006, he is going to try and see them all. Well, as many as possible. Why?

Well, it’s a bit like climbers and the mountains: because they are there. But it’s more than that too; it’s publicity for our avifauna and ecotourism – and how they are worthy of conservation effort. It’s a way of finding out just how easy or difficult it is to see Malaysian birds. It will provide a benchmark for the state of birds in the country. (See here for further details and updates.)

And I wish – like Tory Petersen and James Fisher back in the 1950s – he’d write a book about his Big Bird Year afterwards, but knowing Dennis and his dislike of tying himself down to a desk to do anything as prosaic as writing, I doubt it.

Good luck, Dennis. And I hope we meet up out there in the field this year as you bird you way towards 742…

Photos: Dennis and self in the field, taken by Lim Kim Chye

MAS Travel Fair – how to pay more than usual!

I feel as though I just escaped a scam.

I went along to my local travel agent to book a ticket to New York under the current travel fair cheap ticket week. Luckily for me, before I went, I checked how much a cheapest normal economy fare would be, booked on a normal day outside of the travel fair.

There are three levels of tickets on cheap offer at the travel fair. The “L” fare to NY is indeed cheap. If you could get it, you’d save something like $RM 922. Not bad. The catch is that there are very few flights where that fare is offered (and I wouldn’t mind betting only a few seats on each of those very few flights.) Unhappily, none of the dates suited me.

But never mind, there are two other levels of “cheap” tickets on offer for the duration of the fair.

But – caveat emptor – on the NY route at least, these other levels of so-called “cheap” fares are MORE expensive than the normal lowest level of economy fare.

The girl in the travel agency was taken aback when I pointed this out to her. She went to double check, and came back baffled. It really was so. So beware. Cheap travel fairs can be a way to pay more. Malaysia Boleh!

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

We all know that feeling. You start reading a book, even perhaps a best seller, and after a few pages you think to yourself, ‘How on earth did this ever get into print? I could do better!’

When you’re unpublished, it seems unfair that someone who peppers their prose with exclamation marks and clichés, or poor grammar and clunky sentences, can find a publisher. And when you are published, it seems just as unfair that the author of that same shoddy writing gets millions while you worry about whether you’ll earn out the modest advance you got.

So how come a book like that gets published in the first place? And once published, how come it sells millions? Is it luck?

No, of course not, but it sure helps to be in the right place at the right time for the right person. And the only way you ensure that is by getting your book – the best work you can write – out there to as many people as possible. I am an object lesson when it comes to this.

My first novel was accepted by an agent just after I turned forty-five. It should have been earlier – after all, I was only seven or eight when I decided I was going to be a writer. Well, authoress was the word I used, I believe! So what the hell took me so long? I did write. I even finished books. A number of them. But I never got anywhere with them. Why not?

Because the sheer dogged determination was not there. I was too caught up in all the paraphernalia of everyday life, earning a living, raising kids…you know the story. But in this business you make your own luck by stubborn persistence, and without that drive, my books weren’t out there being seen by enough people. In effect, I wasn’t making my own luck.

Then the kids grew older and my husband took a job in Vienna, Austria. We moved into a smaller house where the housework could be done in one tenth the time and there was no wildlife sharing our living space necessitating constant cleaning (people who live in the tropics will know what I mean!). I had no full-time job so I had time to write; we weren’t earning third world salaries any more and so I had the cash to sent out a manuscript repeatedly. I got serious. I changed my luck.

That poorly written work by the now bestselling author I mentioned above? That may not have appealed to 99% of the publisher and agents who saw it originally – but it hit the right person at the right time, someone for whom the story resonated, or who realised it would resonate with the reading public. Just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean other people won’t like it either.

We have to accept that sometimes good writing doesn’t sell, whereas a good story can sometimes survive poor writing. It’s annoying to those who take care to craft good novels, but hey, this is a business as well as a creative art, and we have to live with it. And the best advice remains: make your own luck.

Be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch as well as a good craftsman.

When you want sff news…

….without having to wade through all the blogging trivia, take a look at what is happening over at Emerald City.

Cheryl Morgan has had the intelligent idea of an author-contributing blog (in fact, not just authors but others in the industry – editors, publicists, agents, bookstore owners and the like) where they can make their own announcements about story/book sales, book launches, signing tours and similar. Sort of like a group blog, but covering a much wider group of people and confined to news items and announcements.

Take a look here.

And my thanks to Cheryl for hosting the site and for all the work she has put into it. I shall certainly be announcing my own publication dates and sales up there when the time comes.
If you are involved in sff and want to participate, email Cheryl. If you are a reader, then make the announcement blog one of your regular stops.

