Book Review & Author Interview: As We See It: Hong Kong Stories by The Hong Kong Writers Circle

Book: As We See It: Hong Kong Stories
Author: members of The Hong Kong Writers Circle
Pages: 260
Format: Kindle
Publisher: The Hong Kong Writers Circle
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
Book Source: Personal Purchase
Category: Anthology/Short Story
Style: Brisk short stories with rare language, primarily suspense/thriller themes

Synopsis from GoodReads:

Why do we read, if not to experience the world from a perspective other than our own? Why do we write, if not to deepen that experience by putting ourselves in another’s place? We write about the unknown in an attempt to know it. We explore the mysteries of life in an attempt to understand. By keeping an open mind, we welcome the surprises that life has to offer whenever we open another door, peek under a rock, or turn a page.  read more . . .


I first met Laura Besley on Book Blogs, a networking site for writers and bloggers, shortly after I read Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  In the book, in the 1930s, residents of Shanghai look down on Hong Kong as somewhat provincial, and so stumbling upon this anthology intrigued me.  I was curious to see the other side of the story, which is in itself kind of freaky, in that the Writers Circle chose SIDES as their theme.  The concept of a writers association compiling their work for an annual publication also captured my imagination and I wanted to investigate the execution.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Laura about the book, writing, the HKWC, her blog, and Hong Kong.  We prearranged our dates (13-hour time difference) and place (Google Chat), I wrote up a few questions to have ready, and we went from there.   I have included that discussion below, with a few minor editorial changes for punctuation and continuity. Laura provided the graphics. 
Enjoy.  I know I enjoyed the chat as much as I enjoyed the book.

Laura in Norway

Author Interview:  Laura Besley

me: [delete a bit of chit-chat] Are you ready to start?

Laura: Sure Fire away

me: Okay. Why don't we start out with a brief bio. Where you're from originally, a little bit about yourself, etc.

Laura:I'm from England and spent the first 10 years of my life there. My mum is Dutch and when my parents divorced we moved back to Holland, so she could be closer to her family and they could help with bringing us up. I learned Dutch, went to school there, but wanted to go to uni in England, so we all moved back—me, my sister (who is 4 years younger than me) and my mum.

me: So, to stick together, you all went back to the UK for university.

Laura: Yes. I went to the University of Kent and studied English Literature and Film Studies. It was a 3-year joint honours degree (not sure how it works outside of the UK)

me: Sounds like a double-major.

Laura: Sounds about right. I really enjoyed uni. I had been a very shy teenager, but felt like I could 'reinvent' myself a little. I didn't become loud, but a little more sure of myself—could've just been my age too—and I was more confident speaking in English, my mother tongue, rather than Dutch. Then I started working and worked in Business for about 8 years. I did catering management and retail management.

me: Like just about all fine arts majors here. :?

Laura: Yup! ;-) —And then I went to China. In 2006 I went to visit my sister, who was living and working in China, and without wanting to sound melodramatic, it changed my life. I realised that there was more to life than working and a career.

me: Made your world a bit bigger?

Laura & Sis
Laura: Yes, definitely, but also made me realise what was important. Ironically, if i hadn't been doing the job I was doing, I wouldn't have been able to afford to go, but it made me realise that money isn't everything and that health, love, family are far more important.

me: Funny how that works. What was your sister doing in China?

Laura: She was working as an EFL (english as a foreign language) teacher

me: Ah. A lot of Americans do that as well, don't they? that's what you're doing?

Laura: That is what I'm doing now. She set the trend! It's a great way to get out into the world and travel and see places.

me: I'm guessing you didn't know Chinese when you got there. How it is now?

Laura: No, I didn't, although she knew enough to get by. In HK they speak a different dialect (Cantonese) to the one in China (Mandarin) and I can't really speak either. HK is so multi-cultural that you can get by with English. I've tried learning, but it's really hard. Every six months I give it another go

me: [It's hard] especially when you don't need it for survival, I bet. How long have you been in Hong Kong now? Is your family still there?

Laura: I've been here for 2 and 1/2 years and will definitely be here for another year. My sister and mum are in England. My sister spent one year in China only.

me: For a little flavor of irony.

Laura: Yup!

me: Is it just you? Or have you created your own family in Hong Kong?

Laura: I live here with my husband. We moved out here as boyfriend and girlfriend and then we got engaged and then married. We got married in England and planned it from here. We're thinking of starting a family, but not just yet.

me: You've still got things to see and do . . .

Laura: exactly! :-)

me: How long have you been married? Does he teach English as well?

Laura: He does teach English as well. We met when we were working together in Germany 4 years ago. We've been married nearly a year!

me: Congratulations. In how many countries have you taught English?

Laura: I've taught in England, Germany and here. Quite tame by EFL standards! My husband has also worked in Japan and the Czech Republic

me: Would you recommend it for young people looking to get out and see the world? What would your advice be?

Laura: Definitely! Advice: get a proper certificate first as far more doors will be open for you and the pay will be significantly better! And then: just enjoy!

me: I imagine there are all sorts of agencies?

