Karen Augustin has been something of a nomad.
She was born in Kuala Lumpur 55 years ago but her family moved to Australia when she was seven; she then spent some time in California pursuing a career in information technology.
But it was always this part of the world that held her heart, so much so that she decided to set her series of urban fantasy novels in South-East Asia – an unusual move, as most fiction with Asian settings tend to be literary or historical fiction.
The five Check Your Luck novellas, which Augustin has compiled into a 200,000-word omnibus that will be released in print later this month, centres around Ursula Formosa, who, after the tragic death of her family, returns to Malaysia from Britain. Back home, she gets a job with an eccentric outfit called the Check Your Luck Agency and ends up dealing with – besides run-of-the-mill fraud cases – vengeful ghosts, toyol, demons, pontianak, and curses.
The five novellas certainly walk a different path from Augustin’s other works, which tend towards “politically-oriented” space opera.
But after moving back to Malaysia 10 years ago with her family – they now live near Johor Baru – Augustin felt the urge to do something different with this series.
She especially wanted to highlight the uniqueness of South-East Asia with its “melting pot of race and belief”, a side that most tourists don’t get to understand or appreciate.
“There are so many belief systems I tackle in the book, and I thought it important that overseas readers know that South-East Asia isn’t just ‘a destination’. I’m writing about the intersection of – not just one! – but several very old civilisations, each unique and rich in culture, and I wanted to do them some justice,” she says in an e-mail interview.
Writing has always been part of Augustin’s life; she started her own technical writing consultancy after leaving her programming job two years after graduating. Her foray into fiction is only a little more than a decade old.
“I wanted to try my hand at something different, to see if I could craft stories as well as manuals. Luckily, my very first novella was picked up by a small publisher in 2006 and I’ve been trudging along ever since!”
However, Augustin didn’t enjoy her time in traditional publishing.
“Imagine being told when my book was going to come out, what it was going to look like, what formats would be available, where it was going to be sold, what price it would be sold at, and not being able to have an opinion on any of that!”
So six years ago, she pulled away from the traditional publishing route. Having run her own business for over 20 years, Augustin felt ready to embark on the self-publishing adventure.
Ever the businesswoman, she formed Challis Tower Books, which offers editing services and publishes books, including her own.
The journey has been exhilarating and exciting, and there’s no denying that there’s a steep learning curve, she says.
“I was starting from scratch in an industry new to me: publishing. And, of course, as an independent, I don’t have the marketing resources of a Penguin books or Bloomsbury Press,” she says.
Self-publishers have to be their own editing, publishing, and marketing team usually, and Augustin has learnt how to handle these different tasks herself (with a capable team to assist her, she adds).
Although she calls the self-publishing landscape a “roller coaster” she truly enjoys the dynamic nature of the business, and when situations seem overwhelming, she reminds herself that she’s in it for the long haul, and that she has time to make a difference.
“I was terrified when I first began, but I now think that’s a way to remind yourself that you’re alive!” she says.
Apart from her fiction, Augustin recently published a book on homeschooling teenagers called The Dog Ate My Experiment.
When we wonder what brought on nonfiction after a decade of sci-fi and fantasy, Augustin explains that it was frustration.
She had decided to return to Malaysia in part because she wanted a lifestyle that emphasised family togetherness.
“We wanted to bring up our children in an environment that was more respectful and which had greater emphasis on the family,” she says, and part of that involved homeschooling her children.
However, she says, “There were very few resources on how to homeschool teenagers, so I decided to write something!” she says.
The Dog Ate My Experiment is currently available in print from online sites Amazon and the Book Depository. The Check Your Luck omnibus will be available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and major bookstores nationwide. Augustin is also in the production stages of another book. Clocking Up, a “cyberspace thriller”, will be released at the end of the year.