Hello! So in May this year I got the chance to read a debut novel by a fellow Malaysian author. I’m so happy to discover another book set in Malaysia and about Malaysians. You can see Malaysians of different backgrounds and varied experiences in Escape from Happy Palace. Read my full review by clicking the book cover below.
Let’s get into this interview!
Q: Hi, the first question that I would like to ask is what was your inspiration as you were writing Escape from Happy Palace?
A: Hi Jess! First and foremost, I’d like to thank you (my fellow Malaccan) for encouraging me right from the start! Independent authors need all the support they can get and I truly appreciate everything you’ve done for me.
When I started (seriously) writing novels, I knew I needed a basic premise (or situation) that was interesting. Then it came to me:
What if something bad happened in a massage parlor? What if two people ran out of it? What would the people outside think?
Stephen King, my all-time favorite writer, says “A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around.” So, this idea began to grow in my head, and I started fleshing the story out. First with the characters, then the dialogue, then the plot.
But I always, always, always start with the situation.
Q: Why did you choose murder mystery genre for your debut novel?
A: I didn’t consciously choose the murder mystery genre. In fact, I rarely read murder mysteries (never picked up an Agatha Christie in my life).
It just so happened that Escape From Happy Palace (EFHP) ended up being more of a murder mystery than anything else, so that’s what I labelled it as. I try not to limit my stories and pigeonhole them within specific genres. I like to mix things up (the fancy term for it is “genre hybridization”) because…
Why limit yourself to a specific genre? A good, well-written story will be appreciated for what it is anyway. We all laugh when there’s a funny moment in a horror or thriller, don’t we?
Readers will know that Stephen King (and his son Joe Hill, also a great writer) pull this off effortlessly. Movie fans will know that directors like Quentin Tarantino do this really well. And that’s why he’s my greatest influence. Also, he writes the best dialogue in Hollywood. Too bad he wants to retire after his next (10th) movie!
Jai is sad.
Q: How does it feel like to be an indie author and self-publish your book?
A: It is an endless cycle of being overwhelmed by everything you have to by yourself *sniff* and feeling utterly helpless.
Just kidding…or was I?
Nah. It’s very fulfilling to be a self-published author because it does come with benefits. You get to own your work (no matter how good or how sucky it is), you get to decide what you want to write, and you get to set your own goals for your book. Plus, you get to carve out your own nice in the teeny-tiny fiction market we have here in Malaysia.
You’re also forced to learn the stuff you don’t know, which can only be a good thing. For example, I had to learn how to format paperbacks from scratch. In a way, I’m lucky because I’m an editor and publisher in my (real) day job. So I have the basics (writing, editing, proofreading, etc) pretty much figured out.
But there is a sad truth behind it all, too. Time to go get the tissues.
The opportunities for writers who want to publish English genre fiction (mysteries, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, etc) with local publishers are near zero. So far, only Fixi Novo publishes genre fiction, in English, in Malaysia. But even they can only publish one English title each year, which they now do through a contest.
Psst…the contest is currently ongoing and ends 31st December 2020. Go google it lah.
Anyway, this situation is understandable because publishers have a business to run, and they can only allocate resources behind titles that sell in large volumes (pun intended) i.e. fiction in BM and anthologies.
Q: May I know what made you decide to set this story in Chow Kit?
A: Fact: When I was in advertising, I worked within walking distance from Chow Kit. And in those very strange 9 months I saw a lot of things.
The worst thing I encountered? A murder (yes, an actual murder). So, someone was killed and dumped inside a warung, one of those big ones you can lock up. The body was only discovered after the owners of the neighboring warungs started complaining of a foul stench. There were police cars, flashing blue lights, yellow tape, the whole shebang.
To think we used to have our lunch there. Anyway, I think that’s why I chose Chow Kit as the backdrop for EFHP.
Q: I found Joy is a very raw, real and interesting character. What made you come up with her character?
