Former advertising man turned author GEOFFREY S. WALKER shares with SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH his fascination with the mysterious island of Borneo and the subject matter of his first novel—local magic and folklore
AUTHOR PHOTOGRAPH BY DEV SIDHU
IT WOULD TAKE Geoffrey S. Walker nearly 50 years to make the journey from the comforts of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, to the searing heat of Sabah’s tropical jungles and it all began with a book he loved as a boy.
“The book I read was written by Frank Buck, whose profession was collecting wild animals for zoos,” Walker says. Buck’s vividly entertaining tales of adventure in far-off lands fired the then six-year-old Walker’s imagination and inspired in him a lifelong passion for a place that was a world away from the cosy suburbs of America in the 1950s—the mysteriously exciting island of Borneo.
For many years, however, Walker’s love for the Southeast Asian island would be relegated to the back of his mind. In the interim, he grew up, became a copywriter and creative director and after 35 successful years in the advertising industry, decided to close that chapter of his life. He didn’t know it then but the Borneo of his childhood was about to resurface through a friendly invitation.
Walker’s cousin, who was teaching English in Brunei at the time, asked him to come over for a visit. “During the month or so I stayed with my cousin, I took the opportunity to travel around Sabah. The four days I spent in Kota Kinabalu were enough to convince me that I’d like to live here,” he says.
A contented resident of Kota Kinabalu for nearly seven years now, Walker never imagined that he would one day live in the land of his childhood fantasies and end up writing a novel about it.
The Bomoh’s Apprentice is Walker’s first published work and is set in the tropical jungles that captivated his heart and mind all those years ago. The book portrays the first 17 years of an orphan boy who grows up to become a respected and much-loved witch doctor. The boy learns all there is to know about life and ancient jungle magic from the powerful local bomoh who is also his kindly adoptive father. Along the way, the young apprentice encounters challenges and magical adventures as he makes the unpredictable transition from boyhood to manhood.
Having spent his entire adult life in the glitzy corporate world of advertising, it’s only natural to wonder at Walker’s choice of subject matter. Why would an American ad man write a book about the largely unexplored and often misunderstood realm of local magic and folklore?
Like his decision to live in Sabah, the events that prompted Walker to write a novel were completely unexpected. The idea that started it all took root during an occasion honouring WWII POWs.
As a member of the Sabah Society, Walker had the opportunity to commemorate the WWII Death March. Society members shadowed the footsteps of 1,500 British and Australian POWs who were forced by Japanese soldiers to trek through the jungle from Sandakan to Ranau under unimaginably horrific conditions.
Walker and other society members spent their nights in kampungs that were located along the course. “The villagers were uniformly cordial and hospitable and more than happy to break out the tapai after sundown!” It was during this time that he first heard about people who ran amok and ended up tied to trees. “The image stuck in my mind and was the seed that ultimately prompted me to write this book.”
The Bomoh’s Apprentice does more than skim the surface of topics such as Malay magic and jungle life, which are hardly ever explored by Western authors. Walker seems to write with a knowing hand about the push-pull of village politics and the intricate relationship between kampung people and their bomoh. However, he admits that his characters and storylines are purely imaginary. “I didn’t actually do any research in writing this book and I don’t claim that what I have written is an accurate depiction of jungle life or kampung politics.” However, Walker’s experiences during the Death March and other Sabah Society expeditions helped lay a foundation of sorts. “Spending time in the kampungs and speaking with villagers who knew enough English to answer my questions provided raw material for The Bomoh’s Apprentice,” he explains.
Walker also draws inspiration from novels and movies that play off a magical theme. Is that why his book has a title that is similar to the recent movie, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? The answer is yes and no. The title was not inspired by the Nicholas Cage movie but by the original, animated Disney film of the same name.
A disciplined writer, Walker spends a few hours each day either writing or creating plotlines and The Bomoh’s Apprentice took shape fairly quickly. The first draft was completed in just four months but there were bumps in the road. “It wasn’t until I had written 100 pages or so that I realised I’d need to start over and break what I thought would be one story into a series of three or four.” The dedicated writer is already working on the second book in the series, tentatively entitled Reunion.
Walker liberally sprinkled The Bomoh’s Apprentice with entertaining character and place names like ‘Bomoh Katak Hitam’ and ‘Kampung Pokok Tertinggi’. His grasp of Malay adds colourful local flavour to the text. Walker, who also studied Spanish during his college days, explains that his skills are self-taught. “I made a self-study of Malay from the time I first came to Borneo. I bought, read and reread every book I could find on Malay grammar.”
Like all writers, Walker harbours big dreams for his first novel. It is his fond wish to see The Bomoh’s Apprentice become a part of the Malaysian school system. “I believe it would be a useful tool for young people who are trying to learn English, even though the vernacular is American. The fact that it’s a ‘Malaysian’ story might hold their interest more than a book that is completely ‘foreign’ to them both in content and language.”
Although Walker has crafted a fantasy that revolves around magic and its proponents, he admits that he isn’t the type who believes in enchanted wands or supernatural incantations that can turn people into frogs. “Do I believe in magic? No, though I’m well aware that lots of weird things happen that can’t be explained in rational terms.”
Walker is right. There are many things that defy precise, logical thinking and he only has to look at his own life for evidence. Frank Buck, an American writing about Borneo, inspired him to move halfway across the world to become what he is today—an American writing about Borneo. Perhaps, it’s not too far-fetched to believe that it all came to be with just a tiny touch of magic.
WALKER’S ADVICE FOR ASPIRING AUTHORS
- By way of training, find a job that requires you to write every day. Try to get work as an apprentice copywriter at an ad agency or a newspaper. Even if you don’t thoroughly enjoy the assignments they give you, over time you’ll acquire the patience and discipline needed to write something of your own.
- Read as much as you can. And as you read, pay attention to the writing as well as the plot. Study the way authors structure their sentences and choose their words. Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the right word and a word that’s close is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Make it your goal to light up the pages of whatever you write by choosing high-voltage words.
- Make a habit of using dictionaries, thesauruses and other reference books, and learn to chase definitions. If you don’t completely understand a definition, look up the meaning of the correlative words. You’ll be amazed at how fascinating the process can be. It’s like inventing and solving a verbal jigsaw puzzle.
- Don’t talk about your writing and don’t ask anyone to read what you’ve written until you’ve finished the project or at least a substantial chunk of it. It’s not so much that you have to fear someone stealing your idea, though that can happen. The real danger is that if you indulge in premature self-gratification, you’ll never finish what you started out to write.