Samuel Ferrer wrote his debut novel, The Last Gods of Indochine, in the bars of Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, the cafes of Laos, in the mountains of Sapa, and on location throughout Cambodia. Inspired by the real life of explorer, Henri Mouhot (1826-1881), the novel centres around Mouhot’s fictitious granddaughter and uses excerpts from the journal that made Mouhot famous after his death in the jungles of Laos, published posthumously in 1863. With the The Last Gods of Indochine, Sam became the only non-Asian to have ever been nominated for Asia’s most prestigious literary award, The Man Asian Literary Prize. Katherine Clements caught up with him to find out more.
How did the initial idea for The Last Gods of Indochine come about?
During my first trip to Cambodia I was captivated by an image I thought could make a fascinating setting for a story: a photograph of well-dressed promenaders and vintage cars at the footsteps of a full-scale reconstruction of the top level of Angkor Wat at the 1922 Colonial Exposition in Marseille. Yes, Angkor Wat in France. And it looked absolutely real. I was taken by the exploration and imagination of La Belle Époque and how the French fixation on the East captured what was perhaps the most exotic time during the colonial age. Within this context, a premise blindsided me of a fictitious granddaughter for the real-life explorer, Henri Mouhot, who could be sent to the Indochinese colonies before standing in as his representative at the 1922 Marseille exposition.
You’ve chosen a split time period, with sections set in the 13th Century and the 1920s. Which was the more challenging to research and recreate?
The early 20th Century story was more challenging, as I felt more obliged to get the history right. We don’t actually have a lot of information regarding the mediaeval Khmer empire. We do have an amazing journal by a Chinese emissary who wrote of the customs and lifestyle of that kingdom, which was a goldmine for my own research. Of course we also know a descent amount from the investigative work of archaeologists, particularly from the bas-reliefs, but this is still not nearly as much as what we know about the French colonial efforts. So in this sense I actually felt more liberated with the mediaeval story, in that I could allow myself more artistic license.
You’ve chosen fictional protagonists but several other real historical figures appear in the book. How did you choose who to include and why?
In fact, there are more than a few historical figures in both stories. In the French colonial story, the majority of the characters and people surrounding the protagonist are historical. I thought it would be more fun and enlightening for readers if they were meeting people from history. While there are quite a few factual depictions of them, of course their personalities and roles in the story are completely fictional. I clarify this in an afterword section about who was real and to what extent. Previously, when the publisher had been making some decisions about the manuscript, I told them I was content to change all the names of the historical characters and instead just mention who the characters were based on in the afterword. But the publisher liked the idea of using real names. So in the end the afterword explains that the inclusion of their names was a kind of tribute to their work that had captivated Europe at the height of French expansion.
Did you find anything unexpected during your research? Any strange synchronicities or ‘aha’ moments?
Yes! When I returned to Cambodia to do further research, I had already come to a dead end regarding the archaeological project, L’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO), which was the setting for my story in Cambodia. I couldn’t even figure out if the organisation still existed or not. So I went to Siem Reap with absolutely no leads and hired a boy on a motor-scooter to drive me around all day. He was very confused and wanted to take me to the tourist sites. Instead, I had him take me to the local library where someone eventually found another who could answer my questions in English. I told them I was looking for any information or books they might have about EFEO, and to my surprise she answered, ‘Why don’t you just go down the street and ask them for yourself?’ So EFEO still existed! Once at their estate, a secretary gave me access to their tiny library, including the dailies of the directors of that era. I asked her if there was anyone I could interview and she gave the director a call, who agreed to meet me in a couple of hours. When we met, he was a bit off-putting: ‘I don’t know how many questions I can answer as I wasn’t alive then,’ he said. My first question was about the location of EFEO in the 1920s: for example, where would it have been in relation to the temples? He was baffled and answered between cigarette puffs, ‘Well, you are looking at it. It’s these same buildings surrounding you!’ I was in disbelief and elated. In fact, he was extremely helpful in answering questions about the nature of EFEO and its work back when the project was in its early stages. That interview alone made the whole trip worthwhile.
