So I’d promised a little more background on the two new Malay Mysteries books, Island of Glass and Ashes and Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories.

Island is a weird book. I responded with a mixture of sheepishness and bafflement as the first two Malay Mysteries attracted quite a bit of attention. It didn’t take me that long to write either Garlands of Moonlight or The Ghost of Silver Cliff, perhaps because all the Malay Mysteries are based on folklore I collected a long time ago and are set in a culture and historical framework familiar to me, so the research that goes into them is more a matter of interest than necessity.

That, and actually writing books in that series is usually really easy, in the way any truly joyful task never feels burdensome. So generally they don’t feel like a lot of work, certainly not when compared with something like The Golden Vine (which, all told, took five years to create), or newer projects I’ve already been working on for a couple of years in some form or other.

But, though it involved very little research, Island of Glass and Ashes refused to be dashed off, and it didn’t have the tendency to practically write itself as did its predecessors. It was incredibly demanding, and while I have theories, there’s no conclusive reason I can give as to why it took so long. True, there were delays in finding someone to illustrate it: I wasn’t able to get my calendar synchronized with that of Rizky Wasisto Edi, the Russ Manning Award-nominated artist who did the first two books and acquired, it seems, quite a following in the process.

At times I was available to work on Island, Rizky was not, and vice versa, until finally, after playing tag for a couple of years, I decided that the next two books couldn’t wait and went ahead with a new and (then) untried artist. (Rizky will return to the series at some point, perhaps as a guest artist, when he gets unburied from his workload. But then, if he weren’t so talented, he wouldn’t have so much work to begin with, so there we are.)

The artist I ultimately selected, M. Reza Aribuwana, is a young man who, like Rizky, lives in Indonesia, although in a different city. To say that he had some pretty big shoes to fill is an understatement–but I think he’s delivered artwork that pays homage to Rizky’s style and yet introduces something intangible–a sensibility–that suits the new work perfectly. As it was with Garlands of Moonlight, the two new Malay Mysteries have been the result of a collaboration undertaken across the world, by means of e-mail. I haven’t even met Reza in person yet, as I hadn’t met Rizky until well after Garlands was published and we’d already received one award and then been nominated for three more.

But before the logistical problems with lining up a new illustrator and then bringing him into a very tight collaboration (read: working with an extremely demanding author on an existing series), there were other things about Island that made it a difficult book to create.

The story deals with some very potent themes, some of them so complex that a chunk of the book is in prose (opposite full-page illustrations), a narration by one of the book’s characters that was so dense there’s no way it could have been pulled off in speech bubbles. It’s about love, loss, loneliness; the consequences of thoughtless actions and words spoken too hastily; it’s about how we all have a tendency to create around ourselves phantasms of things past (dead? gone?), psychological insulation of sorts, while the world continues turning around us, sweeping us along. The volcanic island in the book is a metaphor for a great many things, so many that I couldn’t list them all. It’s about how people can become trapped, by their own works, by their own fears, but also by things they can’t change, reverse, or escape–and it’s about redemption and salvation.

Rather a full palette for a Malay Mystery, to be sure–there are some bigger ideas I knew I wanted to tackle in the series, though when I wrote Garlands I hadn’t envisioned anything like this–but it all seemed to belong in there, so in it went.

Island is also peculiar in that it went through so many revisions. The first two Malay Mysteries were basically done with the first draft, and edits consisted of condensing or expanding a bit here or there or (as I shudder at the obviousness of how raw and unskilled I was when I wrote the first two books) trying to get dialogue to sound natural (which has gotten better, I promise you, and will continue to do so). The plots of both stories arrived in my head fully formed, and though the general outline of Island did too at first, it kept growing from there.

As I sat looking at a script that would have resulted in a 200-page book, I realized that it was at least 50 pages too long, and while I was forced to sacrifice (another theme in the story, sacrifice) many details I’d become married to (another theme, marriage), decided it was time to locate the story and simplify it (what story was I trying to tell?), so the revisions began.

Nearly a year later, it was finally stable, and of a length that felt right. I was honestly worried that, once the drawing started, I would keep fiddling with it and discover things I wanted or needed to change after the artwork had been committed to the page. To my surprise, and perhaps this is solely a testament to Reza’s incredible artistry and his ability to interpret precisely what I wanted, work progressed without me causing any disruptions of that sort or even, amazingly, changing the script after the work was underway (except once or twice to correct or clarify some silly mistake I’d made, like describing too many panels on a page or too few, or an incorrect page number, or some other artifact of the long and seemingly endless editing process).

It helped too that I’d conceived and written most or all of the two subsequent books by the time Reza started drawing, so I was able to work on a fairly large canvas, to be sure of how this new book fits into the larger story of the series. Island of Glass and Ashes is heavy, not unbearably heavy I hope, though some may find it so. I allowed it to get very dark in part because the fourth Malay Mystery, Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories, is much lighter and provides a relief from the emotional demands of Island.

Not to say that Sita’s Shadow doesn’t have its poignant moments (or at least, that’s how I hope they read), but what it doesn’t have is the sheer amount of horror and gruesomeness that made its way into Island. So let the squeamish or easily upset be forewarned. I’m told this book makes Garlands look like a cakewalk, and that parts of it are genuinely depressing. If it helps, keep in mind that the terrors are metaphorical. (That’s mostly how I ultimately got myself through the ordeal of writing it.)

Island, incidentally, is dedicated to the members of a writing group that I’d joined who slogged through half a dozen drafts of the story, and were kind enough to keep encouraging me through it.

What’s Sita’s Shadow about? Glad you asked. Much more cheerful subject. I’ve ripped off Boccaccio and Chaucer shamelessly, and created a story in which multiple characters within a framing narrative tell stories of their own, and some of their characters tell stories…and so on.

