Recently, we interviewed author Keith Costelloe about his recent book Starship Malaysia: Lies that Save Lives
- If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Travelling through life.
2. It is believed that novel angles are embedded in their titles. What is the significance behind your novel’s title, “Starship Malaysia”?
Starship Malaysia represents, for Scott, an escape from the realities of his life. His father has been killed in an accident, and he’s been taken out of his normal environment and into what for him is, at first, an alien one. It’s his way of escaping his present, and by preparing reports for the Starship, it has given him a goal to achieve.
3. These days, a lot of novels revolve around the authenticity of youth, but you have somewhere portrayed the traumatic experience youth holds. Do you think youth have been portrayed more as imaginary than realistic?
I guess you are referring to fantasy novels? An escape from the mundane, the normal, school and the same things every day. A rebellion against the average and a belief in the extraordinary. A trait that we have at different times in our lives and a feeling that there must be a better way of living. It also gives the reader a way of exploring issues in an imaginary way that is safe. For example, exploring the issue of a divorce, parental death, physical abuse, and then dealing with your girlfriend being kidnapped. However, I didn’t want any of these issues to dominate or let them become lectures on “How to cope with x, y or z. It does look at how martial arts, Tai Chi and mediation help Scott manage his anger issues, but there are no magic bullets that will solve these issues in a short time. I think there are many ways we can portray youth and many ways young people can relate what they read to their own feelings. I think there are many ways to portray the youth of today.
4. Novels are the emblem of shaping relationships; sometimes authors feel connected with their creations, their created characters. Would you like to share any of the characters from your works that inspire you?
Scott, in Starship Malaysia, is a teen that has problems, but with the help of his friends, he manages to come through these issues and change somewhat for the better. I see him as someone who has many challenges that he faces and, to some extent, manages to overcome or at least understand them.
In Drawn into Danger, my first book, the main character is Dave, who finds himself in a very dangerous situation and only manages to pull through with the help of his close friends. Dave is a passive guy where things happen to him, and he goes whichever way the wind blows. He explores his sexuality and figures he’s bisexual, and that is how these close bonds with his friends have formed. Having good friends is a central theme in both books. It’s very difficult to travel this world without them.
5. Your novel “Starship Malaysia” is also sociological in nature as it highlights the secrets of sex trafficking. Why did you feel like choosing it as part of your novel?
That’s interesting. I didn’t choose it. The theme came out of the story. I don’t plan my writing. It developed as the characters developed. After Scott fell in love with Nor, the story took over. I’ve always been aware of this. On a trip to Bangkok, my wife and I became aware of the sex trade. After Nor was kidnapped, I did a lot of research on human trafficking and decided this was an important theme to pursue. However, I didn’t want it to become a factual documentary or get into the lurid details. As I was writing a YA book, I wanted to express the fear and trauma it can impose on young people.
6. Your book begins with the highlighted line, “Lies that save lives.” Would you like to share your opinions with regards to this?
This is about the lies that Scott has to tell his parents about what he is doing. At first, there is an urgency to rescue Nor, but later, he and his friends decide to keep it secret from their school friends and others. This was to protect the reputation of the victims, as it would have been shameful and harmful to the victims and their families. Also, to an extent, it was important not to reveal the truth in order to keep their own roles obscure in order to protect themselves. The scene at the end of the book clarifies this.
7. The character Scott in the novel ” Starship Malaysia” encounters his father’s alcoholism, violence, and separation from him. Do you think these days’ youth have been facing mental health problems and feeling alienation most of the time? How does your novel help to understand the current emotional conditioning?
I’m not sure about most of the time or if this is true for all youth, but I think these are issues that young people face and having them realized in fiction gives readers a chance to realize that others face these problems and that they are not alone. Mental health issues is a wide topic, and I don’t presume to be able to provide answers to others’ situations except to say you can always ask for help. Scott gets help from his volleyball coach and his friends.
8. Salah and Scott have been described as sharing a strong bond of friendship. How is the friendship described in your novel different from the current self-interest-motivated temporal bond?
Self-interested motivation? Is that particularly current now? Hasn’t there always been an element of that throughout history? I’m not sure I can comment on that, but I hope that what I was able to show in my novel is that friendship can cut across racial and cultural bonds. Malaysia is a great example of this as there are Malays, Indians and Chinese nationalities but also Malaysians. Even though they retain their cultural traditions, they can and do work, live and play together. I wanted to take the story out of North America to show that this friendship can exist in other countries and that is based on who you are and not what color your skin is or how your culture defines you. You can be that and more. I also think that the youth of today are more flexible in their thinking and can form bonds across these, in a way, artificial divides.
