“I find it amazing that the most prominent kingdom of the Indian diaspora completely evaporated, leaving nothing behind other than these stones.”
– Samuel Ferrer, The Last Gods of Indochine (2016)
I will admit it – I’m a picky reader.
There are certain genres that I used to love but now wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (chick lit lad lit I’m lookin’ atcha), and I secretly wish that Top 10 Bestseller shelves could be consigned to the dusts of bibliographic oblivion.
I’ve written about my (much contested) aversion to sci-fi before, and I’ve always found the idea of fictionalising history a bit unsettling.
This is why, when author, double bassist and jazz musician Samuel Ferrer reached out to me a while ago with an invitation to read his historical fiction novel, The Last Gods of Indochine, I was skeptical. Looking back, I’d say I was thrown out of my ‘reading comfort zone’, given that a large part of it is set in medieval Cambodia – a period in history which I have absolutely no knowledge about.
As much as I would have liked to learn more about the Khmer Empire and ancient Cambodian culture, I was concerned that my lack of contextual familiarity might interfere with my reading enjoyment, which, as a commuter-reader, is paramount for purposes of concentration, because in this attention-deficit age, no one is immune to the temptations of metro people-watching and mindless phone-scrolling – at least not over the unglamour of public bookworming.
Still, I decided to give Sam’s book a shot. And I’m so glad I did, because Last Gods ended up being a fantastic read.
It’s a thoughtful, lyrical piece of work; thoughtful for its rich tapestry of history, culture and imagination, and lyrical for its sensitivity to poetic style.
The novel is a parallel narrative of an English girl living in the early 1920s named Jacquie Mouhot, and an orphan living in the Angkor Empire with the wonderful title of Paaku the Lotus-Born. Eager to find out more about the mysterious death of her famous explorer granddad, Henri Mouhot, who had travelled to and died in Indochina, Jacquie embarks on a journey to the other side of the world, where she encounters a series of characters through whom she finds out more about herself.
Meanwhile, playful antics and ominous developments unfold in Paaku’s side of the narrative, as the boy faces suspicion from the king that he could be the threatening incarnation of a god, and as such, bring political chaos to the kingdom.
Despite not being a fantasy fan, I found the fantastical linings in Sam’s book to be subtle and engaging.
Having enjoyed Last Gods, then, I asked Sam if he would like to be featured in my litera-chat interview series, which he graciously accepted.
If you want to know more about the book by way of theme and content, its sources of inspiration, and the process through which it was written, keep reading for Sam’s sharing below!
[Click on each category to jump to its section]
You can check out the first pages of Last Gods here.
Genesis: What inspired you to write this book in the first place?
Writing a novel had been a long-held dream of mine, but I never expected it to happen until much later in life. After a vacation to Cambodia, I was blindsided by a premise I thought would be fascinating for a story, so one night I made a decision to go for it, which was a big deal, especially as I had no experience with writing fiction, and not much more than that for writing in general!
Anyhow, during that trip I was struck by a photograph of well-dressed promenaders and vintage cars at the footsteps of a full-scale reconstruction of the top level of Angkor Wat at the 1922 Colonial Exposition in Marseille. I was taken by the exploration and imagination of La Belle Époque and how the French fixation on the East captured what was perhaps the most exotic time during the colonial age. Within this context, a fictitious premise came to me.
Still, I vacillated between this premise and a medieval one, so I settled on writing both as parallel stories that eventually join in plot.
This is pretty ambitious for a debut novel. I don’t recommend doing it.
Context: Why did you pick medieval Cambodia as a key historical context for the book? How did you go about doing your research?
I didn’t want to write a story set in Angkor Wat that neglected the elephant in the room; what exactly was that kingdom, anyway?
And I was surprised by just how little literature had been set in this historical era. Almost none when I began, and that rather seemed like an opportunity. Furthermore, ancient Cambodia opened up the floodgates for writing something more mythological.
Fortunately for me, we have a translation of a Chinese emissary (incidentally, also a character in the novel) who detailed quite a lot about lifestyle in the ancient kingdom. It’s called The Customs of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan. I relied heavily upon this book to recreate this ancient world.
Furthermore, I read a lot of academic books and of course made an additional trip for research on location.
Plot: In terms of plot, which was your favourite section to write? Why?
I love this question! But it is much easier to answer if I don’t think in terms of plot development. There was always a tender place in my heart for the long chapter when Jacquie and Victor go for a flight in his biplane and then a ride on elephant back.
I suppose, creatively, this chapter took me to a place to where I was always quite happy to return.
