With the recent release of his debut novel, Ghost Money, set in Cambodia in the mid-90s, I posed author Andrew Nette
a couple of questions.
Q. What was your impulse for setting your debut novel in Cambodia?
A. I started writing the book that eventually
became Ghost Money in 1996 when I worked
for several months in Cambodia as a wire service journalist. I’d first travelled to Cambodia in 1992
while living in neighbouring Laos. It was a desperately poor and traumatised
country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture
of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule in the
seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government
was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for
the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical
scores and making money. Phnom Penh, the crumbling capital of the
former French colony, was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the
West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their
entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists.The
streets teemed with Cambodian men in military fatigues missing legs and arms,
victims of the landmines strewn across the country. There was no power most of
the time. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge caste a shadow over
When the opportunity arose several years
later to fill in with one of the wire services, I jumped at it. As it turned
out, from a journalist’s standpoint, my timing was good. Unknown to most foreign observers, the
Khmer Rouge has been splintering internally for many years. Partly this was the
result of the government’s relentlessmilitary operations. More decisive were
internal tensions over the movement’s direction and how best to divide the
spoils from the guerrillas’ logging and gem mining operations along the border
with Thailand. In August 1996, a couple of weeks before I
arrived, Ieng Sary, the former Deputy Prime Minister in the charnel house the Khmer Rouge called Democratic Kampuchea, announced he'd split from the movement and wanted to negotiate with the Coalition Government for amnesty. He claimed he'd grown sick of fighting and wanted to end the war. A more significant influence were reports Khmer Rouge hardliners under Pol Pot had discovered Sary was skimming the proceeds from gem mining and logging operations, and were about to move against him. Whatever the case, both sides of Cambodia's dysfunctional coalition government courted Sary and his not inconsiderable military clout for their own ends. Sary, meanwhile, used his position to stay one step ahead of a prison cell. It was a bizarre, increasingly acrimonious game of cat and mouse that eventually resulted in open warfare between the two coalition partners.
But that’s another story. These events form the backdrop to Ghost Money.
Cambodia fascinated me from the moment I first
arrived. The people, the contrast between the anything goes, Wild West atmosphere
of Phnom Penh and the hardscrabble but incredibly beautiful countryside. History oozed from the cracks in the French
colonial architecture and protruded from the rich red earth, sometimes quite
literally in the case of the mass graves that litter the countryside. Things
happened every day – terrible events and acts of heart breaking generosity you couldn’t
make up if you tried. I always thought Cambodia would be a good
setting for a crime story. But I also wanted to capture some of the country’s
tragic history, the sense of a nation in transition.In the mid-nineties, the
young wanted change, the old wanted stability. In between was another group.
Children of the Khmer Rouge era and the civil war that followed, who’d grown up
adapting to the rigid economic and political austerity of Soviet Style system.
But as the country opened up, a lot of these people were cut adrift.
I was too caught up in the day to day
reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to
put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later,
when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes. In early 2008, my partner and I quit our
jobs and moved to Cambodia for a year with our then two year old. I freelanced
as a journalist, did fixing work for foreign TV crews and finished the first
draft of my manuscript. A lot had changed. The Khmer Rouge
insurgency was over. Sary was on trial for war crimes. The streets of Phnom
Penh were full of luxury cars. Tourists could get a shiatsu massage in their
ozone neutral hotel, then head out for tapas and cocktails. On another level, a lot hadn’t. The same
people still ran things and the methods they used hadn’t altered. The
countryside was still poor and beautiful.
Using the skeleton of the plot I developed in
the mid-nineties, the basic plot of Ghost
Money, a private investigator searching for a lost businessman amidst the
chaos of the Khmer Rouge split, came quickly. The main character, a Vietnamese Australian
in denial about his background, took a lot longer. For various reasons, the
Vietnamese are intensely disliked by many ordinary Cambodians, something I
wanted to use to create an even greater sense of tension in the book. Ghost Money is a crime story, but it's also about the broken country that was Cambodia in the nineties, about what happens to people who are trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choices they makes, what they have to do to survive.
Q. How much of the plot is based on your real experiences?
A. I don't think any of the plot, as such, is based on real experiences I was involved in. The
background to the story is the defection of Ieng Sary from the KR,
which happened while I was working in Phnom Penh for several months on one of
the wire services. There's lots of
little textual details that I drew from my various times in Cambodia.
Ditto, I've visited nearly all the places the novel is set several
times, Battambang, Pailin. None of the characters in the book are based
on people I know. Like most writers I have picked the odd
characteristic or look of someone I have met and put it into the book. I
am not really all that comfortable basing fictional characters closely
on real life people. I just don't think it's ethical.
Labels: Andrew Nette, Ghost Money