Thursday, 18 September 2014

'The White Rajah' is now free on Kindle

Last week I wrote that I was excited that The White Rajah was free on iBooks. It deserves a wider readership and I hoped this could help.

This week, I am thrilled to tell you that The White Rajah is free on Kindle. I hope this will be until the end of the month, but why not buy it now to be on the safe side? Once you've got it, you can read it whenever you want.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Why write about the White Rajah?

This is an edited version of a post I wrote for Michael Mandrake's blog back in 2011. With the republication of "The White Rajah" I thought I'd post it here again.

****

Many, many years ago – decades, in fact – I found myself spending a few days on a holiday in Sarawak. We had signed up with a company that took you up river from Kuching, then a really small town, to visit the famous longhouses. Here we met the indigenous Dyak people who, not that long ago, had been headhunters and many of whom still lived on the most basic slash and burn cultivation and the food they could catch in the jungle. We even caught a tiny mouse deer ourselves and contributed it to the collective pot. It was a magical few days and almost certainly unrepeatable, for the last couple of decades have seen logging destroy much of the habitat the Dyaks rely on to live while mass tourism means that trips like those we made then are probably by now impossible.

It was on that trip that I first came across James Brooke. The museum in Kuching had an exhibition of Sarawak's history with a large display on 'The White Rajahs' next to a much smaller display on 'The Colonial Era'. I was confused. The White Rajahs were clearly, well, white. Why was it that while the tone of 'The Colonial Era' was rather disapproving (it mainly seems to have consisted of killing the Governor), 'The White Rajahs' display hinted at a Golden Age?

The answer seems to have been the extraordinary relationship the first White Rajah, James Brooke, had with the people of Sarawak. Sarawak then was a province of a much bigger country ruled by Muda Hassim in Brunei. Hassim gave the rule of Sarawak to James Brooke as a reward for Brooke's help suppressing a rebellion there. Brooke insisted that Sarawak was not part of the British Empire and he set out to rule as an enlightened despot.

At the centre of the exhibition was a portrait of James Brooke. It was a copy of the one in London's National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant
National Portrait Gallery London. Used with permission


I saw it and just wanted to know more about this astonishingly handsome, dashing man who had taken a tiny country halfway round the globe from his home and made it his own. When I got back to England I started to read all I could find about him. It wasn't that difficult. His diaries were published, as were those of Keppel, the admiral who helps him defeat the pirates. I found myself getting more and more caught up in his story and, because I had always wanted to write, I decided to turn it into a novel. What I aimed for was an old-fashioned yarn with an old-fashioned hero and, up to a point, I succeeded. But in the end, although it got representation by a well-known agent, it really wasn't good enough for publication. I put it away and forgot about it.

Years passed and I found myself writing lots of non-fiction, often anonymously. I decided that I owed it to myself to write the novel I've always planned for. We were moving into an age when Western armies were invading remote countries, often with noble intentions but sometimes with terrible consequences. I wanted to write about how good people could end up involved in questionable wars and horrifying massacres. I remembered that James Brooke had himself been involved in a massacre which, at the time, had horrified liberal opinion in Britain and resulted in a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore. I decided to go back to my original novel and rewrite it as a much darker piece with a flawed hero.

I wanted to get close to Brooke as a man, rather than just as a historical figure, and I thought this could best be done through the eyes of someone who knew him and shared his experiences. I tried to think who this could be and came to the idea that the story could be told from the point of view of a sailor on his ship, the Royalist. And that was how John Williamson came into being. Unlike Brooke, who is very closely based on the historical figure, Williamson is almost entirely fictional. The real James Brooke had an interpreter called John Williamson and I just borrowed the name. (The real Williamson was half-Malay and died quite early on.)

Once Williamson came into the story, his role just grew. He had started out as a narrative device but, as time went by, he became central to the story. Partly, I think, this is because everything was seen through his eyes and so I found myself thinking more and more about how he felt about things and partly because I tried to use Williamson as a figure who reflected Brooke's relationship with the Dyaks. So Brooke 'educates' him but at the same time Williamson finds that the relationship stops him developing fully as his own man. By now, what had started as a historical novel with a bit of romance became much more a romance set in a historical story.
The whole 'gay' bit never seemed that important. The real Brooke was almost certainly gay, all the characters around him were men: if he was going to have a relationship, it was always going to be a gay relationship.

John Williamson has grown on me since I invented him and Accent are planning to publish another John Williamson story. Fortunately the date on which Williamson departs Singapore at the end of "The White Rajah" means that I can put him in India just before the Indian Mutiny breaks out. So that's what I've done: Williamson travels to India, falls in love (again) and is once more caught up in historical events that leave him making uncomfortable choices about who he is and where his loyalties lie. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Excited!

