Why I Wrote A Book: The Story Behind The Story

Posted in: Words

My career was blossoming but emotionally I was at a low point in my life.

I was named assistant news editor after working two and a half year as a reporter. I was used to producing long, in-depth, analysis, award-winning news feature stories and then suddenly I was confined to a one by two meter desk, glued to a chair, forced to stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

But then a friend compared an article that I wrote on reconstruction of earthquake-hit Nias Island, North Sumatra with “Shipbreakers” a beautifully-written report about shipbreakers in India by William Langewiesche for the Atlantic Monthly. It was a masterpiece, a classic example of great journalism, the kind that would get discussed over and over again at journalism schools across America. In Indonesia, no one had heard of it, myself included. But it was clear why people loved it so much. It was comprehensive. It was engaging. It was insightful. It was moving.

I soon became intrigued to read more of Langewiesche’s work. I then discovered that he had numerous books under his belt and that he was one of those people belonging to this thing called “New New Journalism.” They were people like Ted Conover, Leon Dash and Richard Ben Cramer who perfected the art of nonfiction writing and journalism.

I was amazed at how dedicated they were. They spent years studying and immersing themselves into their subjects’ lives. They interviewed dozens, hundreds, or in Cramer’s case close to a thousand people. They poured everything they know onto the pages, every techniques and tricks known to journalists and writers.

It seemed like exactly what I was looking for. A medium that can accommodate the narratives, the arguments, the stories, the whys and the hows. At that point in time, I thought to myself: “I have to write a book.”

Two years passed without even an outline. I was too busy with day to day work as news editor. I was busy putting the paper to bed. I jolted down a few ideas: 1980s extra judicial killing of thugs in Jakarta perhaps? Or how about the persecution of Madurese ethnic group in Borneo? How about the environment? I was looking through my old articles, like fragments of the past I secretly wish to relive. But nothing materialized. They were stories that went nowhere after a few thousand words.

Until I met an old friend named Okky Madasari for an article did I began to lose sleep over the idea of me writing a book. Okky used to be a journalist and we covered the same beat. She quit her job and wrote a novel which became a huge hit. When I met her then, she just published her fourth novel.

Then I also noticed that everyone around me had written at least one book. They were teen novels, romance, comedy. I still wanted to write like my heroes, though I can’t help being a tad bit jealous at my friends. I remembered feeling restless. I knew I had to write something. I just didn’t know what.

Luck stepped in and I found myself being named weekend editor. Having a weekly deadline meant I can have more free time to discuss ideas. I met up with activist friends I haven’t met since I became news editor. One of whom was Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono who said to me “if you plan to write in Bahasa Indonesia, write about corruption. If in English, write about Islam.”

I also met up with Usman Hamid from Change.org Indonesia and a long time Human Rights activist. The more we talked the more I became convinced I needed to write about religious intolerance in Indonesia. It was a topic which I had been covering extensively in my days as a reporter. I’ve covered dozens of cases of religiously-charged violence in several areas in West Java to Ambon in Eastern Indonesia.

I told Usman about this woman I met in Lombok, which is around 2 hour flight from Jakarta where I lived. I interviewed her for an article back in 2011. She had her home destroyed three times by vigilantes who claim to be acting in the name of something holy and divine. She now lives in an abandoned government complex which has been turned into a refugee center for her minority religious group.

It seemed like the logical choice. She had an amazing story. Flying to Lombok (a booming tourist destination) was also cheaper than going to Borneo or Papua, some other areas with deep history of conflicts and violence.

The idea floated for a month or two and the plan could’ve easily never materialized. It was August 2013. Unknown to me, my colleagues decided to take a long leave. That left me a tight window for when I could fly to Lombok and do my interviews and research. And the only available time was days away.

In a way that was the push I needed to start the project. I booked my flights, got in touch with my fixer there, went up to the refugee center and began interviewing her. It turned out she had a wealth of stories, she also had amazing brothers and sisters with stories of their own.

That is the main challenge of writing a narrative non-fiction. You never quite know the storyline until you get down and dirty on the field. Soon, I had a beginning and an ending.

But having a story line is only a fraction of the battle. The next few weeks I tried to fill in the details, the emotion, the description. I spent three nights at the shelter. I went to places important to the stories: the scenes of violence, the site of their former homes, the police headquarters where they were held up for weeks.

I went back to Jakarta with 70 hours of recording, close to 1,000 photographs. Transcript of my first visit to Lombok was 15,000 words. While I was in Jakarta, I kept calling people. I was blessed that Indonesians are great story tellers, especially women, who are scientifically proven to have better memories. I also consulted some facts with a number of people in Jakarta who gave me insight, perspectives, background information and confirm my hypothesis.

I spent my days working my normal job and nights working for two to three hours on my novel. Sometimes I got 1,000 words. Sometimes I’m lucky to get passed a few words. On weekends I could write more and spend the entire day and night writing. And through the process I found myself going back and forth with the desk research and interviewing more people.

Initially I set a goal of 60,000 words which I was told was an acceptable length for first time writer. But in the end the final length was 89,000 words. I measured my progress using fractions to motivate me. Instead of saying “59,000 words to go” I said “I’ve completed 1/100 of my target.” Double that and I get 1/50. Twice that length is 1/25.

Writing the novel has been such a catharsis for me. It was such a huge relief when I wrote that once elusive two words “The End.” But I missed it. I missed finding new things about the project and also about myself. I missed having to run through tons of photos and consult hand-written notes scattered through two notebooks and hundreds of sheets of paper. The tapping sound on my keyboard as I write.

Now comes the browsing for publishers, the queries, the submission, the waiting in uncertainty. Recently I was pacing up and down my living room, which is where I would normally write the book into my laptop, not knowing what to do.

Two friends on Twitter suggested a cure for this: “write another book!”

I would love to. Any idea?


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