A Conversation with Kim Fay
Random House Reader’s Circle: The Map of Lost Memories takes place in Shanghai, Saigon, and Cambodia. What inspired you to set a novel in these exotic places?
Kim Fay: 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. As I grew up, my fascination with Asia simmered until I graduated from college and made my first trip. I was instantly smitten by the magical combination of foreignness and familiarity from the stories on which I had been raised, and I continued to travel to the region until, in 1995, I moved to Vietnam to teach English. I had no idea how at home I would feel in this country. 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.
RHRC: Why did you choose to set your novel in 1925? What was it about this time period that suited the story you wanted to tell?
KF: Again, my grandpa can take partial credit, since that was the era when he was traveling in Asia. But beyond this personal note, The Map of Lost Memories needed a time in which there were not black-and-white attitudes about the morality of trafficking and owning art. This era, the 1920s, began forming in the late nineteenth century, when the advent of mass tourism and the lack of laws protecting cultural relics meant that average travelers could simply purchase rare artifacts and take them home as souvenirs. At this same time, the birth of art dealing as a profession was fueled by robber barons and industrialists who pursued collecting with the same determination that they pursued their business interests. In addition, colonialism (and its hubris) was at its heyday in Asia, China’s fledgling Communist party was experiencing a pivotal moment with the death of Sun Yat-sen, and just to travel in a foreign land was an adventure in and of itself. The novel also takes place in a kind of golden era, between the atrocities of WWI and WWII and before the Great Depression and the Communist takeover of China, an era when many people felt an unprecedented freedom that was reflected in their actions. Given all of these elements, I can’t imagine an- other time period in which The Map of Lost Memories could take place.
RHRC: Your novel incorporates China’s revolutionary politics, the vagaries of colonialism, and ancient Cambodian history. How much of the book is based on fact?
KF: One of my main goals with the novel was to make it as historically accurate as possible, especially in regard to Khmer history. While I knew a bit about the Khmer temples when I moved to Vietnam, most notably Angkor Wat, my real interest in them came when a friend gave me Silk Roads by Axel Madsen, a nonfiction book about André 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 artifacts.
The Malrauxs set sail from France to Cambodia, and with the help of a fellow adventurer and local laborers, they managed to pry 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 the capital city of Phnom Penh. While awaiting trial, they had the freedom to roam the city. During this time, they witnessed the injustices of colonialism, and this experience changed their lives, launching their involvement in the revolutionary politics of the region.
The deeper I dug, the more fascinating these two became. I read Clara’s memoirs and André’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. As a novelist, I wanted to weave this history into a story in a way that didn’t feel like a dry academic lesson. This resulted in the lost temple and scrolls. While these are fictitious, the premise they support is not. In 1925 little was known about the rise and fall of the ancient Khmer civilization. Even now there are conflicting theories and missing puzzle pieces. But back then, the day- to-day history and fate of the Khmer were genuine mysteries, making it the perfect subject for a novel.
RHRC: Did you use any particular methods for organizing or planning this novel? Did you end up having a favorite (or least favorite) part of the writing process? And were you ever surprised by where the narrative took you while writing?
KF: I love plot, and because of this, plot is always what comes to me first. With The Map of Lost Memories, the minute I realized I wanted to write about the looting of a Cambodian temple, a plot appeared, fully formed. I say a plot and not the plot because although stories come to me whole, the story I start with is rarely the story I finish with. I wrote a first draft of this novel in less than a year. Then the real work began as I wrote another draft and another . . . and then another and another! While some writers might consider this the revision process, for me it is more of a layering process. I craft one layer over the next, writing myself closer with each layer to the story I want to tell. I love this process because it allows my characters to grow and evolve in organic ways, and I get to spend this time getting to know them better and understanding them in the context of the story, which also becomes richer each new time I work with it.
This said, my least favorite part—or more accurately, the hardest part for me—is character development. Characters are my weakness. Often, when I start writing, I have no idea who my characters are, and I sometimes find myself forcing them to go against their natures in order to serve the plot I’ve created. This is always a mistake.
Fortunately, characters usually have minds of their own, and if you give them enough space, they will develop in incredible ways.
