Originally published in National Post on October 28, 2010.
Samuel Coleridge was not the first Westerner to write about Asia the Exotic, nor was he the last. Just this year, CanLit has seen several novels set in Asia — Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Steven Heighton’s Every Lost County and Katherine Govier’s The Ghost Brush, for example. So what is it that draws foreign authors across seas, over mountains and into remote villages, to tell stories set in the East? For Canadian Adam Lewis Schroeder — whose latest novel, In The Fabled East, follows an aristocratic woman’s search through French Indochina (now Vietnam) for a cure for her tuberculous — it’s an easy question.
“It might sound cutthroat,” The writer, in Toronto to present In The Fabled East at IFOA, admits, “but there are so many narrative possibilities there. Look at Vietnam. The Americans were there, the French were there — for centuries, the Chinese were there. Vietnam itself is not one nation particularly. There’s so much friction there. You can write about a guy in his kitchen, and there’s already conflict just over his shoulder.”
Schroeder, who lives with his family in Penticton, B.C., has been exploring Asia for years. His year-long travels with his wife though the continent in 1997 made a clear impact on his work: first with Kingdom of Monkeys, his debut, a collection of stories predominantly set in various locations across Asia, and then with his first novel, Empress of Asia, set in Second World War-era Singapore.
As with that previous novel, In the Fabled East juggles several characters in various places and times: At the turn of the 20th century, a young window named Adélie Tremier flees Paris for Laos in a desperate search for a fabled spring of immortality, which she hopes will grant here a reprieve from the tuberculosis. Cut to 1936, where a young French bureaucrat has been commissioned by the Adélie’s now-grown son to find her in thick of the countryside.
Like Coleridge, the plot for Schroeder’s novel came from a hazy vision. Unlike Coleridge, it wasn’t opium-induced, and hatched in less exotic surrounds.
“I was on a book tour with Steven Galloway [author of The Cellist of Sarajevo],” Schroeder says, sitting in the lobby of a Toronto hotel ahead of his reading at the International Festival of Authors. “His car was in the shop in Kamploops and I had, for some reason, an imagining of this woman in hoopskirt in a muddy village in Indochina. It was a half-daydream. And I might have dismissed it for one of a thousand half-daydreams, but, for some reason, the idea stuck with me.”
While the hoopskirt didn’t make the book (it didn’t quite mesh with the fashions of the day), Adélie’s life-saving quest eventually brings her to the muddy village that Schroeder imagined. And while Schroeder had been through much of Asia, he hadn’t been to Vietnam, and had to see for himself what his dying protagonist would be up against.
“It was a complete mystery. There are details you have to see on the ground. You can read them in a French monograph from 1900, but it doesn’t cement in your brain in the same way as being there. I trekked up into a hill country village, and spent most of my time there.”
While much of Schroeder’s body of work is steeped in the fabled East, it’s not an exclusive relationship. In the recent collection Darwin’s Bastards, Schroeder contributed a story called This Is Not The End My Friend, a tale about a Canada without the Prairies, a culture ruined by celebrity infatuation and tracking down an 80-year old reclusive version of singer Feist.
Schroeder wrote a song for Feist in the story, and as part of the recent readings for the collection’s launch, he performed it a few times onstage. The writer says he treats his on stage readings more like a play. “I try to take it beyond the author reading to you in the voice you already have in your head,” he says.
After IFOA, Schroeder will return home and continue his next book. Without giving away too much about it, he does reveal that it will have nothing to do with Asia.
“It’s set in Penticton in 1958,” he says. And while that may seem like a relatively easy plot model for a writer with a bibliography filled with complicated timelines and exotic places. “Well, it could have been [easy], but I’ve decided it needs five different narrators.”