Author Interview with Samuel Ferrer

  • How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing for the same length of time it took to write and edit THE LAST GODS OF INDOCHINE, which was twelve years in the making. It would be safe to say I learned to write during this timeframe, with plenty of speed bumps and potholes along the way. Previously, I had only written a short memoire, with a fairly enthusiastic response from a couple of friends. But truth be told, I didn’t know what I was doing when I started out on this manuscript.

  • What is your favorite genre to write?

Historical fiction. But it IS an exhausting genre, to say the least. There is just so much more elbow grease that has to be put into a work of historical fiction. On the upside—at least for me, is that all this research creates a world so rich and engaging that it lubricates my creative process; terrific questions for plot, characters, and scenes often come from time spent in research.

  • Which genre have you never tried before, but would you like to try out?

As much as I enjoy literature that is really about “nothing” – just the goings-on of relationships or whatever, I would still be very intimidated to attempt such a novel at this point. I enjoy reading these because of their focus on character, prose, ideas, and maybe humor. I think I have a good handle on these aspects in THE LAST GODS, but I still want to write within the framework of a moving plot for the time being. Much later, I could see writing a book “about nothing” (and yet, of course, such books never are).

  • Please tell us about your book.

From the backpage cover: “Jacquie Mouhot and Paaku the Lotus-Born are divided by six centuries but linked by a common curse. In medieval Cambodia, Paaku is an orphan whose community believes he may be a reluctant incarnation of a god, causing sectarian turmoil for the kingdom’s leaders. Meanwhile, in 1921, Jacquie follows the footsteps of her famous grandfather to Indochina and becomes immersed in the tragedy of Paaku’s history – a story in which she still has a role to play. Not only is the freedom of Paaku’s soul in her unknowing hands, so is her own.”

  • Which character was your favorite, and why? Which character was your least favorite, and why?

The protagonist in the primary story, naturally, was the one in whom I invested the most. I spent a great deal of time fleshing her out, getting under her psyche, making her work. It wasn’t easy: she is uncomfortable in her own skin and managing post-traumatic stress from her time as a  nurse in the Great War. The main character of the medieval story, by contrast, was more simple and straight forward. The Chief-Priest, in that same medieval story, is a rather wretched old man who directs a couple of scenes that some squeamish readers have told me are not easy to read.

  • What was the hardest part about writing your book?

Prose. From the start it was always my highest priority to write a beautiful novel, and both the most challenging and rewarding part during over one hundred passes of editing was creating fluid, smooth, and hopefully beautiful, prose. If successful, readers will enjoy the writing for its own sake.

  • What is your writing routine? Are there things you absolutely need to start writing?

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 on location throughout Cambodia.

  • How long did it take you to write your book from start to finish?

That’s complicated. I’d say it took about four years before I thought I had a completed manuscript, and a significant amount of interest at that time from the upper echelons of the publishing industry made me believe it was close to done. But then I ended up spending at least another two years making major revisions, and then another six making occasional, fine-tuning adjustments that were important all the same. By that point I was working with a couple of agents (I left one for another) and we were waiting for protracted decisions from publishing houses, so I still had time to tweak things. Having said that, I’d estimate the manuscript was probably only 75% the quality of what was ultimately published back at the midway, five or six year point, so I can’t dismiss the fine-tuning as inessential or arbitrary.

  • Can you tell us about your editing process?

My editing process is extremely obsessive-compulsive, perhaps not unlike my personality. Honestly, I think this was an advantage; I have no doubt I made well over a hundred passes of the manuscript to get it into its present shape. Sentence by sentence, I’d imagine if I could re-work them in any way for the sake of clarity and fluidity. If there was anything that could be taken out to make it more concise, I’d do it – unless it was something that achieved some kind of other aesthetic criteria I was aiming for and I was very confident that that was working. If I wasn’t very confident, I’d take that out as well and error on the side of reduction. It’s not just a question of avoidance of adverbs or judicious use of adjectives; I’d always ask myself – is there anything redundant or self-evident that makes use of this word or phrase superfluous? If so, I’d cut it. I think I started with around 125K words and got it down to 90K, including removing a major subplot I eventually realized had been introduced too late in the story. Meanwhile, even when not writing, I’d always be taking notes of creative metaphors, turns of phrase, images, anything really, that might be nice to fit in somewhere. Then I’d go back and see if those could be worked in or not. Over the course of years, this amounted to a considerable amount of prose that usually found a place somewhere in the book. And as for characterization, I’d ask myself at any and every opportunity if I could dig deeper into the main character’s psyche – even if just for one sentence—to better take the reader into her world.

