An Interview With S.P. Somtow

S.P. SOMTOW: OPENING ALL THE DOORS

Somtow Sucharitkul, who writes as S.P. Somtow, is coming to terms - both personal and literary - with his remarkable multicultural background and a lifetime of traveling.

"Fred Pohl said, 'Somtow, I'm doing this anthology of stories by people from different countries, and I want you to write a story about Thailand.' I've got to confess that until that moment, it had never even occurred to me to write about Thailand. I had completely walled that part of my life away, never looked at it. Because I agreed to do that, it set off a whole chain of emotional self-examinations. So I wrote Fiddling For Water Buffalos, which was the most popular story I'd written up to that point. This led to a number of other stories about Thailand, such as Lottery Night. This really opened the floodgates. It's the reason I'm able to write Jasmine Nights, a serial for the Bangkok Post, which integrates the British, American and Thai cultures. As an artist - it's like opening all the doors in Bluebeard's castle. But there would be no story if we didn't open all the doors, so we've got to do it. Still, I don't think I'll lose that 'outsider' quality necessary to a writer.

In the past, I would spend two years in Thailand and live five years here, that sort of thing. The two worlds would be completely compartmentalized. I'd have completely different friends, and behave in completely different ways. What I'm trying to do now is cut down on these intervals and get my two halves talking to each other."

He is writing the serial in English. "Bangkok has two large-circulation English daily newspapers which are read by everybody, because Bangkok is that cosmopolitan a town. My mother is doing the Thai translation, which is only just coming out. It's incredibly hard to translate into Thai. To the English speaking reader, all the parts that are full of Thai culture are extremely exotic, but when the book is translated into Thai and you read the same chapter, it's the Western cultural parts that seems exotic and colorful. I never expected this mirror imaging to occur in the translation, though perhaps I should have.

"It comes out every Saturday, and I fax it to them, so I'm living at the edge on this serial. It's supposed to run over an entire year. I know exactly what the structure will be - it's more structured than any novel that I have ever written. It's very autobiographical: set in 1963, about a Thai kid who won't speak Thai, living in a huge, walled-off estate in Bangkok and going to a fake British school. It also mythologizes and corrects many of the mistakes of my childhood. A lot of it is about the bizarre goings-on and scandals in the aristocracy of that time - heavily disguised. Many of the most bizarre incidents are the ones that are true. I feel very good about this novel, but it's not being offered for sale to any book publisher until it's completely done. Pulphouse is reprinting it here."

The serial draws upon a life that's exotic by and standards. "I was born in Thailand. At the age of six months, I went to England. Then I travelled from country to country as my father sought a degree from various universities. We live in Boston, in Holland, and in France. I came back to Thailand when I was seven. I lived there, in very alienated way, for five years - I didn't even speak Thai when I moved back. We live in this totally insulated world, among the aristocrats and expatriate Americans and British. I went to a British school which was like a tiny piece of England. They had textbooks designed by the British for colonial places. Thailand was not a colony, but this school was trying to be like that. A young princess, who had been living in England, started teaching there. She threw out all these textbooks and decided to teach us anything we wanted. This is how I really got into literature. I wrote bizarre adaptations of Greek plays in English. I didn't learn to speak Thai until I was nine or so, and even then I spoke it with great reluctance.

"Then my parents sent me to school in England, in the mid-60's. I was 13, and I stayed for five years. It was a very alienating situation. Tails were still the uniform at Eton. The curriculum was very modern - they were trying to teach of the sexual imagery in Bergman films, while we sat there steaming in our tails. From there I went to Cambridge, which was very radical in the 70's. I had just come from the most right-wing school in the country, so I did everything I could do to hide my origins, including getting rid of my beautiful upper class British accent. But it still comes back when I go to England. Learning to become a chameleon was probably the single most important motivating factor for me.

"I moved back to the United States in order to ghostwrite music. A former member of the Nixon administration brought me back with him. He used to hum things to me, and I would turn them into fake 19th century symphonies and marches. His works - which I largely wrote - have been played by the Boston Pops and other famous orchestras, whereas my own musical works have languished. I ghost-wrote 250 military marches, many of them which were played by the Navy band. There I was, writing fake 19th century music while watching re-runs of Leave it to Beaver. It completely burned me out on music.

"This was 1978. I became so stuck, I thought back to the science fiction stories I enjoyed as a child, and I thought of writing short stories as a therapeutic way of getting out of my doldrums. I wasn't intending to send them in for submission, but after a while you get curious as how they would be received. I went through the usual rejections, but that process was not nearly as long and painful as it was with most writers. Writing took over my life, and the music got pushed farther and farther away. It's only in the last few years that it has started to come back.

"Being a cultural outsider has been a special gift, which has helped me not just in sf, but in every artistic endeavour I've attempted. It allowed me never to take anything in a culture for granted. Coming to America was like discovering the world's biggest shopping mall and wonderland. There's this newness about everything that really excites me. There wasn't that sense of everything having been going on for thousands of years. The idea of innovation as a given quality of art is not part of the Siamese Asian culture. One of the biggest compliments you can pay an artist in Western culture is, 'He's done something completely new.' But it is rather an insulting thing to say in an Eastern culture. You can condemn someone by saying their work is new. In Thai culture, art is seen as an ornamenting thing, a thing just exists to be beautiful. We're talking about a medieval culture with just the trappings of a modern culture.