As for surprises, I was definitely surprised when Simone and Irene killed Roger, because he was supposed to chase them all the way to Cambo- dia. I was also surprised when Mr. Simms decided to show up in Cambodia. But the most intriguing surprise was Clothilde. She did not exist in 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, because I felt I had to stay true to the Western view of 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, 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 and that her individuality comes through. I wish I would have developed her further, but she has recently informed me that I am not done with her and she will appear in a future novel.
RHRC: A historical novel obviously requires a great deal of research. Is this something you enjoy doing? How did you go about researching The Map of Lost Memories? And was there anything about the process that caused difficulties for you along the way?
KF: For as many of the scenes in my book as was possible, I visited the setting—every place from a hotel café in Saigon to a remote wooded path along the Mekong River. I am fortunate to have lived in the region where the novel takes place and to be able to travel back frequently. My four years in Vietnam gave me a strong sense of the book’s physical setting, especially since Saigon still contained many notable remnants of the French colonial world that once inhabited it when I lived there. I could walk the city’s streets, as well as those of Shanghai and Phnom Penh, and imagine myself in an earlier time period. This isn’t as easy to do today, since all three cities have been greatly modernized over the past two decades. I also spent time at Angkor Wat and the surrounding Khmer temples, which have remained essentially unchanged over time. It was a privilege to be able to write scenes set at the temples while actually being at the temples.
Along with personal experience, I relied heavily on the Los Angeles Public Library and the Internet. When I started the book in 1995, only the former existed . . . and I’m glad. While I enjoy trolling the Internet, I ap- preciate the limitations, so to speak, of access only to books. Without the endless distractions of the Web, I was free to lose myself in obscure travelogues from the 1920s, which offered insight into the attitudes of travelers during that era. And books such as Pillaging Cambodia: The Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art; Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft; Loot! The Heritage of Plunder; and The Plundered Past: The Story of the Illegal International Traffic in Works of Art—combined with the Malrauxs’ accounts of their temple-robbing experience—gave me a certain level of comfort when it came to writing characters who felt at ease taking the cultural relics of another country.
Because I adore research, it ’s too easy for me to get sidetracked, espe- cially since the Internet enabled me to do things like buy a vintage map of Phnom Penh, download dozens of postcards of the city from the 1920s, and practically reconstruct the capital on my dining room table. But while I know I get carried away with research, I don’t consider this a detriment. Research gives me as much pleasure as writing. In fact, I consider it a part of my writing rather than a byproduct of it, which is probably why I enjoy historical fiction so much.
RHRC: Irene is an ambitious and determined character, but she is not always sympathetic, especially in the beginning of the novel when she sets out to steal a cultural artifact for her own gain. Where did the idea for Irene and her quest come from, and why did you choose to write such an atypical female character?
KF: Some of the first books I read on my own when I was a child were Nancy Drew mysteries, and I must confess: Irene Blum is a grown-up version of Nancy Drew, albeit a version without moral boundaries. Nancy was smart, strong, independent, and infinitely curious, and this prototype instantly came to mind when I decided to write a book about the quest for a priceless artifact that featured a young American woman as the main character.
I am fascinated by readers’ strong responses to Irene. Many readers I have met love her but struggle with liking her. We often talk about how this dislike is a result of prejudice, because she is a woman. I’ve been told that if Irene were a man—feeling and behaving the same way—it would be much easier to accept and forgive her actions. For me, though, Irene is an ambitious woman of circumstance driven by two things: an obsession with the mystery of the Khmer’s lost history and a need to restore her shattered reputation. These motives set up a contradiction that blinds her to any harm she might cause in her quest to get what she wants.
In addition, Irene has been raised among self-serving men who feel a sense of proprietorship when it comes to art—in an era when boundaries in the areas of cultural entitlement and art ownership were blurred, at best. The majority believed that art should belong to the person or institution that could best care for and preserve it. As for her feelings about the Cambodians, Irene has also lived her entire adult life in an academic world where Cambodians are subjects for study, not flesh and blood people. Of course, not everyone in 1925 was a potential temple robber, but given Irene’s circumstances, if I had made her feel guilt-ridden about her attitude toward the Khmer people and about what she intends to do with their history (or if I had forced her to have a complete change of heart by the end of the book), then she would have become a modern, PC character, untrue to the general attitudes of the time period in which the book takes place.
