Monday, October 6, 2014

DOG POUND: Behind the Bruises

Three years, five drafts and four editors later, my debut novel Dog Pound is finally available for purchase!

I'd love to share some behind the scenes stuff, but just in case you're only curious as to what the book is about, kindly read the synopsis below:

Azroy, a rising star in the underground boxing circuit, fights the battle of his life when his opponent dies in the ring under mysterious circumstances. Caught in a web of deceit, he begins to live on the run while he attempts to uncover what's really going on, But can he really win this fight, now that his opponent is the law?

Find out!

All right now, the good stuff. I should warn you that this is gonna be a long ride.

I've been asked a couple of times how the book came to be, and to be perfectly honest, it never occurred to me that someone would ask; I don't know why. I gave a less-than-satisfactory answer each time, and that bothers me. So now I'm gonna sit down, think long and hard about getting my facts right. Here goes:

I'm a little hazy about the genesis of Dog Pound, but I do remember very well the evolution it has gone through. We gotta wind the clock back to 2011 if we wanna talk about that. It all began with a blog post by blogger Obefiend about Buku FIXI's first three novels (page no longer available): Cekik by Ridhwan Saidi, Kougar by Shaz Johar, and Pecah by Khairulnizam Bakeri.

Up until that point, I had very little interest in local popular fiction but those three caught my attention. By just looking at them - the way they were packaged - I knew that these were going to be different. Sure enough, upon closer inspection, I learned what FIXI's all about and it was right up my alley. But I didn't decide then that I wanted to be more than a reader. Not yet.

I should explain that there was a period of time in my life when I was in limbo. I had just failed practicum teaching (early 2010) and that was the straw that broke this camel's back. Pretty damn crazy when you think about it: After 5 years of studying, I was about another year away from graduation, but I simply got up and... left. I just couldn't do it anymore. I could no longer lie to myself.

But I don't wanna go in-depth about that. Let's just say that it felt like climbing out of a rubble, and wandering in a war-torn city with a glazed look in my eyes. My need for escapism was an at all-time high.

I was penniless, jobless, and degree-less. However, I was luckier than most. I had the luxury of time. I had a roof over my head and there was always food on the table, in addition to plenty of personal space (major props to my parents!). Still, it was 2011, I was 24, and I only had RM 12 to my name. The numbers didn't look good yet I was too depressed to make any conscious effort to improve 'em.

But you know what, once you hit rock bottom and break into pieces; when you're eventually ready to head out into the world once more, you'll only bring with you what's crucial. That was exactly what I did, though I wasn't really aware of it. I had no excess luggage, only a briefcase filled with what's uniquely mine: my linguistic abilities and artistic inclinations.

I scoured through my idea bank and found a three-line paragraph: The essence of what would eventually become Dog Pound. I just got to work, slowly but surely, while I supported myself doing "white-collar odd jobs" - e.g. I spent my last RM 12 to commute to a film-maker's house, helping him out with the subtitles for his documentary; and I made RM 650 for a 3-day job.

After a couple of weeks, I had a synopsis and first two chapters ready for a manuscript entitled Lebam. Yeah, in its first incarnation, Dog Pound was written in Bahasa Malaysia. It sucked so hard I could have used it to clean my room like a vacuum cleaner. After another try, I decided that I didn't have the vocabulary (or skill) to write a novel in BM. What didn't wane was my belief in the story, and perhaps publisher Amir Muhammad felt the same way; hence why he suggested for me to do it in English.

Funny thing is that I wouldn't have minded even if Dog Pound never end up seeing the light of day. I just wanted to work on it until it became worthy of being published. I just needed the validation. I couldn't be a doctor, an engineer, an architect, a lawyer or a teacher; but I needed to prove to the world that I wasn't nothing. My imagination and linguistic abilities will amount to something.

So I kept at it, one revision after another. This book project also marked the first time I ever committed to anything in my life and for once, I wanted to finish what I started; if I couldn't achieve that doing what I like, then I must be the worst recipient of the gift of life.

So then Lebam became The Fighter, and still it had no business being published. My prose was weak and uninspired, and it may have even had pretensions of being literary. At this point, I had to put it on the backburner, not just because of my white-collar odd jobs, but I was starting to get so sick of my own story, I needed to leave it behind for a bit so I can come back to it with fresher eyes.

And come back to it I did. I can't remember how long, but I came back knowing that The Fighter needed to be nastier and sleazier. You see, at that point, The Fighter was written in the spirit of First Blood [1982] and '80s actions flicks in general - complete with corny one-liners. I thought it was okay then, but after some constructive feedback, I decided to not have it to come out like that. I didn't mind going back to the drawing board, 'cause once it's out there, it's out there.

I'd rather have it done right than have it done fast.

And I gave it all I had. I drew from memory the seedier places I've been to when I was younger; the back alleys of third-rate shopping malls; streets paved with phlegm; overhead bridges where amputees, beggars and drug addicts call home; stopping short of places where dope shooters do their business - I don't have a strong enough stomach to venture that far.

It wasn't until Draft #3 when The Fighter became Dog Pound and from then on, it was pretty smooth-sailing. It had already been two years since I started and it was like forging the same sword for that amount of time. All I needed to do then was sharpen it, so I kept hittin'.

I'd like to think that my writing has improved since then, which is why looking at Dog Pound now is a lot like looking back at Windows XP when I'm currently using Windows 7: Still works just fine, what I'm saying is that I'm not going to stay in one spot and celebrate for too long, for I am eager to move on to other things. In fact, the wheels have long been in motion prior to Dog Pound being printed.

But enjoy Dog Pound for now, folks! I shall keep you updated on my future endeavours. The best is yet to come.

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