Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Kim Fay, Author of THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES on the "Vice" of Research, and a book giveaway!

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 

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.


  1. There’s something quite special about researching and learning something new. And those Time-Life series were really quite special . . . Voyage Through the Universe and Man in Space were my favorites . . . .

    Your Los Angeles mystery series sounds quite intriguing, and isn’t the downtown library great? I’m looking forward to reading “The Map of Lost Memories” . . . .

  2. These things are so personal, of course, but I think this is one of the best hooks I've read here in a while: "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."
    Makes me want to read it ... although I am in no hurry to finish my current read, Murder with Ganache. (Thanks, Lucy.)

  3. Oooh, this book was already on my to-read list. As a former museum curator, now working in a library, I'm prone to getting lost in the joys of in-depth research myself. And I always appreciate authors who clearly did (and loved) their homework.

  4. Joan, doesn't the Los Angeles mystery sound fabulous?

    Kim lives in L.A., so she'll be joining us a bit later on Pacific time....

  5. Welcome Kim, great to have you here! I'll put this on TBR pile, for sure. I know exactly the feeling of bending the story to fit around a juicy bit of research. For me it's not usually historical--it might be a great factoid of police procedure:). An ongoing battle!
    (and thank you Jack! xo)

  6. Interesting topic and an area too little is written about. Quirkfarms

  7. As a youngster I devised research projects for myself, and have continued doing that as an adult. When I was in my thirties, I won a subscription to a regional magazine because I was able to answer questions about the history of that state.

    For years, I worked as a real estate title searcher. I found myself bored by the searches that could be finished in a couple of hours; it was so easy - TOO easy - for me to get lost in my research and forget all about the time! I purchased histories of several of the towns where my employers sent me most often.

    And I LOVE maps! I want to read any book that has the word "map" in the title, even if the word is used figuratively! (Another of my odd quirks as a kid: I could sit in the living room all afternoon and evening just reading atlases - for FUN, not for school.)

    So, Kim, I plan to read your book!

  8. Susan:
    Yes, the Los Angeles mystery sounds really intriguing . . . having lived in the Los Angeles area for about fifteen years, I find that I am drawn to stories that take place there . . . .

  9. I absolutely relate to Kim's love of research. I could research books for YEARS (if I didn't have looming deadlines). Sometimes it's that one, small, quirky detail that makes everything come alive. It certainly does in Kim's book.

  10. And Joan, yes! I love the "noir" aspects of L.A. — perfect for a mystery! And I think the idea of setting it in the 70s is brilliant.

  11. A new author and book - excellent! I love researching - the idea of learning something new or unraveling a thread of a story is so wonderful. I'm intrigued by the idea of the Los Angeles book and the setting in the '70s. Something to look forward to!

  12. Kim, it sounds wonderful. I'm a native southern Californian (Temple City) and lived in the LA area in the seventies, so I'd love to read this story as well as your first novel.

    I can easily get lost in research. I've been plotting an 1888 series set in my town in northeastern Massachusetts, and find myself thinking about research as I simply walk around town. The old mill buildings, the falls in the downtown river, the antique homes. Love it.

  13. Well I'm not a writer, but as a reader there isn't much I love more than reading a book, becoming obsessed with some portion of said book, and then going out and reading more about the subject! A perfect example of this is, after reading The Other Boleyn Girl I wanted to read so much more about all things Tudor. So I found Allison Weir's nonfiction books and she is now one of my favorites!

  14. I must apologize for the goof in Kim's text — I think I posted something twice? I'm still getting used to Blogger, mea culpa. Rest assured it was my clumsy fingers and NOT Kim who made the goof. Thank you. Now, back to our regular chat…..

  15. Good morning, everyone - as Susan said, I'm on the west coast, so I'm just waking up ... I'm halfway through my coffee, so I'll hope my comments are coherent!

