Today, I’m delighted to welcome E S Alexander to the blog to talk about her new book, Lies That Blind.
Your book, Lies That Blind, is deeply steeped in historical knowledge. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
(If this guest post is especially daunting, please don’t worry. )
MJ: This request isn’t daunting at all. In fact, I’m delighted to outline how I went about writing my debut historical novel, after 30+ years of penning non-fiction books.
In 2017 I decided to exact another major life change. I sold my house, my car, most of my possessions and moved— ‘sight unseen’—to the island of Penang, Malaysia. I knew very little about how Penang had come to be in the possession of the East India Company in 1786, until I was having coffee one morning with a publisher friend of mine. Eager to find out more about the history of my new home, he related the story of how an agent of the so-called ‘Honourable Company’ had leased the island from its owner, the Sultan of Queda (now spelled Kedah). Captain Francis Light, a Suffolk man, had for many years been a country trader, sailing from port to port in the Malay Archipelago buying and selling goods ranging from opium and tin, to condemned muskets and cloth. Extremely ambitious, Light had for at least fifteen years harboured a desire to govern his own trading settlement. After much to-ing and fro-ing with respect to a disputed treaty, he became known as the founder of Penang.
I imagined everyone, whether Malaysian or ex-pats living here, was very familiar with the history, so it never entered my head to write a book about it. It wasn’t until my friend remarked that Light had almost lost Penang when the aggrieved sultan amassed an armada of Malays, pirates, and mercenaries to take his island back, that my interest was piqued. Having been a freelance features journalist for decades, this seemed to be the most interesting part of the story. Was this a case of a mercurial raja changing his mind about the lease, jealous of Light’s success in transforming Penang from an almost uninhabited jungle island into a thriving entrepôt? Was the sultan annoyed that he was no longer accruing the duties and taxes on trade because ships were now sailing to Penang rather than to Queda? Or had Light, whom I gathered had had no previous administrative experience, made some kind of diplomatic blunder? As I set about trying to find the answers to these questions, in the back of my mind it sparked the notion to write my first novel after 30+ years as a non-fiction author.
My friend’s publishing house had produced two enormous volumes—written by his business partner—entitled Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830 (Marcus Langdon, 2013 and 2015)—so I made a start there.
Marcus’ books provided a wealth of source material. Not least many of the letters that Light had written to his paymasters in Calcutta, at the East India Company. I got the sense that Light was something of a double-dealer: he had obviously made promises to the sultan that he was not authorised to make, and could not keep, but managed to maintain good relations by telling the Malay raja only what he wanted to hear.
My first port of call, after this preliminary desk research, was the National Library in Singapore. There I found a wealth of old manuscripts and books, each with their own ‘take’ on the agreement between Francis Light and the Sultan of Quedah. Now, as any good researcher should be, I was sceptical of white colonial men perpetrating the usual propaganda: Light was the good guy, the sultan an ungrateful upstart. I spent a wonderful long weekend in Singapore devouring books including Malaya’s First British Pioneer: The Life of Francis Light by Harold Parker Clodd (an obvious fan of the captain’s!), published in 1948; British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya by Sir Frank Swettenham, a British colonial official from 1871-1904; and A History of Malaya by Sir Richard O. Winstedt, another colonial administrator from the early part of the 20th century. My story was beginning to take shape in the broadest sense—but I still didn’t have a handle on the kind of man that Francis Light truly was. The last thing I wanted to do was write yet another glowing, one-sided tale about an orang putih (white person), as we find is typically the case with Sir Stamford Raffles!
Then I stumbled upon an article by R. Bonney entitled Francis Light and Penang in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Almost from the first page I got the sense that Light tended to over-exaggerate situations: to make promises he could not keep, and to ‘gild the lily’ on occasions when it suited him. Here, at last, the ‘founder’ of Penang was shaping up to become a worthy antagonist in my novel. It seemed to me that the man’s past deceptions had come back to haunt him. My story just took off from there.
I’ll conclude with three final points. The first being that the Penang Presidency books written by Marcus Langdon provided me with such lengthy letters that I was able to take much of what Light had written and bring it to life as dialogue in my novel. No one could accuse me of slandering this great man if I was putting his own words into his mouth.
The second point, of which I’m very proud, is that I read the English translation of The Hikayat Abdullah, said to have been completed in 1845 by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, which provided me with an authentic sense of the region not long after Light lived (1740-1794). Indeed, one of the Malay characters in my novel is based on Munshi Abdullah. Anyone reading the Acknowledgements Page of my book will also see the names of all the Islamic scholars and Malay historians I reached out to, to check that I wasn’t inadvertently misinterpreting something I’d read.
Finally, I have never adhered to the philosophy ‘write about what you know’. To me, it’s always more interesting to write about what I want to know. I guess this comes from my years as a journalist when I wrote for women’s magazines, national newspapers, and trade journals focusing on topics as wide-ranging as skincare, supply chains, IT, and human resources. I discovered so many fascinating insights into the time and place during my three-and-a-half years researching this novel that they have become topics I go into more in-depth in my blog (https://www.esalexander.com/blog)
Wow, thank you so much for sharing such a great post. Light sounds like a fascinating character. Good luck with the new book.
Here’s the blurb
What would you risk to avoid obscurity?
Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd jeopardises his future in ways he never could have imagined. He risks his wealthy father’s wrath to ride the coat-tails of Captain Francis Light, an adventurer governing the East India Company’s new trading settlement on Penang. Once arrived on the island, Jim—as Light’s assistant—hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But the naïve young man soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: Pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him andLight perilously close to infamy: a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman. He must stay and confront his own misguided ambitions as well as help save the legacy of a man he has come to despise.
Inspired by true events, Lies That Blind is a story featuring historical character Francis Light (1740-1794) who, in an effort to defy his mortality, was seemingly willing to put the lives and livelihoods of a thousand souls on Penang at risk.
Meet the author
E.S. Alexander was born in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1954, although her family moved to England a few years later. Her earliest memories include producing a newspaper with the John Bull printing set she was given one Christmas. She wrote and directed her first play, Osiris, at age 16, performed to an audience of parents, teachers, and pupils by the Lower Fifth Drama Society at her school in Bolton, Lancashire. Early on in her writing career, Liz wrote several short stories featuring ‘The Dover Street Sleuth’, Dixon Hawke for a D.C. Thomson newspaper in Scotland. Several of her (undoubtedly cringe-worthy) teenage poems were published in An Anthology of Verse.
Liz combined several decades as a freelance journalist writing for UK magazines and newspapers ranging from British Airway’s Business Life and the Daily Mail, to Marie Claire and Supply Chain Management magazine, with a brief stint as a presenter/reporter for various radio stations and television channels, including the BBC. In 2001 she moved to the United States where she earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.
She has written and co-authored 17 internationally published, award-winning non-fiction books that have been translated into more than 20 languages.
In 2017, Liz relocated to Malaysia. She lives in Tanjung Bungah, Pulau Pinang where she was inspired to embark on one of the few forms of writing left for her to tackle: the novel.
Connect with the author