Neill McKee is the author of Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah (2019). The book chronicles his experience as a volunteer secondary teacher abroad, in a land very different from his native Canada. The experience became a foundation of an international career, spanning over 80 countries, as a filmmaker, media producer, and writer. In Part 1: Borneo, McKee shares some of the experiences included in the book.
You had a long career in international development work. What made you decide to write about it?
I have so many memories of my 45 years of work as a teacher, filmmaker, media producer and manager of people in international development work, that I decided to focus on writing about it when I retired from all that. I didn't want to do consulting and just network with former colleagues and friends. I needed a new, creative challenge to keep the brain cells firing. So I began writing about my years in Borneo.
How long did it take you to write Finding Myself in Borneo?
I wrote a draft of Chapter 6, Going Native, sometime in the 1990s. Then, I was working full time as a filmmaker, media producer, and writing articles on communication for development. I had little time to focus on my own formative years and experiences in Sabah, Malaysia (formerly British North Borneo). It was only in 2013, after a 45-year career that began in Borneo, that I really started making progress again on the book. I was also researching and writing on my family’s history. I didn’t settle in to the full-time writing of Finding Myself in Borneo until September 2015, just after we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I kept many stories in my head about my sojourns in Sabah, but had not organized my thoughts. I took a graduate seminar at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in creative non-fiction. This really set me in motion. From that experience, getting excellent critiques from the instructor and fellow students, I felt I had great stories to tell.
Did you seek out support from the writing community?
I got feedback on drafts from 18 people whom I acknowledge in the book, including writers, friends with international experiences, my family and my spouse. They all encouraged me to publish.
I never joined a separate critique group but now have creative writers who are providing this essential function. You cannot do it alone. You can write for yourself, sure, but potential readers may not care about it. What’s the purpose in writing if you don’t communicate? My whole career has been about communicating well in various media, usually involving a lot of research, including feedback from potential audiences.
The feedback required many revisions, at least 50 to 60 in all. I got advice on reorganization and where to add more or less detail. I also hired a literary editor who provided many ideas. She asked for more detail, more dialogue, and pushed me to reflect and reveal more about myself in the stories. I decided to set up a company and do my own publishing. I hired a designer and we decided to publish through IngramSpark.com, which allows me to print on-demand and reach potential readers around the world.
What advice would you give other writers considering self-publishing?
Be prepared for a lot of work, especially if you are getting into creative writing after another career. It is not easy to transition from more academic forms of writing but it is certainly a lot of fun. Listening to or reading other memoirs and creative nonfiction is a great help as well.
I now know how much work it is to write well for a broad audience, as well as the key elements of success – finding good technical help and input. It took a lot more time and resources to complete and publish this book than I had expected.
How did you celebrate the book’s publication?
I held an open house with great Malaysian cuisine and invited friends to come and enjoy—buy the book if they wanted to. It is too early to celebrate “success”—I have to sell books first. For that I hired publicity people to help and to teach me how to push the book on social media. I am still in the process of rolling this out. At the end of 2019, I may be able to celebrate some professional success as a creative nonfiction writer.
In retrospect, is there anything that you would have done differently in your process of writing this book?
It would have been useful to keep a better diary. I am lucky to have a good memory! I do have copies of letters I wrote to friends, and letters to my family which my mother returned to me before she died. I also kept my old photo albums and a file on the North Borneo Frodo Society. These records helped a lot. They triggered so many memories, and that was the key to completing a literary memoir. However, creative nonfiction is not simply regurgitation of chronological events. Perhaps it would have been harder to see the forest for the trees with more detailed diaries.
What will you be writing next?
I’ve completed the draft of a childhood and youth memoir that is about my life in the industrially polluted small town I grew up in. Each chapter is about a different mode of escape. It is written in a “tongue in cheek” way for entertainment and audience interest. The last two chapters are about my university years, my indecision about what I want to do with my life and then my departure for Borneo. I expect this book to come out later in 2019.
I’ve also completed about half of the draft of a travel memoir on searching for the stories of my ancestors in Canada and the United States. It’s will take the reader back through most of the wars and conflicts in North America, ending with those of the Pilgrims in New England. I plan for this one to come out in 2020 at the time of the 400th year anniversary celebration of landing of the Mayflower on New England’s coast.