A: Ah! I’ve received so many compliments for Joy from readers and it makes me very happy! @biblio_mom describes her as “a witty trans with a sense of fun” and I agree completely. Shout out to Aiza!
Back to when I worked near Chow Kit. I once stumbled upon a sex worker on the way to lunch and I really felt bad for her, because she was very presentable with her calm face and flawless spoken English. There was an air of confidence about her: when I looked into her eyes I could feel that she had gone through some terrible things, but wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
That woman actually reminded me of one of my English teachers back in primary school, and she could’ve easily been one if she wasn’t in her desperate condition. We all know life isn’t fair, but life can be a downright bitch to some people, so I try to subtly remind readers about this through my stories.
Q: Can you describe your book in 3 words?
A: Gritty. Witty. Joyful.
See what I did there?
Q: Do you have anything that you’d love to improvise in this book? If there’s any, what would it be?
A: I’ve always been honest about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, because the work speaks for itself at the end of the day. I believe that readers should hold writers accountable for their work so that writers don’t slack off. On the other hand, I believe that writers should always be responsible and give their best because there are real people paying real money for their books.
EFHP was the best book I could write, at that time in my career as an author. There’s a saying that goes, “The first draft is the worst draft” and it’s true for books too, I believe.
Fun Fact: I actually spent 6 months writing an urban fantasy novel titled Steam before deciding to throw it out the window. I wasn’t happy with it, it was unsalvageable, and I knew I had to do better if I wanted to attach my name to something I could be proud of. Then the idea for EFHP came along, and the rest is history.
Back to the question: Yes! There are many things I could’ve done better with the book.
a) Characters: I could’ve done better with their backgrounds and motivations, because all characters in a book should want something, for whatever reason. And their motivations should clash, resulting in the conflict and drama that we all love so much. I could’ve done more with the rest of Team Teh Tarik.
b) Plot/Story: I could’ve heightened the stakes, make it all A LOT more dangerous. In a way, I played it safe, because it was my first novel. I think I may have played it safe for another reason: EFHP has a lot of characters and it was overwhelming for me to juggle all of them at the time.
c) Setting: I could’ve gone deeper into explaining the different locations, setting the scenes up in greater detail.
d) Style: I could’ve written more narration/exposition. Looking back, the book has a lot of dialogue (I’m quite proud of the dialogue, I don’t think it sucks too much) but I think EFHP could’ve used more details through exposition.
Q: I’m aware that you’re coming up with a new book in 2021, do you mind sharing a little bit about the book?
A: Eight-Eight Foodcourt (or 88 Foodcourt, I haven’t decided which one yet. Maybe I’ll run a poll on IG for it?) will be launched in early 2021. Pre-order should begin in late-2020. Oh, and I will also start revealing more about the book when the pre-order start.
Eight-Eight Foodcourt is so far shaping up to be the novel I’ve always wanted to write. I’m currently at the rewriting and editing phase right now, which is the most painful part of writing a novel ohmygodpleasemakeitstop!
For you curious ones out there, I’d describe Eight-Eight Foodcourt as 40% thriller, 30% murder mystery, and 30% lain-lain because there’s a lot going on about relationships, too. Between siblings, between parents and children.
About the Author
Malaysia native Jai Patel was born in the East Coast state of Kelantan and grew up in Malacca and Perlis. He studied at Multimedia University (MMU) alongside some of the country’s most decorated filmmakers, animators, and video game designers. He began writing fiction in 2019, focusing on mysteries and thrillers that revolve around everyday people placed in extraordinary situations.
Escape From Happy Palace is his debut novel. He is currently working on his second murder mystery, Eight-Eight Foodcourt, which will be published in early 2021. When not writing, he can be found playing open-world RPGs, discovering single-origin coffee, and making awful noises with his Fender Strat. He lives in Petaling Jaya with his wife.
That’s all I have for this interview session, peeps. I hope this post helps you to understand what it’s like to be an indie author and learn about Jai Patel’s debut novel and a thing or two about writing. Till I see you next time!