‘The White Rajah’: one week to go

‘The White Rajah’: one week to go

Just one week to go until the publication of The White Rajah It’s £6.99 in paperback or just £3.99 on Kindle (and if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it for free).

So what do you get for your money?

The White Rajah is based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak in the mid-19th century. He was a fascinating man: a merchant-adventurer who bought a ship, ostensibly to trade in the South China Seas but really in the hope of extending British influence in an area dominated by the Dutch. He extended British influence even more than he had planned, involving himself so thoroughly in the politics of the local Malay rulers that he ended up ruling his own country: Sarawak in Borneo.

It’s a tale of adventure with battles and plots and midnight raids, but it’s also a more serious story about colonialism and how, even when seeking to do the best for the natives he thought of as “his people” the sudden intervention of Europeans from an alien culture had some unhappy unintended consequences.

James Brooke did an enormous amount of good in Sarawak and even today some people look back on the time of the White Rajahs as a Golden Age. But when his rule was threatened he could be utterly ruthless.

Evil white colonialist or a good man who spent most of his life (and practically all of his fortune) building a peaceful and prosperous society where there had been little but poverty and war? Or is the truth (as truth so often is) somewhere in the middle?

James Brooke’s life will soon be in the news again because a new film based on his adventures is about to be released (straight to DVD sadly, because of covid). Having seen the trailer, I’m not expecting a lot of discussion of the rights and wrongs of colonialism or the moral underpinning of his rule but, like my book, I’m sure it will have pirates and hairsbreadth escapes and heroic deeds with Jonathan Rhys Myers buckling the odd swash (or maybe firing an authentically period pistol). I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping it might generate some interest for my book, too. Other, non-fiction, books about James Brooke are also available but can honestly be quite hard work. (His diaries are brilliant, though.)

If you want to know more about what it’s like, I wrote a spin-off short story, which I seriously considered putting into this edition of the book as a new chapter. Instead it’s been published on Smashwords as The Tiger Hunt. It’s priced at 99p (the cheapest you can sell on Smashwords) but for this week it will be free. Why not download a copy and see what you think? If you enjoy it, come back at the end of the week and buy The White Rajah.

My take on genre switching

I really enjoyed Karen King’s piece last week. She is a consummate professional writer and I wish I had half her energy to write across so many genres. That said, I am not entirely a stranger to writing in different styles myself. In a long career of writing and researching across a range of markets, I have had to learn to write everything from what was essentially boiler-plate text round hundreds of tables of (frankly boring) data to bold selling documents designed to convince advertisers that more pages of tables was the most exciting thing they’d seen in years. Some of them believed it and apparently efforts like my discussion of the readers of children’s comics (even probably including some of the ones Karen wrote for) encouraged a lot of advertisers to take more interest in kiddie print media. I even wrote a ‘proper book’ on complaint handling.

Eventually, though, I produced one too many analyses of the market for paper products in the UK (yes, really) and I gave it all up and started writing fiction.

I had dabbled in fiction before – writing some of those ‘choose your own adventure’ stories that were popular in the 1980s.

My first serious attempt at writing a novel was The White Rajah, first published in 2010. Like many first novels, it desperately wanted to be the Great British Novel and like most first novels it wasn’t. It’s been revised a couple of times since and, though it is still hardly the Great British Novel, I am finally happy with it. It has battles and pirates and lots of traditional adventure, but it is at heart an attempt to look at big moral issues. When James Brooke (a real person) died one commentator wrote:

When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones.

The Monthly Packet, 14 September 1874

The book looks at how somebody who wanted to do good (and often did) was responsible for some horrific acts. Brooke seems to me to symbolise much about the British Empire: it didn’t set out to be evil, but it did a lot of evil things.

The White Rajah was followed by Cawnpore which will be republished later this summer. Cawnpore is also full of moral complexity. On the one hand you have English colonialists: some trying to do their best for India, some who are deeply contemptuous of the native people. On the other hand you have Nana Sahib, hailed nowadays as a hero of the Indian independence movement, but a man who was responsible for a particularly outrageous massacre in 1857.

The John Williamson trilogy finishes with Back Home (also to be republished in 2021). One reviewer complained that John Williamson is revealed as morally weak. Well, of course he is! The whole series is about the moral choices people make and they sometimes get things right and sometimes not so much. Poor John Williamson tries so hard. He really deserves to find some sort of salvation, but you’ll have to read to the very end to discover if he does.

The White Rajah had an agent and was pitched to leading publishers who turned it down. “Too difficult from an unknown author” more or less summed up the feedback. Sales subsequently proved them right – hence the move to a much more traditional style of historical fiction with the Burke books. There are some moral issues there, but they are generally hidden away behind conventional tales of derring-do with a handsome hero, beautiful women and lots of Frenchmen to beat. (We’re in the Napoleonic Wars, so beating the French comes with the territory.)