    I'm thrilled to hear such interest in my new mystery series, and also to hear how everyone feels about/approaches research.

    Joan - I love it that you too had Time-Life series in your childhood. They offered such engaging ways for kids to learn.

    Jack - So pleased you like The Map of Lost Memories' hook. Funny how a single sentence like that can take ages to come up with.

    Leslie - What fabulous jobs you've had!! Museums and libraries ... two of my favorite places. And it's great to share a love of research with a reader.

    Lucy - I was thinking about books like yours while I was writing this essay. There are so many kinds of research for a mystery writer, and to be honest, I find the police procedural research the most intimidating. I'm always in awe of writers like you who blend in such crucial details with ease.

    Deb - You and I were clearly separated at birth! I too made up my own research projects, and my mom says one of the first objects I was ever attracted to was the family globe. As for maps, there are plenty of scenes with real maps in the novel, so I hope that satisfies :)

    Joan - Isn't it crazy how much L.A. grabs the imagination? I was fascinated with this city long before I moved here.

    Lysa - You said it perfectly .... "unraveling a thread of a story." That is definitely one of the most satisfying parts of reading for me.

    Edith - I did the same as you when I was researching The Map of Lost Memories. I lived in Vietnam in the 1990s, when so many remnants of French colonialism still remained. I would walk around the city late at night and imagine what it must have been like during that time period. As for your life in LA area in the 1970s, you may be getting an email from me, since I love first-person insights!

    Thank you all so much for commenting!! I'm now off to finish my coffee and will be back soon to check in.


  16. Hey, fabulous Kim! (ANd you know how much I love your book!)

    I read the entire set of world books, when I was 13 or so? SO much fun. (ANd think of how much of it is outdated now.)

    Research..sometimes I feel like my whole work-life is research, you know? To me--it's like a treasure hunt.

    Oh--I just looked out the window. It's SNOWING!

  17. I appreciate what you've said about not bending the story to include a piece of well-loved research. While I am not a writer, I have had the privilege of speaking to a group on several occasions and find the same to be true.

    Can't wait for the new series Kim! I loved The Map of Lost Memories.


  18. Kim - Welcome! The Map of Lost Memories has captured my interest and I cannot wait to read it.

    (just started snowing in Boone, NC)

  19. Once I get going looking into something, it can be a long process and lots of fun. One thing leads to another and I never know where I'll end up.

  20. Hi Kim! I love maps (I still have the globe with which my grandmother and I planned our armchair world travels), I love research, I love historical mysteries, and I love learning about unfamiliar parts of the world. You might guess I just ordered your book:-) And in this case paper won the digital/paper argument--I went through a big book-clearing out project this year, and am trying to buy digital as much as possible, but your book sounds like one I need to hold in my hands, and loan to friends.

    Love the idea for the LA book, too! I love LA, the 70s, and food. Another winner!

  21. Kim, THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES sounds fantastic. As I've often repeated here, I adore historical mysteries.

    I also love research (for values of reading lots of history and nonfiction and going down rabbit holes on the Internet.) So mch so, that I do very little of it when I'm starting a book - I was always afraid I'd spend all my time having fun in the stacks, as it were, and I'd never get down to writing!

  22. Hi Kim, as one regular commenter to another, it's nice to learn more about you. I have GOT to read your novel. I can't believe I somehow missed it.

    For the LA novel, I love your description of how your research flowed from one interest to another.

    I'm definitely a researcher. Since my novels take place modern-day Ireland: research trips! Woohoo! I have to be careful that I don't slow the stories down with too much description.

    I have a question. As a branding thing, since you started out in the east, did your publisher want to see more mysteries set in the east? Or was it no problem moving to LA, fictionally speaking?

  23. This is SO much fun! Be careful Jungle Reds, or I may just try to post every day ... I love these online conversations.

    Hank - We have a mutual admiration society. Your books are so fantastic! And I love what you say about research being like a treasure hunt ... I especially love it when the treasure I find is not the one I went looking for.

