One of the main reasons that I love doing this blog is so I can bring different points of view from different authors. I love learning new things as well as finding out about more books, even if they aren't a genre that I myself read.
Today, I am welcoming Tom Williams, who wrote a gay historical called The White Rajah.
Let me preface this by saying, I'm not a history buff. I have very little interest in any kind of history which is why Vertigo, my own book, was sort of difficult. However, after reading Tom's book, I was intrigued about the man he wrote about: James Brooke.
Please take the time to read the following blog by Tom Williams as to why he wrote, The White Rajah.
Michael has been kind enough to offer me a guest spot here to write about "The White Rajah" without being interrupted by any of his pesky questions. Perhaps he just wanted to take some time off from asking questions – I don't know. In any case I'm very grateful for his hospitality.
Michael did mention some things that he would like me to cover. He suggests I tell you why I chose to write about James Brooke and John Williamson.
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, which we've used for the book cover. 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.
I'm not gay but I have friends who are and, living in London, peoples' sexuality has long ceased to be an issue for me. One of my older gay friends talks about growing up gay at a time when it was illegal but listening to him is like listening to living history. My favourite bar is a gay bar, my son's best friend is gay, gay relationships seem no different from all the other wonderful ways in which people come together. So I just thought I was writing a romance, not an M/M romance. Until I started looking for a publisher.
The book was agented and shown to four major publishers all of whom rejected it, saying it was too "difficult" for a first novel. I was left in no doubt that if Brooke had a female lover, it would have made the book massively easier to sell. I'm not saying that the homosexuality was a deal-breaker and that it would have been sold otherwise but I am pretty certain it was a definite problem as far as marketing went. So I sent it to an independent publisher who does a lot of gay books (JMS Books) and it was accepted straight away.
John Williamson has grown on me since I invented him and when JMS Books suggested that it would make sense to produce a sequel, it was John's life and not Brooke's that I felt I wanted to follow. Partly this is because "The White Rajah" covers a particularly interesting period and a sequel would be dull by comparison but also, I think, because Williamson being a fictional character I had more scope to play around with him.
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. It will, again, be categorised as an M/M romance but I like to think I'm writing about class, race and belonging against a background of death and betrayal. (I was always told to stick with what you know.) Researching the period has been fascinating but it takes a lot of time so the sequel won't be out that soon. But I'm keeping the research down to a manageable scale, I'm allowing my imagination a freer rein and I hope it won't take too long.