Winter Dreams is my first published novel. When someone asks me what it is about, I have to think a minute, and then another minute, just to try to sum up the things that make the novel. And the best I can tell you is it is about coming to terms with adulthood. The story in the novel spans about six years, between 1998 and 2003—and it talks about relationships, mostly. I believe that a person’s life is colored by relationships more than goals or prized possessions. We can be anywhere in the world and dealing with a number of things to do with money and technology or places, but what these things ultimately come down to are relationships—between man and each other, man and his universe, man and his dreams, man and his home, et cetera. There are “five books” in Winter Dreams, where each represents a stage in the protagonist’s life; and I chose this particular approach because I feel, as it is in my own life, the events that make up my dreams are just as important as those that break my hopes. And when you put these things together, you end up with something that closely resembles life, where everything has its moments and nothing really lasts forever. Because life is about moving on—and I suppose that’s what Winter Dreams is about, as well.
I had been wanting to write this novel since 2004, when I was still living in Boston. I remember sitting in my friend’s car on our way to Providence, Rhode Island, and looking at the road ahead which seemed—at the time—endless and full of possibilities, and saying to her how I thought I was ready to start “the book”. It felt genuine at the time and my desire to complete what I thought would be the “ultimate work” was quite strong—so I knew I was on the right track and thus I began to tell some people about it. I even came up with a title for it, My America, My Dementia. But what I didn’t realize was that it would take me ten thousand miles away from America to be able to write about it and about fifty-plus drafts of failed first chapters in the next seven years before I came to know the characters that eventually breathe life into Winter Dreams.
The first fifty-plus drafts involved a mix of protagonists who, for obvious reasons, never quite stuck with me or the story. I didn’t know what they want or who they are or where they are going. Then, one night, I sat down in front of my computer and thought of various names I thought might work for the story. By this time, I was no longer sure I wanted to call the work My America, My Dementia. Plus, I thought any story would do so long as it got me to write something good. I had given up on “the book” and I certainly didn’t think I was capable of creating the “ultimate work”. So I set out to write a simple story and I thought it would be nice to start with one name. That was when it occurred to me: Nicky F. Rompa. He is everything I am; and yet he is nothing like me. We’re alike in some ways and different in other ways. We would probably be good friends if he weren’t fictional, but I doubt we’d be the kind of friends who could call each other up at 3 am and not feel slightly weirded out by it. He is young and complicated and doesn’t know what he wants until he knows it—and he probably represents most people in their early 20s.
The novel starts out in Jakarta and, as it progresses, moves to Boston. Like Nicky, I arrived in Boston in 2000 in the middle of a snowy spring. I think I fell in love with the city as soon as I got out of the airport. I don’t know every inch of the city the way some people do, but some parts of the city are so familiar to me that I feel they are imprinted onto my identity. Some would say that the best part about being in a new place is getting to know new people; and I agree. But I would also argue that the best part about being in a new place is getting to know a new place. The six years I spent in Boston are made beautiful by the people, yes; nevertheless, there were inexplicable moments in my life there which I could only share with the air, the buildings, the water, and the ground beneath my feet. To say that a place is meaningless without the population would render the body meaningless without the soul; and to a certain extent it is true, but as love goes we often identify with a person by the hand that we hold, the lips that we kiss and the smell of their body. Someone said to me once that there are only three people in her life whose scents she knows by heart—and that’s probably the most profound love confession I have ever heard. Thus, in a way, these things, the physical things of our universe, of our existence, whether or not they are to last beyond decay, are the things we most cherish. And so I wanted to have a setting that serves as a character in the story. And I wanted it to sound as though I were writing it a love letter. I wanted each corner of the city to be as familiar to me as it would be to the readers. I hope I have done it justice.