RHRC: Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Is that true for you? Which character did you identify with most while writing? Are any of the characters in The Map of Lost Memories based on people you know?
KF: Family and friends who have read my novel insist that they can see many of my traits in Irene. While she is the character most like me, I don’t think she is an extension of me. As I was working on the novel, our similarity was in our shared sense of obsession—she with finding her temple, and me with writing The Map of Lost Memories and having it published. Funnily enough, if Irene achieved her goal, then I stood a chance of achieving mine. In this way, I identified with Irene—her desire for one thing more than any other in her life, compounded with the fears and wrong turns that can accompany such a strong desire. At the same time, I hope I’m not as cold as Irene. Writing that aspect of her was hard for me, because my love for Vietnam is very personal. When I moved there, I forged close friendships almost immediately; those friends are now “sisters,” and I cannot imagine my life without them.
As for real (and not-so-real) life influences on the other characters, Marc was shaped in part by the Harlequin romances I read when I was a teen and named after a crush I had in Amsterdam when I was twenty- one. Anne is a composite of the strong, independent women in my life: Mom, grandmas, sister, aunts, great-aunts, and cousins. Mr. Simms owes his puppet-master qualities to the fact that I had just read John Fowles’s The Magus when I started writing The Map of Lost Memories. And Clothilde owes her grace to my friend Huong, who is always elegant, even in rainstorms in the middle of the jungle. Perhaps closest to my heart, despite his small role, is Irene ’s dad. He was inspired by my grandpa—a sailor in the South China Sea, a night watchman at a museum in Seattle, and a single dad raising the headstrong girl who became my mom.
RHRC: Along with presenting a straightforward quest for a lost relic, your novel explores the moral dilemmas posed by that quest. What inspired you to delve so deeply into the question of what is best for the Cambodian people in regard to their cultural heritage, as well as their own future?
KF: I have always been fascinated by colonial fiction (Graham Greene, George Orwell, etcetera), and during the four years that I lived in Vietnam, surrounded by remnants of French colonialism, my curiosity grew about the Westerners who once came to Asia to claim a piece of it for themselves. At this same time, I was surprised to discover the sense of entitlement that existed among certain expatriate groups, even in the 1990s. Sometimes it was subtle, but other times it was appallingly blatant, and I found myself wanting to write about this attitude in the era when colonialists held all the power and the locals held none—a local population, in the case of Cambodia, that was once one of the world ’s greatest civilizations.
In regard to my book, the questions I raise—or perhaps I should say, the way I have raised them through my characters’ feelings and behavior— have caused debate among readers. I think this is because many readers want to apply modern standards to the 1920s. I too wanted redemption for my characters in regard to the issues explored in the novel, but I eventually realized that if they were going to be honest reflections of a certain kind of person at a certain time, redemption in a sense that I understood was just not possible. As well, it undermined the novel to try to explore the issues from a twenty-first-century standpoint.
Essentially, The Map of Lost Memories follows a prevailing 1920s mindset: because the Cambodians had neglected the Angkor Wat temples and let them fall into ruin, they were not worthy beneficiaries of their own heri- tage. The French, on the other hand, having rescued and restored the tem- ples, were their rightful owners. Of course, while the French were restoring Cambodia’s cultural relics, they were also taking items for their private collections and museums in France. The irony is that this looting most likely saved many precious artworks from disappearing in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Countless invaluable objects disappeared during this time, and in fact, Khmer relics and the Angkor temples are still at risk today. At the time of the publication of The Map of Lost Memories, the Cambodian government was in dispute with Sotheby’s auction house over an ancient Khmer statue believed to have been stolen from the country. And the Angkor temples, despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are still victims of looters. My favorite temple, Banteay Srei—the temple raided by André and Clara Malraux—is very different now from when I first visited it in 1997. The stunning faces of many of its celestial goddesses have been removed for underground sale. While my book is certainly not intended to make a statement, it ’s gratifying to see how strongly readers feel about a country’s right to its own cultural relics.
RHRC: This is your first novel, although it is not your first book. Was the process and experience of writing The Map of Lost Memories different from your previous works?