The White Rajah is currently free on ibooks. Just click on https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/the-white-rajah/id890504536?ls=1&mt=11 and there it is. You’ll need to install iBooks (also free) to read it but then you can access it on your iPad.

Why am I excited about the possibility of earning exactly no money from your buying my book? Because The White Rajah is a new edition of the first novel I wrote, back in 2010. It was published by a tiny publisher in the USA. Despite this, sales were surprisingly good, but obviously it never got a great deal of attention. I'm hoping that now that Accent are selling a (new! improved!) edition, it will get a much wider public. But how to get it talked about amongst people who missed it first time and who, almost by definition, must be people I find it difficult to sell my book to? Well, we'll give it away, that's how.

Give it a go. It suffers a bit from not fitting easily into any of the currently popular sub-genres of history (romance, saga, mediaeval, whatever). According to the BBC, which apparently knows about these things, it's a neo-Victorian novel. So if you like neo-Victorian novels, you'll love this. If (like me) you've never heard of neo-Victorian novels, then think of the sort of book that Victorians might have written if they were living now but writing about then. Confused? Why not have a look at The White Rajah and see what I mean.


Did I mention that it's free?

Friday, 5 September 2014

Taking liberties with history

I got 'talking' (virtually) with Jenny Kane because she's another Accent author. She's best known for her erotic writing under the name of Kay Jaybee. I said that it was a shame that she didn't write historical novels because, if she did, I would love her to write something for this blog. At which she explained that she's a trained archaeologist and her new (definitely not erotic) novel has a historical theme.

So: over to you, Jenny.


I’ve been writing short stories and novels for many years and yet, despite my background as a historian and archaeologist, I’ve never written a historical piece.

The main reason I haven’t taken the plunge is simple. The fear of getting things wrong. There are so many pitfalls to trip over- getting the fashion just right, the wording, the conversational phrases, the legal terminology, making sure the correct King or Queen is on the throne – or not – that the local Baron is a Baron and not a Lord, or a Lord and not a Baron … and so on, and so on …

When I completed my PhD many years ago, I spent some time teaching undergraduate students in tutorials and seminars. Although I loved my subject (thirteenth- fourteenth century English economy and criminal law), with each and every lesson I got more and more unsure of myself. I have never been blessed with confidence, and although I knew my work well, I was persistently plagued with doubts as I entered my little office. What if the students knew more than I did? What if they asked me a question I couldn’t answer?

These are the same basic reasons I’ve never written a historical novel – fear of getting the details wrong.

To tackle these paranoiac shortcomings, I decided to turn this very problem into a novel.

Romancing Robin Hood is a contemporary romance centred around the world of history lecturer Dr Grace Harper, who is obsessed about Robin Hood and the historical outlaws that may have inspired him.

As well as telling the story of Grace’s fight to find time for personal romance in her busy work filled life, Romancing Robin Hood also tells of Grace’s fight with her conscience. For she is writing a novel about a fourteenth century criminal gang- but should she toe the historical line and make her novel as factual as a textbook, or should she write a more accessible romance which might teach a little bit of history along the way?

Shamelessly using the work I did for my own PhD, I had the character of Grace researching the Folvilles. A notorious criminal family, based in Ashby-Folville in Leicestershire in the 1320’s-30, the Folvilles were accused of murder, rape, kidnap, and ransom - and then they either got away with their crimes, or were convicted before being quickly pardoned in return for fighting for the King’s forces.

In Grace’s book, her fourteenth century protagonist is 19 year old Mathilda, a young woman who suddenly finds herself in the custody of the Folvilles, and then under another very frightening type of suspicion ...

Romancing Robin Hood – Blurb
Dr Grace Harper has loved the stories of Robin Hood ever since she first saw them on TV as a girl. Now, with her fortieth birthday just around the corner, she’s a successful academic in Medieval History, with a tenured position at a top university.
But Grace is in a bit of a rut. She’s supposed to be writing a textbook on a real-life medieval gang of high-class criminals – the Folvilles – but she keeps being drawn into the world of the novel she’s secretly writing – a novel which entwines the Folvilles with her long-time love of Robin Hood – and a feisty young girl named Mathilda, who is the key to a medieval mystery…
Meanwhile, Grace’s best friend Daisy – who’s as keen on animals as Grace is on the Merry Men – is unexpectedly getting married, and a reluctant Grace is press-ganged into being her bridesmaid. As Grace sees Daisy’s new-found happiness, she starts to re-evaluate her own life. Is her devotion to a man who may or may not have lived hundreds of years ago really a substitute for a real-life hero of her own? It doesn’t get any easier when she meets Dr Robert Franks – a rival academic who Grace is determined to dislike but finds herself being increasingly drawn to…

If you’d like to buy my latest novel, it is currently available in e-format (paperback coming soon.)


