Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An interview with Kim Fay, author of The Map of Lost Memories

A few months after I'd read and reviewed Kim Fay's The Map of Lost Memories for Booklist, we connected through Goodreads.  Since I enjoyed the novel so much (here's my review if you missed it), I was especially pleased that she was willing to do an interview for my site.

In addition to providing more details on her inspiration for the novel and her travels throughout Southeast Asia, Kim sent along some great images I'm including below:  a vintage photo from her grandfather's travels in Shanghai and postcards of temple ruins from her personal collection. 

And some more good news... she's working on a new novel set in the region, and she also has plans for a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories.  A former independent bookseller, Kim lives in Los Angeles and makes frequent trips to the region she writes about.  Her website is

I hope you'll enjoy the interview!

How did you choose the timeframe for The Map of Lost Memories? Why 1925?

I’d love to take credit for choosing that time period, but I really feel that it chose me! When I was a young girl, my grandpa would tell my sister and me about his life as a sailor on the South China Sea in the early 1930s. My grandpa and I were extremely close, and as I grew up, his stories anchored that time and faraway places such as Shanghai in my imagination.

Then, when I was twenty-nine, I read Silk Roads about Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who looted a Cambodian temple in the mid-1920s. Their story provided the first spark for the plot of The Map of Lost Memories. While I researched their experiences further, I realized that 1925 (rather than my grandpa’s early 1930s) perfectly suited the novel. Colonialism was at its heyday in Asia; China’s fledgling Communist party was experiencing a pivotal moment with the death of Sun Yat-sen; just to travel in a foreign land was an adventure in and of itself; and the ethics of art acquisition and ownership were murky, at best.

The novel takes place in a kind of golden era (at least for a certain group of people), before the Great Depression, the atrocities of WWII, and the Communist takeover of China. Given all of these elements, I can’t see another time period in which the book could have taken place.   

Old Shanghai, photo taken by the author's grandfather

One of the things that struck me while reading is that it's not your typical exotic treasure hunt, with the depth it provides into the Khmer civilization, both ancient and 20th century.  What drew you into learning more about Cambodia's history?

When I began writing The Map of Lost Memories, exploring Cambodia’s complex Khmer civilization was secondary to telling the story of Irene Blum searching for a set of scrolls believed to contain the lost history of the Khmer. But I knew that I couldn’t just read a book and throw out a few facts and be done with it. And as often happens when I’m researching, one divine nugget of information leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. The more I read, the more fascinated I became.

While the lost scrolls in my novel are fictional, the premise they support is not—in 1925 very little was known about the rise and demise of the ancient Khmer civilization. Even now there are conflicting theories and missing pieces of information. But back then, the fate of the Khmer was a genuine mystery. This was intriguing in and of itself. Then I visited the Angkor Wat temples for the first time. I was blown away, and I knew I wanted to share as much as I could about the Khmer civilization with readers.

A deserted hallway in Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple in the 1920s.

As for my interest in the 20th-century Khmer, this grew out of the four years I spent living in Vietnam. It shocked me, a certain expatriate sense of entitlement that existed in the region even in the 1990s, and I found myself wondering about the effect this attitude must have had in the 1920s when the colonialists held all the power and the locals held none—a local population, in Cambodia’s case, that was once one of the world’s greatest civilizations. I wish I could give a more succinct answer to this question. I can only finish by saying that the more my characters’ stories became enmeshed in their journey to discover the lost history of Cambodia, the more Cambodia rose up as its own character asking that I tell its story too.

Simone Merlin is a mass of contradictions; her knowledge of the Khmer is impressive and valuable, but between her fragility, drug addiction, and sympathy for the Communists, among other things, she brings trouble with her everywhere.  I wasn't sure if I admired her or felt sorry for her, or even liked her much at times, but she intrigued me, and that's the most important thing.  Where did her character originate?

It’s interesting how strongly readers react to Simone. No one—and I do mean no one—likes her, and she has even stood in the way of some people liking the novel. She was inspired by Clara Malraux, even though after reading Clara’s memoirs I had the impression that she was a woman along for the ride, standing by her man. I wanted Simone to be more than that, but a spark is all it takes for a character to ignite and take on a life of her own. Simone definitely had a life of her own. No matter how I tried to corral her and write her as a character who was, to put it nicely, somewhat reasonable, she constantly defied me by taking drugs, lying, and manipulating, often just because it suited her at the time. There were so many moments in the book when I wanted to shake her and tell her to get her act together. But if she had done that, then she wouldn’t have been Simone Merlin.

How do you go about researching things like illegal art trafficking and temple-robbing, especially from the viewpoint of would-be robbers?

