Literally 15 minutes after I arrived at my guest house in Siem Reap a month ago, I had my first meeting of my stay. It was with the writer, John Burgess, who was here promoting his new novel, A Woman of Angkor. I have now finished reading it, and I have to say, I am totally overwhelmed by it. I do believe he has accomplished something very special. Not only has he brought fictional characters to life, as we all try to do, but he has brought an entire lost ancient culture to life, too. It really is a wonderful achievement. It’s also been helpful to me personally as I begin to contemplate writing my own character’s biography, to see the choices he has made in voice, point of view and chronology. As soon as I finished reading, I wrote to John and asked him to talk to me about the book.
  John Burgess is an American author and journalist. His fascination with Cambodia and its lost Angkor civilization dates to a 1969 visit as a teenager. He returned as a journalist in 1980 as the Cambodian society was beginning to recover from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge years. In current peaceful times, he’s visited frequently. His non-fiction book Stories in Stones recounts the recovery of Angkor’s forgotten history through the decoding of inscription stones.
    A Woman of Angkor revives the rites and rhythms of the ancient culture that built the temples of Angkor then abandoned them to the jungle. In a village behind a towering stone temple of 12th century Angkor lives a young woman named Sray. Her beauty and spiritual glow lead neighbors to compare her to the heroine of a Hindu epic. But in fact her serenity is marred by a dangerous secret. 
   Here’s our conversation:
Me: You have written in the voice, not only of a woman, but a woman whose experiences and references are of a type entirely unknown to us. How did you find her voice? Did you ever consider having someone else tell her story?
 John: I considered having Sray tell the story to a palace Brahmin who’d been sent to her to investigate the king’s death. She could hint at this by occasionally addressing her listener as “Holiness.” But I decided that it was better to have her talking directly to the reader, though not across the centuries, but to someone who’s of her times.

    Me: There was obviously a great deal of research done, but the details of religious practice and court life are so intricate – how much did you make up?
John: Writing Stories in Stone got me grounded in the subject. The idea for Sray as a character, in fact, came from an inscription that describes a woman named Tilaka. “Of great beauty and devotion, she had a divine nature that was not disputed.” Khmer inscriptions tend to describe people in saintly terms, but I came up with notion of a woman who, like Tilaka, is beautiful and widely revered in society, who does her best to live up to the religious teachings of the time, but is also a real-live human being who is sitting on a potentially fatal secret. As I proceeded with the writing, it was sometimes a bit scary, me as a 21st Century American man presuming to understand the thoughts and motivations of a 12th Century Cambodian woman. But I kept up with it, and I can only say that people can decide for themselves whether the result seems real.
    I also spent a lot of time looking at the Angkor bas reliefs and trying to figure out what’s going on in them. I love those scenes! But a lot of what’s in the novel didn’t come from research so much as from cultural osmosis while living in Southeast Asia for more than seven years. We know that the Angkor culture had great influence on today’s culture. (Brahmins still conduct palace rituals, for instance.) So it follows that we can work backwards with the assumption that what we see today bears resemblance to what was there in centuries past. So, Sray’s belief that one goes through life interacting with human beings and with spirits, drawing close to some, trying to avoid others, is shared by many people today. Her prayers before Bronze Uncle are not so different from prayers said at modern places of worship. Likewise for the book’s scenes of temple festival merry-making and flirtation at rice-planting time.
    So, it was basically a process of taking the historical record as we understand it and building on it with imagination. As with parasols, for instance. You can see parasols in many of the bas reliefs. In Angkor Wat’s image of Suryavarman II in court, there are fourteen of them floating over him. They’re mentioned in inscriptions. Their function in Angkor society was clearly to keep the sun off, but also to signal rank. Though I know of no record saying so, it seems logical that the person in charge of parasols in a particular palace, being physically close to the king day after day, could become influential and wealthy. The same holds for the empire-wide martial games that take place toward the end of the book: it seems likely that a society as militarized as this one was–again, see those Angkor Wat bas reliefs–would have had some kind of large gathering to let soldiers display their skills and let off steam in peacetime.

    Me: What are you working on next? 
    John: I’m now working on a history of Preah Vihear temple, ancient and modern. (This is the temple that sits on the Thai border and has caused the recent skirmishes between the two countries). Plus, I’ve got a Preah Vihear novel in the works.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. Not only was it a captivating story with fascinating characters, but it’s written in such beautiful prose that it makes an old poet like me cheer. In the UK you can buy it here. In the US you can buy it here. If you have any interest in Cambodia at all, I do suggest you get yourself a copy.