On the home front:

My husband is off in the Endau-Rompin National Park down in Johor state (southern Peninsular Malaysia) with a group of mycologists on a fungi study trip. And if you don’t think fungi are interesting, look at the photo, taken on one of our trips to the lost valley of Borneo, the Maliau Basin.

I remember the park in the early days, before accommodation was built and we camped out under canvas, on rough cots. No walls, just a mossie net. I remember being kept awake half the night by a frogmouth sitting on the pole of our “roof”. And I remember waking up in the morning for some dawn birding and smelling the unmistakable stink of tiger (imagine dirty tomcat x 100) just metres from where I had been sleeping at the end of the row…

A Tribute to Trudi Canavan

Photo: the Orkneys, Scotland, after Sff Worldcon 2005: from left, Paul Ewins, self, Donna Hanson, my daughter Natasha and Trudi.

I love seeing my fellow Australian sff authors do well. I love it when they are fellow Voyager authors. I love it even more when I know and like them. And I especially love it when they are fine writers.

Trudi’s work is adult fantasy, but tilted a bit towards the young adult market – don’t expectloads of graphic blood and gore. There’s more angst than grit, but Trudi doesn’t shirk from the depicting tragedy and the high price of victory.

Trudi Canavan’s first trilogy The Black Magician was enormously popular, particularly in Britain, and obviously must have left her fans begging for more because Priestess of the White, the first in her new trilogy, was the third most pre-ordered book on amazon.co.uk. It went on to be number one in the SF hardbacks national bestseller chart and number 5 in the national general hardback fiction charts immediately after publication this month.

And lucky Trudi also has had some of the most stunning covers (Orbit editions) in the business…

What can I say about Trudi? She loves chocolate and fudge and ice-cream and never seems to put on weight. I visited an awful lot of knitting shops when I travelled with her and the sound of her knitting needles was a constant in the car. Her Pippi Longstrom socks were a hoot. She cooks a mean Anzac biscuit without a recipe, and plays an even meaner game of Scrabble. (I’m never going to play with her again.)

And if you ever invite her to speak anywhere, make sure you have the mike turned up high, because she speaks very softly…

Congratulations, Trudi. Miss you.

Across the Cultural Chasm

I have been watching this whole Danish cartoon thingy with the sinking feeling of someone watching a landslide gathering momentum and debris on its rapidly widening downhill path.

I know its roots: people staring across a deep divide in utter incomprehension at those on the other side staring back at them. That’s the kind of thing you recognise when you have been set adrift in another culture, not as a traveller passing by, but as someone come to belong.

Even people who ought to know better commit the same sins of incomprehension, myself included. Here in Malaysia, a land of many different cultural groups, and many religions of which Islam is the largest, a Sarawak newspaper published the cartoons. Who knows what was going on in their heads, but they are now out of business. Many years ago, my kindergarten-going Muslim daughter received an invitation to a birthday party – on a card picturing pigs in party clothes and the invitation to join them on such-and-such a date. This in a country where I have seen a Muslim woman get up from a table and vomit because people were talking about pigs.

To refuse a request or a query with an abrupt “no” is considered rude in Malay culture. A Malay, faced with a request he doesn’t like, will smile and say nothing. Another Malay recognises this as a refusal. You would think that Malaysians of other cultural groups would as well, having lived here all their lives. But I have seen just this scenario played out again and again among locals of different cultural backgrounds, with inevitable misunderstanding. How much greater, then, is the possibility of incomprehension between people from different countries and faiths and principles?

The trouble is this: when people start believing in something – whether it is religion, or rights, or politics, or anything else – they tend to stop thinking. Why think about something when you have already found the answer?

Yeah, I know I pontificate on occasion, but I do try never to stop thinking, and sometimes that means trying on another’s shoes.

Of a stork and a baby…and a daughter and a bus

This morning we went for our usual morning walk at dawn, along the banks of a river through a nearby park. On the mudflats, migrating egrets come and go with the seasons, as do many other Russian and Chinese visitors, such as greenshanks and sandpipers. The locals are always there, most obviously the herons, but also smaller birds, including the Baya Weaver family building on a scrubby bush on one of the low river islands. (Did you know it takes over 4,000 pieces of grass to weave a nest? All done by the male, and he has to do a darn good job, too, or his mate will take up with a more competent architect. After all, she has to entrust the lives of her family to his construction skills.)

From time to time there is also a flock of storks, up to thirty or so birds. I haven’t seen them for a couple of months, and this morning I received a hint of why. An adult dropped by with what appeared to be a newly fledged young in drab grey plumage.