  • Is this book part of a series? If so, how many installments do you have planned?

No, it is not.

  • Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Definitely! Firstly, any newbie would be strongly advised to “workshop” their material with other writers. Not just friends, but writers, who will tend to be more objective and critical. I learned a tremendous amount through this and would consider it critical to my development. Much of the editing process is simply about house cleaning; mitigating one’s tendencies to overwrite. And how others pick these out is often times not what I would have foreseen. Having said that… be strong! One thing I noticed in “workshopping” is that some writers would fold under the criticism, or even ask that the criticism be gentle. As a professional classical musician, my training 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. Writing is intensely personal and therefore it is natural to take the criticism hard, but that is exactly when you need to consciously set yourself aside and sign on to the process. Over time, you will eventually start to weed out arbitrary feedback from that which is very useful.

  • Why should everyone read your book?

With THE LAST GODS OF INDOCHINE, I became the only non-Asian ever nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”), and the unpublished manuscript had a significant amount of interest in the world of publishing. The chief editor of one publishing house in Asia even went so far as to send me a text message saying it was the best writing she had ever come across in Asia. Well …. it worked well for her, I can say. But we all know literature, just like music, is highly subjective. I can safely claim the novel is rich in history and culture, that the plot is not predictable, and it should be a polished and fluid read.

I recently read a review of a debut novelist saying the writer was writing with the wonderful desperation of someone who may be published just once, as if that one book could be it for him. Similarly, I wanted to give this manuscript all I had and leave nothing left unturned. I may or may not be published again, but I know I approached THE LAST GODS OF INDOCHINE with the same desperation that this was my one and only shot at it.

 

  • If you could meet three authors, dead or alive, which authors would you choose?

My favorite writer is probably Wallace Stegner, who is not well known. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for “Angle of Repose”, which I studied extensively along with other novels by him. I would probably just want to give him a long hug and thank him for all those journeys with his wonderful characters. Meeting Vladimir Nabokov would be overwhelming. Amongst the living, I suppose a drink with Jonathan Franzen would be a hoot.

 

  • What inspired you to write your book?

I had a long-held dream to write a novel, but never expected it to happen until much later in life. After a trip to Cambodia, I was blindsided by a premise I thought would be fascinating for a story, so one night I made a decision to go for it. During that trip I was struck by 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. 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 fictitious premise came to me.

  • Are you working on something at the moment? If so, can you tell us more about it?

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 very successful crowdfunding campaign to record another CD for my band, Shaolin Fez. As the producer, this will keep me very busy until mid-2017 at which time I hope to dive back into my second novel.

About the Book

51aip-a5hrlJacquie Mouhot and Paaku the Lotus-Born are divided by six centuries but linked by a common curse. In medieval Cambodia, Paaku is an orphan whose community believes he may be a reluctant incarnation of a god, causing sectarian turmoil for the kingdom’s leaders. Meanwhile, in 1921, Jacquie follows the footsteps of her grandfather, a famous explorer, to Indochina, where she becomes immersed in the tragedy of Paaku’s history: a story simultaneously unfolding in the intertwined present and past, a story in which she still has a vital role to play.

“Ferrer’s debut masterpiece evokes the magic and mystery of a long gone civilization. This is beautiful fiction that leaves the scent of incense and sandalwood long after you have finished reading it.”
— Dania Shawwa, Editor-in-Chief, Haven Books

“… rationality and superstition get locked into the kind of epic conflict that is the stuff of all great narratives… an elaborate and self-assured interweaving of historical fact and keenly imagined fiction.”
Time Out Hong Kong Magazine

“A sublime tale told by a master storyteller, steeped in the lore of old. Ferrer’s conjuring of romantic Indochine is a journey that lures, stirring up ghosts in a wild phantasmagoria, reckoning with forces both entwined and eternal.” — Angela Kan, Travel Host & Writer, The Discovery Channel

“Rich in style, exotic in setting and fresh in plot, The Last Gods is a beautifully told return to the colonial novel.” — Lijia Zhang, author of Socialism is Great!

Buy on Amazon.

 

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