IT was the late iconic American writer Robin Moore who averred: “Inside each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released.” For Samantha Manonmani, her release came at the heels of a tragedy – the death of her beloved brother, Paul. “Death changes you,” recalls Samantha softly.
When someone dies, it reveals the fault lines in the bereaved family, even the deepest, most hidden ones. If you know about loss, you know about family, and about love, survival, resilience and strength. If you know about loss, you know about life. “And it woke me up to do something about my dream,” she says, eyes glistening. “After all, it puts your life in perspective, and the experience prompts a search for meaning.”
Time stops for a bit when someone dies and it held true for Samantha as she wondered whether she was on the right path or living her life in a meaningful way. “I started working on my books back in 2008. Originally, it was written for my late brother who was born in 1964 – the year of the dragon. That’s why the protagonist of my series is a dragon!” shares Samantha, smiling. Unfortunately, Paul passed away a few months after the first draft was completed in late June 2009. “He never got to read my book,” she adds, her voice low.
After a few months of uncertainty and dealing with grief, she decided to continue writing and working on her story. “It was just the therapy I needed to keep me focused,” she confesses softly.
Her resilience paid off; Samantha is the author of an exciting mystery and adventure series featuring a dragon with a thirst for adventure called Speare Morgan. The first book of the series, Mystery Of The Sun Sapphire was released last year while the second book, Mystery Of The Abandoned Castle is due for release in early March. The third book, The Mysterious Penglipur Lara will be out in the following year.
Samantha has also been signed up by Prodigy Gold Books, a US-based publisher and her books will soon be released in the States sometime next month.
JOURNEY TO HAPPY ENDINGS
“I never dreamt I’d be a writer,” confesses Samantha, adding that she never thought she possessed any stand-out talents or skills, “…so I just focused on working!” She never had the time, she admits, with the demanding schedule and crazy work volume. “The frenetic work pace was something I got used to since I joined as an executive in a pharmacy back in the early 1990s,” recounts Samantha. The hours were long, she confides, and she had little time to do much else.
But that soon changed. “I had just began working with a new company and for the first time ever, I had my weekends off. I didn’t quite know what to do with all that free time, and so I thought I’d write. I wanted to give my elder brother Paul a gift and thought a book would be brilliant,” she recalls. Write a book? That’s how you wanted to spend your free time? She laughs at my incredulous face.
“Well, my first attempt at writing was rubbish!” insists the self-deprecating author with a grin. She sat down and harnessed her imagination to create a world where dragons take flight and children go on magical adventures in strange lands.
“It took a lot of rewrites and editing,” confesses Samantha. “Between the time I started back in 2008 to 2014, my stories went through many rewrites. I’ve had a lot of well-meaning people discourage me saying it’s not easy to get published here in Malaysia,” she says candidly, adding: “I decided to self-publish anyway.”
In 2017, Samantha made that decision to self-publish, deciding that it would be an investment in herself as she built a platform to introduce her series. “The single highest cost,” she points out, “was on editing. My advice to budding writers? Go with a professional editing house. It will save you a lot of headache and grief!” She admits her original plot had changed to as much as 60 per cent, amidst all the rewrites. Finally, after 10 years and many rewrites and revisions later, the Mystery Of The Sun Sapphire was published in April last year.
The first of the Speare Morgan series wasn’t quite Samantha’s debut as an author. “I’ve published before!” she shares, smiling. And again, it wasn’t planned at all. “I was in a store buying a cross-stitch set to sew as a hobby. Looking at the displays on sale, I realised that this was something I could do. I could attempt to create my own patterns – and much better ones at that –for cross-stitching!” she recalls.
The enterprising 52-year-old went back home, and used an Excel sheet to create interesting patterns for cross-stitching, which she eventually used to create her own cross-stitching sets to sell to hobbyists. Soon after, she approached a local publishing house to pitch a proposal to write a book on cross-stitching. “They decided to sign me up,” she says nonchalantly. Again, I look incredulous and she laughs heartily, adding with a wink: “I had to write in Bahasa!”
