SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Please join with me to welcome novelist Kim Fay officially to the Jungle Red Writers blog. (Kim's a regular in the comments section, so you may already know her!) Her Edgar Award-shortlisted first novel, THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES just came out in paperback, and she's here to talk about her "vice" of research — one of my obsessions as well.
If you don't know Kim Fay and her work yet, you should. Kim's the author of the historical mystery novel The Map of Lost Memories, the Mystery Writers of America's 2013 Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel by an American Author. She's also written the food memoir Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. She lived in Vietnam for four years, has traveled throughout the region for the past twenty, and now makes her home in Los Angeles.
Kim and I were fellow nominees for the 2013 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author — and when I read her nominated novel, THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES —I absolutely fell in love with her writing. Booklist gave THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES a starred review and said, "Fay’s extraordinary first novel has everything great historical adventure fiction should—strikingly original setting, exhilarating plot twists, and a near-impossible quest . . . Every word of this evocative literary expedition feels deliberately chosen, each phrase full of meaning."
Here's a description:
In 1925 the international treasure-hunting scene is a man’s world, and no one understands this better than Irene Blum, who is passed over for a coveted museum curatorship because she is a woman. Seeking to restore her reputation, she sets off in search of a temple believed to house the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization. As Irene travels through Shanghai's lawless back streets and Saigon’s opium-filled lanes, she joins forces with a Communist temple robber and an intriguing nightclub owner with a complicated past. What they bring to light deep within the humidity-soaked Cambodian jungle will do more than change history—it will solve the mysteries of their own lives.
Today Kim Fay joins us to talk about her research process,
and also to give away three copies of
THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES.
KIM FAY: When I tell people that it took me fourteen years to write my first published novel (I’m also the proud owner of many unpublished ones), it’s true and it’s not true. Yes, from the day I started it until the day my agent felt it was ready to send out, fourteen years passed … but not all of that time was spent writing. Some of it was spent editing travel guidebooks, working on a non-fiction book and indulging in one of my greatest vices: research.
I was that kid who turned her reports in early because I loved investigating the culture of Hawaii or the history of the Bicentennial so much that I’d gathered all the information I needed within a few days. I worshiped at the spines of my family’s set of encyclopedias—I could decide I wanted to know something and look it up, or I could simply open a volume at random and discover something entirely new. My grandpa did not buy me dolls. He bought me Time-Life series. The Old West with twenty-six volumes including my favorite, The Women. This Fabulous Century with a book for each decade, filled with archival photos, newspaper articles and cultural tidbits.
I have heard some writers say that there’s such a thing as too much research, and when it comes to stuffing everything you’ve learned about a subject into a novel, I agree. As for too much researching? Impossible! It’s a joy, it’s gratifying, and I feel that it makes my work so much stronger.
Take, for example, my first novel, The Map of Lost Memories, set in 1920’s China and Indochina. Although I lived in the region for years, I obviously needed to do a lot of research to understand that part of the world during that time period. My main character loses her job at a museum and sets off for Cambodia to find a lost treasure; to understand her and the world she operated in, I read eight different books on the history of art collecting and looting. Was I going to use all the information I learned in these books? Not even close. But the wealth of knowledge I gained bolstered my confidence and gave me a firm understanding the context for the story I was choosing to tell.
I am working on a few new books now, one being the first volume of a mystery series set in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The idea was sparked by my meeting with a woman who was one of the founders of the L.A. Times food paper. It’s not well-known that in its heyday the weekend food paper was a 50-plus-page magazine and its staff operated one of the largest test kitchens in the country. My desire to know more about this world (by conducting interviews, digging through old food papers and testing old recipes) began to shape a character named Barb, a housewife and food writer whose life changes dramatically when a young P.I. moves in next door.
I decided that Barb was addicted to mystery novels as a young woman in the late 1950s. The next thing I knew, I was on AbeBooks at midnight ordering the first ten Edgar award winners for best novel so that I could understand my character through her reading habits. Turns out I also want to learn about the rise of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which was born with the efforts to save our downtown library. So guess what? Barb’s husband is an architectural conservationist whose career trajectory follows the failures and successes of twentieth-century conservation efforts in L.A. As for 1970s L.A., it has always fascinated me, which is why I find myself at the downtown library prowling through local magazine archives and reading the 1971 Los Angeles phone book as if it was the latest New York Times bestselling page-turner.
One lesson I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) is to never fall so much in love with a piece of research that you bend your story out of shape just to fit it in. No matter how much I’ve read or know about a subject or issue, it’s important that I let my research be an organic part of the actual writing process. The second it stands in the way of the story’s flow, it must go.
So, how about you? Do you like researching? Do you have a favorite topic? Have you ever OD’d on research? Has too much research ever gotten in the way for you as a writer? As a reader?
All readers who comment on this post with be entered into a random drawing to win one of three copies of The Map of Lost Memories, compliments of Kim's publisher, Ballantine Books/Random House.
Find out more about Kim Fay and her books at her website.
Friend her on Facebook here.
And follow her on Twitter here.