Bio
Jenny Kane is the author of Romancing Robin Hood (Accent Press, 2014), the best selling contemporary romance Another Cup of Coffee (Accent Press, 2013), and the novella length sequel Another Cup of Christmas (Accent Press, 2013)
Jenny’s next novella, Another Cup of Mulled Wine, will be published in November, and her third full length novel, Abi’s House, will be published by Accent Press in 2015.
You can keep up to date with Jenny’s book news via her blog - www.jennykane.co.uk
Twitter- @JennyKaneAuthor
Facebook -https://www.facebook.com/JennyKaneRomance

Monday, 1 September 2014

A few words about 'The White Rajah'

I realise that I haven’t said a lot about The White Rajah lately.

I’m in an odd position with this book. It was the first novel I had published, back in 2010. It was put out by a tiny press in the USA and was, by the standards of independently published books, reasonably successful. But the publisher wasn’t in a position to get it widely seen and I was delighted when Accent Press said that they would publish it over here. I made some revisions, which I think improved a few of the scenes in the book, but it is essentially the same novel as the one published four years ago. This has left me feeling that there’s not a lot left to say about it and so it has languished in the book charts without much attention from anyone, including me.

That’s a pity, because (though it has many of the failings of a first novel) it’s quite a good book. Here is the start of a review that appeared on a blog that I would never have read if it were not for the wonders of Google:
It's ages since I've started reading a book and then been 100% annoyed at the world that it won't let me just sit there and finish it all in one go, but The White Rajah by Tom Williams has totally been that book! 

Wow!

There are authors who claim that they never read their reviews. 99% of them are lying. When I feel that it’s hardly worthwhile sitting down and writing another few thousand words to add to the Work In Progress (another Burke novel, as you ask), it’s reviews like that that make me settle down and get on with it. And, at a grimy economic level, it’s reviews like that that make people buy the books (especially if they’re posted on Amazon).

If you’ve read one of my books and enjoyed it, could you please go onto Amazon and say so? It will make me feel it was worthwhile and it will encourage other people to try a book that you have enjoyed. The White Rajah is not the world’s greatest novel, but a lot of people have really enjoyed it. (“Absolutely brilliant. A fast paced, perfectly edited, superbly written novel that kept me enthralled from the first word … - Smashwords.) It deserves an audience and you can help to find it one.

Thanks.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

James Brooke

In June, Accent republished my first novel, The White Rajah. It is a new edition, with some passages rewritten since it first came out. It's still the same book, though: the story of the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

When it first came out, I wrote a piece for this blog explaining who James Brooke was and why I thought his a tale worth telling. For those of you who missed it that time round, here it is again:

I was on holiday in Sarawak when I first heard of James Brooke. The museum in Kuching had an exhibition of Sarawak's history with a large display on 'The White Rajahs' next to a much smaller display on 'The Colonial Era'. I was confused. The White Rajahs were clearly, well, white. Why was it that while the tone of 'The Colonial Era' was rather disapproving (it mainly seems to have consisted of killing the Governor), 'The White Rajahs' display hinted at a Golden Age?

The answer seems to have been the extraordinary relationship the first White Rajah, James Brooke, had with the people of Sarawak. Sarawak then was a province of a much bigger country ruled by Muda Hassim in Brunei. Hassim gave the rule of Sarawak to James Brooke as a reward for Brooke's help suppressing a rebellion there. Brooke insisted that Sarawak was not part of the British Empire and he set out to rule as an enlightened despot. He succeeded to the point where his family was able to govern for three generations, their rule ending only with the Japanese invasion in World War II.

My book explores some of the moral ambiguities of his rule. (He did kill an awful lot of people for what he saw as the greater good.) There is no doubt in my mind, though, that he was one of the good guys. He protected the natives of Borneo from the worst of the depredations of the Malays and brought peace and comparative prosperity to an area that had known more than its share of war and hardship. It is unusual to see Third World countries celebrating a period of rule by a European but Sarawak does. This seems mainly because it was rule by a European, not European rule.

Unlike most colonial rulers, James Brooke lost money hand over fist in Sarawak, keeping himself afloat only with financial support from friends in England who believed in what he was doing. It was the sheer cost of restoring the country after the Japanese invasion that was a major factor in Brooke rule ending and the British government briefly taking control before Sarawak became independent as part of Malaysia.

I'm not blogging about his life because there's already more than enough about him on the Web. (Wikipedia is a good place to start.) Anyone wanting to get intimate with the man can read his published diaries, which I used as a research source.

This is not the first novel about Brooke. There have been many. Even Conrad's Lord Jim was based on him. This story takes a different look at the man. It starts by assuming that he was a good man but that he did terrible things and tries to understand why.