With no experience in writing, Samantha has done well for herself, with two cross-stitch books in Bahasa Malaysia, and a children’s series of books that’s slowly gaining a following. “I just wanted to do something — so I did,” she says. Were there any moments of self-doubt at all? I ask. A pause and she replies: “Of course. But I told myself to do it anyway!”
CREATING MAGIC OUT OF LIFE
The Speare Morgan series has Samantha’s trademark warmth and humour, but it has serious messages to deliver too: of friendship and loyalty — “and hopefully putting out a reminder to other people of how simple the basic principles of humanity could be”. But she also adds: “If there’s one lesson I’d like children to take away from my stories, it’s that reading is fun.”
Books, she adds, uniquely teach empathy because they allow the reader to see life from a different point of view. “This is a time when empathy is in short supply, so I really hope my stories can turn children into readers.”
Usually when someone or something inspires us, we know about it. But sometimes, a person, a book, a character can get under our skin, inside our heads, even find their way into our work – without us realising. For Samantha, her memories of favourite books like the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew invariably found their way in influencing her writing. “It was easy to lose myself in those stories,” she recounts dreamily.
Where does she get her inspiration from? I ask curiously. “From real life!” she answers with a grin. Images and experiences ranging from her hometown in Seremban right up to the places she’s seen and visited, they’ve all made an appearance in her stories in one way or the other. The idea behind the Kingdom of Flames in her first book came from watching the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. The stadium along with the Olympic torch gave birth to the idea for the Torch of Eternal Flames.
The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang became the setting for the Temple of Eternal Flames while Tasik Cini in Pahang became Periwinkle Lake. “A combination of KL Tower and Suria KLCC, which can be seen from my balcony, became Suria Tower — home of the Sun Sapphire,” reveals Samantha, adding: “After spotting a twin rainbow in the sky, I came up with ‘The Valley of the Twin Rainbow’!” Local influences, including the wau (kite), the traditional Malay kampung house and even our local kuih-muih have found their way into Samantha’s books.
“The Mystery Of The Abandoned Castle is inspired by Kellie’s Castle in Perak. The idea came after an office trip to the castle not too many years ago. My third book, The Mysterious Penglipur Lara, is inspired by the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang,” she says, adding: “I’m not all that imaginative! I get my inspiration from the everyday things I see or experience.”
Born in Negri Sembilan, Samantha describes her childhood as “idyllic”.
“We lacked nothing,” she says. “My mother loved reading and had a collection of books.” She goes on to recount how life was so much simpler then. “My mother baked fantastic cakes, and my siblings and I learnt to bake from an early age.”
Her baking skills, long inherited from her late mother, is the latest venture that she’s gotten herself into. She shares that she’s scaled down her work in the retail industry and has gone into baking. “I’m now living the life I love – working part-time while I bake cakes for festive seasons and write.”
It’s often said that people are defined by their work. Whether the job is in teaching, working in the office or engineering, it provides a steady income. But Samantha attests: “Sometimes, a steady income robs you of your courage to pursue your dreams.”
There’s a narrative in our culture that we find clarity when we face death. We come closer to our values and consider what’s truly important to us. For Samantha, it made her consider her priorities and she decided to take that leap into the unknown.
“I started realising that there must be more to life than just working. The stability of work can sometimes put us in our comfort zone. And this can turn into a ‘death’ zone. We don’t challenge ourselves and we fear change.”
A brief pause, and she continues: “There are no guarantees of success and I’m aware of this, as many have pointed this out to me. Not everyone would like my books. There are bound to be critics. But if I can make a difference to a handful of children… that would be my greatest achievement.”
For details on how you can purchase the Speare Morgan series and for sponsorship of books, go to www. samanthamanon68.wixsite.com/spearemorgan