Clicking on the covers will take you to Amazon. All my books are available in paperback or on Kindle.

Technically both the John Williamson stories and the James Burke adventures are ‘historical fiction’ but they are distinct sub-genres and are written in dramatically different styles.

Eventually the sheer quantity of research that historical fiction requires made me want to take a bit of a break. I had a couple of ideas for fantasy stories – one about black magic and the other featuring vampires. The result was Dark Magic and Something Wicked. Apparently the genre is called Urban Fantasy. (I had to look it up.) It’s not just a different subject matter, but a tighter writing style – and an opportunity to give my dark sense of humour full rein.

Every sort of writing brings different challenges and different rewards, but I’ve enjoyed them all. I can only agree with Karen that challenging yourself to write in unfamiliar genres is always worthwhile.

Sexuality and the novel

Sexuality and the novel

Before I started my WordPress site, I used to blog on a free site called ‘Blogger’. Google are revamping the site and I (mistakenly, it turns out) thought my posts might be archived and quite possibly lost. It’s made me look through my old posts to see if any of them deserve the rather wider audience that they could now get on WordPress. This one originally appeared as a guest post on Adrian Smith’s blog and I later posted it on Blogger back in 2014. This was when I had only one book to my name, The White Rajah. The White Rajah is still available from Lume Books. You can buy it on Amazon HERE, though I haven’t been talking about it a lot because I’m busy promoting the Burke series. It’s still a good book: rather more thoughtful than the Burke books, though there’s still lots of fighting and excitement. I always knew, though, that it was never going to be a big commercial success. This essay looks at what may have been one of the reasons for it struggling.

The love that dare not write its name

It has 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 specialised in LGBT titles. They took it straight away, for which I remain very grateful. The trouble was that it was then 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 (now sadly closed) 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 liked drinking in a gay bar (also of late-lamented memory), because the ambience was more civilised than a lot of other bars and they sold the drinks I enjoy. When I first went in there, I was worried that I might not be welcome, but they were as happy to serve straights as gays and it was 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?

Victoriana

Victoriana

My choice for a book to review this week is a little strange because it’s a book I wrote. Well, not exactly – but I did write 10% of it.

Yes, it’s a book of short stories: Victoriana, produced by the Historical Writers’ Association together with Sharpe books. There are ten stories with the only common theme being that they are all set in the Victorian period. It was not only an honour to be asked to contribute alongside some rather better-known names – like Elisabeth Gifford and Hilary Green – but it gave me an opportunity to revisit James Brooke. When I finished The White Rajah, I knew there were so many more tales I could have told about James Brooke’s life in Borneo, but the sequel saw my narrator moving on to the Indian Mutiny (in Cawnpore) and there was no real chance to revisit Brooke. I’d always thought it would be fun to write some short stories about life in Borneo under Brooke rule and now I had the chance. I’m really happy with it, but I’m not going to review it here because That Would Be Wrong. You’ll have to read that one for yourself and make up your own mind.

As with every book of short stories there will be something that appeals to everybody and not everybody will like all of them. There were a couple that were definitely not my cup of tea, but I’m not going to single them out because I’m sure there will be somebody who will love them. Instead I’d just like to highlight some of my favourites.

Carolyn Kirby’s Ladies and Gentlemen is the best kind of historical fiction. It takes an actual event and the author uses her imagination to paint a picture that lets us understand the reality of a situation that, thank goodness, nobody in this country has to face nowadays. I’m being deliberately vague, because I don’t want to spoil the story. It’s not exactly a twist in the tail, but you will enjoy it more for not knowing what is coming next. It’s a stunning story and, given that Victoriana costs only £2.99 on Kindle, it justifies buying it all by itself.

Sophia Tobin’s The Unwanted Suitor is a disturbing tale with fantastical elements that leave you uncertain exactly what has happened but, despite this, it gives a wonderful insight into the way that marriage probably worked (or didn’t) for many “respectable” couples in the Victorian age.

Inevitably there are stories of Empire, reflecting not only how the British viewed the nations that they conquered but also something of how the colonial natives viewed the British. Elisabeth Gifford’s The Last Resort has an unusual take on the way that the British saw some of their colonial endeavours contrasted with how they looked to the natives. It takes a step away from the nowadays somewhat conventional view of exploiters and exploited and provides an interesting insight into the stories the British told themselves about the project of Empire.

A couple of the contributors, like me, have chosen to tell stories about characters who have previously appeared in books of theirs, but all the stories stand up well even if you have read nothing previously by the writers.

There are detective stories and romances. We visit Russia, Greenland, India, South Africa, and, of course, Borneo. It’s a lovely cross section of writers and writing about the Victorian era. Each story is accompanied with a brief interview where the writers talk about their background and inspiration. Some of them might well encourage you to look for more of their work.

Even without my 10% interest, I would be happy to recommend this book of short stories. At £2.99, really what have you got to lose?