Laura, Mum & Sis
Laura: Probably, but I've never gone through an agency. All the ads are online and you can apply to companies directly.

me: Hmmmm . . . sounds tempting.

Laura: I'm so pleased I've done it.

me: Tell me what you love most about China? Have you been able to do a lot of touristy things?

Laura: There are lots of touristy things to do in HK. The harbour is famous and the skyline, there are temples, mountains, statues... I find I have to remind myself not to get bogged down with day-to-day living and remind myself I'm in a place to be explored!

me: Yeah. I guess four walls of an apartment can be the same anywhere.

Laura: That's right. And life can get so busy without you really realising it

me: Okay. I kind of got pulled into the middle, so let's just go from there. The Anthology, As We See It: Hong Kong Stories, shows a racially diverse population with varied experiences. What are some of the challenges you experience living there?

Laura: The heat can be pretty challenging. In the summer it's 35-40oC with 99% humidity and coming from England, that's just horrifically hot. Just getting from one place to another can be awfully uncomfortable. Having said that, HK is well geared up for it and most places are air-conditioned. Another challenge is the pace of life. HK is a FAST place and everything needs to happen NOW. You need to be careful not to get too swept up in it.

me: I got that impression just from the book.

Laura: Really? That's interesting.

me: It might have been some of my preconceived notions as well. I had just come off reading Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Not sure how that equates. Maybe it's the Bond movies.

Laura: I think another challenge, especially as a teacher, is seeing how much pressure the kids are under at school. They get so much homework and have to do some many after-school classes (including the ones that I teach), that you sometimes feel really sorry for them.

me: We get that here as well. We have a lot of Asian and Indi/Paki immigrants who work their fannies off.

Laura: Yes, and it's all about doing well so that they can go to a university in England or America or Canada or Australia to learn better english, get better jobs and then work their socks off until they drop down

me: So, let's move on a bit. About the Hong Kong Writers Circle: who are they, how did you get involved, how do they put together their anthology every year? Is it a literary society or just a competition?

Laura: HKWC: it's a group of writers set up in the 90s and encompasses everything from books, short stories, screenplays, etc. Someone I knew from my book club (who only ever came to that one meeting, so maybe it was fate!) mentioned that he was running this writing workshop the next day. I decided to go as Nick was going to be studying and I'd been interested in writing for a while. It was really good (from what I remember it was about 'critiquing' others' work) and from then on I was hooked!

The anthology is published annually and open to submissions from members. Drafts are initially critiqued by the editors and then we get into small critique groups for 2nd and 3rd drafts.

me: So, it's not just a competition. It's WIP with lots of support from other writers.

Laura: No, it's definitely not a competition.

me: But there is a winnowing process? Or they just publish everyone's that wants in?

Laura: Not everyone gets published. If your piece 'doesn't fit' with what they're looking for, then you can't make it in. I'm not sure how they deal with quality issues.

me: I did notice one or two that weren't quite up to the grade of the others. Or, maybe I just don't like [the whole story being about] one character telling another character a story. Which brings us to my next question: murder, death and the afterlife seem a strong theme. Was that a stipulation of the competition or did it just happen that way? I should say project rather than competition.

Laura: The original theme was: SIDES. as in: different sides to a story, etc. And I think from the submissions they had, they decided to group them into the sections that they fell into. [note: Home and Away, Love and Lies, Transitions and Journeys, Death and Beyond]

me: That theme really makes a few of them stand out for me, like the Korean grandmother (at its best) and the three hikers not so much.

Laura: Yes, I loved the one about the Korean grandmother. [A Place for Halmoni by Phillip Kim]

me: What was your favorite (other than your own)?

Laura: That was written by a guy (Phillip Y. Kim) who has just released a book which has been picked up by a major publisher. Obviously very talented!

me: The guy who did Going North and Going South? or was that someone else? (Bad thing about a Kindle is you can't flip through the pages).

Laura: No, that was someone else, [Jason Ng] although I think he's also already a published author (if I remember correctly). I liked the North and South stories. . . Yes, it's definitely Kindle's worst feature!

me: Phillip Kim did the Korean lady. [A Place for Halmoni]

Laura: I've not got my copy here at the moment, so can't double-check, but you could go with the grandma story as my favourite. Mainly because that's the one that's had the most lasting impression and I think that is a good sign of a good story.

me: Agree. Your short story didn't quite stoop to murder, although there was a fair element of crazy going on. What made you stop at maiming? (I can't quite decide where/from what angle he sustained his injuries. Any hint?)

Laura: I think I didn't want Nicky to be a murderer (although I did at one point have a draft in which she was).  In my mind she cuts up his face with the broken glass, so he is no longer 'pretty' enough to go out and seduce other women.  That way he'll remain faithful to Sylvia.

me: That's as good a target as any. He'd probably bleed to death anywhere else anyway.  I loved the whole—if not justifiable—almost understandable duality of the whole thing—you can't treat my best friend that way . . . but I can . . . just so long as she doesn't find out.

