Q: How did your own background as an art historian and consultant play into the creation of your novel and its main character, Jenna?
A: Since I've been a museum curator and worked in the art world for years, creating a character whose life is set in that realm was a logical choice for me.
My specialty is Asian art, which has meant that I've spent a good deal of time in Asia and am familiar with Southeast Asia in particular. Jenna, too, is an Asian art specialist, so her various escapades take place at her home base - Marin, California - and during her travels in Asia and anywhere else that she might be working on an exhibition or doing research.
Still, developing Jenna, as a person with a unique set of traits, presents all the challenges of creating any fictional character. She isn't anyone I know, so it's a birthing process. And the mysteries she solves, though rooted in the art world, are pure fiction. My life has certainly not been as eventful and crime-filled as hers.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between the mystery plot and the information on art in Cambodia?
A: When I travel, I like to read fiction set in the countries I traverse, with the idea that I am going to learn something about the region from the fiction. I embarked on writing the first Jenna Murphy mystery largely because of my frustration in being unable to find many mysteries set in Southeast Asia.
Since my background is the art of the region and since Jenna's familiarity with the art is the reason for her adventures, and sometimes the solution to crimes, it seems only logical to set the action in the midst of the temples and art that she so loves.
For many people, the temples of Angkor represent the mysteries of the Orient, a special place symbolizing a lost exotic past. What better locale for Jenna Murphy to first be exposed to other mysteries?
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I made changes, largely because some of the characters I first saw as minor figures began to assert themselves, as did Cambodia's history.
One of the surprises for me in writing fiction is the self-determination of characters. Even though you may intend for them to do X, they often surprise you and insist on doing Y.
In A Head in Cambodia, as my writing progressed, the characters took over their interaction in a more fluid way than I had anticipated. I liked that, for it brought them alive.
Q: After writing nonfiction books about art, how did it feel to write a novel? Was your writing process very different?
A: I've written fiction in the closet for decades, so, the process of writing fiction feels very familiar. Unlike scholarly writing, fiction allows me the luxury of making up whatever I want. What a joy! And probably a bit of escapism - I wrote a science fiction book when I should have been writing my doctoral dissertation, although I did eventually complete that.
I'm a morning person, so whatever I'm writing, I begin work early - at five or six - and write until I'm finished for the day. It can be an hour or two, or I might write all morning, take a break, then start again in the late afternoon. As long as I write before doing anything else in the morning, I can pick up later in the day.
The process is the same for fiction and non-fiction, though I do find that I do many more rewrites with fiction, probably because of the length of the manuscripts, and the need for refining plot.
Q: Are you writing a sequel to A Head in Cambodia? What are you working on now?
A: The second Jenna Murphy book, A Death in Bali, will be coming out in March. I'm working on the final edit right now, while simultaneously writing the third book.
Culturally Bali has a great deal to offer, as anyone who has been fortunate enough to go to Bali will know, and though Jenna goes to research prewar modernist painting, she can't help but explore the architecture, textiles, and performance art that she encounters.
Javanese art was my first love as an art historian, so it holds a special place for me, and in this second book, Jenna makes a pilgrimage to Borobudur in Java.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: While Swallow Press is the U.S. publisher of the book, I'm pleased that Silkworm Books, a Thai publisher, will be publishing A Head in Cambodia, so the book will be available throughout Southeast Asia.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb