This month, I’m delighted to welcome Clare Flynn to the Travels with my Book spot. Clare is one of the best-travelled people I know, having visited many of the settings of her historical novels, as well as completing a round-the-world cruise a couple of years ago. In our interview, she’ll be focusing on her series set in Malaysia.
Clare, welcome to my blog! I’m so please to have this opportunity to chat about your travels and your writing life. Can we please kick off by pinpointing your books’s geographical settings.
My historical novels are set all over the globe. Geographic displacement is one of my “things” – UK, Australia, India, Malaysia, Canada, the USA, Italy, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ireland and France.
Some places only feature briefly, but Australia, India, Canada and Malaysia are all prominent. For “Travels with my Book” I’ve chosen Penang, Malaysia as I have three books set there and I’m writing a fourth which, whilst mostly located in Paris, also returns to Malaysia – or Malaya as it was before independence.
Please briefly describe the books you have set there.
The Pearl of Penang is Evie’s story. She escapes penniless spinsterhood working as a lady’s companion, when she impulsively accepts a proposal from a man she barely knows and sets sail to the island of Penang to marry him. Things don’t turn out as she expected and a tumultous time awaits her, culminating in the 1941 Japanese invasion.
Prisoner from Penang is Mary’s story. She is Evie’s best friend in Penang. Her story begins with the Fall of Singpore, then to Japanese prison camps in Sumatra (if you’re old enough, think Tenko!) before returning to the island of Penang.
A Painter in Penang is Jasmine’s story. She’s Evie’s stepdaughter who in 1948 flees her miserable school in Kenya to return for an extended stay in Penang as the guest of Mary. This book is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Malayan Emergency (a civil war in all but name)
What makes Penang such a great setting for your stories?
Penang is a beautiful tropical island just off the coast of Malaysia and connected by ferry – or these days two Chinese-built road bridges. Lapped by the warm waters of the Strait of Malacca, it is a magical isle, mountainous in the centre and covered with rainforest. There are attap-roofed houses, raised off the ground, brightly coloured Chinese temples, old colonial houses and hotels and the capital George Town is now a Unesco Word Heritage site.
Malaya was one of the jewel’s in the crown of the British Empire – the centre of the world’s rubber industry as well as tin and bauxite mining. Penang itself was acquired in the late eighteenth century by the British East India Company as a port and military stronghold to keep a check on the Dutch and the French who were also busy colonising southeast Asia.
My books begin much later, in 1939, just before the war began in Europe. Malaya and Singapore were never expected to fall to the Japanese in World War II. Indeed Singapore was seen as invincible and its capitulation was a massive humiliation for the British.
What is your relationship with Penang and how much of your life have you spent there?
Don’t laugh – but less than a day! Surely the most profitable day of my entire life!
The brevity of my stay is because it was a port of call on a round-the-world tour. I was halfway through the cruise and had no inclination to write (unusual for me). But I couldn’t get Penang out of my head. By the time we emerged from the Suez canal on the return leg I was bashing away at the keyboard.
Back home, as I researched wartime Malaya, I realised I had struck a rich vein, and now I’m writing number my fourth book in the series. I intended to return to Penang for an extended visit, but Covid and other plans got in the way!
What is special about the people native to Malaysia?
At the time of my books, Malaya was a British colony. The indigeneous Malays only made up around one-third of the population by the end of World War II, with one-third Chinese, and the rest a mixture of Indians and Europeans, mostly British – the latter being the smallest minority but with their hands on government.
After the war, the demise of the British Empire was on the cards and the plan was to achieve a smooth transition to independence. But politics is a complex game and there were many conflicting interests to balance. The British had always “co-ruled” with the sultans. And the sultans neither liked nor trusted the Chinese. There was also a growing fear of communism, balanced by a British Labour government who were reluctant to be openly hostile to China and Russia and who were keen to encourage trade unionism.
It’s not fair to sum up the situation in a few sentences but it makes for a fascinating patchwork of often changing loyalties and conflicting interests.
For your characters who come from elsewhere, what challenges do they face dealing with the local people?
The British colonials were incredibly arrogant and complacent before the war. They got on well enough with their colonial subjects in Malaya but had an innate sense of racial superiority. The same attitude was the root cause of their abject failure to prevail against invasion by the Japanese, completely underestimating their enemy. Their humiliation was made greater when it became apparent that the primary form of transport used by the advancing Japanese army was bicycles! The British had never anticipated such a simple and practical solution to shifting an army on poor roads the length of the peninsula.
After the war, they made the mistake of assuming those Malays (mostly Chinese Malays) who had fought bravely behind the Japanese lines alongside Special Operations soldiers would be loyal once the peace came. But the tons of ammunition air-dropped into the jungle by the British to fight the Japanese were buried in secret caches, and, rather than handing them in, the rebels later used them to fight their former British comrades in what proved to be an ultimately doomed twelve-year struggle.