Despite the difficult start over a period of seven years, once I got to know Nicky in the first chapter of the story—I could not stop. The writing took about three months. Seven days a week. Twelve to fourteen hours a day. This is not to say I worked hard, all I did was “show up” and “listen”—this is to say I could not wait to get it done. I was curious how it would end. I was a spectator more than a creator. It was as though the protagonist was telling me his story and my job was to document it. So I did. Some of the relationships portrayed in this book are very similar to the ones in my own life, but in many ways they are also different from my own experiences. During the writing, I felt as though I was transported into a different universe. I could not be involved in the daily comings and goings of the real world as I had to focus on the world I had created for Nicky. And for three months, I was stuck in a dream I wasn’t sure I wanted to escape. And if my body didn’t need sleep, I would have been more than happy to give that up too. Needless to say, those were the most grueling three months I had ever experienced as a writer. I lived and breathed through a fictional character; and as he embraced life and all of its complexities, I was drawn to do the same. When I wrote the final scene in the final chapter, I didn’t realize I had come to the part where I had to say goodbye to Nicky and the city I had carefully constructed from memory. Naturally, I burst into tears. As the final words were set on to the page, I broke down both from exhaustion and loss. It was the best thing I had written in all of my life at this point. I don’t know if it is possible for a writer to grow along with his or her own writing—but in writing Winter Dreams I felt I had grown in ways that only an experience of this magnitude could compel. I am forever thankful for it.
Over the course of my writing career, if I could be so bold to call it that, I have been influenced by mostly writers of short stories, such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Andre Dubus and Michael Byers. Each writer influences me in different ways, but they all teach me the same thing—and that is to write as honestly as possible. In writing Winter Dreams, I try to be honest every step of the way. And what that means is I refrain from manipulating the readers. I wanted each experience to be something real and every emotion as unprocessed as possible. This is probably the first time I ever try to write a story where the readers have as big a role in the process of completing the journey as I do in creating it. I meet the readers halfway because I trust them to do so. I believe most of my readers are more sophisticated than I am—so I decided not to cheat them with cheap tricks or easy paradigm. Life is complicated, and why can’t it be as complicated in a story? This, of course, I learned from Ernest Hemingway. His writing taught me to trust my characters, to trust my readers and to trust the story I wanted to tell. And that was what I did.
As I had mentioned before, the earliest title for the book was My America, My Dementia. When I finished the book, I wanted to call it Separuh Ilusi, or Part Illusion. But the editor and I decided that neither of these titles had enough weight to represent the story. So we searched for other ideas, one of them being Winter Dreams. Some people liked it, some didn’t. Nevertheless, I think it fits with the whole theme of the book. Because sometimes being in our early 20s is a lot like getting stuck in a snowstorm. People fantasize about winter as much as they do about their youth—and the thing about winter is it never really goes away, and rather than ‘arriving’ it would just blast you with snow and below zero temperatures. Again, a lot like being in our early 20s.
I wish the cover had come with a specific title, because it just takes my breath away. Staven Andersen, a brilliant illustrator who, despite the name, is actually an Indonesian, has done an amazing work that endears him to me for life. In the process of creating the cover for Winter Dreams we had gone through perhaps over a dozen drafts and themes and ultimately went for the one with the bird on top of the building in the middle of an afternoon in winter because of the feel and philosophy behind it. Working with Staven has always been a major high for me because he thinks like a sentient being that constantly absorbs life and turns it into visual poetry almost by magic. We worked on this cover for four months, going back and forth and back again—until we both felt good about it. And the editor liked it. And that was that.
My editor at Gramedia Pustaka Utama is Mirna Yulistianti. Like all writers, I too am indebted to my editor—whose support and friendship I value most immensely. Another editor at Gramedia Pustaka Utama to whom I am also indebted is Hetih Rusli. She was the first person I came to early in 2011 when I was about to embark on what I thought would be another doomed attempt at writing the first chapter of “the book”. She was the one who told me to focus on the character. In a way, she helped me discover Nicky. And for that—no amount of thanks will ever be enough.
The editor and I agreed to push the publication date of Winter Dreams, which had previously been set for September 2011, to November 24 2011 because we wanted the book to be “ripe” enough when it hits the printer. We are thankful for the time we had taken because the two months between September and November were spent largely on revising some scenes and perfecting the cover. And it is set on Thanksgiving Day for reasons you will find in the book.
You have an important role in the story. It is as much mine as it is yours. I hope you like it. Thank you for reading it.
Maggie Tiojakin – November, 2011.