My new novel, The Last Bird of Paradise, which is set mostly in Singapore, is being published in February 2024. In this series, I’ll share some of the process of bringing the book to life, from inspiration to publication.
Let’s start with inspiration. At the end of 1983, the law firm I worked for transferred me from Chicago to Singapore. I was excited about the move because I had lived in Asia before, in South Korea, and in early 1978 I visited Singapore, a former British colony that was enticing–a blend of East and West that was both exotic and familiar at the same time. The transfer was an amazing opportunity for a junior associate of the firm.
For a couple of years after I moved to the country, I lived in a weird, sterile apartment building on top of a shopping center and didn’t do much in the way of decorating or acquiring art. Three years later, I moved to a much nicer apartment building and picked up some attractive artifacts here and there on my travels around the region. In 1989, the firm transferred me back to the US, but, as it turned out, only for 18 months. In 1990, I returned to Singapore, this time as a partner of the firm. I found a great apartment and this time I wanted to buy some art to hang on that apartment’s walls.
During my first stay in Singapore, I occasionally visited a shop called Antiques of the Orient not far from the district where I lived. I may have bought some small things there, but nothing significant. Now, though, I came across three really interesting antique paintings. They were expensive, but I thought they’d look great in the apartment’s dining room. They were signed by the artist, although with just a first initial and last name, and dated 1917. I left Singapore in 1993 and have held onto those paintings. They currently hang in a hallway in my home here in Virginia.
I didn’t at first make much of an effort to learn about the artist, although I did wonder about her. I also wondered what was happening in Singapore at about the time she was working on her art. What was her life like? Why was she even in the colony? That was at the height of WWI, and I was ignorant of what impacts the war might have had on the small settlement far from the upheaval in Europe.
Unlike WWII, in which Japan took control of Singapore from the UK, the first war resulted in no such change. There was, however, a dramatic incident early in the war that I thought was worth looking into. In 1915, a group of Indian sepoy conscripts in the British army rebelled; they believed they were going to be sent to North Africa to fight the German-allied Turks and they did not want to take up arms against fellow Muslims. The incident, which became known as the Singapore Mutiny, seemed ripe with dramatic potential.
That was the grain of sand around which the novel grew.
Next: Beginning the novel.