Lies That Blind, Guest Post by E.S. Alexander

What would you risk to avoid obscurity?

Malaya, 1788

Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd jeopardises his future in ways he never could have imagined. He risks his wealthy father’s wrath to ride the coat-tails of Captain Francis Light, an adventurer governing the East India Company’s new trading settlement on Penang. Once arrived on the island, Jim—as Light’s assistant—hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But the naïve young man soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: Pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him andLight perilously close to infamy: a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman. He must stay and confront his own misguided ambitions as well as help save the legacy of a man he has come to despise.

Inspired by true events, Lies That Blind is a story featuring historical character Francis Light (1740-1794) who, in an effort to defy his mortality, was seemingly willing to put the lives and livelihoods of a thousand souls on Penang at risk.

Author’s Inspiration: The Darker Side of Light

Little did I know when I left the United States to carve out a new life for myself in Malaysia, that this would result in another major change: From author and co-author of over twenty non-fiction books, to debuting as a novelist!

I’d never been to south-east Asia before deciding to up-sticks, sell everything I owned in Austin, Texas, and head to the other side of the world to—or so I thought—’retire’ in 2017. Earlier in the year, quite by chance, I’d met the Malaysia representative of International Living who persuaded me that the island of Penang would be the perfect place to settle. I took him at his word and, six months later, was gazing out over the Straits of Malacca at the beaches, high-rise condos, and verdant hills of this “Pearl of the Orient.” My plan was simply to kick back, read all those books I’d never manage to find time to read, and soak up the multi-cultural vibe of Penang.

Daytime view from my balcony

But as all writers know, we never really retire; the urge to create is too powerful. After a successful writing career spanning more than 30 years, I’d always wanted to write a novel. The problem was, with no plot or set of characters in mind, I didn’t know what to write about.

While out for coffee one morning, my friend Keith—a fellow author and publisher—told me how Penang had become a trading settlement owned by the East India Company, having originally belonged to the Sultan of Queda (now the state of Kedah). As a Brit, I was quite aware of how rapacious the EIC had been in India and wondered if any of that had changed when they possessed this little island in 1786. The man responsible for that acquisition was Captain Francis Light, and as Keith embellished his story the germ of an idea took root. Maybe Light could be the inspiration for the novel I’d always meant to write? For the next three years I became absorbed with research, writing up a storm, and finally having my manuscript picked up by Penguin Random House SEA.

The gentleman who inspired me to write Lies That Blindhad been born in Dallinghoo, a small town in Suffolk, England, in 1740. The illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner and a servant girl, Francis Light was always very ambitious. Having been denied the more prestigious name of his father, he intended to put the name Light on the map—literally.

After serving a short period in His Majesty’s Navy, Light decamped to India where he took on the role of a “country trader.” This was the term given to men who would captain ships, owned either by themselves or one of the trading houses that had sprung up in the cities of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. They would load their vessels with opium, dyed cloth, and condemned muskets, and trade them throughout the Malay archipelago for rice, tin, and aromatic woods, among other things. But being just a small fish among many was never enough for Francis Light, despite the money he accrued from his trades.  For fifteen years he had tried to persuade his various paymasters to establish a trading settlement in the region, which he would then govern. But either they—or the local rulers—had always stood in his way.

Light’s hope for fame and fortune became rekindled when he discovered that the East India Company was looking for a place to harbour their ships traveling from India to Macau, including carrying out essential repairs to broken masts. To cut a long story short (which is where my novel comes in), Light had become friendly with the Sultan of Queda and suggested that he might lease the island of Penang to the East India Company for this purpose. Penang at that time was a barely inhabited jungle, bounded by mangrove forests and with dense vegetation growing almost to the edge of the sea. What did the sultan have to lose? Not least, he would receive a generous sum each year for the lease.

But the Sultan of Queda wanted more than money for such an exchange. And that is when Francis Light drew upon the traits that had produced mixed blessings for him in the past: exaggeration and duplicity. 

The history of this period fascinated me—not least because it involved the first example I’d come across of a soulless corporation only concerned with profits that, through questionable leadership and bad management, needed a huge government bailout because it was considered ‘too big to fail’. But I think we buy novels, especially historical ones, as much for compelling characters as facts about the past. Although Francis Light didn’t end up as the protagonist of my novel, he was exactly the kind of complex individual most of us can relate to. I certainly could understand his driving need to make his mark on the world and leave a legacy—don’t we all strive for that in various ways? And while I like to think I would have handled things differently, I could empathise with the desperation—especially for someone coming close to the end of his life—that drives a person to lie and deceive in order to achieve a long-held goal. Those little compromises that we convince ourselves occur only because there is so much at stake. That all too human investment in the belief that ‘the ends justify the means’.  

So, while I drew largely from the historical facts surrounding Francis Light, and he is an important character and the inspiration behind Lies that Blind, I re-imagined a young journalist coming to work for him. Jim Lloyd, naïve and equally ambitious, ‘gilds the lily’ in order to convince Light to take him on as his assistant and chronicler. Jim hopes that Light’s success story will bring them both fame and fortune. Which, of course, is not what happens and is why the tag-line for my novel is: What would YOU risk to avoid obscurity?

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Meet E.S. Alexander

E.S. Alexander was born in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1954, although her family moved to England a few years later. Her earliest memories include producing a newspaper with the John Bull printing set she was given one Christmas. She wrote and directed her first play, Osiris, at age 16, performed to an audience of parents, teachers, and pupils by the Lower Fifth Drama Society at her school in Bolton, Lancashire. Early on in her writing career, Liz wrote several short stories featuring ‘The Dover Street Sleuth’, Dixon Hawke for a D.C. Thomson newspaper in Scotland. Several of her (undoubtedly cringe-worthy) teenage poems were published in An Anthology of Verse.

Liz combined several decades as a freelance journalist writing for UK magazines and newspapers ranging from British Airway’s Business Life and the Daily Mail, to Marie Claire and Supply Chain Management magazine, with a brief stint as a presenter/reporter for various radio stations and television channels, including the BBC. In 2001 she moved to the United States where she earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.

She has written and co-authored 17 internationally published, award-winning non-fiction books that have been translated into more than 20 languages.

In 2017, Liz relocated to Malaysia. She lives in Tanjung Bungah, Pulau Pinang where she was inspired to embark on one of the few forms of writing left for her to tackle: the novel.

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