It sounds structurally complex, and it is at times, with a story that goes four levels deep into retold tales at one point, but guest artists (including one photographer, a first) have been brought in to illustrate each character’s story, so there are visual clues as to where you are and who’s talking. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Boccaccio’s Decameron, circumstances in the story bring all the narrators together, and each character tells his or her story for a particular reason and from a particular perspective, and often the stories reveal as much about the characters telling them as they do about the characters in them.

The main story, which frames the embedded short stories, picks up from a benign cliffhanger introduced at the very end of Island, and provides the occasional counterpoint to each character’s narration. In the end a couple of central mysteries are solved, but not before everyone has had a chance to tell a story. And Hidayat has another one of his seemingly prophetic dreams, so we’re going to start seeing what’s up with all that.

The three stories are told by Marsiti, a traveling merchant, and the old dukun (shaman) of the village Marsiti and Hidayat find themselves in at the end of Island. Marsiti’s story is quite special, at least in its sentimental value to me and my family.

I’ve adapted it from a hair-raising story my great uncle, my father’s youngest brother, once told my sister, a couple of cousins, and me, leaving us trembling with terror. Our one consolation at the time was that the whole thing must have been made up, but then my grandmother, who had absolutely no truck with the supernatural and was a very rational woman, piped in and confirmed that the events had taken place exactly as described. In Sita’s Shadow, I’ve put a bit of a post-colonial spin on it, and the person who relates the story of the haunting is a Dutch plantation owner. This chapter is called “The Dutch Woman’s Aunt,” and was illustrated by a wonderfully talented fellow named Randy Valiente, who lives in the Philippines.

The merchant’s story, “Nyai Loro Kidul,” concerns a fisherman, who (through circumstances the story makes clear) winds up marrying a Chinese woman who has, along with her father, been exiled from their homeland. In part because of her unavoidable ignorance of the customs of the islands, she inadvertently gets her husband and his brother into a spot of trouble with a local sea goddess, who then (as sea goddesses sometimes tend to do) sends a demon to punish them. This chapter was illustrated by Anzu, a very talented Indonesian manga artist from Surabaya, who was quite pleased to draw this chapter since she’s been familiar with the sea goddess legend since she was a girl. She drew it in a deliberately naive style to fit with the personality of the family in the story.

The final chapter, the dukun’s story (“Sita’s Shadow”), gets into the mystery of the village Marsiti and Hidayat have stumbled into, and explains the oddities about the place that our two protagonists have observed. The story revolves around a shadow play in which the sacred epics are presented in a most unusual way. One feature of this part of the story is that I did my best to condense the key points of the Hindu Ramayana epic–which, along with the Mahabharata, forms the core of stories used in Malay shadow puppetry–into 13 pages. Don’t ask me how; I’m still not totally sure that I managed it, given that the original epic is some 24,000 verses long.

This bit was illustrated by Ronny Hardyanto, who, like Anzu, lives in the Indonesian city of Surabaya. Ronny works with inks as well as pencils, a deviation from the norm in Malay Mysteries, which are customarily done only in pencils to bring out the black and silver duotone. But, given all the visual variety in play in this book, I thought it could work nicely, and it did.

The shadow play itself is photographed by Michael John Keegan, a New York fashion designer and photographer whose work I greatly admire. Shooting the actual shadow puppets was made possible thanks to Reza (the artist for the main story) sending me the puppets I needed from Indonesia, so I got to be the puppet master for this sequence (and now have a lovely collection of the things to display on my wall).

There’s something eerily beautiful about Indonesian shadow puppets, which are exquisitely delicate but also oddly grotesque at the same time, and certainly the experience of seeing them in the context of a performance is an unforgettable one. Typical performances go on through the night, but I have never failed to be riveted by the spectacle, which is made even more haunting by the wailing song of the puppet master and his supporting orchestra.

(You can see a couple of examples of this artform in the film “The Year of Living Dangerously,” which I highly recommend. It dates back to when Mel Gibson used to be an actor, before he decided to turn to his new career as a raving lunatic.)

There are, as with most of the Malay Mysteries, continuing and convergent themes between the stories, but in each story within Sita’s Shadow we get a glimpse of something unexpected. The Dutchwoman in Marsiti’s story is a far cry from the colonists we’ve seen in other episodes of the series, and gives us an idea of what it must have been like for the Dutch to be in such a foreign, haunted place so different in customs from their home country.

The sea goddess in the merchant’s story has many layers, which we learn through the legend of how she came to be the sea goddess in the first place–a tragic tale if ever there was one, and, like all my most favorite Malay folktales, so nuanced in its treatment of good and evil that there is something truly poignant in it.

And the dukun’s story, which revolves around the epic character of Sita, while told through the dukun’s bitterness and bluster, contains a coda that turns our understanding of what he’s recounted on its ear. All three stories can be said to be about women, which was intentional; they’re also about foreign women, or at least women out of their own time and place, which was also intentional.

And, like I said, overall they’re a huge relief from the heaviness of Island of Glass and Ashes.

Sita’s Shadow was, in short, enormous fun to write and weave together. Here again I was going from a skeleton of ideas I already knew I wanted to use, but unlike IslandSita’s Shadow brought me back to being able to write Malay Mysteries with a sort of breezy ease.

Sita’s Shadow is nevertheless the longest Malay Mystery so far, clocking in at around 200 pages, since it’s comprised of three inner stories. I’m happy to report that the fifth book in the series (working title: The Inheritors) is behaving itself too, so readers won’t need to wait as painfully long (for the next three books, at any rate) as they had to for Island. That said, I do think Island is better for the extra work and the new artist, and so I stand by it, with (once again sheepish) apologies to anyone who was waiting for it.

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