Laura: Yes, it was all rather complicated. Her infatuation with Sylvia, and wanting to be like her. Nicky wants John to be faithful to Sylvia so as not to hurt her, yet she is having an affair with him.

me: And the whole devotion to Sylvia, kicking him out so that Sylvia can come over and cry on her shoulder.  Choice.

Laura: I know. I hope I conveyed a little that relationships are complicated.

me: You definitely did. And, people really do think like that.

Laura: Thank you!

me: I thought it was great. How often [does HKWC] meet? Is it in person, on the Internet? What kind of functions do you sponsor, etc.?

Laura: We meet for workshops, etc. about once a month-once every two months, depending and it's in person. Critique groups tend to meet about once a month and also in person.

me: Do you think more writers associations should publish anthologies?

Laura: I think it's a great way for 'young' (= not professional) authors to cut their teeth on something. And it's absolutely thrilling to see your name in print for the first time.

me: I can only imagine.  Do you have any current projects?

Laura:  Writing a piece of flash fiction every day and posting 'the best of the week' on my blog.

me: That's a hefty project.

Laura: It is, and sometimes I wonder if I'll finish it, but I'm making good progress!  The idea behind it is to hone my writing skills, my way with words and am I getting my message across?   In your head you have a clear idea of what you meant, but do your readers really understand??

me: Right. But it's more powerful that way because they fill in so many blanks themselves.  [re: flash fic a day] Kind of like a whole Julie/Julia thing going, huh? Is there a "Julia"?

Laura:  I haven't seen Julie/Julia (if you're referring to the film). So not sure if there's a Julia!!

me:   Julie worships Julia Child and sets out to finish every recipe in her cookbook in a year's time.

Laura: Ah

me: The whole movie/book is about how she maintains this blog, gets lots of followers, proves her self-worth, etc., all from identifying so much with Julia Childs.

Laura: I see

me: So, do you have a mentor? or a writer you really admire?

Laura: The person who inspired me to do the ff challenge was Calum Kerr (who did it and set up National Flash Fiction day in the UK - you can read all about it on my blog). But just one writer, no. There are too many greats out there!

me: That's the way I feel. So many different approaches, styles, voices . . .

Laura: Exactly. I've never been one for 'favourites' or 'bests'. There are too many to choose from.

me: Tell me about flash fiction. Do you know its origins? How did you get started with it?

Laura: Strangely, although I want to write a novel and that's always been my aim, I seem to be reasonably good at short pieces. Maybe it's time restraints, or maybe it's the modern pace of life, but I really like these snippets of life/love/cultures.etc.  I don't really know much about it, except that it's on the rise as people have less and less time to read these days.

me: It seems like everything is flash, even news and magazine articles.

Laura: Exactly!  People's attention spans are really short

me: It's a sad commentary on lifestyle.  From your stories, it seems you have a favorite genre. Thriller/suspense?

Laura: It is. Possibly. I'm interested in people. All kinds of people, how they live, what they do, why they do things, etc. so all forms feed into that interest.

me: It's wide open.  Is there a book that you would like to see made into a movie that isn't?

Laura: Uhm...

me: Or, a book that really shouldn't have been made into a movie?

Laura: A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

me: What's that about?

Laura: It's about three couples that go hiking in Africa and there's a fatal accident that changes all of their lives forever.  The book is great!  There are so many films that shouldn't have been adapted from books. the problem often is that you can't get everything in.

me:  Any advice to aspiring writers?

Laura: Practise, practise, practise! When I re-read stuff from a year or two ago, I think I've improved. develop a thick skin, because people will turn you down and say your stuff is not what they're looking for.

me: Do you have something you're trying to get picked up?

Laura: Not yet.  Just trying to get my name out there through the blog.  I'll possibly think of publishing a collection of FF next year

me: That's a good idea. Just get it out there.

Laura: Exactly.  That's the joy of living in our modern world

me: I'm reminded of the quote from Jane Austen when Lizzie says to Darcy that they're both taciturn by nature. They refuse speak unless they can impress the whole room. I'm afraid that's what's keeping me from submitting. I think it has to be print-ready before I risk it.

Laura: Yes, that's a fair point. But you should try to put some feelers out to see what kind of response you get.  It's really scary, but can ultimately be very rewarding if you get positive responses. Waiting until something is print-ready, you need to spend so much time on it and those little boosters from other people could be just what you need to keep you going!

me:  Well, I've chewed up your morning. I appreciate the time you've spent to chat.

Laura: No worries. Thank you too for taking the time!

Bottom Line:  As We See It:  Hong Kong Stories is an intelligent and thought-provoking anthology of short stories, with a fair number true diamonds scattered in amongst the other gems.  While some are less than stellar, others stand out, with each compelling thought expressed with precision and grace.  I found it a quick, satisfying read and well-worth the small investment of resources.

FTC Disclaimer: I independently purchased this book and received no compensation from the author or their agent for this content.

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