The book opens with a brief excerpt from a journal of the period and I can do no better than to repeat it here.
“When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones, but while those who loved him the best, could fondly and sadly wish it had been otherwise, they will ever be able to think of their leader, as the Father and Founder of a nation and as one of England’s greatest sons.”

Monday, 18 August 2014

The love that dare not write its name

Earlier this year, I was invited to write on Adrian Smith's blog, A Torch in the Wind

It had always worried me that The White Rajah is often judged as a 'gay book' because the main character is gay. This issue keeps on coming up, so I'd like to reprint my blog post here so that I can share my thoughts with people who may not have seen it on Adrian Smith's site.



When I was growing up, homosexuality was illegal. Most of the books discussed on this blog would have been considered obscene and publishing or owning them might well have exposed people to criminal action. Interestingly, some commentators consider that it is a passing reference to (heterosexual) sodomy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was one of the reasons for its prosecution.

Now, of course, we live in a more liberal and enlightened age. Anybody who wants to read about homosexual relationships will have no problems in finding books that cater for their interests. But I do wonder if we have, perhaps, not taken advantage of the hard-won freedoms of the gay community to make a more liberal publishing environment, but, rather, built a gay ghetto which is, in its way, as restrictive as anything that may have preceded it.

When I set out to write my first novel, The White Rajah, I was not planning to write a “gay book”. I was writing about real historical character, James Brooke, the eponymous White Rajah. I think there is little doubt that he was inclined toward his own sex, though it’s not clear, in those days, whether he had an active sex life. I wanted the reader to be able to see Brooke through the eyes of someone who travels with him and shares his adventures. I therefore invented a lover for him, and it is John Williamson who tells his story.

As I wrote, the relationship between John Williamson and James Brooke became more important to the novel than I had expected, and I ended up with what I thought of as quite a powerful love story at the heart of what is, in the end, an otherwise straightforward historical novel.

Against all the odds, The White Rajah was represented by a very reputable agent who pitched it to four leading publishers. All of them rejected it. The consensus seemed to be that it was “too difficult” for a first novel by an unknown writer. Now that could be that, being a first novel, it just wasn’t that well-written. As it’s a first person account by a mid-19th century writer, it certainly uses longer sentences and a more challenging vocabulary than a lot of modern novels. But I couldn’t help feeling that part of the problem was that there is a distinct absence of female characters but there’s still sex.

I decided that I would like to see the book published before my dotage, so I sent it to JMS Books, who specialise in LGBT titles. They took it straight away, for which I remain very grateful. The trouble is that it is now seen as an LGBT book. Unfortunately it fails to satisfy a lot of LGBT readers, who complain that it does not have enough explicit sex scenes in it. Straight readers, on the other hand, seem much more interested in the sexual orientation of James Brooke than in any of his quite significant historical achievements.

What nobody seems happy with is the idea that you can write about somebody who has adventures, achieves quite remarkable things in his life, and has a satisfying romantic relationship, but who just happens to be gay. For both straight and gay readers, the sexual orientation of the main character becomes the point of the book.

I find this quite remarkable. Living in 21st-century London, I accept that I will have friends and colleagues with a diversity of sexual orientations. My favourite comedy club was a gay comedy club, but that didn’t mean that the audience was exclusively homosexual or that the jokes all related to gender issues. I like drinking in a gay bar, because the ambience is more civilised than a lot of other bars and they sell the drinks I enjoy. When I first went in there, I was worried that I might not be welcome, but they are as happy to serve straights as gays and it’s simply a very successful town-centre watering hole. If I’m out dancing, some couples embracing on the dance floor will not be the conventional male-female pairing. I was talking to a gay friend about this and he said that a few years ago straight men would be uncomfortable dancing with other men, but this has become so normal that it is no longer an issue for most people.

It goes without saying that, particularly as I used to work in a “creative” industry, many of my colleagues were gay, although the business was a very mainstream publisher.

So when I work, drink, or socialise the sexual orientation of the people I am working, drinking, laughing or dancing with does not define what I am doing. Yet when I am reading, it seems that it does. I am either reading a “gay book” for gay people, which has to emphasise gay sexual behaviour or I am reading a “straight book” (or “book”) where everyone seems much happier if nobody is gay at all. (Often there’s a minor character who’s gay, so everyone else can demonstrate how liberal they are.) The distinction is particularly ironic as many of the writers of M/M fiction are heterosexual women, as are many of its readers.

It’s not just my personal paranoia. I was delighted when Foyles (one of London’s most prestigious bookshops) stocked my titles, but I was surprised to see that they were shelved in a department dedicated to GLBT literature.


Obviously, it’s a good thing that, after centuries of repression, gay people can write and read books that cater for them. A gay press was an essential part of the battle for equality. But is it still the best way forward? Or have gay readers and writers created a ghetto that is itself discriminatory and a sort of repression, all the more damaging for being self-inflicted?