This flock started as zoo escapees, but this youngster is decidedly feral. He doesn’t know he is one of the last of his kind in the wild, or that his immediate ancestors were saved by a zoo breeding programme, or that they were set free by a storm that brought a tree down across the netting of their cage. It will be interesting to see if this flock with its new additions can survive life in the wild. This youngster was born to fly free.

Weird stuff:

It seems our younger daughter, Tasha, is on the back of a bus.
Of course, she will get lots of ribbing from the family over that…
Well, it’s actually her picture that’s on the bus’s backside in Glasgow.
Although she is in a band, she’s not actually in this group – she was just modelling the cover and will probably hate me for blowing her, um, cover.


An author’s view of reviews…

Ben Peek wrote an article for Strange Horizons about the Australian Aurealis Awards and the short fiction that was short-listed this year. The article has earned him a lot of flak, especially on his live journal and that of fellow Australian, Ben Payne. I am not going to comment on the administration of the Awards themselves because I really don’t know enough about it – except to say that I am grateful to anyone who volunteers their time to do all the work, administrators and judges, without any remuneration except free books! As Ben Payne commented on his LJ blog:

“But take it from me, as a local author, I’d *love* to be told by *four strangers* that something I had written was good. Do you know how rare that kind of feedback is? … To be told that by four strangers who know the genre, well that’s even better. To be told that by four strangers who know the genre and had read, you know, shitloads of other stuff. Well, you know. To me, that’s cool.”

It’s pretty cool to me, too. Hey, I even read the Amazon reviews of my books and appreciate the fact that people have taken the trouble to write them in the first place. Hell, I even go through the online reviews in German. If I could, I’d read the Russian ones too.

It seems to me that no one should ever attack a reviewer because he says he doesn’t like a particular work. In other words Ben Peek should not be criticised for saying he didn’t think much of the standard of this year’s Aurealis short fiction – that’s his opinion and he has every right to hold it, and to tell us he holds it.

The only issue that counts is whether or not it is a good review. And a good review should do one major thing: it should give a reader who hasn’t read the work an idea whether he would like it or not (or alternatively give a reader who has read it something more to think about).

It is not enough to retell the story, obviously. And it is certainly not enough to criticise the work – favourably or otherwise – without saying, coherently, why. There are three kinds of reviews which particularly bug me: the one that is dismissive from the start, e.g. the snide reviewer given a science fiction book to review by a newspaper editor when he loathes the genre, and who then has fun ridiculing it for being science fiction; secondly, the reviewer who attacks the author rather than the work, e.g. on his or her politics; and thirdly the reviewer who slams (or praises) a work but never gives a thoughtful reason.

As an author, I look upon all reviews as a chance for me to learn. What worked, at least as far as this particular reviewer is concerned? What didn’t? And why? If the reviewer can tell me any of that, I am pathetically grateful. Mind you, I’ve never actually had a really terrible view – even on Amazon. If I had, maybe I would feel differently. But, so far – reviews? I love them!

I am not going to say here whether I think Ben Peek wrote a good or a poor review. I will leave that up to everyone to judge for themselves. But please, don’t slam a reviewer for disliking something. I would really, really hate to be able to read only sweetness and light. And if an artist (in the broadest sense of the word) cannot take criticism and either learn from it or ignore it, then they are in the wrong business.

Weird Stuff:

My husband was asked – many, many months ago – if he would be interested in a temporary post at an institution. He said yes, sure. And after that we heard nothing. No letter of appointment, no phone call, nothing. But the other day someone visited said institution, and noted an office door bearing my husband’s name …


So what else is new…?

Today’s my birthday. And my stock answer to anyone asking how old I am is : “Quite a bit older than I’d like to be.”

To give you a few clues, when I was born :

  • No one knew what a plastic bag was.
  • Radios stood on the floor and had aerials stuck up on the roof.
  • Tail-lights had to be turned on manually at the back of the car.
  • Girls wore dresses. Always.
  • Boys had very short hair. Always.
  • Women wore gloves and hats every time they left the house.
  • Our frig ran on kerosene.
  • There was a war on. (So, what’s new?)
  • Icecream came in two choices: vanilla, or chocolate-coated vanilla – both in a cone.
  • Our telephone number had 3 digits.

My mother was reading a novel during the early stages of labour and her aunt snatched it away from her, and told her she would damage the baby reading stuff like that.

Now there’s a book I wish I knew the title of . Think what I could blame on that author…

Weird stuff:

From yesterday’s paper. A woman here is being charged with apostasy. If found guilty, she could possibly go to jail. She says she’s not a Muslim. And according to the New Straits Times, the prosecutor argued that she was “and the fact that she was charged in the Syariah court proved it.”