A former indie bookseller, The Map of Lost Memories author Kim Fay is also a bit of a traveler. She’s lived in Vietnam, and is the creator/editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series, as well as the author of Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam (winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States). Her journey to publication of her first novel, which releases next Tuesday and about which Booklist, in a starred review, says, “Fay’s extraordinary first novel has everything great historical adventure fiction should—strikingly original setting, exhilarating plot twists, and a near-impossible quest,” is also an extraordinary one, spanning 35 years. – Meg
When I was ten years old, I wrote my first novel, the Nancy Drew-inspired Mystery of the Golden Galleon. This was followed by a romantic adventure called This Is the Life about two young women traveling on the French Riviera, which I’d read about in National Geographic. I went on to write half a dozen more novels, mostly romances, in junior high and high school, and when I was in college, I finally wrote a “serious” novel in a genre that did not yet exist (chick-lit). With remarkably little effort on my part, it earned me an agent and soon after that, an editor at Little, Brown. I was certain – and not surprised – that I was on my way to becoming a famous novelist. But because I had always dashed off one book after another and did not understand how to revise, that situation fell apart, along with the confidence I had always taken for granted.
For the next five years I worked at the Elliott Bay Book Company, reading as much as possible and teaching myself how novels work. In 1995 I moved to Vietnam, where I decided I was finally ready to try again and wrote a new novel, a satire called Nobody Knows, which owed much to the British fiction I’d recently been devouring. A year later, when I returned to the U.S. for the summer to visit my sister in Los Angeles, I took a writing class from John Rechy in the hope of refining the novel for publication. John is an incredible teacher – tough, disciplined, unwilling to coddle. I had just read the true story of Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who raided a Cambodian temple in the 1920s. With this story in my head and John’s classes at my disposal, I decided to ditch Nobody Knows and start a new novel about Asia, looting and obsession.
Within a year I had returned to Vietnam and I had a draft finished – a draft, I should add, in which I was finally developing my own voice and style. I loved the book, but it was terrifically flawed, and I began revising it, although without direction since this process was still a struggle for me. While working as a food and travel writer in Ho Chi Minh City, I would pick up my novel, then set it aside, then pick it up, then set it aside.
Back in Los Angeles after four years in Vietnam, I continued to dip into the book. Although I was still lost when it came to the revision process, I could not get the story out of my head. Then it went to the wayside when I started a guidebook series and began working on a nonfiction book that explored the history and culture of Vietnam through the country’s food. Never, though, was The Map of Lost Memories far from my thoughts.
In 2007, eleven years after I started the book, I was in London for my sister’s wedding. Sleepless, I got online and saw an item that had just been posted in The New York Times about Amazon’s first breakthrough novel contest. I had my portable hard drive with me, and even though my novel was not polished – not even quite finished, in fact – I thought: what the heck. The announcement stated that Amazon would take the first 5,000 entries. So I entered and forgot all about it.
A few months later I received an email – my book had made it into the top 800. A little while after that came another email – I’d made it into the top 100. Part of what this entailed was a first chapter online at Amazon, where readers could judge it, as well as a review of the whole book by Publisher’s Weekly. Although the PW review questioned the ending, calling it “more than a little absurd,” the review was glowing overall.
Naturally, I was pleased, but I didn’t really think my novel would win. Nor could I have imagined what happened next. On January 25, 2008, I received an email from an “interested agent.” Alexandra Machinist, who was just getting started in the business, wanted to read the whole novel. I sent it to her. She read it in a few days, and a few more days later, I signed with her, with the agreement that I had some substantial work to do before the novel would be ready to submit to editors.
At this time I was still working on my Vietnam food book, and writing that and the novel at the same time was too scattered for me. So I set the novel aside, finished the food book, and marveled at my agent’s patience. Ultimately, from the time she signed me, it took me almost three years to polish and polish and then polish some more until I had a manuscript that we were both happy with. But that space of time was essential – during it Alexandra built a wonderful reputation for herself, and I finally figured out what I wanted to do with the novel and, most importantly, how to do it in a way that was true to both the book and who I wanted to be as a writer.
When Alexandra sent the novel out in January 2011, we had high hopes for it, but the response exceeded our expectations. It went to auction, with five major publishers bidding over the course of two days. The result was a deal that neither one of us could believe, and with an editor (Susanna Porter at Ballantine) who I truly feel was the best editor for my book. It was my dream come true … 35 years after I wrote my first novel and started dreaming of being a published writer! – Kim