At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a balcony overlooking the swayback roofs of Shanghai. Beyond the low buildings and down a crooked street, the Whangpoo River shushed against the wharves. A heavy, velvet humidity pressed down on this dark belt of water, a perpetual tension that caused a wilted draft, lifting fumes of jasmine and sewage, coal and rotting river weed, into thick night air.
That’s the opening paragraph of The Map of Lost Memories, the impressive debut novel by Kim Fay that has just been published. That evocative passage is just one of many that are peppered through the thrilling historical novel, set in Asia in 1925. Fay takes the reader along with her characters, deftly describing the sights, smells, and vibes of each exotic locale they visit. From the back alleys of Shanghai and Saigon, to humid jungles and magnificent temple ruins in Cambodia, Fay’s vivid, atmospheric prose enables the reader to see and smell and feel the surroundings.
The main character in The Map of Lost Memories is Irene Blum, a young museum curator from Seattle. She has been sent to Asia on an unusual mission by her dying, and somewhat mysterious, mentor. In Shanghai she is introduced to Simone, “a mercurial French woman” and experienced Asia hand, who Irene hopes will help her find a legendary set of copper scrolls that detail the history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization, an area of particular interest to both women. After joining forces in Shanghai, and dealing with Simone’s dangerous husband, the two women sail to Vietnam, where they rendezvous with two men in Saigon. From that point, their journey takes on added intrigue — and even more participants — when they enter Cambodia and travel from the ruins of Angkor to Phnom Penh, and then into the unforgiving Cambodia jungles in search of a mysterious temple and the scrolls.
Kim Fay spent fourteen long years — from inspiration to publication — writing, researching, and rewriting her novel. That sounds like an unbelievably tedious and frustrating ordeal, but she should be quite happy with the end result. Only published a few weeks ago, The Map of Lost Memories is already receiving raves. A review in Publishers Weekly called the book “Atmospheric, lyrical, and written in almost painfully beautiful prose, this historical novel sings like a coloratura soprano performing in a gorgeous opera.” The Historical Novel Society also recommended the book, saying: “We expect a female Indiana Jones and an expedition filled with adventure and excitement, but while there are exciting moments, the focus is more on character, and the whole expedition is more of a journey of self-discovery … an intriguing read that takes different paths to those expected.”
Other authors have also been effusive with praise. Gail Tsukiyama said: “With deftness and clarity, Fay brings her world to life and gives us a captivating read.” Nicole Mones added: “Kim Fay breathes new and original life into the Westerner-in-Asia novel with The Map of Lost Memories. An enchanting, absorbing first novel, all the more remarkable for its effortless portrayal of a bygone world, now nearly forgotten.”
I played e-mail ping pong with Kim recently, asking her about the new novel and its source of inspiration, her other writing projects, and a few questions about food. Needless to say, she’s a very busy woman these days!
You must be very excited to see your first novel finally published and in bookshops. What sort of emotions are you experiencing now that it’s out?
If I had the words to draw a picture of me doing a happy dance, I would. This truly is the best feeling in the world. I’ve wanted to be a published novelist since I was ten, so to say that this is a dream come true is an understatement. I plan to enjoy every second of it, except for those when I’m anxiously worrying that no one will buy my book! Fortunately, these moments pass. Also, along with exhilaration, there is some sadness. I spent fourteen years with my characters. Now I have to let them go. Fortunately, readers are starting to discuss them. It’s a bit like when a kid goes off to college. The parent still hears about what they’re up to and even talks about them with family and friends, but ultimately the parent is no longer in control and the child has gone off to live her own life.
You lived in Vietnam for several years, but most of this novel takes place in Cambodia and is about ancient Khmer temples. What inspired you to pick this topic for your book?
Not long after I moved to Vietnam, I read a book called Silk Roads. It’s the true story of Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who lost their small fortune and came up with the idea of looting a Cambodian temple and living off the sale of a few choice artifacts. In 1923, they set sail to Cambodia, and with the help of local laborers, they pried a seven-piece, 1,000-pound bas relief from the abandoned temple of Banteay Srei. They were caught almost immediately and put under house arrest in Phnom Penh. While there they witnessed the injustices of colonialism. This experience launched their involvement in the revolutionary politics of the region, and their overall experience inspired me to start writing The Map of Lost Memories.
This novel took several years for you to write. Like any good fiction, you had to create memorable characters, write believable dialogue, develop atmosphere, and mix in a page-turning plot. Which aspects to writing the novel were the most difficult for you? And which parts were easiest?
The first books I read on my own when I was young were mysteries such as Nancy Drew. Because of this, I’ve always been drawn to plot. I love mapping out a story and creating an intricate web that needs to be unraveled. This comes easily to me, as does creating a setting that draws readers in. I think the latter is due to my love of travel writing. I’m grateful to the skills I’ve honed as a travel writer, since they give me the ability to create a strong sense of place. What is toughest for me is character. I don’t have a problem coming up with characters, but once they emerge, I often have no idea who they are. And I will find myself trying to force my characters to go against their nature and behave in ways that will serve the plot I’ve created—this is always a mistake! Fortunately, characters usually have minds of their own, and if you give them their space, they will develop in incredible ways. I also write in layers, with one draft layered over another draft layered over the top of another. By doing this I allow my characters to develop organically, and I spend time getting to know them better and understanding who they are in the context of the story I’m trying to tell.
You have quite a cast of interesting characters of various nationalities in your book. Once you had the idea for the novel, did you also have the roster of characters pretty much set, or did they evolve during the course of writing?