9. In your novel “Starship Malaysia,” the love between Salah’s sister and Scott is beautifully portrayed. Why do you think the love angle was important to your novel, and how do you see present-day love bonds?
It’s interesting that you say that. It was platonic and maybe a fantasy, on Scott’s part, but why was it important? Love plays a very important role in our lives. In Starship, there is a bond of loyalty that Scott has for Nor, with his best friend, Saleh, Nor’s brother, and to the volleyball team that has made him feel welcome and helps him adjust to a new life in Malaysia. Scott is also very loyal to his friend Waz, back in California, as he uses him as a cipher to tell his story. These are all different forms of love though aren’t explicitly stated as such.
10. You love to describe yourself as a traveller, not just across places but among the different spheres of life. Would you like to share what the spirit is behind what motivates you to be flying all the time ?
We are all travellers through life. I happen to have taken up wanderlust and worked and lived in many different countries. Once my wife and I started working abroad, we continued looking for more adventures and found that we couldn’t and didn’t want to return to our respective cultures. My wife was from California, and I’m from the UK. We met in Algeria. Even though we lived in both our countries for a while, we were always itching to go abroad again. What is the spirit that motivates me? Ha. The human spirit of moving on. Look at how early man spread rapidly across the globe. The time periods when that happened are being debated, but early man was always moving on, perhaps following coastlines but always with the desire to see what lies around the next corner.
11. You were involved in the King Faisal Air Academy in Saudi Arabia as a teacher and manager. What was your experience living in Saudi Arabia?
It was an excellent experience. Yes there are many contradictions between our cultural expectations and those in Saudi, but it is a country that is evolving and doesn’t necessarily have to adopt every western concept. We always felt safe, and people were extremely helpful and generous in their hospitality. I taught Saudi cadets in an all-male environment with other Saudi and ex-pat instructors. As a team, we were dedicated to ensuring that our students got the best teaching experience they could. It wasn’t always easy, but the respect that the youth have for their elders was always apparent. My wife taught in all-female training establishments and had very positive experiences. Not that it wasn’t hard, and there are many aspects that we disagreed with, but it was not our place to impose our own values on a country and culture. We also travelled extensively around the country and were able to camp anywhere off-road, always feeling safe and secure.
12. You have taught not just in various geographical but also culturally different locations. What are the fascinating differences and similarities among these cultures that you have encountered?
Most of the countries we’ve worked in have been Islamic, but of course, North African culture is different from South East Asia and the Middle East. However, Islam, prayer, and mosques are unifying factors. One similarity between Algeria and Saudi was the desert. We developed a love for the wide open spaces of the Sahara and the Rub Al Kahli, the Empty Quarter, and the other deserts of Saudi. After having experienced a desert night looking up at the stars, or a day of journeying across oceans of sand without seeing another human being, we became enthralled. The explorer within that took over. In places the desert sands conceals tracks, and at times it was like we were the first people to travel a route. That was thrilling. Algeria had the cultural mix of having been a French colony, and so there were familiar vestiges of France. At that time, French was widely spoken as a second language and taught in some streams in schools. My first book, Drawn into Danger was set in Algeria, and even though it is a fictional story, the background and places are all true. My present vampire book is set in Canada, so I’m trying to bring my experience of living here into the story.
13. Most of you have enrolled with the teaching staff and instructors among the army personnel and air force cadets. How do you find that disciplined environment? Did you feel alienated or isolated sometimes?
For the first almost five months, I was on single status, but I lived on a compound with other single men, so there were always people to talk with. I’m not a military man myself, so I didn’t have that background, but most military matters were handled by the Air Force, leaving the teaching side to us. At times there were clashes, as the cadets were learning discipline and found it a much tougher life than they’d been used to at home. I think with all teaching, you have to be in tune with your students and understand the constraints they have on their lives. We were teaching English using English as a medium of instruction, and although they had some background in the language, many were not particularly fluent, at first. So, you can see that it was a very demanding situation for them. We also lived in an ex-pat compound, which after the Gulf War was an enclave of ex-pat employees: British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, South African, German etc. It was a fascinating time, and many if not most of the non-English language instructors were ex-military, but it didn’t feel like a military environment outside the Academy. In the Military Academy, the Saudi officers were friendly and helpful. On the weekends, some of the cadets invited their teachers for dinner, which was very pleasant and helped us get to know them as individuals outside the classroom.
