SOME MAKE IT…
…With a Hefty Price
There was a studio apartment open on the top floor in my apartment house and Robert and Irina moved in. He was determined be would become a writer. I gave him a list of publishers and editors in Bangkok and told him to start knocking on doors.
It wasn’t long after Robert and Irina moved into the tiny apartment that I made a book signing agreement that took me to Barnes & Noble bookstores across America, a tour that lasted more than three months. When it ended I was anxious to return to Bangkok, and had decided to move into a bigger house and give up my apartment. We had hardly unpacked when Robert was knocking on my door. He was excited. It seem in a few short months Robert began to sell stories. Editors liked what he wrote.
“Irina must be happy,” I said.
“I am afraid not,” he replied. “She returned to Panama. She wants a divorce.”
Robert and Irina divorced and Robert went on to make his name in writing. The Bangkok Post runs his travel and adventure articles almost every week and there is hardly a magazine in Southeast Asia that doesn’t carry his by-line. He writes regular contributions for Tennis magazine in America and travel publications around the world. His assignments take him on journeys to faraway places like the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan, sailing in the Andaman Sea or motorcycling in the Golden Triangle. He is invited to stay in fancy hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in New York or on luxury train trips throughout Europe. But fancy hotels no longer please him. His name in print does, and he is happy doing what he is doing-writing. In the harsh reality of life as a professional writer, dreams don’t always come true. But for Robert his dream of a being a writer did. But there was a price he had to pay. His wife had left him.
Wanting to Write vs Wanting to be a Writer
Austin Berry was also determined to write. But this is a case of wanting to write versus wanting to be a writer.
They are not the same. Austin was interested only in writing which I didn’t learn why until much later. When I first met him he was teaching school in Bangkok. Today, some half dozen years later, Austin is an attorney, a Law Clerk to the Honorable Harold A. Ackerman, Senior U.S.D.J. in New Jersey. It’s hard to imagine that a few years before he was teaching school at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, and now he’s practicing law. It just didn’t happen. It was Austin’s scheme of things.
Austin graduated from Baylor University in 1999 with a degree in business. The year before he graduated he had enrolled in two “study abroad” programs that Baylor offered. The first half of the summer he traveled throughout western Turkey studying political science. The second half of the summer he traveled with his sociology professor and several other students throughout Southeast Asia, from Bangkok to Lampang and Chiang Mai in Thailand and then on to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. His sociology professor had contacts with Chitralada School in Bangkok. Austin found Chitralada School particularly interesting as it was within the moated walls of King Bhumipol’s palace grounds. The school’s administrators extended an invitation to the Baylor students to return to Chitralada School upon graduation and teach English in the primary or secondary schools.
Austin had always wanted to travel abroad and now this was his chance. After graduation he moved to Bangkok and began teaching in Grades 5 and 6. He relished the experience, teaching in a royal palace, like a male Anna and the King of Siam, but after a year of teaching he found that instead of traveling that he had looked forward to, he was spending all his time grading papers and preparing lesson plans. Teaching at the royal palace was demanding.
“So what do you intend to do?” I asked him when he came to visit me and explained his situation.
“I want to start writing, and that way I can travel,” he said, straight to the point. In an effort to change his circumstances, Austin hatched the plan of writing travel stories. He did more than plan. He bought books on how to get published in magazine and how to write query letters. He then sent queries to big travel magazines in America. Rejection slips followed. He soon realized that the magazine market was not itching for another untested travel writer. It was then, he admitted, that while browsing the travel books in an Asia Bookstore in Bangkok, he noticed books with my name on the covers. He bought At Home in Asia, about expats living in Asia, read it and became completely enthralled with the fantasy of a writer’s life. Austin learned I lived most of the time in Bangkok. After a couple of e-mails we met.
I didn’t know how serious this guy was. He liked his teaching job but he liked traveling more. To test him, I told him to come back in a week and bring something he had written plus ten ideas for articles. In a week he knocked at my door again. He had both with him, a story and ten ideas.
I scanned through the story he had written. His writing was good. One of the ten ideas he had was an article about expatriate authors living in Thailand. He also had a list of names of half a dozen writers living in Bangkok. He was on the right track. I took him to meet the editor of Living in Thailand magazine, to pitch the idea. The editor bought it and Austin wrote his first piece. He moved up the ladder rapidly now. After that first article, I took him to meet Asha Sehgal, who at the time edited Look East, a very popular English-language monthly magazine devoted to travel in Thailand. Asha liked Austin, and set him up with a plane ticket and a few thousand baht to travel to Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. Austin took a day off from teaching and made a long weekend of traveling the island, photographing it and writing articles about his experiences. The commission of one article about Koh Samui resulted in several articles in that issue, including the cover photo for that month’s edition. Asha liked Austin enough that she offered him the Managing Editor’s position starting immediately. Austin was understandably thrilled, but he still had a few months left to teach at Chitralada School. He did not feel it was right to welsh on his obligation to the school, so he finished his one year term there and then began working as the Managing Editor of Look East.
