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