What’s a Cuckoo Colloquium?

Hello everyone! Welcome to my fifth post.

I know I said I’d try to write every week, and that was four months ago—but the key word there is try. Posts are time-consuming. I can either finish Book three of Assunta (as I’m doing now) or write a post—because they say it’s a good way to expand my author platform, and we all want better platforms.

Really, I have a choice: either write about the writing or do the actual writing. I choose the latter—I do the writing. So I don’t post every week, though I’d like to talk a little about the stories I do write.

Today we’re talking about my first novel, The Cuckoo Colloquium. I had originally called it The Cuckoo Camp Christmas Colloquium, but that seemed a mouthful of unnecessary C-sound alliteration.

In the first chapter, Windy, the fat American kid, comes across an ominous leaflet that says: Cuckoo Camp personal Growthing Adventure to the End.

This is apt foreshadowing—the end, as in death.

The forest colloquium hosts six teens, who get lost in the rain forest of Sarawak. In order to survive, they need to draw on what the camp refers to as the ‘strategies for survival’: interdependence, unselfishness, fellowship. Or they die.

The teenagers are either selfish or spoiled, or both. I love them; they are rich with possibilities. It’s a tough love colloquium—they are abused, to some extent. But they learn something. They come away from the experience better people.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the six teens, or from their elderly chaperone, Pete. The theme is about being lost. They would have to be lost, and being lost physically would have its metaphorical counterpart, that of being lost on the inside. In order for the lost group to find themselves physically, they have to first find themselves in a metaphorical sense. 

It began as adults getting lost, but I decided to lower the ages to that of teenagers in a tough-love kind of leadership colloquium, where their very survival depends on their ability to find themselves on the inside, to understand some fundamental rules of selflessness, of sharing, and of team work.

Is it a story for young adults? Well, with the exception of old Pete, it’s certainly about young adults. Is if for them? I’ll have to let readers decide.

The Cuckoo Colloquium started in 2010 while I was trekking in Sarawak. I have travelled a bit in both Malaysia and Kalimantan and really wanted to write a jungle book. I’m fascinated by the ominous immensity of the rain forest. The first time I camped in Kalimantan was in the early 90’s (before e-mail, before pocket phones.) I’ve hiked and camped in Kalimantan several times since, as well as Sarawak and Sabah. Trekking in Sumatra, Java, and Sulawesi also gave me a good feel for the rain forest.

I’ve been to the orangutan rehabilitation camps on Kalimantan and on Sumatra, as well as tarsius reserves on Sulawesi. In the story, we get close up and personal with the birdlife, of course, but also pythons, leeches, tarsius, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, sunbears, and a rather unique animal I call the donkel (donkey meets camel) There’s one reference to an orangutan, but he’s just passing by, frightened of the datuk

The datuk is the element of fantasy I bring to the story—that of the cuckoo shrike. The idea of bestowing the cuckoo shrike with magical properties came merely from the name cuckoo shrike. What better creature to create all the mayhem than a cuckoo! Its diminutive plainness was also a charm point—no flashy colors, no striking call, just an ordinary, mild-mannered blue-grey bird.

But what is this cuckoo shrike? What is the power that generates it? Is it organic or mechanical? I’d have to say it’s a little of both, not to mention it came from a twisted, evil world that man had created some seventy years ago (more on this in volumes 2 and 3 of the Cuckoo series). Does the story continue? Yes! Readers want to know what the cuckoo is. The story has so much fuel in it, the characters so much depth, that it’s necessary to go on.

The story has got a whole lot of jungle. From the first to last page—jungle. What is it about a jungle? — The danger, lots of it; the primordial mystery of the dark unknowing, the pressing in; it impairs our vision, which is a huge part of our ability to understand our surroundings. It leaves us vulnerable.

So many ways to never be seen again.

It’s also itchy, mucky, steamy, and as the old Tarzan movies showed us, there’s a good deal of quicksand, just waiting to suck us all down into the center of the earth. Most of us have some kind of fascination with the jungle. With the tunnel of foliage, with the impossible labyrinth that it is.

Borneo is one of the oldest rainforests in the world, and has 11,000 different species of flowering plants. That’s amazing! It gets up to 200 inches of rainfall annually.

I remember reading a Lonely Planet guidebook in the early 90’s, checking to see the best time of year to visit Borneo.

The book was terse in its advice: ‘There is no best time of year to visit Borneo’.

March to October is considered the dry season, but still the chance of rainfall remains permanently high.

Okay, so it gets some rain, it’s on the hot side, and it doesn’t boast anything like the largest animals in the world. But if you want reptiles, Borneo is your place. There are more than eighty different poisonous snakes on Borneo; more than Africa, more than the Amazon.

Did I succeed in capturing the essence, the life force of the rain forest?

Not sure. A constant nag goes as follows: Damned, I need one more trek into the rain forest to get that last feel, the finishing touches!

 But then I realize I’ve just finished a novel about a supposed forest in Africa, and the writer never once described that forest. In Brian Katling’s The Vorrh, he never once described the flora of the mystical place (I think there was perhaps one mention of the word oak). So the whole forest was more metaphorical than real.

If I was writing a story about a jungle, but with no reference to the actual plant or animal life in that jungle, I would have a very bad story. A cardboard-nothing story. The jungle is a character. It is the antagonist in the story. Of course, Mr. Katling omitted direct references to the forest intentionally because he was after something else entirely. But I can’t get away with that.

But just as quickly, a contradictory thought: Oh, my God, have I put in too much? Have I gone jungle mad? Is it malaria of the keyboard? Who’s going to want to read 40 chapters of jungle? Readers will look away from the book and see green walls!

I then began structuring bookends: to place the first act in the city, than move to the rain forest in a long second act, and then go back to the city for the conclusion. Yeah, that would be smart…

PHHHHT! I went all-jungle. 100% unadulterated rain forest. I want readers to itch, to feel the muck in their shoes, to sweat along with the clammy humidity, to sense the snake slithering under the bed.

I read a lot in order to supplement my own experiences. O’Hanlon’s adventures especially stand out—he is perhaps the keystone of any rain forest adventure. I’d also like to thank all the amazing people I’ve had the fortune of meeting on my journeys through the rain forest of Borneo—the fellow trekkers, the academicians, the roamers, the locals, and all the delightful tellers of jungle tales.

I also need to thank Beta readers Kurt Schreiber and Brad Perks for their valuable insights into character and story.

My editor in the early going, Cate Hogan, offered sound advice on how to shape the plot of The Cuckoo Colloquium. The final editing touches belong to Rick Taubold, who has offered me his irreplaceable expertise over the years on everything from character motivation to the proper usage of M-dashes and ellipses. In the world of writing, Rick wears many hats—he also designed this book’s original cover.

I would be remiss not to thank the authors whose real-life chronicles of jungle adventure and calamity stirred my own storybook pursuit.

For a bit of further reading on the rain forests of our planet I highly recommend (in alphabetical order) the following: Mark Eveleigh’s Fever Trees of Borneo, Yossi Ghinsberg’s Lost in the Jungle, Sam Lightner Jr.’s All elevations Unknown, Brian Row McNamee’s With Pythons and Headhunters in Borneo, Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, Don Wall’s Sandakan the Last March, and C. Buck Weimer’s The Darien Jungle Shakedown Cruise.

None of these works are fiction. Everything in the above books took place in the rain forest.

Will I go again?

I think I have to. Back to the energy-draining hikes. Back to the leeches. Back to the shadows. Back to the darkness. Back to the cute creatures that lay eggs in your skin.

Back to the jungle.

It’s gonna be a gas.


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