My research on this aspect of the novel began before I realized I was researching. After reading Silk Roads, I tracked down Clara Malraux’s memoirs and Andre Malraux’s The Royal Way, a fictitious account of an expedition to find a lost temple in Cambodia. Because Clara and Andre had actually looted a temple, they both offered authentic perspectives. What was most interesting to me was how justified they both felt in taking a seven-piece bas relief (weighing approximately a thousand pounds) from the temple of Banteay Srei.

From the Malraux’s accounts I felt that I had a basic foundation for my characters’ attitudes, and I began in-depth research, reading everything I could online from museum archives and old art and archaeology magazines, and checking out books from the library. There are some terrific volumes on the subject, including Pillaging Cambodia: The Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art; Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft; Loot! The Heritage of Plunder; and Plundered Past.

An abandoned Khmer temple in the Cambodian jungle in the 1920s.

This was one of those research paths that sucked me in and sidetracked me for a long time, because I felt that I needed to understand more than just illegal art trafficking; I needed to understand the art world in general, especially in the post-WWI 1920s. So the aforementioned research led me to books such as Merchants of Art: 1880-1960 Eighty Years of Professional Collecting, which led me to subcategories such as Russian Art & American Money and The Lost Fortune of the Tsars. One particular treasure of a book that I discovered in all of this was An Illuminated Life, the story of Belle da Costa Greene, who was J.P. Morgan’s librarian and a formidable art expert at a time when art was simply not a woman’s world. With all of this swirling around in my head, I wrote pages and pages on art and plunder that never made it into the novel, but I feel all of the research and tucked-away-in-a-drawer writing was invaluable because it gave me a foundation on which I could build my characters’ motives

One of the memorable pieces of advice that Irene's mentor Henry Simms tells her is that "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."  This could, of course, be a tagline for the novel itself, with its unexpected twists.  During your travels through Asia, what unplanned adventures did you run into?

Although I started traveling to Southeast Asia (trips to Thailand, Singapore, Bali, and Borneo) when I was twenty-two, my first unplanned adventure was moving there when I was twenty-nine. It had never once crossed my mind to move to Vietnam. But in 1995, after I graduated from a course on teaching English as a foreign language, I was offered a job there.

Without thinking about it, I took it, and then came the next surprise—the moment I stepped off the plane, I fell madly in love with the country. I still can’t explain that instantaneous flare of passion I felt, but it has not wavered in the past seventeen years.

The third notable “unplanned adventure” was writing The Map of Lost Memories. I already had a novel in the works when I moved to Vietnam—a satire inspired by my recent reading of British fiction—but after living in Vietnam for a few months, I knew in my heart that this was the part of the world I wanted to write about. I dumped the novel-in-progress and started writing The Map of Lost Memories, discovering not only the first story I felt meant to tell, but also, finally, finding my own voice. When I first got on that plane to Vietnam, I could not have imagined that Southeast Asia would give me my vocation and provide me with the opportunity to have my dreams of being a published novelist come true.

Did working as an independent bookseller give you insight into the writing or publication process for your own novel?

Author Kim Fay
During the five years that I worked at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, I read every book I could get my hands on, and it was here that I discovered how many different ways a story could be told. Because I had access not only to books, but to the collective wealth of knowledge that is one of the greatest values of an indie bookstore, I was introduced to books that taught me how to achieve specific results in my own writing. Of particular influence were Graham Greene, Michael Ondaatje, and Penelope Lively, all of whom are incredible craftspeople.

As for learning about the publishing side of the process, I worked at Elliott Bay before the rise of chain bookstores and the birth of Amazon, so the publishing world was very different from how it is today. It was smaller and more personal. Of course publishing houses were businesses, but the overall attitude was less corporate. Because of that, (and because of my work as an editor for the small independent publisher ThingsAsian Press), I was expecting a fairly impersonal experience when my agent sold my novel to Random House in 2011. But I got lucky with an editor whose roots in the publishing world are as deep as mine are in the bookselling world. My editor/writer relationship was wonderfully old school, right down to my editor’s notes—not typed into “track changes” in email documents, but written in pencil on manuscript pages that would arrive at my house by way of good old-fashioned U.S. mail.

I'm eager to learn more about your novel-in-progress, which you wrote is about "an American culinary anthropologist born in Vietnam in 1937."   How did you get interested in exploring Vietnamese culture through its cuisine?  Can you reveal any more about how this novel will connect up with The Map of Lost Memories?

