Cody W. Benjamin spent two years in India as a Peace Corps volunteer, two years in Sudan (East Africa) with a non-governmental organization, and five more years with the Peace Corps in East and West Malaysia where he completed his tour as the program’s country director. Of the time he spent overseas, it was his experience in Malaysia that drew him to the writer’s path. The result is his debut novel, Shaitan, released by Ink Smith Publishing in December 2018. You’ll find Cody on his website at CodyWBenjamin.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
What is your elevator pitch for Shaitan?
When Jim Fairchild arrives in Borneo to take over the Peace Corps program in East Malaysia, he becomes involved in a web of murder, sex, international intrigue and Malay black magic.
What sparked the story idea for the book?
I was a staff member for Peace Corps/Malaysia from 1979-83. The Peace Corps was in Malaysia for over twenty years, and I closed the program as the last country director on December 15, 1983. My wife is Malaysian-Chinese, our daughter was born in Kuala Lumpur, and we return to Malaysia on a regular basis to visit her family. I had such a great time in Malaysia, I felt compelled to write about that experience.
Share a little about your main characters.
On one level, Shaitan is a love story, but my thriller includes many aspects: espionage, the protection of the environment, gay rights, two strong female characters, and Malay black magic or the supernatural. My two protagonists are young. They fall in love and face what appears to be insurmountable difficulties in their personal and professional life. Yet, in the end, love conquers all. Love stories are commonplace, but the exotic location, colorful characters, and my protagonists’ unique set of problems (which include the paranormal) make Shaitan a thriller with many twists and turns.
How did the book come together?
After Peace Corps/Malaysia, I returned to the United States. My wife and I made our home in Albuquerque, and my life as an expatriate came to an end. I soon realized how much I missed Malaysia. The desire to write about that part of my life became a compulsion. Like many novice writers, I looked around for a writing group. Eventually, with the help of SouthWest Writers, I found one that I liked, and we have been together for many years. The constructive criticism and encouragement provided by the members of my writing group has been instrumental in turning my manuscript into a finished product. With my manuscript finally done, I went to several literary conferences. I also kept my eye on the internet. If a literary agent expressed an interest in thrillers from aspiring writers, I submitted a cover letter, synopsis and writing sample. It took eighteen months, but I eventually signed a contract with Ink Smith—a print-on-demand publisher.
Describe one of Shaitan’s main settings. Why is it the perfect place for your story to play out?
My story begins with Jim Fairchild and his old friend Bob Clancy, both connected to the Peace Corps in East Malaysia, in a bungalow on a lonely stretch of beach on the island of Borneo. While a tropical storm pounds the bungalow with high winds, torrential rain, lightning and thunder, the two discuss a Peace Corp volunteer and his relationship with a local woman. The volunteer believes his lover is what Malay folklore calls a shaitan—a beautiful woman that men find irresistible or a tiger with supernatural powers. Jim’s investigation into the volunteer’s death and the woman’s disappearance leads him to CIA agents, Chinese spies, and a plot to train shaitans as super weapons against the West. I use the scene in Bob’s bungalow to set the stage for the rest of the story.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I included a number of themes in Shaitan to make my thriller a more compelling read. At times, keeping all the themes in the proper order, while still advancing the story, proved a challenge.
What was your favorite part of putting the project together?
What I enjoyed most was the actual writing of Shaitan. I had a great time in Malaysia, and my thriller was a way for me to relive that period in my life.
Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing? How do you feel about research?
Having spent two years in India as a Peace Corps volunteer and almost five years in Malaysia, writing a thriller about the Peace Corps in Malaysia didn’t require much research on my part. What I enjoy most about writing is the creative element.
What writing projects are you working on now?
The working title for my new book is Arbor Day on the Saigon River. As the title suggests, my thriller will have a connection to Vietnam. During my tour with Peace Corps/Malaysia, many Vietnamese left the country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Thousands fled by boat to neighboring countries. When large numbers of Vietnamese boat people arrived on the shores of Malaysia, they were placed in temporary camps. Most of the Vietnamese who reached Malaysia were resettled in countries around the world. Neither Peace Corps/Malaysia nor I had any direct involvement with the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people, but I plan to write about this historical event in Arbor Day.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
My one and only visit to Vietnam was in 2016 when I spent five days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as a tourist. On February 19, 2020, while answering the questions for this interview, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had hoped to go back to Vietnam on that trip to Asia to do research for Arbor Day on the Saigon River, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) in China and neighboring countries disrupted my travel plans.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.