Author Neill McKee hails from Canada but lived and worked around the world for 45 years as a teacher, filmmaker, multi-media producer, writer, and program manager. After settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2015, he dedicated himself to chronicling his experiences in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and (more recently) Russia. Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah is his first book in the memoir genre. You’ll find Neill on Facebook and Twitter, and on his website NeillMckeeAuthor.com.
What is your elevator pitch for Finding Myself in Borneo?
Finding Myself in Borneo is an honest and buoyant chronicle of my adventures during 1968-70 while teaching secondary school as a Canadian volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). It’s a journey through vibrant Asian cultures in an exotic land: adjusting to life in a small town, learning local customs, how to teach and how to speak Malay language. My book documents many adventures, for example: climbing the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, having a love affair, navigating Borneo’s backwaters to make my first documentary films, and hilarious motorcycle journeys with my American Peace Corps buddy. It also covers my second two-year Sabah sojourn and other return trips which offer readers the opportunity to match the early anecdotes to what in fact happened to the land and people who touched my life as a young man.
Why did you want to share this part of your life with the world?
It was a dramatic change from what I had known and, therefore, a story worth telling. Kind of a “sea change” or “hero’s journey” for me worth imparting to others, I believe. Borneo couldn’t be more different from Canada. I grew up in a small Ontario town with a good deal of chemical pollution. The chemical factory there manufactured DDT and the herbicide 2,4-D, as well as Agent Orange for America’s Vietnam war in the 1960s. I had always dreamed of escaping to a cleaner, greener world full of sunshine and less stinks. When I was posted to Sabah through CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas), I discovered Borneo was the third largest island in the world—a land with a mysterious sounding name and reputation, mainly due to what western visitors had written about it (Joseph Conrad being one of the first). Borneo was no disappointment. I loved it despite the many challenges and conflicts I faced. But that was really part of the fun.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I didn’t keep a diary, as advised by CUSO (an NGO slightly older than the American Peace Corps), but I did write detailed letters home and to friends. I made carbon copies of some of these, and my mother kept many for me knowing I would want them someday. I had no plans to write a memoir—too busy with my career. But I’m blessed with a good memory, especially of those formative years and experiences. I also had old photos which triggered memories.
Tell us how the book came together.
I had written the draft of what became Chapter 6 in the 1990s. People who read it, loved it, and encouraged me to write more. It wasn’t until I fully retired that I had time to study a new genre (outside of technical communication books and articles) and try my hand at it. In 2014, I attended a creative nonfiction evening course at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland where I started drafting pieces of my book and got feedback. After moving to Albuquerque in 2015, I enrolled in a graduate-level workshop in creative nonfiction at the University of New Mexico. That’s when I began to write, revise, get feedback, and revise again. I also attended presentations and workshops at SouthWest Writers, which continually gave me new ideas. After about 25 revisions (and a year into the process), I thought I had a pretty good manuscript. It was only then that I hired a good literary editor for in-depth feedback. Boy, was I wrong about being finished! It took me over a year, and at least 25 more revisions, to finally complete the manuscript for publication in mid-2018. I had submitted earlier drafts to about 10 publishers and received lots of rejection letters. After two “strange” offers from commercial publishers (they wanted to have full control but put up little or no money for publicity), I decided to self-publish through IngramSpark. I hired a good book designer and marketer and took control of the process myself.
Is there a scene in your book you’d love to see play out in a movie?
Yes, probably in Chapter 4 when my Peace Corps buddies and I take LSD and go to see the movie Camelot with Chinese subtitles. The whole experience opened up my senses, broke down barriers in my perception, and made me see the land I was living in as a much richer and more magical place. Since we were reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings at the time, we noticed many of the features of North Borneo were similar to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We created the North Borneo Frodo Society and gathered members from all around the world, including Prof. Tolkien himself—one of only two such societies he patronized according to letters we received. The myths of Borneo and Middle Earth become humorously paralleled in Finding Myself in Borneo. Maybe good for an animated film!
What makes Finding Myself in Borneo unique in the memoir market?
There are other memoirs and travel books on Borneo but most of them are based on “Wild Men of Borneo” or adventure travel themes. Many of these reinforce stereotypes of the land and its people. P.T. Barnum was the first to come up with the wild men theme in the 1800s through his freak show promotion of a couple of little people from a Ohio farm. My book is based on entertaining stories of what it was like to live in coastal Borneo in a multi-cultural society with ancient traditions. I cover some history, politics, and religion of the place, but in a lighter, entertaining way to help explain the overall story arc. My book is different in that it covers my 40-year relationship with the land and its people, not just the impressions of a single journey or sojourn.
What was your favorite part of putting the project together?
I enjoy writing the most and sharing my work with reviewers—trying to understand how my words are perceived and how I can improve. Writing this memoir has also connected me with a lot of people who have lived in Borneo as volunteers or have traveled there, or who want to go there. It has also re-connected me with many old friends and colleagues from around the world.
What is the best compliment you’ve received as an author?
A number of readers and reviewers have said that my writing is refreshingly honest.
While you were writing Finding Myself in Borneo, were you ever afraid you were sharing too much of yourself? If so, how did you move past this feeling and continue writing?
At first I did not tell the whole truth—such as losing my virginity and the other sexual experiences and attractions. I wondered if readers would be turned off. I also wrote guardedly about people about whom I had something negative to say. But I was persuaded to just change names and other details of these characters and write from my heart. This helped me construct a story about how I found out who I really am and what I should do with my life.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I spend six to seven hours each day writing, researching, revising, and communicating or promoting. It’s a huge amount of work if you want to do it well. I’m writing two other memoirs at present. One is on my childhood and youth, with a theme of “going elsewhere”—escaping the polluted town I grew up in. At the end of the book I leave for Borneo, so it’s a prequel of sorts. The other project is a travel memoir on searching for stories of my ancestors in Canada and the US. It’s an entertaining account of finding (through my maternal grandmother from Wisconsin) that I have ancestors who fought in just about every American war, beginning with the bloody wars with Native Americans in New England in the 1600s. I travel to the places where they lived and battlegrounds where they fought. I found out my ninth great-grandfather was a passenger on the Mayflower. I previously thought of myself as just a peace-loving Scots-Irish Canadian.
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.