How to get your own kingdom: a guide for Victorian gentlemen.

People still seem to be enjoying reading my account of the life of James Brooke, who is the subject of my novel The White Rajah. So here’s a bit more.

Last week we left Brooke about to sail to Borneo for the first time.

It’s important at this point to get some idea of the geography of Borneo. Here’s a map from the period.

The important thing isn’t the detail of where the towns are – there are very few of them in any case. The important bit is the scale up in the top left-hand corner. From one end of that line to the other is 200 miles. So the takeaway from this map is that Borneo is big. In fact, Borneo is the fourth biggest island on the planet (after Australia, Greenland and – just – New Guinea).

Brooke’s initial plan had been to sail to Maruda Bay, not that far from the capital of the island at Brunei. However, when he learned that Hassim seemed favourably inclined toward the British (see last week’s blog post) he decided to sail to where he was currently based at Kuching in Sarawak.

Hassim was in Sarawak, rather than his capital, because of a long-running uprising there.

The politics of Borneo in the mid-19th century were Byzantine. Power was held by Malays. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – were relatively powerless. When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, Hassim was occupied in putting down a rising, of Dyaks, who were supported by a faction within the Malay community – the Siniawan Malays. In fact, they were almost certainly supported by elements within the Malay court who were trying to reduce Hassim’s power. By now the uprising had been going on for four years. Hassim had been in Sarawak for months and nothing seemed to have changed since he moved his court there. Hassim saw Brooke’s arrival as providential.

Hassim’s audience hall in Sarawak

Brooke had taken on additional crew in Singapore (including an interpreter called John Williamson, whose name I stole for the narrator in The White Rajah). Brooke now had a crew of 28 men on board the Royalist. Hassim looked at her six cannon and the White Ensign hanging at her mast and saw her as a symbol of British power. If he could get Brooke involved in the war, he thought he could finally bring things to a conclusion and return to the seat of power in Brunei.

At first, Brooke refused to get drawn in. In the end, though, the temptation was irresistible. Here was a chance for excitement and adventure which could be economically justified as improving his trade prospects and which also appealed to his patriotism as it would strengthen the British presence in the region and put one in the eye to the Dutch. Here is Brooke’s own account of his attitude to intervening in what was, effectively, a civil war in Borneo.

I may here state my motives for being a spectator at all, or participator (as may turn out), in this scene. In the first place, I must confess that curiosity strongly prompted me; since to witness the Malays, Chinese [yes, there were Chinese too, immigrants who essentially monopolised trade], and Dayaks in warfare was so new, that the novelty alone might plead an excuse for this desire. But it was not the only motive; for my presence is a stimulus to our own party, and will probably depress the other in proportion. I look upon the cause of the Raja [Hassim] as most just and righteous; and the speedy close of the war will be rendering a service to humanity, especially if brought about by treaty.

Brooke provided advice and encouragement to Hassim and finally, when things seemed likely to drag on even with his urging Hassim to attack more vigorously, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to the front-line (for want of a better word) at a place called Balidah, just upriver from Kuching. Within days of their arrival, the rebel defences were breached, but Hassim’s army refused to storm the breach. Brooke, despairing of any end to the fighting, made plans to return to Singapore.

His diary tells what happened next:

I explained to [Hassim] how useless it was my remaining and intimated to him my intention of departing; but his deep regret was so visible, that even all the self-command of the native could not disguise it. He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak, and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him.

Brooke did not immediately accept this offer but he did decide to stay and support Hassim’s efforts in the war, where the man of the Royalist soon proved decisive.

With the war over, Hassim vacillated on his promise to make Brooke ruler, but ultimately he seems to have felt that the benefits of retaining Brooke’s support were worth the cost of allowing him to govern a province which Hassim regarded as not that important and which probably, because of the insurrection, seemed more trouble than it was worth. He may also have considered that having the province under the control of an Englishman would offer some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism. He will certainly have considered that it might bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions.

Kuching

Negotiations dragged on for almost a year with Brooke often threatening to sail away and leave Hassim to his own devices. Eventually, though,Hassim drew up and signed a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak and on 24 November 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah.

The White Rajah

The White Rajah is a fictionalised account of the true story I’ve outlined above. It tells how Brooke came to rule Sarawak and something of what happened afterwards.

British colonialism (though Brooke’s personal kingdom was never technically a colony) was neither the unmitigated good that it was presented as up until the late 20th century, nor the straightforwardly exploitationist affair that we are often told it was nowadays. The White Rajah tries to tell a good tale while exploring some of the moral nuances of the Age of Empire.

The White Rajah is available in paperback or, in this age of lockdown, is rather more easily obtained on Kindle where it is ludicrously cheap at 99p. Click on mybook.to/TheWhite Rajah.

You may have difficulties buying The White Rajah in the USA while some international rights issues are being resolved. It will be available again shortly (if it isn’t already).