14. Do you have other writers in the family?
No, my two brothers are very different from me.
15. Being a teacher, life gives you unconscious learning too. What are your unconscious learnings that you may have encountered in the classroom while interacting with your students?
That’s a very difficult question. I hope that I have learned humility and the acceptance that if I do or say something wrong, I can admit it. I think it’s very important to be able to say you made a mistake, and there were times when I discussed things like this with my classes, and we all came out feeling better about how we would go on. The cadets were eighteen years old and had a fine sense of justice and right and wrong. They knew that no one was perfect and were OK if you admitted that. Did I develop an unconscious understanding that we are all human with the same needs and wishes, and that is what makes our differences less important? I hope so.
16. You have mentioned that you always maintained your diaries, which are full of your experience and memories. Throughout your life, you have built a relationship with your diary. It’s very difficult to define this relationship. Would you like to define this relationship?
A relationship with my diaries. That’s a very personal question. But I know what you mean. It can be like a confessional where you reveal yourself to that inner you, but writing it down gives you another perspective. It’s different from trying to recall memories because our brains are very resourceful in revising memories and interpreting them in different ways. A diary is a written record of the event and doesn’t change. It doesn’t lie. Though at times, the “you” of the present looks back at the “you” of the past and wonders how you thought then. So it’s a kind of love-hate relationship. A couple of years ago, I wrote a poem about talking to my diary with my diary answering back. The kind of conversation I’m sure many, if not all of us, have at times.
Of course, that never happened.
you know when I lie.
Maybe, I should say
It rarely happened.
To be truthful.
You know that elsewhere
On these pages
There is an alternative reality.
17. We have observed that pets are somewhere showing us embedded realities of life that we take for granted. Your dog Rosie may have helped you in many ways to compose and understand things. Would you like to share a few?
Unconditional love given and received. We had two dogs from the same litter, Rosie and Joey, and that was all I had left after my wife passed. The dogs filled that gap and kept me going. Joey, unfortunately, had to be put to sleep, so both Rosie and I have to rely on each other. Dogs can dominate your life, and like children, have to be looked after. That makes you into a caregiver, and the sense of ease they give you helps you deal not only with your own life but with others as well. You can’t scold a dog. When I tell Rosie to eat, and she doesn’t want to, she puts her ears down and slinks around but still won’t eat. It’s no use getting angry, you have to coax them and give them love which they return, but they can still be stubborn. They never grow old and have this perpetual sense of fun and start each day with no worries just the desire to live it.
18. Your first novel, ” Drawn into Danger,” which explores the people , places, and incredible experiences of Algeria, is set there. Would you like to describe something about your novel?
It’s set in a country where I worked. I intended to write a memoir but realized that was boring and restrictive as you have to relate it only to the truth and write about yourself. Making it fictional freed me and allowed me to explore many more themes. It started to write itself and took a few turns that I hadn’t planned. There is a plot against the government, and Dave, the narrator, is drawn into helping the secret police foil a planned revolt. Using the known political situation in the early 1980s, it is quite possible that such an operation could have been carried out. However, as Dave and his friends discover, helping the police, although they are well paid for it, comes with consequences. It was a lot of fun to write, and I’m very pleased with the outcome.
19. Max Weber has emphasized that self-experience and subjectivity give a real view of reality, similarly to how you used your experience to create novels. How do you think your subjective experience helps you understand the world around you?
So, until you experience it, you don’t really understand it. That is true to an extent, but that also depends on how we use imagination and empathy. By reading about situations such as poverty you don’t have to experience it to feel a degree of understanding for people in those situations. It might be that you don’t fully understand it. It becomes the not knowing unless you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, kind of debate. I can’t claim to fully understand an Algerian’s or for that matter anyone’s concept of the world. Still, we’re all human and have similar loves and desires and fears, so you can project thoughts and actions into another person without it being too false, but it still remains your personal version. I’m not sure what a real view of reality is. Surely everyone’s is based on their own experiences, and that forms an aspect of their interpretation of life. However, I’m not forgetting the nature side of this, as we’re all born with aspects of our character.
