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History's horrors inspired literary beauty

History's horrors inspired literary beauty

Award-winning author Geoff Ryman, 56, was born in Canada but lives in England. His

most recent short story about Cambodia "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter,"

has just been nominated for a 2007 Hugo Award given annually for the works best science

fiction and fantasy. Past Hugo winners include Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

Ryman first wrote about Cambodia in "The Unconquered Country" in 1986,

and his 2006 novel "The King's Last Song," is set in both the Angkorean

empire of Jayavarman VII and in contemporary Cambodia.

Geoff Ryman - author of "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" and "The King's Last Song" - finds inspiration in the most unlikely places.

"The hidden history of literary creativity anywhere is independent income,"

he told the Post by e-mail.

Ryman wrote to Cat Barton on April 16 about Chinese martial arts films, the Cambodian

tourist police and the spark of literary inspiration.

What sparked your interest in Cambodia?

In the early 1970s, one of the American glossies that no longer exist ran a photograph

of a Cambodian woman by the bedside of her wounded Cambodian husband. He later

died. That image haunted me for about 15 years. In 1975 I read a from-the-scene dispatch

in The Times of the evacuation of Phnom Penh that gripped my imagination. But I couldn't

get there to write about it, so I wrote a story in a made-up country that bore some

resemblance to Cambodia, in a metaphoric landscape of living houses that could mourn

their owners and wait for them to return. That was 'The Unconquered Country.'


"The Unconquered Country" explores Cambodian history through fantasy, but

'The King's Last Song' is a work of fiction. What determines which genre you

will use for a particular story?

All writing is fantasy in one form or another. A story comes to you; it falls

into place; you have to find a pen to start writing. You're not asking what genre

is this? You're too busy thinking: I've got to get this written down now before

I forget it. Fantasy was useful when I couldn't get to Cambodia. But "The King's

Last Song" was an attempt to capture the full sweep and glory of Cambodian history,

the unbelievable story. A sense of wonder is a common element [to all writing],

and wonder is not the sole province of fantasy.

What was the research process for "The King's Last Song"?

In 2000 I was invited by an Australian friend to stay at an Australian

archaeological dig. This inspired me to write about Jayavarman. Returning to

do research, I fell in love with Cambodia and the way it was healing [this]

inspired the modern story in the novel. Then I had to try to imagine life for

Cambodians. I stayed on a friend's family farm near Siem Reap. The tourist police

tried to make me stay in a hotel. In London I met a Cambodian gentleman who had left

before the Pol Pot era. I took weekly lessons in Khmer from him, but to be honest

I find learning languages difficult. I began to use the lessons simply to ask

him what Cambodians might say in particular situations. I deliberately wrote

"The King's Last Song" to be a very accessible novel, to open Cambodian

history up to the West. When they get hold of it, very ordinary readers with

no special interest in Cambodia love it. They all say "I must go! Where can

I stay?"


Was it different writing a work of historical fiction, rather than fantasy or a novel

about Cambodia?

Writing realistic fiction is far easier. You don't have to make up a world,

with its social relations, economy and language. You just go and find out what is

likely to happen, and if something improbable happens, how circumstances could conspire

to create that. What, after all, could be more improbable than Pol Pot? So

how did it happen? 

What is your impression of the Cambodian contemporary arts scene?

Cambodian writers have a humbling belief in the importance of their craft and its

power to move. New writers and poets are giving young Cambodians a voice. Santel

Phin has expressed the need for Cambodian fiction to move beyond the Pol Pot era. But

the memoirs of survivors are a profoundly moving body of literature that is still

the main way for most Westerners to approach Cambodian culture. No one wants to be

stuck in events of 40 years ago, but the wars starting in 1970 shape everyday life

here. The problem for anybody writing about Cambodia is you have to deal with

both Pol Pot, and the new country that has grown up since 1998.

After "The King's Last Song" was released you had the dubious

honor of being bootlegged around town. What did you think of making the photocopy


I totally expected it.  It's how publishing works here.  It means writers

can't make any money from writing.  It's okay for me, I make some money from

my books.  The lack of a market makes writing a hobby for most Cambodians unless

they write TV or pop songs.  One thing I expect to see soon is the sons and

daughters of the new rich becoming writers. The hidden history of literary creativity

anywhere is independent income. This is likely in Cambodia as well. 

What are your sources of inspiration?

Chinese martial arts films. I'm still hoping someone will want to do a Cambodian

hero movie with lots of action  based on it. My short story, "Pol Pot's

Beautiful Daughter," slammed into me in 2004 when I was lucky enough to be in

Soriya Market on the day after high school exams. I knew Saloth Sith [the story's

heroine] was just about the same age as them. 

Would you be interested in doing a Khmer translation of your work?

There was talk about serializing "The King's Last Song" in a newspaper,

but [it] would be a huge task. I think out of them all I'd most rather "Pol

Pot's Beautiful Daughter" was translated. It's a manageable length and I think

it deals in a recognizably modern Phnom Penh. The question is how to use sales abroad

to fund publishing in Cambodia in Khmer.


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