First-time novelist Cinthia Koeksal tells Subhadra Devan about her debut novel, The Scarlet Omen
THE Valley Of The Hornbills. The title of the place already sounds magical, doesn’t it? More so in Cinthia Koeksal’s debut novel, The Scarlet Omen, in which she has put in tree spirits, water people, pygmy villagers and talking animals.
She writes in her first page: “The Blood Witch and the Emerald Sorcerer, a couple dreaded all over South East Asia, find a gateway on what we now know as Peninsular Malaysia and must use their innocent daughter, Suriya, to open the threshold. They manage to do so and summon a shaman’s son from the valley, afraid to cross the threshold without some kind of assurance of its safety, but as soon as the man, Mantar, steps into our world, he turns into a hideous beast and the portal closes behind him.”
Throw in a 300-year-old prophecy, a clan of vampires (or pontianak, as we call them), 16-year-old Anjeli struggling with teenage hormones, a nagging Indian mum and a boyfriend — and this story crackles.
Koeksal, 32, started writing in primary school. “It was a way for me to escape — I’ve always believed that there was more out there than being a plain student. My friends and I could always be counted on to misbehave and so got into trouble more often than not. This, combined with my sisters showering me with books, led me to create my own worlds in my head.
“Writing them down and seeing my ideas on paper were indescribable. I’ve always been called a ‘drama queen’, so it sort of fits.”
The Kuantan-born author, who now resides in Germany with her husband, says she misses the beach on the east coast.
“The sea energises and inspires me. I feel like I could write for hours after only a few minutes of listening to the waves breaking and watching the sun mar the perfect surface of the water,” she says.
Of her childhood, Koeksal recalls: “We had a lot of fun growing up. My parents did not believe in saying no to anything that couldn’t kill us. I was even allowed to have my own goat.
“My father built me a playhouse in the garden and I forced everyone to have tea and imaginary birthday parties for my soft toys. My mum baked real cookies and cakes for the occasions.
“We were often visited by monkeys, pythons and cobras from the neighbouring jungle, and I am still terrified of snakes — luckily nothing poisonous survives the harsh German winters so I’ve pretty much moved to the right continent.
“It might seem all very fairytale-like but there were times when the age difference between my siblings and I got in the way,” says the youngest in a family of five.
“They would go out with their friends and I had to stay at home with my parents. I was always dreaming of the day I’d be old enough to join them or be cool enough to make their super popular friends laugh.
“I sometimes think that this constant need to be better, to strive for something greater, has shaped me as an author in many ways. It probably also played a part in my crazy rebellious years as a teenager, when I decided that I had had enough of pleasing others and was going on my own journey.”
Asked why romance is the heart of this novel, the former convent school student says: “I started writing stories about my friends and I, in which we got the guys we wanted in the end and where we could live in our own little world of high school and no uniforms, where boys were not a subject best mentioned with our parents.”
Koeksal recalls the Christmas eve of 1990 when she was 10, as a milestone memory.
“I hadn’t been able to sleep the whole week, waiting for Santa to come down our non-existent chimney. Just before midnight, my sisters got me out of bed and into our living room. I almost tripped over my own feet when the tinkling sound of bells wafted through the slightly ajar window and a faint “Ho, ho, ho” followed closely behind. I turned to my grinning sisters, unable to believe that I had just heard Santa himself.
“My sisters pointed to a present under our tree. I rushed over, ripped open the wrapping on my present and stared at the two shiny Enid Blyton books in wonder.
“I realised then that stories were my life — even Santa thought so — and that if you wished hard enough for something, it would come true.
“When I was older, my sisters finally told me that our brother David had been standing outside that window, bells in hand. But instead of feeling cheated, I marvelled at how much my family had shaped my love for fantasy and how they strived to make my childhood as magical as possible.
“The image of those two books has followed me all my life, reminding me of that little girl’s dream and all the people who make life worth living... and writing about.”
Getting The Scarlet Omen published is Koeksal’s realisation of that dream and “the power of prayer and hard work”. “However, getting the offer from my publisher was a gob-smacking experience,” she says. “I could hardly breathe and wondered if anyone could get a heart attack at the age of 30. It felt like all those hours of slogging in front of my laptop till I couldn’t feel my eyeballs anymore... all those hundreds of emails that I sent out to publishers and agents had been worth it. My work was finally recognised.”
The Scarlet Omen is available on amazon.com as Print On Demand hard copy as well as e-book.