    Elizabeth - I'm thrilled that you enjoyed my book! And I know what you mean about the dangers of letting in too much research no matter the situation. Giving speeches is so hard when you have more info than you need ... it's such a fine art, paring down.

    Kaye - Perhaps my novel will help you stay warm. It takes place in the tropics and there is a lot of HEAT in the book.

    Libby - Yes! Research can be such an adventure in and of itself.

    Deb - Thank you SO MUCH for taking the paper leap with my novel. I hope you enjoy your journey through Shanghai, Saigon and Cambodia. It was a fun but strange place to research, since I knew the region so well but at the same time knew it in the 1990s, not the 1920s. I was fortunate in that I had access to so much information to help give the book its authenticity.

    Julia - Your books feel so natural in regard to how you weave the research in. Perhaps that is because you follow your story's flow first. It's funny because even though I do loads of research up front, my first draft is usually a wild ride through the unknown. The research really comes in for in the revisions.

    Susan - I must thank you for this opportunity to converse with so many wonderful writers and readers. As for your books, I can't imagine how you get any writing done, the research aspect is SO fascinating!

  24. Lisa - I LOVE research trips. There's nothing that makes me happier than another excuse to travel back to Vietnam. Next up for me: a few months in the hill town of Dalat to explore the area's history.

    As for your question about branding, I am working on another novel set in Southeast Asia (this one takes place from the 1930s to the 1970s), as well as a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories. But those books will probably take me 3-5 years each ... that's just the way I roll :)

    In the meantime, I wanted to have some fun and do something a little different that didn't take me as much time. (I also do well if I work on more than one project at a time, so that I can switch back and forth).

    My editor at Ballantine told me that she thinks it's good for an author to branch out and not get stuck in the rut of just one type of book. And my agent feels that I'll be able to cross over (since my Asia books and my L.A. books will both stay loosely within the mystery genre), although for another book I'm working on, we are going to try to sell it under a pen name, since it's so different (it's more traditional women's fiction).

    Does that answer your question? If not, let me know and I'll see if I can be more specific.

  25. Hi Kim. It's great to "meet" you. I can't wait to read your book. Sounds fabulous.

    Yes, I love research. Even when not actually researching but only reading for pleasure I tend to want to dig deeper into topics. I remember reading NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (in the 70s?) and spent months just reading Russian history. Deb Harkness' A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES and SHADOW OF NIGHT have many opportunities to veer off into related subjects- and I have. Who knew Gerbert of Aurillac was so fascinating, for example?

    I've added your book to the top of the TBR list. Can't wait to get it.

  26. That definitely answers my question, Kim! Thanks. It's nice that your agent and editor are open-minded that way. Seems like things can get a little rigid in the branding department.

    Also, wow, 3-5 years! Frankly, I like knowing that. Some novels just take longer.

    I'm impressed (in awe really) that you're working on so many projects at the same time. You don't confuse yourself sometimes? :-)

  27. As someone who has read the book, I'll vouch for the "fabulous" description. I loved it. Kim used her research in a way that wasn't overt, but part of the story. Best of luck with the paperback!

  28. Interesting question about the branding thing…. Personally, if I love an author, I'll follow her across any and all genres…..

    Kim, I think I've come a long way in terms of research and how I present it. I feel it gets better with every book. But sometimes it hurts so much to make those cuts… "Kill your darlings!"

  29. My favorite line in your posting, Kim, was "My grandpa did not buy me dolls. He bought me Time-Life series." How wonderful to have such an important person in your life so in tune with the essence of who you are. I, too, loved to peruse encyclopedias as a child. I wish I'd kept the old black ones when my parents died. I still love compendiums of information that lead me to further research. While fellow students, especially during my Masters, complained of the necessity of reading multiple sources for projects or papers, I was in my glory.

