BY JOELLE FRASER
Ever wonder what it would be like to marry a man who grew up in a palace? Patch contributor and former People magazine features writer Alison Singh Gee did exactly that when she wed Ajay Singh, now Eagle Rock Patch's editor. Throughout the 1990s, Alison even lived behind the rusted wrought-iron gates of the Singh family's 100-room Indian palace.
She met Ajay when both were journalists at Time Inc.'s newsweekly Asiaweek in Hong Kong. Although Alison knew very little about her fiancé or his family background, the couple swiftly got engaged within three months of meeting at a company offsite event. A few months after the engagement, Alison discovered that not only did her betrothed grow up in a rambling old 19th-century grand manor on the outskirts of Delhi, but also that she and Ajay were now heir to the grandest wing of the house.
It may sound like a fairytale but, of course, there's always the fine print. Mokimpur—as the house is called—turned out to be not much of a fantasy palace. It was certainly no luxurious showcase of velvet daybeds, gilt-framed portraits of maharajas and other lofty ancestors, and sweeping palm-dotted landscapes. Instead, it was more of a sprawling moldy tear down, with hot-and-cold running mosquitoes, belligerent peacocks, and the odd royal ghost or two.
Alison writes about her adventures—or misadventures—in her astonishing new memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince and the Search for Home. In the book, which comes out Feb. 19, she also chronicles her challenging—shall we say—relationship with Ajay's idiosyncratic landed gentry family, her memories of a fraught childhood with a real estate obsessed Chinese American father, and her growing love affair with the broken-down palace and with India itself. Throughout the book, Alison invites readers to join her on a magic carpet ride through the bustling streets of Hong Kong and into the private salons of India's gentrified families. She also asks readers such essential life questions as what is wealth and where do we truly find home.
Selected on Feb. 4 by National Geographic Traveler as its Book of the Month and reviewed by the Orange County Register on Feb. 17, Where the Peacocks Sing is an expansive page-turner in which Alison masterfully braids her poignant search for home, love and family with the vibrant, startling details of an exotic landscape. I found the book to be an insightful and supremely entertaining debut.
Alison, who grew up in northeast Los Angeles, returned for good to her childhood neighborhood in 2000. She spent the decade that followed working as an entertainment correspondent for People magazine, and setting up a life with Ajay and their daughter Anais. Today, when she's not laboring over the writing of her books, she writes human interest, design and style stories for a number of glossy magazines and teaches creative nonfiction at UCLA Extension.
I sat down with Alison to talk about how Where the Peacocks Sing came into being, the process of writing a memoir, and why, even though she has traveled and lived all over the world, she feels the Arroyo Seco is still the one place on earth that inspires her the most.
1. When did you first realize you had to tell this story?
When he first moved to Hong Kong, Ajay and I lived in a tiny flat above a fish store and we had to penny pinch to make ends meet. This was a huge departure from the glamorous life I had been living. Everyone felt sorry that I was suddenly taking the tram everywhere and frying up tofu every night instead of supping at the Peninsula.
So when I finally found out that Ajay grew up in a turn-of-the-century palace and I began to tell my friends, their eyes would pop, and they would all lean in and say, "Oh my god, you have got to write this story." When I started really thinking about what the palace meant to me, I realized I had always dreamed of living in a giant manor, a way of making good on my father's own life-long chase after castles in the sky. That's when I knew I had to write this book.
2. You're a successful journalist; was there a natural evolution for you to move to memoir as a form?
Great question. I worked for Time Inc. for years, as a staff writer/editor at People and Asiaweek, and as a freelance writer for In Style and Sunset, all magazines not really known for personal voice. And yet, I was one of those journalists who was always straining to write in the first person. My natural interest was personal investigative journalism, taking readers on a personal journey into the heart of an issue. So I suppose whenever I was allowed to do so in my journalistic forums, I would craft stories in the "I" form. In a sense, I was writing a form of memoir. I think part of that had to do with growing up in a family in which my father was really patriarchal, stifling and a smothering presence. As a child, I never felt like I had a voice. So as soon as I realized somebody—anybody—was actually interested in my story, I felt drawn to telling it in a big way.
3. What was the biggest challenge in writing your memoir? The biggest surprise?
The biggest challenge was the idea of putting a truth—my truth—out there, and feeling like I was ruthlessly selling out the people in my life. I worried most about offending Ajay's mother—I don't think she realized how awful she was to me when we first met. The maharani really hazed the American girl. I had to tell that story. But I worried that after she read the book she would disown Ajay and we would never see each other again.
I had sold my book in proposal form, so I was able to leave my job at People magazine with a big severance package and a book advance. I had, in essence, cleared my days so that I could write my book. But during the following six months I basically wrote nothing. By the time my book deadline came around (a year after I sold it) I had only written about 50 pages (of a 300-page book). Most of that was due to the fact that I was frozen in my writing—I was deathly afraid of what I projected would be my mother-in-law's reaction. She was always hovering over my shoulder admonishing me not to tell my story.
Sensing the problem, Ajay finally called his mother and talked to her about the situation. He told her that for the first half of the book she didn't come off too well. But by the end of the book, she came off as a really nice, loving, if complicated person. I asked him how his mother responded to that and Ajay said, "She just laughed and said, "Oh, of course, I understand. In order to sell a book, you have to spice things up a bit!" That one communication broke my massive writer's block and I was able—finally—to move ahead with my narrative.
The biggest surprise: That it took me three years to finish the first draft of the book. A few people in my life kept asking me what the problem was—why was I taking so long. But here's the truth, folks. Most of writing is thinking. I had to make sense of everything that had happened during that period of my life, and what the big lessons were. Having gone through this entire experience of having married a man who grew up in a broken down palace, how had I actually change? I had to do a lot of deep excavation of my entire life.
4. What three tips would you offer to aspiring writers?
How about four? Here they are:
a) If you are wondering which story to tell, pay attention to how people respond when you tell your stories. If they lean in and say, "Oh my god, you have to write that one" -- just as they did when I told my friends about Ajay's family palace—that's when you know you're onto something.
b) if you want to write and publish what you write, then make it your priority. It's like a relationship, a love affair. The more time you spend with your writing, the more in love you grow, and the stronger your craft, and the better the work. Only those writers who really, really want it and devote themselves to the work ever get published. Keep your rear end in the chair and write.
c) Gather together a great group of like-minded aspiring writers and read each other's work, as well as the work of modern literary masters.
d) Align yourself with writing teachers who are pros, and who can help you if they like your work.
5. What is your next project?
I am working on another memoir—Cooking for the Maharani: Four Continents, Six Iconic Chefs and One Tall Glass of Revenge—about learning to cook from masters around the world and then cooking seven nights of feasts for my Indian mother-in-law. Stay tuned.
Alison will also discuss her book and sign copies at 1200 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 4 p.m. Click here to read more.
On Wednesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. Alison will read from her book and sign copies at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Bella Terra shopping center, 7881 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach.
Joelle Fraser is the author of The Territory of Men: a Memoir and The Forest House: A Year's Journey into the Language of Love, Loss, and Starting Over (March 2013 release).