For months before the book "Beats Apart" dropped, writers Alanda Kariza and Kevin Aditya, like any other millennial writers would, channeled as much energy as possible into building up anticipation. Teasers and excerpts from the book adorned their social media pages, and one line in particular was repeated over and over in their promotional efforts: "A new experience in reading romance." It's a big promise to make for a story which, up until a year ago, was accessible online in its entirety for anyone to repeatedly peruse.
It started as a writing experiment in 2012. The idea was for Alanda and Kevin to take turns writing every day for a month, with no pre-discussed plot. Each was to pick up where the other person decided to take the story, and only stop once they hit the one-month mark. The result was a heartfelt love story between two 20-something characters — identified only by their initials F and M — infused with a heavy dose of melancholy.
"The girl, her world revolves around her feelings... anything she does is based on her feelings," Alanda says describing F, her side of the story. M is, in Kevin's words, your "typical 21st-century salaryman, your typical skeptical millennial." Starting a new job in a new city, he is mostly an individualist, and goes about his days with plenty of feelings he reluctantly responds to. "In the end, he learns that he needs another person, and, more importantly, he needs love."
With unnamed characters and unspecified locations, the story could be anyone's, anywhere — and that was exactly how the writers meant it to be, as they hope to make their story as close and relatable as possible to anyone reading. Presenting their work as something new, evoking something different in readers through a new, physical format, was a challenge they knew they wanted to take upon finishing the series, and the couple of years that followed saw the pair pitch their project to several publishers. When most of them suggested the story to be translated from English to Indonesian, they moved on and toyed around with the idea of self-publishing, before finally meeting a publisher who not only agreed to publish the "Beats Apart" in English, also offered them the creative freedom unknown to many other published writers.
The Jakarta Globe met with Alanda and Kevin just a week after "Beats Apart" was published in bookstores across different cities to talk about the writing and publishing process and the things that make the book different.
Q: How different is the book from the blog?
K: Ninety percent of it is the same. Plot-wise, we didn't change anything. But we did edit the writing, the language, gave some more thought to it so as not to make it sound 'instant.'
A: We just cleaned it up a bit, because at the time when we were writing it, it was really spontaneous. So now that we have this plot, we were able to clean up the loopholes a little and changed some of the vocabulary around because when turned into a book, we didn't want there to be words that are too difficult for Indonesian readers
Did you approach the publisher first or is it the other way around?
A: It was quite a long journey, because since 2012, Kevin and I have thought of turning it into a book. Over 2013 and 2014, every time I tried offering it to a publisher, especially those I've worked with [for my previous books], most of them wanted the story translated. But I personally thought that translating would eliminate the essence of the story. But then "88 Love Life" [by fashion blogger Diana Rikasari] was published, it was commercially successful and became a bestseller. So I tried looking for the editor behind the book, and emailed this person.
Before everything, though, we had thought of self-publishing a book, and it was during this time that a student from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Astranya Paramarta, came along.
K: She told us that she had used our story for her university assignment, where she redesigned it and tinkered around with the design, the typography, etc.
A: She designed two chapters with a completely new layout for her assignment, and when she showed the results to us, we were really impressed and asked her to join our self-publishing project. When "88 Love Life" came out and I contacted the editor, the editor told me they were interested in publishing the book with that concept. I was really surprised that they accepted our concept fully.
K: I was really surprised, because when I saw Astra's design, I was taken aback myself, I didn't realize you could do that with a story. Had it not been published that way, we might not be different from other books in the market. Astra's touch was a 'wow' factor, and really unique. It had its own selling point. I was also really surprised by how the publishers let us do whatever we wanted with the book. I asked Alanda at some point whether or not this was normal when publishing a book, and Alanda said it wasn't.
Kevin, how does it feel to publish your first book?
K: Feels a little unreal to go to a bookstore and see your name on a book on a shelf. And the response has been good, so I didn't see that coming. I look at the hashtags on social media and didn't expect to attract people other than the demographics I had imagined. High schoolers and naive youngsters... Alanda might be used to that, but to me it came as a surprise, apparently these people like my book too.
How does it feel for you, Alanda? How is this different from your previous books?
A: To me, all this time whenever I have a book published and my friends hear about it, at least friends who are older than me, I know that they don't buy my books, because they would expect this to be targeted for the younger high school market. And with "Beats Apart," this is a book that is my age and people who are my age can also read, so it's a good feeling. It's my favorite book so far and I'm really nervous because with all of the [creative] freedom the publisher gave us, will we break it or make it? Because to me as a writer, this is my time to prove whether or not an idealistic project can be commercially successful.
Is this one of those moments where you're trying to tell the world that you've grown up?
Yep, more or less. When people look at me, people still associate me with my book "Dream Catcher" (2012) . So this is like me saying "I can write other things too." Because as a writer, I want my readers to grow up with me. Not like other writers who hold on to the same target market for yeras. It's going to be a big challenge, but I hope Beats Apart will be a success.
Was there any trouble about publishing a book in English?
K: In the local market, I see people who write in English as having a broader point of view, because they can write about many things without having to be held down by the Indonesian standards. English as a language allows us to think with a broader framework, and I am able to adjust with a much more liberated mindset. I've always been more comfortable with writing in English.
A: My previous books always had a few sentences or words written in English, and that got me plenty of criticism. But in writing Beats Apart I didn't feel that way. Because it wouldn't be what it is had it not been written in English.
How do you see romance writing itself?
K: I actually don't read much romance, but for me it's a type of writing that I need to try doing. I also write fiction, but for me to be able to write good fiction, like it or not, you'll have to be able to write romance.
Has it changed the way any of you enjoy fiction?
A: For me, due to my weakness in writing fiction where I would sound too much like a girl, writing this was a learning experience on its own. Learning about how men write, how when we see the same problems, they would look at it a different way. So it helped me learn about male characters.
K: I think we need romance. There are too many books and media out there that we consume that are more on the skeptical side of things. They look at the world with a very weary, urbanized perspective, and sometimes a simple romance is needed to be in touch with feelings.
When writing the story, how did you determine the characters?
A: For this project we never really discussed much [about the characters]. It was just a girl and a guy; F is for Female and M is for Male. That's it. We didn't discuss anything. So if there was any surprising turn of events, one of us would tell the other person "Why did you write that? What am I supposed to write now?"
K: The character itself more or less mirros myself. I wrote that at a time where I was doing a work experience at an office, I was being exposed to what it feels like to work a 9-5 job, and I could pour that into the writing. I rarely write fiction, so much of it was a reflection of myself.
Was there fear in writing so honestly?
K: Yes. Some friends ask me whether these are personal experiences, and I'd tell them "yeaah, a little." Because like it or not, you are inclined to draw from personal experience, you can't write romance without having dated anyone. It wouldn't feel real. But, of course, I didn't just copy and paste 100 percent from my life. Just the feelings. The story itself is different.
A lot must have changed in the two years since you wrote this project. How are you different and how do you see the characters now? Would you have written them differently?
K: Maybe with a little less angst. If I could change some things, I'd probably make it a bit more mature.
A: For me, these are characters in their mid-twenties, and I was in my early twenties when I wrote this. So there are things that the characters go through that I haven't exactly experienced back then, but now when I read it again, I've experienced all the complications.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.