I lived in Vietnam for four years without having a deep interest in the cuisine, other than loving to eat it. I was absorbed by other aspects of my life then, and it wasn’t until I moved back to the U.S. that I began to realize how much the food meant to my relationship with the country and its people. The more I thought about it while going about my life in Los Angeles—which included a growing interest in food and cooking in general—the more I spent time reading about Vietnamese food. As with my research for my novel, one thing led to another, and I emailed my publisher at ThingsAsian Press and told him I wanted to take a five-week culinary tour of the country and write a book about it. I didn’t know what would result, and had no idea that I would become so consumed by the subject of how food affects and reflects the culture and history of Vietnam. After the trip, I spent three more years writing and doing additional in-depth research before finally publishing Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam.

Because of my interest in Vietnamese food, I’ve 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. I felt that anything I wrote about food—because once I start I can’t stop—would derail scenes and take away from the momentum of the plot. The second reason is that I knew I could incorporate my love of food into my next book, an untitled novel about an American woman who is born in Vietnam in 1937; raised in the country, she becomes a culinary anthropologist, and along with studying Vietnam’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick soldiers. This, though, is the backdrop for the 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.

As for its relationship to The Map of Lost Memories, there will be only passing mentions of characters. But I want those small threads to be there, because I hope that with these two books and the next (a true sequel to The Map of Lost Memories), I will be able to give readers a comprehensive picture of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (formerly Indochina) in the pre-1975 twentieth century.


The Map of Lost Memories was published on August 21st by Ballantine at $26.00 (hb, 336pp).  In the UK, the publisher is Hodder & Stoughton (£13.99, hb, 336pp). 


  1. I enjoyed The Map of Lost Memories too and I'm so glad to hear there's a second book in the works.

    1. Yes - I'm eager to see where she takes these characters' stories.

  2. I just begged a copy of this book from her publicist -- I cannot, cannot wait -- and this interview has me even more excited. I'm a sucker for food-in-novels so I'm very eager for her second book, but the history, setting, and complicated characters in The Map of Lost Memories has me drooling. Thanks for sharing this fabu interview!

    1. I loved the setting, but the complicated characters may have been the best part. They aren't people I've met before, and they're all unique and flawed. I'll look forward to reading your review!

  3. Dear Sarah, Amy and Audra,
    This conversation makes me SO happy! It's one thing to sit alone in a room and read a book. But it's a complete thrill to share in these discussions about the story and characters ... and especially when all three of you are such thoughtful readers. Thank you!!

    1. Thanks again for taking time to do the interview! I found it fascinating to learn that nobody had really taken to Simone, for instance. She sure didn't make it easy for anyone to like her, but that's what made her seem real.

    2. I love tough-to-love characters -- that unique, flawed part of them is what makes people so memorable.

  4. This is great! The author did two posts for Historical Tapestry, too. I wish I had the time to read her book! Especially now after hearing you enjoyed it so much.

    1. That's cool about the HT posts. I'll look for them. Hope you have a chance to get to the book eventually - my TBR is seriously packed, too.

  5. What an incredible interview. Although I have not yet had the chance to read this book, I have learned the reasons that inspired the story and see the love for the area and culture that are prominent in the book. I found the process of publishing the book fascinating. I appreciated seeing how the author's previous experiences assisted in her work and in her endeavors to publish, promote, and sell her finished product. Thank you for this new awareness and opening eyesight.

    1. It's a wonderful book if you get the chance to read it! Glad you enjoyed the interview.

    2. Miss C. You have some very good point about the inspiration surrounding the book. I agree with your statement regarding how the author's previous experiences assisted in her work.
      Thank you for this insightful posting.

  6. Anonymous9:19 PM

    I think I could get really into this book, the questions are great. They really give you a deep understanding of the book without asking for important plot points, or giving away the ending. I like the details about the authors life, as well as the passion she feels for what she writes about. Thank you so much, I hope I get the chance to read this one day.

  7. ViolettRein6:17 PM

    This interview is fantastically well written. It provides a good intake on The Map of Lost Memories and Kim Fay. I have had an interest in attempting a historical fiction read and this has definitely drawn my attention towards her book! Thank you for the insight.

  8. This books sounds like an amazing book. It is not being added to my reading list. The interview was well written and provides good background on the book "The Map of Lost Memories". I always appreciate a good read,so I am looking forward to this read.

  9. Mbombo MK11:54 AM

    The process of the book and the journey that the author endure to share fiction, yet factual information. The development of the story line, the characterization and identity development is phenomenon. The interview provides a beautifully done synopsis of what will get the reader engaged in the book.

  10. Tyler Fitzsimmons6:52 PM

    Very interesting and well-written interview. If I ever get through my reading list and need something to read, I will look into this for it's interesting setting.