The book raises questions about European exploration and colonialism. Was that a conscious decision and did you worry about how it would be perceived?
I did worry – I confess to not having considered this during the rough draft. Then I came across a review by an Asian critic stating that the colonial novel was dead and Western writers should give up on the objectification of a romanticised Asia. So the way I approached it was to not sugarcoat my protagonist’s journey into Indochina. I allowed her to be naïve, occasionally repulsed, and even a little bit judgemental. I allowed the archaeologists to be sincere in their efforts, but also depicted a geopolitical landscape of conflicting French, regional, and even Russian interests. I didn’t do this as any kind of critique, but rather as a neutral voice just trying to get the setting right. Fortunately for me, the Asian Review of Books addressed this exact topic as presented in The Last Gods, and gave me a thumbs up for eschewing a romanticised Orient, instead portraying a landscape rife with tension, anticipating the exploitation and disaster that would soon follow. I sighed in relief after that review in particular.
For anyone interested in the history, could you recommend any further reading?
The aforementioned account by the Chinese emissary, Zhou Daguan, The Customs of Cambodia, is a rather amusing depiction of ancient life in the kingdom. Furthermore, my novel quotes excerpts from Henri Mouhot’s journal – the historical grandfather of my fictional protagonist – entitled, Voyage dans les royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos et autres parties centrales de l’Indo-Chine (two volumes) that might be of interest to history buffs.
The book was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009 – a prestigious prize for unpublished novels. Can you tell us about your path since then? How did you find a publisher?
What a long saga! But in a nutshell, I had two agents along the way, one who came on board around the time Macmillan Asia wanted the book to be published by Picador U.K. That (literal) handshake-deal fell through in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. Later, an auction to the big five publishing houses in the U.K. managed to generate some protracted interest, but I remained without a contract. The Man Asian Literary Prize resulted in getting another agent to represent it in New York, which ultimately also yielded no results. All along I was revising and tweaking the manuscript, and by the time I presented it to Hong Kong publishers, it was a very tight manuscript. Honestly, the doors that had opened for me in the U.K. and New York happened too soon. The manuscript hadn’t arrived yet. So I was offered a contract from Signal 8 Press (Hong Kong) in mid-2014 — but was told that because their list for 2015 was already full, I’d have to wait until early 2016 for publication, which ended up being late 2016. So it was a long, long road to publication.
A few personal questions. You were born in America. How did you end up living in and writing about Asia?
I auditioned for my current job with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in New York City, where I was living and working as a freelance musician. There are not many full-time salaried jobs for orchestral musicians in the U.S. and I was keen on living abroad anyway, so when I won the audition I was ready to take the plunge.
Artistically, I’d say there is nothing in common. And I don’t just say that as a musician, I say that as the songwriter for my band. Having said that, my training as a classical musician over many years was significantly based on critical feedback, which is often hard on the ego, but no matter how humbling, I always believed in the process. So I already had this mentality when I came to writing and workshopping. Writing is intensely personal and therefore it is natural to take criticism hard, but that is exactly when you need to consciously set yourself aside and sign on to the process, and that’s exactly how I approached the workshops. Over time, you eventually start to weed out arbitrary feedback from that which is useful.
You must have a lot on your plate! Describe a typical writing day – if there is such a thing.
Mine is getting out to a café, preferably with some space around me, headphones tuning out the world. Soundtrack music is wonderful for this, and if there was one recording I played the most during The Last Gods, it would surely be from the film Kama Sutra: beautiful, exotic, Indian-fusion music that suited the atmosphere of my novel. In fact, I wrote a great deal of The Last Gods in the bars of Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, the cafes of Laos, in the mountains of Sapa, and of course on location throughout Cambodia.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’ve started another work of historical fiction that, in fact, is Chinese in context—with a major twist of setting. However, I’ve had to put it on hold as I’ve recently hosted a successful crowdfunding campaign to record another CD for my band, Shaolin Fez. As the producer, this will keep me quite busy until mid-2017 at which time I hope to dive back into my second novel.