There’s a moment in Kept In Ink when the central character finds himself lying on the floor of an anonymous chalet on a Thai island no one has heard of while trying to appease his growling stomach with yesterday’s potato chips.
He’s gone without breakfast because he needs to stretch his baht. He worries if he’ll get back to Kuala Lumpur in time for a paying gig.
But Francis Wolf – the book’s main character and its writer – is also content in the knowledge that the decisions he’s made in his 45 years have led him to this place and this moment. The hunger and money worries are real, of course. But they’re side notes … for now.
Kept In Ink, Wolf’s fourth self-published book, details his trip to a monastery outside of Bangkok with a bunch of friends he made years earlier in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The plan was to fly into Bangkok, hook up with the Chiang Mai crew, head out to Wat Bang Phra, the monastery, get a tattoo, and head back to KL. It becomes obvious a few pages in, however, that not everyone received the memo.
And so what was supposed to be a quick in-out trip turns into six days on the road co-starring meandering drives in and out of god-knows-where, spiritual tattoos, trances in temples, trance on portable deejay decks, and a band of friends who don’t speak much English.
Writer/musician Wolf admits, however, that despite how the story now reads in print, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to publish it.
“I’ve always kept a journal so I wrote while I was in Thailand. But at no point on the trip did I think about putting out a book.
“And then when I got home, I was a bit broke … you don’t think about writing a book when you’re broke. So it was only months later when I was looking back at my notes that I decided that I wanted to tell the story,” he says.
Even so, Wolf says, he was uncertain if anyone apart from him would care about what happened.
He says: “I’m primarily a musician. When I write and record a song I’m thinking of the big picture. About melody, about chords, about how it sounds. Even though my songs are stories, I’m not Bob Dylan, I don’t write 16-verse songs. On top of the lyrics, I think of the hook, the melody, the instrumentation…. When you do that, you tend to omit details in the story to make sure everything flows.
“With a book, you’re not condensing something into three minutes, you’re expanding. And that’s when you start to question yourself. How much is too much? I mean, would people really want to know what I ate on the second morning of the trip?”
Both stories are set in Thailand, with snags and hitches featuring prominently.
But even though the Venn diagram circles appear to overlap, the two books, Wolf maintains, are distinct.
“The first book came out in 2013 but it was actually written so many years earlier. That was a book written in the voice of that guy then. (Kept In Ink) was written by me now,” he says.
There is another notable difference: the art that adorns the pages of the new book.
Unlike his debut book – and indeed the Malay edition of Social Carbon Copy (2014) as well as his photo book Kelunding (2015) – Kept In Ink features images that were all sketched and then inked by Wolf from photos he took on the trip.
“The book was already finished and I was taking a break while looking over what I’d written when I started doodling. That’s when I thought that I should ink what I’d seen,” he explains, pointing out that the book is not a graphic novel.
Wolf continues: “Some people saw the art when I first posted it on Facebook and thought it was a graphic novel. What I was actually inspired by were those old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. You know, you get a picture every 30 pages or so captioned with something like ‘Nancy solves a puzzle’.
“But even though it’s not a comic, when I started to ink I did look to comic book artists like Adrian Tomine, the Hernandez Brothers, Mike Mignola and Frank Miller for inspiration.”
Is Kept In Ink then a novel about experiences?
“The easy answer is it’s a book about friendship or about an experience, but that’s like saying Moby Dick is a book about a whale,” Wolf laughs.
“It’s one part of it, though. I mean, I know Social Carbon Copy is a rock ’n’ roll journal, Kelunding is social commentary in photographs, but I honestly don’t know how to summarise Kept In Ink. But maybe it’s all right to say that people will just have to read it to find out.”
Kept In Ink retails at RM20 and is available for sale at Lit Books (firstname.lastname@example.org or 03-7886 6988), Silverfish Books (email@example.com or 03-228 44837), Gerak Budaya (03-7957 8342) and from the writer directly. Also on sale are postcards featuring the images found in the book. For purchases and more information, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Call: 012-259 9952.