The scene establishes their friendship as they are getting to know one another. Jacquie’s nervousness and subsequent giddiness during the flight was always a pleasure to portray, and, while on elephant back, they come across a funeral pyre and have a conversation about death that sets the tone for an important theme.
Directly ahead, a branch neared, high enough to clear the elephant’s head, low enough to hit the howdah. Sergei was too far ahead to notice. “Victor?” Jacquie asked. “What do we do?” Victor kept his gaze far off and said nothing. Jacquie thought she saw a smirk again. The branch came over the animal’s head. It reached up with its trunk and grabbed the branch, lifting it over the howdah without missing a step. With a swish, the branch scraped the backside of the rattan shell. “How extraordinary,” she said. Sergei stopped and looked back. Unimpressed, he turned and continued leading the way, clicking his tongue loudly. The elephant lumbered on.
“Have you ever seen an elephant swim?” Victor asked.
“I cannot say I have.”
“I swam with them once in India. They can swim underwater—their trunks stick out like periscopes.”
She giggled at the thought. “Amazing. It seems like you’ve done quite a lot.”
He replied only with a slight nod of the head. The smirk on his face was indeed there.
“What is it?” she asked.
The smile broadened.
“I’ve never seen you happy like this. That’s all.” And that was all it took. She looked away, self-conscious, withdrawing somewhat from the beautiful world that surrounded her.
The setting is quite rich from both above and within the jungle and its ruins. None of this is plot-driving so much as establishing characters, relationships, philosophical themes, and stretching my descriptions of the setting in ways I really enjoyed.
However, if I’m restricted to thinking of plot, then I still might pick a chapter also with plenty of subtlety, when the medieval boy, Paaku, finds the queen in the forest of the Whispering Bamboos. There is no action in it, but by leaving for the forest he makes an irrevocable decision in regards to what is expected of him, and once he is there, he learns from her the details of his identity, both in terms of his lineage and in regards to his own true spiritual identity – the question of his incarnation as a god – which is the largest question hanging over his story.
[The queen] walked with low brushing steps. Paaku continued supporting her.
“Do you know what it is called when the secrets of the gods are overheard by men?”
He thought it over. “No, Your Highness.”
“Prophecy. And in this place, thanks to the Whispering Bamboos, our ears are enlarged. For example, I knew you were coming here. Still, I was astonished when you actually found me.”
“How is that possible? I didn’t even know I was coming here.”
Nodding to the bamboos, she answered, “Because they told me you would.”
These revelations wring out numerous speculations of the plot, and I always really enjoyed their conversation as well as the mystical experience Paaku experiences afterwards, which further tightens the screws and sets up the tragedy that is to come.
Characterisation: Which character did you find most enjoyable/challenging to craft? Why?
The main protagonist of the primary story, Jacquie, was challenging. I suppose a main character is always going to be more challenging as they carry more than their weight in any given story.
I intended Jacquie to be an introvert, uncomfortable in her own skin – which in fact suits the psychology of her spiritual identity well. Furthermore, I thought the impact of a final catharsis would be more pronounced with such a character.
However, for a long time I didn’t get that, while she might have a certain disconnection to the world around her, I still had to make sure to keep her connected to the reader. Eventually, this meant maximizing any and every opportunity to dip, even if only for an additional sentence, further into her psyche, so the reader remains in tune with what’s going on inside of her.
Grandfather wrote in his book: ‘Others will follow in my footsteps.’
I, Jacqueline Mouhot, daughter of your son, will follow in your footsteps, Grandfather. Decades later I cross the path that you cleared for me. I will try and place my steps in your indelible prints, the seals of your legacy.
But to ‘Gather an abundant harvest’? I cannot imagine how. Perhaps my camera can be a sickle of sorts.
An unprecedented adventurer, I take note that my grandfather was still a self-deprecating writer. Aunt Adèle was right: his curiosity was insatiable. For him, the jungle was a scientific lab, a classroom for anthropology, and an artist’s studio.
He mentions the footsteps of ‘Explorers of greater talent and fortune.’ No, Grandfather. Your giant footsteps will be followed by much smaller ones. Mine.
I think this is of particular importance in modern literature, where character indulgence has become the norm and is often unapologetic. Earlier literature makes much less of all this.
Theme: What do you think are the dominant themes in the book?
The internal struggle as a world of mystery gives way to science.
The title itself, The Last Gods of Indochine, should have greater significance immediately upon completion of the book. Jacquie’s intellectual foil and romantic interest is an academic who doesn’t sign onto her preternatural experiences beyond any naturalistic explanation that can have anthropological value.