KF: The Map of Lost Memories is my first published novel, but not my first novel. When I was ten years old, I knew that I wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote the Nancy Drew–inspired Mystery of the Golden Galleon. This was immediately followed by a romantic adventure called This Is the Life about two young women traveling on the French Riviera, which I’d read about in National Geographic. I went on to write half a dozen more novels, mostly romances, in junior high and high school, and when I was in college, I finally wrote a “serious” novel in a genre that did not yet exist (chick-lit). Despite all that fiction writing, I was still finding my way as a novelist, and after working for five years at an independent bookstore in Seattle, I moved to Vietnam and found myself on the path to becoming a travel writer. Although I was still working on my fiction, I created my own guidebook series, which I continue to edit. And I eventually wrote a food memoir, Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, which was published in 2010.
Because The Map of Lost Memories is a novel, it allowed my imagination to run wild. With fiction, there is structure, but there are no absolutes. A writer can follow any path a novel takes, just to see where it leads. Of course, there are a lot of dead ends. But sometimes the path winds along to the most satisfying place. For Communion, I was working with a story that already existed: Vietnamese culture and history, which I was viewing through the lens of the country’s cuisine. In addition, I was using a frame-work based in reality: a five-week culinary journey that I had taken through Vietnam. When I wrote Communion, I felt as if I was putting together a thousand-piece puzzle. The difficulty was that I had five thousand pieces to work with, so I needed to find just the right ones to fit together. With The Map of Lost Memories, on the other hand, if I got stuck I could create a brand-new piece and give it a try. Sometimes it fit, and other times it didn’t. But it was entirely up to my imagination. While it might seem that fiction writing offers more freedom, I don’t think that ’s the case. Fiction and non- fiction each offer their own freedoms and their own limitations, which is why I am almost always working on both at the same time.
RHRC: Who are your influences as an author? What do you read when you’re writing? What is your all-time favorite historical novel?
KF: I was a reader at heart even before I knew the alphabet—when I was an infant, while my dad was working, my mom would read her books out loud to me. As I got older, my parents dropped me off at used bookstores the way other parents dropped their kids off at video arcades, and they al- ways let me order as many books as I wanted from the Scholastic catalogs that were distributed at school a few times a year. In addition, I come from a family of storytellers. When I was a young girl, I would get under the covers with my sister while our dad made up absurd stories about Raggedy Kojak (a pathetic Raggedy Ann doll that had lost its hair) and his faithful mouse-monster sidekick, Mousiestein. On nights when he did not whip up one of his episodic tales, our grandpa told us his stories about life as a sailor in Shanghai.
I devoured books as a kid and read all the usual suspects, from Beverly Cleary to Judy Blume. But I was especially drawn to historical fiction (the Little House on the Prairie series, Little Women) and female-driven mysteries (Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy). To celebrate the publication of The Map of Lost Memories, my sister tracked down a copy of one of my junior high favorites, Mystery of the Emerald Buddha, by Betty Cavanna. Rereading it, I was astonished to come upon a passage about the ethics of taking artifacts from the Cambodian temples! Who knows? Perhaps this issue was simmering in the back of my thoughts for decades just waiting for a character like Irene to come along and tackle it.
As for my most favorite historical novel, hands down it ’s Gone With the Wind. I was captivated from the first line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” I bolted it down, all 1,024 pages of it, absorbed by the history, Scarlett ’s determination, and romance on an epic scale. When I was done, I immediately started reading it again, and I read it half a dozen more times (at least) before I graduated from high school.
After college I worked in the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, and that ’s where my education with serious literature began. During the five years I was there, Michael Ondaatje taught me the poetry to be found in prose, Penelope Lively taught me how to layer a plot, and Graham Greene taught me the art of literary suspense. I discovered storytelling (and inspiration) on entirely new levels, in the books of Muriel Spark, Anita Brookner, Mark Helprin, and many other incredible writers.
When I’m writing, I’m usually buried in research and making my way through whatever novels happen to be on my “to read” list at the time. But there are moments when I need a boost, and then I’ll reread passages from novels that have educated me as a writer, such as The Quiet American, In the Skin of the Lion, Winter’s Tale, and Moon Tiger. I also like to read poetry when I’m writing fiction. Depending on what mood I’m trying to capture in a scene, I might turn to Pablo Neruda or Raymond Carver or Mary Oliver. Reading poetry reminds me how important every sentence is and how to craft sentences that have melody while conveying meaning at the same time.
