As noted in my last post, this blog is adding a couple of features. The first is occasional author interviews, and guest posts, beginning with today's interview,
conducted by email, with the fabulous Sue Guiney, whose new novel A Clash of Innocents launched yesterday in London as the first title from UK press Ward Wood Publishing. Her previous books include the play in verse Dreams of May and her first novel, Tangled Roots.
(The second interview, with breakout suspense novelist Henry Perez, is scheduled for Tuesday, September 28.)
I met Sue during my stay at Anam Cara Writer's and Artist's Retreat in County Cork, Ireland, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and we have remained in touch since then. Sue's UK and US charity CurvingRoad produced my one-act play "Dig" in June of 2010, and I will soon be discussing that amazing experience in this space.
Now on to the questions.
JDS: How does a Londoner originally from New York end up writing a novel set in Cambodia?
SG: I’ve always had terrible wanderlust. If there’s a chance to go someplace new, I go. Several years ago, our family had the opportunity to go to Cambodia on a service trip to help build houses for the poor through the charity Tabitha, and to work in a children’s home. I had never been to Asia before and had no idea my experience there would lead to a novel. If anything, my head was still full of my first novel, Tangled Roots. But the place got hold of me, and a few years later I found that I had a story about it that needed to be written.
JDS: How would you describe A Clash of Innocents? Who are the characters, and what situations do they face?
SG: Deborah, a 60-year-old American expat, is on her way back to the “Khmer Home for Blessed Children” which she has run for ten years. A young woman in her twenties is waiting for her. Another American, but with flip flops and a backpack, she asks, “Are you Deborah Young? I’m here to help.”
So begins a story of hidden identities and questioned motives. Who is this young woman? Who is Deborah? Who are any of the displaced Westerners who find themselves raising the leftover children of Cambodia’s violent past? Against her better judgment and building suspicions, Deborah allows the young woman, Amanda, to stay, but when a sick infant is left on their doorstep, the horror of the young woman’s past catches up with her and infiltrates the orderly workings of Deborah’s home. The precarious well being of Deborah’s “family” of forty forgotten Khmer children is jeopardized, as is her own emotional life. I should also add that a wonderful, larger-than-life Australian called Kyle comes to the rescue, in a variety of ways.
JDS: Since Cambodia is a place relatively few Westerners visit, what do you think we should know about the country?
SG: Most everyone knows about the Vietnam War. And most people also know about the horrible atrocities Cambodia’s own government at that time, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, committed against its own people. What most people don’t know, though, is that many of the Khmer Rouge officials are still in power and the government, though not as violent, is still very corrupt. The UN has finally, after nearly 50 years, been successful in holding a Tribunal to bring these murderers of the past to justice, but the Tribunal itself is fraught with its own obstacles. Cambodia is a very small country caught between larger, wealthier ones and so is easily forgotten. There is unbelievable poverty and neglect. We in the West who care about the welfare of other, less fortunate countries, often forget about Cambodia and think it’s “all better now.” It’s not, and that was shocking for me to see.
JDS: How would you compare the process of writing this novel to the process of writing your first novel, Tangled Roots?
S.G. Very different! Tangled Roots took me nearly 9 years to write! A Clash of Innocents took me about two. I knew a bit better what I was doing and I trusted myself much more. But the biggest difference is that I outlined the plot and structure before I started. I am now convinced that plot and story line do matter! This made the writing more even and coherent from the start. Although I was flexible to change course throughout the process, from the beginning I knew where I was starting and where I was going, and I knew my characters.
JDS: For you, how does writing a novel differ from writing poetry or drama?
S.G: That’s a hard one. I love them all, but they all come from different places within me and take different mindsets. In some ways, writing a novel is a combination of all genres. There are passages in my novels where I allow myself to write as if I was writing a poem (although I do believe all prose needs the attention to language and rhythm that poetry demands). And I seem to set up scenes in my novels and visualize them the same way I do with plays. Maybe that means plays and poems can be seen as subsets of novel writing. They can stand on their own, but a novel needs everything. And for me, who seems to get bored easily and refuses to choose one form over another, that seems to work!
JDS: What would you like to say about your publisher? I know there's an interesting back story.
SG: That sound you hear is me taking a deep inhale of breath…..my publisher, Ward Wood, is for me proof of that old Buddhist adage “the universe will provide.” I had a good but also very difficult experience with my first publisher, bluechrome, who went bankrupt (not my fault – really). One of the principals of Ward Wood, Adele Ward, had also been published by bluechrome, so we knew each other. We both were at a book launch of a friend’s poetry collection and she started asking me “what if” sorts of questions about an idea for a new publisher. I was intrigued and excited. I’ve decided that the publishing world is in such upheaval now that new approaches are mandatory. I also know that my work isn’t the sort of mass media stuff that big name publishers are mostly putting out now. So when Adele asked if Ward Wood could publish my novel as their first book – sort of a double launch – I was thrilled and jumped at the chance. It’s been nothing but joy since. It just goes to show, you really do have to get away from your writing desk and out into the world. Meet people, talk to strangers. You never know what will come of it.
JDS: What are you working on now?
SG: I now understand that it takes a year to publicize a new book, and so I have set this year of 2010/2011 aside to do just that and not try to do much creative writing. But I took the summer to start researching and outlining my next novel. All I’ll say is that it deals with music and medicine and will be partly set in rural West Cork, Ireland. JD – you know that area well, as I do, and I’ll be returning to the writing retreat, Anam Cara, to do some more research and thinking in early December. But I can’t fall too much in love with those new characters. My heart must stay in Cambodia for a while.
JDS: What's next?
SG: More writing of all sorts, more publishing (I hope), more traveling. And of course, my theatrical adventures through my charity CurvingRoad (http://www.curvingroad.com/). Producing your play was such fun and so exciting, I hope to keep doing that for other artists working in the theatre.
Thanks so much for giving me this chance to navel gaze and ramble on. Hi to all your blog friends out there. It’s been great fun!