Monday, October 8, 2012

Why I Love Setting as Character by Kim Fay, The Map of Lost Memories

In the early 1930s, my grandpa joined the Navy and set off to see the world. Before the age of twenty he had sailed to Japan, the Philippines, China and Hong Kong. He took photos. He kept a scrapbook. And forty years later when he would stay with my family, he shared all of this with my sister and me as he told us stories about the exotic places he had once visited. Before we were teenagers, we knew how it felt to be knocked unconscious and nearly thrown overboard in a monsoon, and then wake as the only (very surprised) man in a maternity ward in Manila. Our grandpa actually blushed when he told this, even though he also enlightened us on the effects of a lively Saturday night in Shanghai, finishing one such tale of good times by tipping his head toward the grizzled, bleary-eyed, obviously-hung-over ceramic sailor on the wall of his trailer.For as long as I can remember, Asia and my grandpa’s youth have been intertwined, and I give this credit for my attraction to books in which the setting is as important as the characters and the plot. Even when I read Harlequin romances as a teenager, I chose them not for the sexy love scenes, but rather for their exotic locales. I still have my copy of Under the Stars of Paris, which first introduced me to The City of Light.

It’s one type of pleasure for me to read National Geographic, poring over the facts and images. But when a place takes on a life of its own in a novel, there is no greater journey I want to take. Add in a historical aspect, and I’m hooked! I was mesmerized by Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale as New York became a living, breathing creature. And could Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky have taken place anywhere other than the alienating landscapes of post-colonial North Africa? I consider Graham Greene the master of imbuing a setting with singular human qualities. Mexico (The Power and the Glory), the Congo (A Burnt-Out Case), Cuba (Our Man in Havana) and Vietnam (The Quiet American)—so entwined with the plot and character are these places that they could never be interchangeable with other destinations.

My novel, The Map of Lost Memories, takes place in Asia in 1925. It’s the story of a young American woman on a quest for a treasure believed to contain the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer people. Granted, the Cambodian setting is crucial, because that’s where Cambodian temples reside! But the first 150 pages take place in Shanghai and Saigon, both of which were chosen because of their ability to enrich the story with their own unique attributes.

I could have easily set the book’s first scenes in Hong Kong or Manila, if I simply wanted an exotic Asian setting. But those cities did not have Shanghai’s blatant lawlessness at the time. Shanghai in the 1920s was immoral and amoral, complex and confused, all qualities that both reflect those of the book’s characters. As for Saigon, I needed it for its defiant entrenchment in the colonial lifestyle … and for its heat. You cannot have a certain type of languor in a cold country, just as a certain type of clear-headedness can be a debilitating struggle in a tropical land. Overheated Saigon was the perfect setting for my characters to lose their grip on their certainties (much as the French were just beginning to lose the certainty of their stand in Indochina) and for the story to twist slowly (is there any other way in humidity?) in a new direction.

We are all affected by where we are from: the geography, the weather, the sense of history (or lack of it) that defines the place. We are equally affected by where we live as adults. The settings of our everyday activities play a significant role in defining who we are. When this fact of life is folded into the pages of fiction, when characters interact not only with each other but with their surroundings, and when they are irrevocably affected by the inherent nature of a place, a novel for me takes on depth that I find impossible to resist.
Born in Seattle and raised throughout Washington State, I lived in Vietnam for four years and still travel to Southeast Asia frequently. A former independent bookseller, I am the author of the historical novel The Map of Lost Memories and Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. I am also the creator/editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series. I now live in Los Angeles. I am represented by Alexandra Machinist of Janklow & Nesbit.

1 comment:

  1. I love a book where the setting becomes a character of it's own. You can really tell when an author cares about the world around the characters they are creating.