I think I answered part of this question in my response above, but to elaborate on it, Roger and Simone Merlin were loosely inspired by Andre and Clara Malraux, and like most of the characters—Irene, Marc, Mr. Simms, Anne—they existed from the very start. The big surprise was Clothilde. She did not exist in the early drafts of the book, and when she first appeared, she was simply Mr. Simms’s nurse. But the more I wrote, the more she demanded a life and story of her own. I think she was protesting the lack of local characters in the book. I don’t blame her, but I was wary of including a local cast of characters, because I felt that I had to stay true to the Western viewpoint in Asia in the 1920s, and that viewpoint was so awful most of the time. Even Irene, who loves Cambodia and its culture, has a pretty terrible attitude toward the local population. Also, when it came to local women and their role in Western expatriate society at that time period, they were generally confined to being servants, mistresses or prostitutes. While Clothilde is indeed Mr. Simms’s mistress, I hope that her reasons for this are sympathetic justified in the story and that her individuality comes through. I wish I would have developed Clothilde further, but she has recently informed me that she will have a significant role in the sequel!
I recall your last trip to Asia a few years ago when you went to Cambodia and took the boat from Phnom Penh up the river to Kratie. At that point, you must have been close to finishing the book. What specific contribution did that trip make to the novel?
In 2009, as I neared the end of the writing the novel, I hadn’t been to Cambodia for four years. The plot of the novel had evolved drastically during that time, and I felt the need to return and immerse myself in the country, so that I could undertake the home stretch with Cambodia’s sights, sounds and smells fresh in my mind. I spent days in the National Museum in Phnom Penh (one of my favorite places in Cambodia and the scene of a major encounter with Irene and Simone), just sitting in the shadows, sipping iced tea and studying the artifacts. And I traveled to Kratie, on the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng. There, I pedaled out into the countryside and let my mind wander as I inhaled the dank, omnipresent scent of the river and reminded myself how such intense heat and humidity can make a person feel so alive. I was able to return the States and steep my final work on the novel in the immediacy of my experiences.
You’re a former bookseller. In this era of e-books and online sales, many bookshops are closing. Do you think that brick and mortal retail shops can still play an important role in selling books, or will they soon go the way of the dinosaur?
I think brick and mortar retail shops play an incredibly crucial role—creating a sense of community and offering a place where discussion and ideas can take root and grow. There is no substitute for an independent bookseller hand-selling a customer his favorite book, or for a conversation that breaks out among the shelves when two people discover they love the same book. I understand why people shop online, and I understand why they read e-books, but I think in both instances they are missing out on what is my favorite thing about independent bookshops: human connection. The more our lives our consumed by our online worlds, the more we need bookshops to keep us connected to one another. Every time I walk into an independent bookstore, I feel a sense of possibility. Of course I would love to say that because of their importance, bookstores will be around forever, but sadly I’m not sure. I’m just grateful to people like you for investing your lives in places where people can gather and share their love of the written word.
What about your next novel; a sequel to this one, or something entirely different?
There will definitely be a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories, although it’s difficult to talk about without revealing spoilers. But that’s not my next book. I’m about 100 pages into a new novel that takes place in Vietnam between 1937 and 1975. It’s the story of an American woman born in Vietnam who goes on to become a culinary anthropologist. Along with studying the country’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick soldiers. I want to use the book to explore the domestic side of Vietnamese life during an era associated solely with war. I also want it to be a love song to the country. But because of my affection for Nancy Drew, I can’t help myself—there will also be a murder and a mystery to be solved.
You are editor of the marvelous To Asia with Love series, and also wrote the excellent food travel memoir Communion. Do you have any ideas for other travel or non-fiction books that you’d like to write, or will you stick to novels at this point?
I feel fortunate to have edited the To Asia With Love guidebooks and to have written a food memoir about Vietnam; and although I truly enjoy writing nonfiction, my first love is fiction. Now that I have an opportunity to pursue it, that’s where my main focus is. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write more nonfiction in the future. One idea I’d really like to pursue is a Vietnamese imperial cuisine cookbook to pair with my new novel. But it would contain more than just recipes. It would also be a history book and incorporate stories from Vietnam’s imperial era and unique tidbits, such as translations of a cookbook from the imperial city of Hue that was written in 1915 entirely in verse.
You’re an unabashed foodie; you’ve written about Asian cuisine and cook a lot at home. What are some of the best dishes you’ve eaten in Cambodia?
On my last trip to Cambodia, I became addicted to green mango salad. I was blazing hot all the time, and it was so refreshing—especially since mangos were in season, hanging by the hundreds in the trees and piled high at every roadside stand. It was also more flavorful than similar salads I’d had in surrounding countries, mainly because, as I wrote in my travel diary, it was so “shrimpy.” I also ate a lot of pleah, the cold beef salad made with lime, roasted rice powder and peanuts. While I like many of the soups, as well, I was definitely drawn to dishes that revived me with their coolness and light flavors.
Were you brave enough to try any of the more “challenging” treats over there, such as tarantula or field rat?
I’m not opposed to such treats in theory, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I could stomach a whole tarantula. And for the most part, I didn’t come across such dishes. In any case, I figure Anthony Bourdain has the adventure dining market covered—I think I’ll do best leaving the creepy crawlies to the experts!!
You will do some book signings and interviews in the US for the launch of this novel. Are you planning on any trips to Asia to promote the book too?
In the spring of 2013, I’ll be accompanying a food tour group through Vietnam; at the end of this trip, we’ll visit Cambodia where we plan to hold a book group for The Map of Lost Memories right at the temples. While there, I hope to do an event at Monument Books, which already has my novel on sale, front and center. If it works into my schedule, I’d love to come to Thailand as well, but I’m not yet sure if that will happen.