Kim Fay’s debut novel, The Map of Lost Memories is released today and Kim kindly agreed to stop by One More Page to answer my questions on the new book. Welcome Kim and congratulations on your new release!
Your debut historical novel, The Map of Lost Memories is published in paperback today (14th February), please could you tell me a little about it?
This is a hard question to answer without rambling on or without sounding like jacket copy. For me, The Map of Lost Memories is the story of a woman’s obsession … with finding precious artefacts (ten lost scrolls) and solving a mystery (the history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer). I’ve always been fascinated by people who are so obsessed with achieving something that they can’t see clearly—that is certainly the case with my main character, Irene Blum. In her quest for the scrolls, which are also essential to restoring her damaged reputation in the world of art, she bulldozes her way toward her goal, committing crimes and discounting the people she thinks she is helping: the Khmer. Because of this she is not always likeable, but I think it makes her real, because it is human nature to be blinded by our wants … of course, Irene’s wants are less common than most!
Lead character Irene Blum – unofficial treasure hunter and aspiring museum curator – sounds like fascinating lady, please could you describe her in five words?
Curious, single-minded, reserved, sad and (even to me, her creator!) enigmatic.
The novel is set in Shanghai and Cambodia; what drew you to these locations and how did you go about your research for the book?
When I was a child, my grandpa would tell my sister and me stories about his life as a sailor in Asia in the early 1930s. He loved that part of the world, and we would pore over his photos from that time, most of which were of Shanghai and captured images of rickshaws and sampans against a backdrop of imposing European buildings. Because of this I was fascinated with that part of the world, and I made my first trip to Asia not long after I graduated from university. I continued to travel to the region until, in 1995, I moved to Vietnam to teach English. I ended up living there for four years, and I have spent the past eighteen years writing about it in articles, guidebooks and a food memoir. As a fiction writer, it felt natural for me to set a novel in the region.
As for my choice of Cambodia, while I knew a bit about the Khmer temples when I moved to Vietnam, most notably Angkor Wat, my real interest came when a friend gave me Silk Roads, a non-fiction book about Andre and Clara Malraux. In 1923, this young French couple lost their small fortune, and in what can only be called a moment of sheer audacity, decided to loot a Cambodian temple and live off the sale of a few choice artefacts. The deeper I dug, the more fascinating the Malraux’s became. I read Clara’s memoirs and Andre’s The Royal Way, a novel about an expedition to find a hidden temple in Cambodia. In the end, the Malrauxs inspired my characters Roger and Simone Merlin, and their experience sparked The Map of Lost Memories, as well as my own interest in Cambodian history.
In regard to research, for nearly every scene in my book, I visited the setting. My four years in Vietnam gave me a strong sense of the book’s physical atmosphere, especially since, when I lived there, Saigon still contained many notable remnants of the French colonial world that once inhabited it. I could walk the city’s streets, as well as those of Shanghai and Phnom Penh, and imagine myself back into an earlier time period. I also visited Angkor Wat and the surrounding Khmer temples, which have remained essentially unchanged over time. Added to my personal experiences were hundreds of hours spent with old travel books, history books and websites. I love research, so for me, this part was just as much fun as the actual writing of the book.
I love the quote on the back of the book, “The one thing to remember about an adventure is that if it turns out the way you expect it to, it has not been an adventure at all . . .” What was the most memorable adventure for you whilst writing or researching the book?
I don’t think I can say that I had adventures in the sense that my characters had adventures—I’m incredibly afraid of the jungle because of snakes. I did venture in here and there for various aspects of my research, but for that section of the novel I relied mainly on a friend who is a temple hunter. While every day of writing is an adventure for me, simply because a good day always yields something wonderfully unexpected, my biggest adventure was on the publishing end. Frustrated with the novel, uncertain of what direction to take with it, I had put it aside when I read an article online in The New York Times about Amazon’s first Breakthrough Novel competition. On a whim, I entered my book, which was technically complete but certainly not finished—the characters were undeveloped, and the ending at this point was beyond ridiculous. Still, my novel made into the top 800, and then the top 100. Soon after, I received an email from a literary agent, Alexandra Machinist, who was interested in the sample chapter online and asked to see the whole book. I sent it to her, and she saw its potential and signed me within a week. This thrill was matched only by Alexandra’s prowess when it came time to sell the book, which was bought in a heated two-day auction.
The Map of Lost Memories is an historical adventure set in the 1920s – a period which fascinates me! If you could time travel to any time and place, where and when would you go?
Although I’d love to visit Shanghai, Saigon and Cambodia in the 1920s, if I had to pick just one place and time period, it would be Saigon in the mid to late 1950s. This was a time of transition and great hope for the country, and I would like to have experienced Vietnam on the cusp of what it might have been if the war had not done its damage. While there—before the time travel machine returns me to present day—I would take a jaunt over to Cambodia, because the same holds true for that country. It would mean a great deal to me to see Cambodia as a place of hope rather than the history of brutality for which it has become known.
For readers with a particular interest in South East Asia of the 1920s which books and novels would you recommend as further reading?
For a fascinating factual account of Shanghai that encompasses the 1920s, my top choice would be Harriet Sergeant’s Shanghai. On the fiction front, I enjoyed Bo Caldwell’s The Distant Land of My Father, which is meticulously researched and contains a wealth of interesting tidbits woven into its story. Sadly, not much has been written about Vietnam or Cambodia at that time—at least, in English. If only I could read French! There is, of course, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, although that takes place a bit later. Most of the books about Vietnam in the 1920s that I have read are crude translations of Vietnamese classics. My favourite is Impasse, by Nguyen Cong Hoan. The story of a peasant enduring the hardships of French rule, it shows the dark back side of colonialism, which is often romanticized by Western writers. For Cambodia in the 1920s, I would recommend Axel Madsen’s Silk Roads, about Andre and Clara Malraux, as well as Clara’s memoirs.
And finally … what can we expect next from Kim Fay?
I do intend to write a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories. And while it will use the final chapter’s hidden treasure as a jumping off point, it will surprise readers, I think, by following an unexpected path, especially since it will take place in Cambodia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than three decades after The Map of Lost Memories ends. It is going to take me a while to plot this book, so in the meantime, I am working on another novel close to my heart.
I am the author of a food memoir, Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, and my love of Vietnamese cuisine will be incorporated into my next book, an untitled novel about an American woman who is born in Vietnam in 1937. Her parents are sociologists, and as an adult she becomes a culinary anthropologist. Along with studying Vietnam’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick U.S. soldiers. I want to explore the domestic side of pre-1975 Vietnam, but at the same time, this facet will be the backdrop for a suspense storyline, based on the murder of the American woman’s best Vietnamese friend. As in The Map of Lost Memories, this new novel will twine all of the characters’ together, and there will be plenty of secrets unveiled along the way.
I can’t wait – thank you Kim!
The Map of Lost Memories is out now in paperback and ebook formats.
You can find out more about Kim and her writing at: http://www.kimfay.net/