How does my subjective experience help me understand the world around me? I hope it helps me recognize the types of people I interact with. We may have a different way of looking at the world, but to be able to live in it and get up in the morning and boil a kettle, we have to accept some universals to function adequately.
20. Your upcoming third book is about the vampire’s character. There are lots of fascinating stories and myths with regard to them. Why do you choose vampires to be explored?
While in hospital, I reread Bram Stoker’s Dracula story, and it was inspiring. There is a lot of suppressed sexuality in the book. Is Count Dracula gay? Bram Stoker was great friends with Oscar Wilde, and he wrote his book as the trials of Oscar and his sentencing for being gay were going on. At that time, being gay was a crime, and all this repressed sexual desire is hidden, but vampires are also attracted to women, so they must be bisexual. I also read Queer Ducks and Other Animals: The Natural World of Animal Sexuality which reveals the incredible variety of gender fluidity in different species. The book shows how sexual behaviour in animals is diverse, and we, as humans and animals ourselves, are just as diverse, and I wanted to explore that with vampires. My vampires are bisexual in that they’ll seduce and suck anyone’s blood. My main character is transitioning to becoming female, and that adds a second layer of what it means to become someone else. However, it is not linked to becoming a vampire, as there is a different internal fight between her humanity and her vampiric impulses. Writing about vampires allows for an exploration of what it means to be human and how to cope with impulses that you can’t control because instinct takes over. It’s also fun to write a fantasy novel. In a way, we like to be frightened.
21. Discovering yourself is a growing phenomenon these days, but young people are lost in the spectacles of false realities. How do you think your novels help one discover his true essence?
I’m not sure I can claim that. I can only hope that by giving different perspectives on life and by setting my novels in different times and places, it will help people understand and appreciate different cultures. I think we can all get tied up in our own realities and not have time to develop an understanding of others. A novel can take you places and give you experiences that give fresh perspectives on life.
22. Your wife has travelled all over the world with you, and while she has accompanied you, there must have been contributions from her towards your work. Would you like to share how she helped you throughout your novel-creation journey?
My wife doesn’t appear exactly, but there are elements of her in both books. She was a great storyteller, and I’ve used many of her earlier stories. In Starship, Scott dreams of the Paris riots. I used that to give me some background. I retold aspects of her previous marriage in Algeria and the villa she lived in. Though I created the plot, her spirit lives on in the book. While she was alive, I never had time to devote myself to writing full-time., but I’m sure she would have supported my efforts.
23. Would you like to share something about your upcoming work, and what is the driving force behind the coming work?
The Vampire Project. Vampires in BC. That’s the working title. I’d hit a roadblock after finishing Starship Malaysia. Writer’s block. I was still writing poetry but had no idea what to write about. Then I ended up in hospital for a few weeks, and the nurses came around twice a day to take my blood, and that sparked the question, what do they do with all that blood? And the idea of vampires stalking the corridors of hospitals and sucking them of blood got me writing, and the first draft was completed in a matter of weeks, but then of course, it needed and still needs extensive editing, but as I said, the story just grew with the introduction of new characters, and I decided as a human was the transition to a vampire maybe I could have a male youth transition to a female. So, you’ve got two kinds of change going on. As we go through the book, the trans person has to decide if she wants this life of a vampire and looks at her life before the change. Of course, I’ve done a lot of reading, especially of YA books that talk about transitioning and the effect on families and on the individuals themselves. I also wanted it to be a thriller horror that anyone can read and enjoy and gain some insight into how it feels to be in an alien body. The protagonist tells the story through her eyes, and she is also a superhero. One driving force is the idea of getting marginalized people into stories so that we see them as individuals and not labels.
24. What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book? What are common traps for new authors?
The belief that you’ll make a lot of money. That you don’t need to edit or proofread. That you don’t need to read other authors. That’s it’s easy.
But for positives. Go with the flow. in my case. Let the characters take over. Even those who do a lot of planning find that the book goes off in directions they hadn’t imagined. There are many ways you can write and tell your story, but the best is to just sit down and start writing. Set an achievable goal of xxx number of words per day or, more realistically, per week, cos you can’t, or at least I can’t, always produce a set number of words per day. Life intrudes.
25. What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your book(s)?
Actually, that I could do it. I think the hardest part of writing is believing in yourself and actually doing the marathon and getting to the finish line. After the first book, I think you can believe more in yourself. It was also therapeutic as I was able to exorcise various aspects of my life that affected me over these last three years.