Jessie Michael can’t remember a time when she wasn’t reading or writing.
“There were always books in the house, growing up. I read the Enid Blyton series, magazines my father subscribed to such as Reader’s Digest and the Geographical Magazine as well as a children’s encyclopedia series we had.
“When I was older, I read my mother’s Women’s Weekly magazines and discovered Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Anderson. I was also a member of the local town library.
“In school, I had very good English language teachers and we were always asked to write long essays,” says Michael who recently published The Mad Man And Other Stories, a collection of short stories that she’d written over the years.
Though she’d had her work published before this, in regional short story anthologies as well as in magazines and newspapers, The Mad Man And Other Stories holds a special place in Michael’s heart as it is a collection of “all my babies under one cover”.
“I think it turned out quite well,” says Michael modestly though obviously pleased with her labour of love. “It’s nice to have all my stories in one book … in my own book.”
The 68-year-old retired associate professor of English first realised that she could write good stories when a story she’d written in school won the top prize in a school competition.
“It was in secondary school and our teacher instructed us all to write a story … and we did. Little did I know she was planning to submit our stories for a school competition. A few weeks later it was announced, much to my surprise, that I’d won! That was encouraging and it really gave me confidence in my writing,” recalls Michael.
That story – Ghosts Alive – remains her favourite and there was no doubt that she would include it in The Mad Man And Other Stories.
“I wrote that story when I was 16, and though I have since tweaked it a little from its original form, it’s the same story and I have loved it ever since,” she says with fondness.
A charmed childhood
Michael grew up in Malacca which she describes as “an open playground and museum” that fed her childhood curiosity.
“I lived in Bandar Hilir. My primary school was just across my home and my secondary school was just a short walk away. I really had a charmed childhood growing up with cousins around me.
“We’d all walk to Ujong Pasir (about two kilometres away) and back, hop onto a bus to watch a movie and just have a lot of fun. Its was a different time … an ideal time which we can’t get back.
“I recently went back to Malacca to promote the book in my old school and everything has changed so much. People were late because, believe it or not, there was a traffic jam in tiny Bandar Hilir,” says the former Convent Holy Infant Jesus student who studied English Literature at Universiti Malaya.
Taking part in writing competitions was something Michael continued to do as a working adult, mostly to push herself to keep writing.
“There used to be competitions run by magazines in the 1970s and 1980s open to the public. I’d submit my stories. Those were catalysts because the very first competition I entered, I ended up winning first prize and I thought I must not be too bad a writer. And so, I continued writing,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Once she got married and started a family – she has four daughters with her late husband Rex Michael – Michael snatched hours, in between her work and her family, to write.
“Writing was always a hobby. But when there was a competition, I’d become obsessed. Even so, family would always come first and so I’d let my stories cook in my head as I went about my duties. “I didn’t watch television and so my free time would be spent reading or writing. I’d finally put my words down on paper late at night when my distractions were fast asleep,” she says.
Inspiration for her stories always came from the people around her, those close to her or those she met.
“My stories are always set here … they are always local because I have to write about what I know. Even though I travel a lot, I don’t stay long enough to really know the places and their people.
“Some of my work is pure fiction but most is what you’d call creative non-fiction. I use a memory and create a story from that memory,” shares Michael.
Crafting characters is what Michael enjoys the most.
“I always build my stories around people and how their lives are built around their social circumstances. In the end, many of the stories end up being a sort of social commentary on the times and political circumstances that affected the characters and their lives,” says Michael.
She recalls the time shortly after she got married when she had to follow her husband, a teacher and later headmaster, to his posting in Jerantut, Pahang. The carefree Malacca girl fresh out of university in the big city found herself in unfamiliar territory.
“It was a complete culture shock. I grew up in Malacca where we had so much going on … so much culture, history and then I moved to KL to study.
“Jerantut was completely out of my comfort zone. It was a one-road town with estates all around us. And, there was a new phenomenon (for me) of drunkenness and abuse around me which was all just a shock.
“I wrote quite a few stories from that experience … not immediately but after I’d left Jerantut. I realised that I had all these stories in me. I just had to get them out, I think. It was too much to keep inside me,” she recalls.
The next chapter
Though her book is literally hot off the press – it was launched at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang last month – Michael is already thinking about her next book.
“I have so many memories and if I don’t write them down, they’ll just get lost. I am hoping to get into my father’s old files of letters and maybe weave some stories that are tied to ancestry.
“It’s all there somewhere, half written works in progress but I have to get down to it,” says the grandmother of five who divides her time between the United States and Australia where her children and grandchildren live.
Michael’s writing has improved from joining writing groups in China and Australia, and she hopes to set up one here. “Being part of a writing group forces you to write because you have to present your work to the group every month or so. And you get open critique that is constructive.
“You may or may not take the critique but at least it gives you something to think about.
“We also learnt from what others are doing and got to see other people’s perspectives. The sharing is important because when you write alone, you are sometimes not sure what direction your story is going,” says Michael.
Michael just retired from teaching this year. For now, she is going to sit back and catch up on her reading.
“I went through a period where I wanted to clear my shelves of books that I was no longer reading.
“I wanted to give them away but my children quickly intercepted me … even though they were all abroad. They called their uncle and asked him to salvage the books, mostly the ones they read as children and teens and so the books are all at my mother’s house.
“And now I have space in my bookshelves for new books,” says the avid reader who is fascinated by women writers like Alice Munro, Katherine Boo, Joan Didion whom she cites as powerful influences.