"The last time I was in Thailand, I was asked by an interviewer from the Bangkok Post, why is it that all the tropes of a science fictional culture have been adopted by Bangkok? They have a giant building in the middle of Bangkok that is shaped like a robot. The images of sf are used all the time, and yet there's no feeling for or love of science fiction or even science. The images are attractive to the people, but the actual philosophy is not. The philosophy says that change is inevitable.

"The former prime minister of Thailand wrote a science fiction novel recently, which was published to enormous hoopla. It was called The Cuckoos of Bon-Plain. I read this book, and sure enough, it was about these aliens who impregnate all the women in a village simultaneously, and so on. It was The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, more or less, except that it took place in a Thai village rather than an English one. Here it would be called plagiarism, but on the other hand, one of the major works of Thai literature is the Thai version of The Ramayana and nobody is saying it's plagiarized from the Indian version. To copy the art of a former master is considered art - contributing only one or two new things to it. Every time we have a change of government in Thailand, it's called a revolution. That's because there is no way of expressing a government being impermanent, in the Thai language. It's a very hierarchical society. If you don't know who somebody is, you can't talk to them, because you don't know what pronouns to use. There are dozens.

"The death of Ted Sturgeon was one of the big milestones in my life. Ted was the first professional in the field to be kind to me. He was the first person really close to me who died. It was one of the worst years in my life. Since then, there has been a shift in what my books are about. Many technical feature's of Ted's writing affect me all the time - the idea of the metered prose, for example. Long before I met him, the story that made me a science fiction writer was The Skills of Xanadu, which I read when I was eight or nine. For the first time, it occurred to me that science fiction wasn't just about people with spaceships. Some of your Blood is an incredibly important influence on my work. Vampire Junction couldn't make sense without it. The other big influence on it was Robertson Davis' Deport Trilogy, the middle part of which concerned a Jungian psychologist.

"I didn't really switch to horror. I've written two horror novels. They're the ones that everyone talks about, and they're the ones that have sold the best. The love of horror is very deeply ingrained, and I think it's true of every Thai person. When I was in Thailand, the nanny told horror stories every night. Although intellectually, I know that there is not things to be feared, I still feel them. In Thailand, they said how pleased they were that I was returning to my Thainess in writing horror.

"When I did Vamprie Junction in 1983, my purpose was to create a hybrid of gore and the literary form. The splatterpunks were preoccupied with the B-movie aspects, but didn't necessarily care about literary form or anything like that. I hate the idea of blaming a book or a piece of good pornography for an act of violence. There's always a violent literature hidden around somewhere. It's now in places where your grandmother can buy it. This is the problem of living in a society where we're allowed to say more or less what we want. We've got to face things. We can't sit around writing entertaining books about unicorns forever.

"Moon Dance is about cultural conflict, about people who are really the same, viewing each other as aliens. All the main characters are werewolves, and not just people who turn into wolves. I tried very hard to make them behave like real wolves, even when they were people.

"It was a great battle to get Moon Dance out. But I'm afraid of being branded as a writer of horror. I miss science fiction. In many ways, sf and fantasy are a young kind of literature. There's a certain freshness of youth in science fiction, or at least there used to be. Horror appeals to an even earlier stage in our development, to the infantile emotion than being fascinated by scientific ideas. When you're 12 you hear these fantastic things about the universe. I think science fiction can and should be aimed at adults as well. Science fiction as we know it is a very optimistic form of literature.

"Riverrun would have only been one book. The idea of dividing it was a purely commercial decision. I wasn't able to make enough money writing one big sf book. One thing all the reviewers have picked up on is its attempt to achieve a complete synthesis of world mythology. The novel is rooted in 'King Lear': it has the king and dividing the kingdom and so on, but the landscape could not exist without the Zelazny 'Amber' books, and that sort of thing - the infinitely variegated, infinitely changing parallel worlds. That milieu is familiar to readers of fantasy. But within that I tried to write a book about real people that we run into all the time, instead of fantasy figures. Technically speaking, it does a lot of other things that I haven't attempted before, like the multiple viewpoint scenario. If there's one message the book has, it's as trite as 'love one another'. Although I suppose in a way it's the deepest thing you can write about.

"There are going to be three volumes in all, but it's not a trilogy. I've mapped out the whole thing. This book had its origins in a sleazy film script which a low-budget director wanted me to write. I did an outline, and he told me to add all kinds of women chained naked to alters and elves biting them and others. I put them all in, but he never made the movie.

"I'm also writing Valentine, the sequel to Vampire Junction. I didn't want to write the same book again. Vampire Junction attempts to deal with evil and redemption. What it finally says - which I hope is a very subversive thing to say - is that there is no evil.

"What else is on the schedule? I have to become a Buddhist monk next year. My father will be 60, so if I do it then it will be very good for his karma. I didn't do it when I was 20, like all Thais should. I have to do it sometime. Since this is the 1990's, I'll probably only do it for two weeks. Three months or more is normal, but very busy people do it for only two weeks. I'm a very superior person. I would never start a novel without lighting incense to Ganesh. I still have my fetish (for selling books). It's working a lot better than it used to!"

More:

Valentine was completed in 1990. Vanitas has recently been released, and is the third book in this series. The first edition printing of Vanitas was limited to 500 copies, and they are available from Transylvania Press, Inc. Each is numbered, and signed by the Author and cover Artist -- Vlad III



Source: Locus Magazine

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