    Whenever I travel somewhere, I like to research the history of the place. Having been to Hawaii (Oahu) several times, I became passionately interested in its history, in particular the United States bold and greedy takeover. I read non-fiction and fiction to feed this thirst for knowledge.

    Too much research? Can there be such a thing? As you so astutely stated, it's not always possible to fit in all of your knowledge on a subject, but for me, the reader, I get a great sense of satisfaction from the confidence the author exudes in her writing, stemming from that overall knowledge.

    I'm so glad that you are the guest blogger today, as I always enjoy and learn from you comments here. The conversation yesterday on book buying for Christmas netted me some wonderful titles due to your listings. Also, when I went to look up your Communion book, I did come across The Map of Lost Memories and put it on my list, too. What I am most pleased about, Kim, is that I think you are going to open up a new area of interest for me in the locale of your writing. That's always exciting.

    I mostly read fiction, but that's misleading because the fiction almost without exception takes me to researching facts concerning a locale or story. I love theme reading, which just naturally includes fiction and non-fiction aspects.

    Great post, Kim. Now I can be a fan of your books as well as your comments. Oh, and I'm eager to see what you do with the mystery series. Sounds intriguing indeed.

  30. Kim, feel free to email me at edithmax at gmail dot com. I moved to Japan in late 1975 and haven't live in California since then, but have loads of family and friends who never left, so ask away!

  31. Your book sounds great! Must read.
    I like to learn history, etc through fiction, but there is a delicate balance. Too much info and it turns into a lecture I don't want to sit through in order to read the story. A good historical fiction will provide solid info with the story and a good jumping off point to direct further research on my part. The 1920s are fascinating, so I can hardly wait to see where your story sends me.

  32. It warms my (retired) librarian heart to read Kim's thoughts on the research process!

  33. Colleen and Marianne - I'm that way too! If I read a novel or really any book that sparks my interest in the subject, the next time I know, I'm knee deep in non-fiction books.

    Lisa - My agent and editor are open-minded. As for the marketing department ... they could hardly wrap their heads around The Map of Lost Memories, because it wasn't easy to pigeon-hole. I can't imagine how their heads will explode when I turn in a completely new book!

    As for the 3-5 years, that's wishful thinking on my part. But I've learned so much about process from the mystery writing community (Hallie Ephron's book on writing is my Bible right now), so I think I'll have an easier go of it from now on.

    And speaking to having more than one project at a time - I feel that I write best if I can dig in and get a good stretch of writing done, then step back, move my mind elsewhere, and let my subconscious get some work done for me :)

    Terry - You are always so generous with your praise. Thank you! I in turn love the "research" you do ... live an interesting life first, then write about it later ;)

    Oh Susan - The Map of Lost Memories was 600+ pages at one point ... I had to kill a thousand darlings. But there's nothing like some sacrifice to make us stronger!! (PS - Just finished Her Majesty's Hope - such an emotional experience. I loved the way you took Maggie in such a new direction).

    Kathy - I too love our "discussions" here at Jungle Reds. It's such a unique and personal community. I use the blog posts and comments as a sort of daily meditation.

    It sounds like you and I are identical in our love of research. I'm so glad I came of age before the Internet. There was something so satisfying about being surrounded by books, books and more books whenever I wanted to learn something new. As for my grandpa, he was definitely attuned to who I was, but he also shaped me too. He was a very simple man with little education, and all he wanted for his granddaughters was college (he couldn't have cared less if we got married). He did everything he could to nurture our curiosity and love of knowledge.

    I'm SO happy to be a part of igniting your further interest in Asia. I fell madly in love with the region the first time I traveled there, and I now consider Vietnam my home away from home. It's so rich with culture and history, not to mention fabulous food!

    Edith - Thank you for offering to share your experiences and contacts with me. As soon as I get more organized, I'll definitely be in touch.