The rub between faith and reason permeates their story until the very last sentence, while Paaku’s [story] surrenders fully to the mythological. There, themes such as the messianic complex, the psychology of religious revivals, religious manipulation for political ends and all the subsequent power struggles, are explored…
All stuff still relevant to the world we live in today, in terms of religious sectarianism and political opportunists.
Language: In terms of style, which is your favourite paragraph/section? Why?
In fact, above all, I wanted to write a beautifully written book. It’s up to the reader to decide if I accomplished that or not, but I can say I really gave it my all and then gave equal effort to edit it in such a way that hopefully wouldn’t come across as self-conscious – or too obvious just how much sweat was actually involved.
All styles, no matter how dry or how poetic, need to remain fluid and free of speed-bumps. So I was acutely aware of the dreaded overwritten novel and tried to strike a balance; prose interesting for its own sake without going over the top.
The problem is that for everyone this bar line is in a different place, so in the end I had to go with where I like it when I read myself.
For example, I’m not much of a fan of “dry” writing, which is perfectly clear and succinct and doesn’t have much of a purpose beyond serving the characters or plot. There are good arguments for this, and hey – it’s easier to write (but should never be called easy). As for me, I like coming across paragraphs that give me pause (not out of confusion!) and make me want to go back and reread for the pleasure of it.
So… which moment, stylistically, is my favorite? Hmmm…. let’s go with the sunset boat transfer from the steamship to the small motorboat at the Tonle Sap lake. These paragraphs should be pretty good.
Clouds leached the color of dusk, and under a sky smeared as if by the hand of Monet, the steamer glided towards a buoy not far from a flooded forest’s edge. The chugging of pistons slowed to a tick and rainbows of grease appeared on the water behind the engine. The last and very short leg of the journey would soon come to an end; only the flooded forests separated them from the town of Siem Reap. The boat spat out its anchor, smacking the water and pushing pastel light around in waves. The passengers waited. Tall gothic shadows elongated the deck. At the forest, bats flew upwards as if caught in a single funnel of wind. A purr from within the forest preceded the arrival of a small feet of long- tailed motorboats, each one having large eyes painted on its bow. Jacquie had never even seen a motorboat before.
Structure: Why did you opt for an alternating narrative structure instead of a linear one?
Alternating stories was a means for me to write about everything I wanted in this given locale.
On the one hand, I was inspired by the life of explorer Henri Mouhot and the extraordinary richness of this turn-of-the century era, both in France and especially at its most substantial and farthest colonial outpost in the Far East. The wealth of historical information guided and supported me throughout that story.
At the same time, the ancient one allowed me greater artistic license to create a myth of my own. It was never easy to bring their stories together, but the premise of a curse and reincarnation worked itself out quite well. Having said that, this is certainly another reason why the novel took so long to get right, as parallel storylines are not easy to pull off.
Writing process: Did you experience ‘writer’s block’ in the process of writing this book?
I didn’t really experience writer’s block. As someone said: ‘You cannot edit a blank page.’
I never worried about the quality of what I was writing. Instead, I always saw it as a question left for the quality of my editing. With so much historical research having gone into this novel, I was never short of ideas, but I struggled with what I had to cut out.
Still, I was learning to write as I was doing this, so it took extra long to finish it. I originally thought I had a “finished” book after four years, but then gave it another two of extensive rewriting, so I have to count those as well. Then, as it was bandied about and handled by publishers and agents, I would pick it up every couple of months and give it another pass of editing. That included chopping out a major subplot and toning down the supernatural scenes.
This went on for another four years, always getting feedback along the way. When I signed a contract with Signal 8 Press, it was still well over another year and a half before it came to print on account of their backlog, but by this point it was already a tight manuscript.
Still, they had some input all the same and were very helpful. So when we called it quits on the editing, it had been nearly twelve years in total, with all that “minor” tweaking over the last few years cumulatively leaving a substantial impression on the novel’s style.
What about Last Gods do you think makes it stand out among other works of historical fiction?
Most readers, especially those back in the States or the U.K., know little to nothing about this important kingdom, which at one point had the largest city in the world.
There are way too many historical fiction books set in medieval England and Europe and I’m honestly surprised people are still writing those.
The Last Gods of Indochine takes the reader to a far corner of the world (far to Westerners, that is to say) and a relatively unknown kingdom. Throw in French colonial history and Hinduism for good measure and you have a setting that is rather unique.