This was exactly the job Austin was looking for, and determination got him there. It afforded him the opportunity to travel and write, to live abroad, and to get paid for doing it! Austin would set out for a ten-day trip to some comer of Thailand, photographing along the way, and then return to Bangkok to write the articles. He would spend the rest of the month compiling the magazine with the articles he just wrote and the photos he just took. As soon as the proofs came back and were acceptable, he would set out again for another journey to another corner of Thailand, once journeying to Laos in search of articles.
Austin’s ambition to write did not stop with Look East magazine. He also had stories published in Living in Thailand, Traveller, Thailand Tattler, and Elite magazines, all based out of Bangkok. He continued to work for Look East magazine and write freelance articles for other Bangkok magazines, but, after two-and-a-half years of living in Thailand, Austin felt like he had accomplished his goal of living abroad for a period of his life. The tragedy of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, also weighed heavily on him and he thought it was time to head home and try to make a difference in any manner he could. Thus, he decided to return to the United States to begin law school and thereby pursue another long- time goal.
Even in law school, Austin continued his passion for writing and his road-not-taken attitude by lobbying the law school faculty for permission and funding to start a new legal journal dedicated to the critical analysis of decisions emanating from the federal courts of appeal. A new journal had not been created at the law school in more than ten years, but he ultimately succeeded in his quest. He attributes his success with the journal to his experience in Southeast Asia as a freelance writer and Managing Editor of Look East magazine.
The Price of Patience and Waiting Attitude
There are writers who write fine books based on a personal experience. Leslie Buzz Harcus, a former US Marine sergeant and China Marine, is one of these people. He had worked up a plot for a novel with its setting in Tsingtao, a seaport on the Shantung Peninsula in China. Buzz had been stationed in Tsingtao after the war.
Buzz had taken a writing course at Michigan State University but he attributes his wanting to write stemmed from his reading. “I love to read, especially action novels,” he said in an interview. “From my reading it was natural for me to want to try my hand at writing. So much had happened to me in China when I was stationed there as a Marine I wanted to write about it. I drew upon my experiences there and blocked out the basic idea for a novel. I had the title before anything-China Marine: Tsingtao Treasure.”
Buzz labored away on an old manual typewriter. Work became easier when he graduated to a computer. He began querying publishers and soon discovered writing was one thing; getting published was something else. “I tried time and again to get a publisher to read my material only to get repeatedly rejected,” he said. “I did re-writes, several re-writes, many in fact. I finally reached a point where I said no more re-writing; the manuscript was done and that was it. I had to find a publisher to read my manuscript. The break came when I received a letter from Wolfenden Publishers. The editor wanted to take a look at my manuscript. I posted my book, neatly printed, and waited. At last, the editor liked my book. Would I make some minor changes and clarify a few points. I did and the book came out in 2005.”
Buzz did not stop now. He finished his second novel on China, Tainted Treasure, which was published in 2008, and is working on two more manuscripts-Web of Greed and Thou Shalt Not. Buzz isn’t about to stop, even at his age. He claims once you have the title the rest is easy.
l don’t think I have met a newspaperman who doesn’t want to break away and write that book that keeps leapfrogging around in his mind. Some have done it, like Robert Woodward that I mentioned earlier. Mort Rosenblum is another. Mort was the bureau chief for Associated Press in Southeast Asia living in Singapore. I got to know him when I was outfitting my schooner in Singapore and during his free time he came to the yard to give a helping hand, not that he had much free time. He just liked boats. Mort always had a book or two he was working out in his mind. He left the AP in Singapore for Paris to become editor-in-chief of the International Herald Tribune. Eventually, with books that he wanted to write, he gave up chasing stories and reporting the news to turning out the books that he always wanted to. He bought a rakish river boat, more like Queen Victoria’s 1890 private yacht, moored it on the Seine River and moved aboard. Now, free at last, from his pen came a string of fine books-The Secret Life of the Seine; Back Home: A Foreign Correspondent Rediscovers America; Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light; Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit; Mission to Civilize: The French Way: Coups and Earthquakes; Reporting the World for America. His latest is Escaping Plato’s Cave: How Americas Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival.
Mort Rosenblum has no regrets. He enjoyed the life of a journalist chasing news stories around the world. He also enjoys sitting aboard his boat on the Seine River in Paris pounding out books. I often wonder about Charlie, the guy I mentioned who wanted to write and planned to go to Tahiti, but decided he needed to make more money before he went. I wonder if he regrets his decision. But then he would never know, for he never tried.