    Pat - I totally agree with you on the lecture aspect. I had more than a few art history and colonialism "lectures" in my novel before I edited it down. It was so tricky weaving what I wanted to keep into the story, but very satisfying each time I pulled it off.

    Virginia - Librarians were my life raft as a child, and I still rely on them today. Your comment warms my heart :)

  34. Kim - I was lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat a few years ago, so your book *definitely* made my 'to-read' list!

    And I'll add an aspect of research that I haven't seen mentioned yet - courtesy of the Internet, it's not only possible but all-too-easy to start researching topic A, only to click a few links and wind up also researching Q and X, as well! (I'm usually done in by additional links on a website that I enjoy.)

  35. Exploding marketing heads! I'd like to see that!

    See you around the virtual world, :-) Lisa

    P.S. Hallie, I didn't know you had a writing book. I've gotta check it out.

  36. Kate - Isn't Angkor Wat the most amazing place!! I've been there 3 times now, and it never fails to awe me.

    Regarding the Internet, it's the great black hole, and I love it for that! The one thing leads to another aspect can be so fulfilling. I try to be disciplined, but I also know that serendipity plays a great role in writing, so when it feels right, I follow the links :)

  37. Lisa - Hallie's book is specifically on writing mysteries. It's terrific!!

    Might see you around the real world too. I spent junior high and high school in Vancouver outside Portland. I get up that way sometimes. If I do I'll drop you a note.

  38. As a reader, I go from fiction to research! Always something more to learn. Living in a rural Alaskan setting, the internet gives me access to the world in both words and pictures. I read the "Lands and People" book set that came with our encyclopedia when I was a kid, until the bindings gave out.

  39. If you'd like to meet Kim in person, I believe she'll be at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, CA — is that right, Kim?

  40. SJ - You said it. There is always something more to learn, and I feel so sorry for people who don't feel that way.

    I just helped edit a memoir by Janet Brown (author of Tone Deaf in Thailand) about her childhood in Alaska - it's due out next year. I have great admiration for those who live in remote wilderness areas. The view out your window is probably as amazing (or more so) than anything you find on the Internet.

  41. Yes, Susan - I'm definitely going to Bouchercon (otherwise known as Margaritaville). I'll also be at the Tucson Festival of Books. I'm hoping for Left Coast Crime too, but it's so close to Tucson, I'm not sure it will work out :(

  42. That's awesome, Kim. Definitely tap me when you travel up this way. We can do cocktails. (I'm always up for cocktails, or wine, or ...) :-)

  43. Lisa - Cocktails or wine - definitely a plan!

  44. I love well-researched books. If it's a historic novel it's very important, of course. I like the feel of the history in the story. And while I like to learn a little as I read for fun, I don't want the feeling of reading a history book. I don't like long passages telling or explaining the history, because it takes me out of the story.

    My own research I am reading Records of the Salem witch trials and records of the earliest slave marketers and merchant vessels that transported slaves. I am also reading the available educational records of the ministers and businessmen, as well as those of their contemporaries, from the Harvard Archives—as they become available. Some have only been recently rediscovered. Some I will have to go back home to read.

    Kim, I am so far behind in writing reviews of the books I have read recently, I should not be entered into the drawing. I will read your books, though. I'm thrilled to learn about them.

  45. Reine - Agreed, overlong historical passages really bog a story down. It's the rare writer who can infuse a unique voice into their "lecture" and pull it off.

    Your research sounds so fascinating. It's amazing what is available to us when we start searching.

    As for the drawing - I'm offering the books for reading pleasure, not reviews (unless one feels so inclined), so I will gladly include your name with the others. As far as I'm concerned, if someone likes my book, word of mouth is far more effective anyway!

  46. As a previous librarian and author of four historical novels, I totally get what you're saying. I love, love the research part of writing and sometimes have to drag myself kicking and screaming back into the hard work of actual writing. I identify with what you say, including the Time-Life books. I also have a hard time even considering discarding any of my "research" tomes!