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Seven Questions: Cambodia’s literary comet

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Cambodia’s most prolific author, Suong Mak, is about to make his English-language debut.

He’s only 26, but author Suong Mak has already written 50 novels and more than 200 short stories, most of which are published on a popular blog he writes from Vientiane, Laos, where he studies Laotian literature. In October, one of his short stoires will be included with several of the region’s best-selling English language writers in the collection Phnom Penh Noir. His novel Boyfriend, the first contemporary Khmer novel about a gay-male couple, is also being translated into English. 7Days spoke with him about his startling career, which is only just beginning.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you became a writer.

My mother always encouraged me to read and write because she loved to do so when she was young, but couldn’t do it as a single mom. She supported me and my brother by selling noodles in our village in Kampong Cham province. I wrote my first book when I was 15 or 16, I’m not sure exactly, but I did not intend to write it. I just wanted to tell a story to frighten my brother and cousin. I like horror stories. It was about two lovers who could not get together (because of family pedigree), but when the hero was killed the heroine killed herself and became a spirit, waiting for the hero to be reborn. They both lived together for a while in the hero’s next life. At the end, the spirit heroine left and the hero became a monk. The title translates into English as something like The Spirit of Love Karma. Then, I won a silver medal for Khmer literature in high school and everyone encouraged me to get the story published as a book, so my mother and I took a bus to Phnom Penh to find a publisher.

What happened in Phnom Penh?

Well, we arrived in the city with US$10 and went to visit a publisher whose name I had seen on a book. There was a misunderstanding, though, because he thought we were going to pay him to publish it.

But he was kind and he gave my mother $5 to take a moto to O’Russey market and told us we could look for a publisher among the book stalls there. Many bookstall owners wanted to buy my book, but when they found out I wrote it they changed their minds, saying I was too young. Finally, one woman bought it. This was in 2002.

How much did she pay for it?

Well, I didn’t get paid for three years because I did not have a phone number for her to contact me. At the time, she asked me how much I wanted, but I did not know what price to ask so we just left. I remember thinking that I would have taken $5. All I cared about was to get my first book published.

When did you get paid?

That happened about three years later when I went to Phnom Penh to go to university. I saw the book with my name on it. I felt so proud, but I was nervous about meeting the publisher so I asked a friend to buy it. She asked my friend if he knew the author and when she found out he did she asked to meet me the next day. She gave me $50. It was the first time I ever earned money.

Did you give it to your mother?

Sure! Then, the publisher asked me for another book and I sold it for the same price. For my third book, though, I got $300 and $500 for the fourth. Boyfriend was shorter but got a high price because I sold it to Angkor book shop. Now, I’ve published six novels and the payment is getting higher.

Boyfriend was the first contemporary Khmer novel about a gay male couple, was it difficult to get published?

Not at all. It was the easiest and the payment was high, even though it was the thinnest. I think this was because the style and subject were new. I started using symbols like those used in text messages to express emotion. There was also a lot more dialogue and plot twists.

That book is being translated into English and you have an English-language story that will be published in Phnom Penh Noir, an anthology that will include authors from the New York Times Bestsellers list. How does this make you feel?

Oh, really proud! I didn’t imagine I could do it. I have a lot more English fans since Roth [Meas] wrote about me in 7Days. I want to thank him. For the story for Christopher [G Moore] I missed the deadline because I was too busy working as a translator. Then, I met him in Phnom Penh and he told me to keep trying so I wrote the story in two days, but it took me half a month to translate it. An Australian writer, Walter Mason, encouraged me do it and he also helped edit. Without him, it would not have been possible. He had read about Boyfriend and he is having that novel translated. My goal is to be a famous horror writer like Stephen King.

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