Interview with Samray Books author Marj McRae
I have owed Marj this interview for ages and I’m a bit ashamed it has taken me so long, the problem being that the start of her first book Not A Man: The story of Shuki Bolkiah gripped me by the throat because of its harsh cruelty and I was unable to continue reading. In itself this is probably the best compliment you can give an author: the story goes right to the marrow of your bone, but it wasn’t very helpful in my case as I didn’t dare to pick the book up again. Marj knows my personal reasons for fear of pain and torture at this moment and she has been very patient with me. Today I have been reading the major part of Not A Man and little bit of The King’s Favourite.
Let me start by copying the Amazon blurb for Not A Man as I think it encapsulates all the aspects of the story and the rich language.
“Once in every while a unique vision emerges without warning and without precedent, that follows no trends, is virtually impossible to copy, and that has a resonance that grows and grows until it risks taking you over entirely. Such a book is ‘Not a Man’. At its core, it’s the story of a ten year old boy, Shuki Bolkiah, who is so grossly abused that he will never grow up to be a normal adult human being. But it is so much more than that ….. Firstly, there is the writing that is almost like a whispered prayer, a sacred text. Then there is the abuser who really does love the boy he abuses and wishes to care for him forever. …. and there is the country, harsh and magnificent, where deadly feuds spring from nowhere and many women are treated far worse than Shuki, ill-used and left to starve. Finally, there is Shuki himself, so irresistibly beautiful, so vulnerable, so intelligent, and so deadly in his turn. This is not a man. This is not a book. This is humanity in the dark and in the light. This is hope.”
That was exactly that struck me most about the book: Marj has written a unique, emotion-driven story but does it so skilfully and matter-of-factly that the reader can almost accept it as a normal course of events. The story-teller is the witness who reports on extraordinary circumstances without losing sight of the necessary developments for one moment. Excellently researched so completely credible. A true tour-de-force from a very modest but great author.
The sequel The King’s Favourite shows us a somewhat older Shuki and Marj again shows her love of the subject and her great writing style. I highly recommend both books and I’m pleased to be able to lift a tip of the veil on the author behind this formidable series.
My name is Marj. I am Australian, and my ancestors Australian, going back until the 1850s, and all of them country people – farmers and graziers. My background is rural Australia, my education mostly gained from voracious reading from an early age (plus a few university subjects now and then, mostly distance education.)
Can you describe the place where you write + the view?
I always do my best writing when we travel, so my view changes with the days. I have written at dawn with the river shining silver and the ducks leaving a silver wake. I have written with the beach just yards away, coarse sand and the pelicans waiting for scraps from the fishermen. I have even written at Banana – and yes, it is a place, even if tiny and a long way from anywhere.
Is there something you always need to have near you when you work (beverage, cigarette, mascot, music, quote, etc)?
Not really, coffee quite frequently, but that’s all.
What genre(s) do you write in? How did that develop?
Genre. This has always been a difficult question for me. I do not write thrillers or mysteries or romances. An imagined character speaks to me, and I write about that character. When the Harper Collins editor reviewed ‘Not a Man’, it was as ‘literary fiction,’ though I have never viewed it as literary fiction. To me, ‘literary fiction’ means the sort of deadly boring ‘classics’ we studied at school. I do not call my books literary fiction. I guess I’ll leave that to the reader to decide, though ‘contemporary fiction’ or ‘women’s fiction’ might suit.
When was your first book released and how did that make you feel? Have you published more than one book?
‘Not a Man’ was released six months ago, in October. It seemed unreal to begin with, as I had not yet seen the paperback, and yet it was on sale. Only when I had my book in my hands did I start to really believe it. I am very proud that I wrote a book, and that it has been published.
Can you tell us some background information on the book? (How did you get the idea, how long did it take you to write and edit it, is it part of a sequel, how does the published book make you feel now?)
People have been appalled that it ever occurred to me to write about a eunuch. Yet humans are as much a part of animalkind as are sheep, horses and cattle, all of which we routinely castrate. Growing up on a farm, I took it for granted. Our companion animals, as well. Dogs are routinely castrated. It means fewer unwanted puppies and is thought to reduce the desire to wander. It is regarded as the responsible action of a responsible pet owner. Again, I took it for granted, as I assume, nearly all of us do.
It was only after a dearly beloved dog had the routine operation and sulked for a few days, that I started to wonder just what the dog felt about it. I’ve always considered that animals have far more intelligence than is generally allowed, but even if he resented it bitterly, what choice did he have than to accept it?
So what if it was a human, a boy? If it was a boy who depended on his Master? What if he’d starve if he ran from his master or too much displeased him? What if it was a particularly intelligent child, a child who knows he has to accept what cannot be changed? And so we have Shuki, a child from the slums, a child that would not be accepted back into his family, whether or not it was his choice to be forcibly taken by a rich man. He has no choice, and whether or not he is sick with his fury, he cannot show it without too great a risk to himself. So Shuki pretends. And Shuki makes the most of every opportunity he has. ‘Not a Man’ is the story of his journey from bed-boy to his master, to a person who can respect himself and who wins respect in the world.
Is it about child abuse then?
In the early part of the story, Shuki is bed-boy to the master, so what we refer to as child abuse is the inevitable background to his life. And yet, to Shuki, it was routine – his job. He was never hurt, he lived in comfort, he even had a teacher. He made the most of his teacher.
My story is set in a distant culture. It is not about child abuse. It is about a cunning and courageous boy battling the odds. When his master took his family to England, Shuki went with him. He was prepared, he waited for his chance, and he left his master. The second part of my story is set in England.
Is there a sequel?
When I started writing Shuki’s story, I never expected publication. I have three completed stories about Shuki, another started. The next one is called ‘The King’s Favourite.’ It opens when Shuki is aged twenty-six.
Where do you see yourself in 5-years’ time?
I’m afraid I have not the slightest notion, though I do hope there will be more readers as much captivated by Shuki as I have been.
THANK YOU SO MUCH, Marj!!
Marj’s blog: http://mamcrae-author.blogspot.com.au/