For the women in my Penang novels, the challenges are mainly with their fellow Brits. Evie and Mary, and to some extent Jasmine, have little time for the cliquey clubbiness of the ex-pat British. For Mary there is the living nightmare of imprisonment for years by the Japanese. Later, for Jasmine, it’s reconciling her feelings for a native Malay and her ambivalence towards the communist insurgents.
What are the distinguishing features of Penang in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?
A small island surrounded by a tropical sea and topped by rainforest. Hot and humid with frequent rain. Historic George Town faces across the Strait to the peninsula and the Kedah hills. It is an island of spices with the aromatic smells of delicious cooking everywhere. The multi-ethnic food is delicious. The coastline is rocky with outcrops and miniature islands in the sea, which is dotted with fishing boats and passing liners. The beaches are fringed by casuarina trees. Wildlife includes giant red flying squirrels, monitor lizards, long-tailed macaques, flying lemurs, tree shrews, snakes – including boa constrictors, wild pigs and sea eagles.
What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?
I may not have had the chance to stay there myself (yet),but I had done a lot of planning for my aborted trip. I intended to stay in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E&O) which features in my books – as well as in a picturesque guest house converted from a former Chinese merchant’s house – as well as a couple of days staying at the beach.
George Town itself offers plenty to fascinate from its delicious cuisine, to its famous street art, colonial architecture and old Chinese wooden quays.
A visit via the funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill is essential for the panoramic views of George Town and the Straits as well as walks in the rainforest. The more energetic can hire a bicycle and cycle beside the paddy fields and spice plantations to explore the island.
Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?
I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard great things of The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, set in Penang in 1939. It’s about an Anglo-Chinese man and his friendship with a Japanese diplomat. I have a copy in my TBR pile and am looking forward to reading it. While I was researching my Penang books I avoided reading fiction and read a lot of non-fiction accounts of colonial life. I did dip in and out of Somerset Maugham’s short stories though, many of which are set in colonial Malaya. He was not a popular figure among the British there, who thought he painted a very unflattering picture of them.
Where will your next book be set?
It starts in Nairobi, Kenya, but most of the action takes place in Paris – with a few returns to Penang and to Johore on the peninsula between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It follows on from the three Penang books, continuing Jasmine’s story.
Thank you very much, Clare, for sharing with us the fascinating history of Penang and its influence on your writing.
You’re welcome! A delight to be a guest on your blog, Debbie!
EXTRACT FROM THE PEARL OF PENANG
After strolling past the bastion of Fort Cornwallis with its thick brick walls, Evie turned off and plunged into the nearby streets. Eventually finding herself in a square with a collection of stalls and kiosks, her nose and throat were assaulted by an overpowering, sweet smell of incense. Across the square was a small temple, with the characteristic Chinese swooping curved roof, adorned along the ridge with dragon carvings. There were shrines and stone statues outside, where people gathered to thrust bunches of smouldering joss sticks into jars filled with sand, before bending or squatting in prayer and devotion. Looking around, she could see no other Europeans, but no one seemed bothered by her presence so she walked freely around the space. There was a covered well, where people were collecting water, and piles of stacked wooden cages each containing a small bird. The square was a peculiar mixture of sincere devotion and casual commerce.
Hesitantly, Evie went up to the entrance of the temple building and was glad to find it quiet and almost empty inside, although the scent of the burning incense was more intense than in the square.
The light was dim, provided only by the faint glow of candles and the daylight from the narrow open doorway she had entered through. She squinted to see. In front of her was a small gold-painted shrine. Evie moved towards it and stood for a while in silence, drinking in the calm and quiet of the place after the chaotic scene outside. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she saw the shrine was crowded with a collection of painted figures, the male ones dressed like emperors in ornate robes with long drooping moustaches, one or two goddesses, other figures resembling evil-looking ogres, and among them gold-painted animals such as horned deer or sea creatures. Oranges and other fruits were stacked in neat piles with what she assumed to be votive messages written in Chinese on little cards. The smell of burning joss sticks was intensified by the perfume from flowers, stacked around the shrine in tall vases. Curved metal lanterns and red streamers hung from the ceiling.
Evie was transfixed by the scene and felt a strange calm enveloping her after all the trauma, fear and bitterness of the past days. Without thinking why, she stood with her head bowed and closed her eyes.
To find out more about Clare Flynn and her 13 (and counting!) historical novels, visit her website, www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you join her mailing list, you will be able to download a free collection of short stories.
We’ll have a complete change of scene and climate when Helena Halme takes us to her native Scandinavia!
PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:
- To Fiji with B M Allsopp
- To the Caribbean with Helen Hollick
- To Europe and Roma Nova with Alison Morton
- To Egypt with Carol Cooper
- To The Far Land with Lucienne Boyce
Or take a trip to the Cotswolds any time, through the pages of my own novels and novelettes!