RHRC: At the end of The Map of Lost Memories, the possibility exists for the story to continue on. Do you plan on writing a sequel? Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
KF: I do intend to write a sequel. 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. But I don’t want to give too much away. And since I am still in the long process of plotting that story, I am in the meantime working on another novel close to my heart.
Because of my interest in Vietnamese cuisine, I have often been asked why food does not play a role in The Map of Lost Memories. The first reason is that the main character, Irene, is obsessed with one thing: finding the lost history of the Khmer. She doesn’t care about local food. The second reason is that I knew I could incorporate my love of cooking and eating into my next book, an untitled novel about murder, political intrigue, family secrets, and a culinary anthropologist in Vietnam during the mid-twentieth century.
1. At the beginning of the novel, Irene has strong feelings about her right to possess the scrolls and the fact that her possessing them will be in the Cambodians’ best interests. How much of this mindset is justified by the era in which the novel takes place, and could this mindset—art should belong to whoever can best protect it—be justified today? If so, how?
2. In addition, when the book opens, Irene is an ambitious—and arguably self-centered—character. Did you admire or dislike her attitudes and behavior? And if you disliked her, do you think you would have found her actions and ambitions more forgivable if she were a man?
3. Because of her complexity and unpredictable irrationality, Simone is a “love her or hate her” type of person. What traits do you feel make Simone alienating and what traits make her sympathetic?
4. Perhaps Simone deliberately killed Roger. Perhaps it was an accident. Which do you think it was, and why?
5. From the debauched streets of Shanghai to the humid landscapes of the Cambodian jungle, setting serves as its own character in The Map of Lost Memories. How do you feel that these environments shaped the characters? For example, the influence of Shanghai on Marc’s childhood, and the influence of the Cambodian wilderness on Irene ’s mindset as she treks closer toward her goal?
6. At one point in the book, Anne talks about the importance of going to the other side: “The place where one feels truly alive. Too many people surrender to a place of safety. That place where all they do is long to sleep so they can dream about living. Even if you don’t find what you think you’re looking for, darling, it’s the going out and looking for it that counts. That is the only way you can know you have lived.” Do you agree or disagree with Anne ’s assessment of how most people live? Do you think this is what both Simone and Irene were doing over the course of the story, each in her own way? What about other characters such as Marc? Is the idea that “it ’s the going out and looking for it that counts” a motto you would live by?
7. Although The Map of Lost Memories is considered an adventure novel, it is not fast-paced. Aspects of the era—lack of airplanes, freeways, mass communications systems—contribute to how the story unfolds. Discuss how different this novel would be if set in a later time period; for example, how the existence of helicopters or the Internet would alter such a story.
8. The Map of Lost Memories is primarily Irene ’s story, and as such is told from her perspective. If you could ask the author to insert a chapter from another character’s point of view, who would it be and why?
9. Both Irene and Simone are motivated by their own ambitions to the point of betrayal. Do you feel these women would have been better off had they been honest from the start, instead of using each other to a certain extent? Consider a woman’s position in the time period and the choices (or lack thereof ) they had regarding their futures. In that sense, do you think by keeping secrets each of them were doing the best they could to protect themselves and their futures?
10. To expand on this, the novel is full of examples of blighted ambition and characters trapped by circumstance. Do you feel that unhappiness excuses the scheming behavior or betrayals of certain characters?
11. Although there are unexpected revelations about all the characters in the novel, perhaps the most surprising has to do with Henry Simms, Irene ’s beloved mentor. Did you find Mr. Simms to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
12. At the end of the novel, Irene changes her mind about where she thinks the scrolls belong. Was there a specific turning point for this decision, or was this decision the result of an evolution in her thinking? Is her change of heart selfless, or is she simply turning her initial selfish desires in a new direction?
13. Similarly, in many ways, Simone is a very different person at the end of the novel than the woman Irene first encounters at Anne’s party. Discuss the path of her transformation. Are there any ways she essentially doesn’t change?
14. What one adjective do you think best captures the character of Irene? Were you surprised by how others in your group perceived her? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How does your perception of Irene change throughout the story?
15. The title of the novel is The Map of Lost Memories. Discuss the power of memories as a theme throughout the novel. Why do you think the author selected this title?