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Interview with Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes To Rain

22nd February 2019

Interview with Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes To Rain.

The day before yesterday we published our blog review of Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s extraordinary debut novel, Bangkok Wakes To Rain. Today we are very pleased to post an informative and thought provoking interview with the author himself:

Pitchaya SudbanthadTF: Bangkok Wakes To Rain is very ambitious and wide-ranging in both its content and its style. How did you come up with the idea for the book? Was it a sudden inspiration – or did your thoughts develop over time?

PS: Ever since I was young, I’ve returned every year to Bangkok, where I was born, and each time something different about the city—current or historical—stirs my imagination. Throughout the past few centuries, Bangkok has been a very cosmopolitan city, one that’s always in a process of erasure and construction, influenced from within and without. I witness the new and ancient struggle to exist and move forward together in some hybrid way. I started writing the novel, I believe, to make sense and capture this delicate and difficult motion of the city. Overall, it was a cumulative process. I don’t think I can sum up the novel’s origin to any one moment of inspirational lucidity. It’s more the case that I discovered extent of the novel and the breadth that it wanted to span by the act of writing it.

TF: It is a hard book to classify. Part ‘historical fiction’, part present day novel, and part Sci-Fi fantasy. I thought (I confess) that the Sci-Fi part might jar – but it does not. It flows on effortlessly. Did the mix of genres in any way trouble you as you were writing? Did you worry what the reaction might be?

PS: To me, genres are marketing terms. Those boundaries and delineations are largely meaningless in the actual act of writing. Perhaps as someone who’s had a cross-cultural upbringing, I find the greatest richness in spaces unbound to any single category or tradition. My only duty was to write the novel the way it needed to be written, and that took my writing into territories that might be describable as historical or futuristic—sci-fi, if insisted. Also, my confidence in treading into these territories was buoyed by many other writers, from Jennifer Egan to Kazuo Ishiguro, who I feel have also wandered across the so-called genres, to beautiful result.

TF: I know you currently split your time between Bangkok and New York. But am I right in thinking that you were brought up in the States and that English is your first language? I ask because no translator is credited in the edition I read, and I would guess the book must have been written in English. It would have been an even more amazing feat if English were not your first language.

PS: Thai and English are both my first languages. I learned both concurrently, growing up, but my ability to write in English has far eclipsed my writing in Thai. That said, in setting much of the novel in Thailand, the Thai characters did not speak out in English as I was writing them. A lot of the English-language dialogue in the novel came from my efforts in translating what I was hearing in Thai while I was writing the descriptive portions directly in English. It’s an impossible endeavour, but I did try to capture, as best as I could, the different rhythms and social colorations of the spoken Thai that I heard, depending on the characters. It made me realize first-hand the immense difficulty of translation work, which requires fealty to an original intention—and musicality—while also answering to something formally alien to the original.

TF: You write very movingly of the student riots and the government crackdown of the ‘70s. Is this a period of history that is especially important to you? It is something I remember watching from afar.

PS: I first heard about the 1970s student protests from my grandmother when I was very young, no more than ten years old. It was an anniversary of one of the days, and my grandmother brought up how she’d begged my aunt and uncle not to go to the university, and they complied, possibly sparing themselves from the horrific fates of many who did attend the protests. Being an inquisitive child who read widely, I found books about the protests, and even at that age was appalled by the accounts, which along with the brutal photos, stayed with me. It’s sad to me that those books are getting harder to find. The Thai people need to always remember those days, so that similar events are not allowed to happen again.    

TF: Did you have the detailed plot in mind when you started writing Bangkok Wakes To Rain– or did this develop and expand as you wrote?

PS: Early on, I wasn’t even aware that much of the novel would even take place in Bangkok, but over time it became apparent to me that the novel needed the city as its centre of gravity. Had I a clearer idea at the start, I think it would’ve been a very different kind of book, perhaps one much more linear and contained within one narrative line. In writing this one, I kept feeling the pull of a larger body of narratives that demanded more expansiveness than what could be a single, straightforward progression. I started several narratives and eventually they began bouncing off each other, without much conscious effort from me. For this novel, plot was less important than connective resonances. Once I realized this, I felt much freer.

TF: How do you write? Do you aim for a set number of words per day, do you work certain hours, or do you work when you have inspiration and not when you don’t? I ask because we find this a fascinating subject in our Q&As – so many authors work in so many different ways.

PS: I have no set daily word count goal, but I do make myself sit down to write pretty much every day. I write whenever I can, before work and after, on weekends, on the subway, spending lots of time at cafes and empty office conference rooms when everyone else is gone. I sketch out rough drafts longhand before they’re reworked on a laptop. Sentence level revisions are made, in both longhand and on one of my typewriters, before getting typed up again on a laptop. I often use different inks in my fountain pens and would often reserve one for specific scenes or characters. Against the demands of our current society, with writing, inefficiency and boundaries are gifts rather than detriments. The more iterations the better, until that certain point where I throw up my hands and accept that it’s done.  

TF: Location – the place in which a novel is set – is critically important to TripFiction. How has a sense of place influenced either your own reading or writing?

PS: As a transcultural person, place is of immense important to me. When I write fiction, place usually arrives first, before the characters make their appearances. In writing this novel, place serves as not only mise-en-scene but also an anchor point that helps to connect the many narrative strands that I wanted to weave across time. Eudora Welty said that placing a narrative is what does most towards making it believable, and I also believe that.

TF: Can you tell us what you are currently working on? Whatever it is, you must find it quite a challenge to follow a book as unique as Bangkok Wakes to Rain.

PS: I think I’m like a lot of other writers who like to work in the shadows while they can. Let’s just say that I’m exploring and playing. Hopefully something good and worthwhile will result.

A big thank you to Pitchaya for talking she frankly to us!

Tony for the TripFiction team

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