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S.    P.    S O M T O W :
Man of Many Arts

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, June 1998)
S. P. Somtow
    Photo by Charles N. Brown
 
 
 

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S.P. Somtow was born Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul in Thailand, December 30, 1952, to diplomatic parents connected to the Thai royal family, but spent his earliest years in Europe. He returned there to continue his education at Eton, then at Cambridge University, where he received a B.A. and M.A. He had a poem, ''Kith of Infinity'', published in the Bangkok Press in 1967, but his professional arts career really began as an avant-garde composer and conductor. He directed the Bangkok Opera Society in 1977-78, led the Asian Composer's Conference-Festival in Bangkok in 1978, and wrote a number of works, including ''Gongula 3'' and ''Star Maker An Anthology of Universes''. At about the time a music writing block set in, he moved to the US, and began to be published as an SF writer, as Somtow Sucharitkul. His first novel Starship and Haiku appeared in 1981, and won the Locus Award for First Novel in 1982. He also won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer of 1981. Next came linked-story collection Mallworld (1981), and the ''Inquestor'' SF series: Light on the Sound (1982), The Throne of Madness (1983), Utopia Hunters (1984), and The Darkling Wind (1985). Another SF series began with The Aquiliad (1983), followed by Aquila and the Iron Horse (1988) and Aquila and the Sphinx (1988). There was a stand-alone alternate-world novel, The Shattered Horse (1986, as by S.P. Somtow). When he first began writing as S.P. Somtow, he turned mostly to works with elements of fantasy and dark fantasy, among them the ''Valentine'' series Vampire Junction (1984), Valentine (1992), and Vanitas (1995), werewolf novel Moondance (1989), and the first two volumes of the projected ''Riverrun'' trilogy Riverrun (1991) and Forest of the Night aka Armorica (1992). (The third book, Yestern, is only available in the 1996 omnibus Riverrun Trilogy, from White Wolf.) His 1996 British collection The Pavilion of Frozen Women was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award. His latest work is the horror novel Darker Angels (1997). Non-genre works include Forgetting Places (1987) and the originally serialized ''memoir'' novel Jasmine Nights (1994). He directed and composed the score for horror film The Laughing Dead (1989), and also for never-released Shakespearean adaptation Ill Met by Moonlight, with genre writers in some of the roles.

''We last did an interview seven years ago, and I've done a few things since! As a writer, I've published at least a dozen more books. Seven years ago, we were talking about my beginning to piece together the various structured aspects of my life. At the age of 45, I am finally actually doing this. It is about time.

''I had total silence in music in my life for about 12 years, from when I first had my science fiction published to about the beginning of the '90s. I stopped for several reasons. One was just a terrible writing block that descended upon me in Thailand in 1978 or so, which actually precipitated my becoming a science fiction writer. One of the reasons I had the big block was just the sheer frustration of trying to become the Harlan Ellison of Southeast Asian music! I was fighting with the authorities in the art community against about 50 years of a basic holding pattern in the arts, really since the fall of absolute monarchy. There was a terrible fear of innovation which had not been true in the past, in the Thai arts. ...

''As a result of Jasmine Nights, some of my other works began to appear in Thailand. And even though they were not read by many people, I started to get this huge reputation as a sort of slightly scandalous media figure. So in Thailand, I'm famous without being read, and in the US, I'm read without being famous! I have to lead two completely different lifestyles. In America, I live in a very humble way, in a fairly poor neighborhood of Los Angeles, and drive myself to the grocery store. In Bangkok, I would be sitting around eating in incredibly luxurious places, being driven around, living a completely different way, really. But not read, and not doing anything!

''The reason I was able to switch easily back and forth between writing and music was that I didn't really change the creative process. The basic structures of my writing are still musical structures. I see plot strands as musical themes, and develop them the same way. My writing is writing that I hear. When I first came to California and was writing animation screenplay scripts, I used the sonata form, because there was a commercial in the middle, making two segments, and I developed the plots in exactly the same way as a Mozart sonata it seemed to work!

''I use a lot of devices stolen from music, especially in my recent work. The 'Riverrun' trilogy, structurally, is an exercise in multiple first-person viewpoints. Towards the end, I use a scene usually only found in opera, where all the people are singing at the same time and yet it's all music, and you can still make out all the separate strands. I had sentences which switched from viewpoint character to viewpoint character in the same sentence, bouncing back and forth, and yet still making real sentences. I felt that I was only able to do that because of music.

''This shows up again in Darker Angels, where the book is told in the Arabian Nights technique, where a person meets a person, who tells them a story... At one point, it's about seven levels deep. I chose this convoluted way to tell a story, because it's a thematic novel, rather than a novel about one person who does something. In other works like Vampire Junction, I actually tried to use the Wagnerian leitmotif technique and apply it to writing. ...

''My way of dealing with the mingling of fantasy with reality is to fix on details in the historical web, very small, accurate details about things. If I put those in, I feel the audience will buy something that's really wild. In a secret history, you're not really saying anything different happened, the way you do in an alternate history, but that there are things that happened underneath what's known. That's what Darker Angels is. It's not an alternate history. Ed Bryant pointed out in his review in Locus: until ten pages before the end, you think it could be an alternate history, because you think they could bring Abraham Lincoln back to life and he would change everything, but in the last ten pages I make it clear that it's not an alternate history but a secret history. After Darker Angels, Tor basically gave me the kiss-off, saying unless the figures improved, they wouldn't be coming back to me. I sent them a book, a third historical dark fantasy, which would have rounded out the 'Moondance' trilogy, as it were, but my then-editor, Greg Cox, wasn't allowed to buy it. And he's gone now. I think Gollancz will publish my next book, most likely. I'm not sure. I've also written a novel called Bluebeard's Castle, which has not found a publisher here, but Gollancz is interested.

''I thought one way to get out of this problem with US publishers would be to write something wildly controversial, so I started a novel called Mother of God: The Memoirs of Miriam of Nazareth, a first-person historical about the real story of the Virgin Mary, and submit it only to big publishers, who would put it in front of the store. The rejection letters have basically said, 'This is too controversial for us.' However, Psychic Advisor did run a long interview with me, in which they talked about this novel at length! I've given some readings of this book, but they've always been to the converted witches, science fiction fans, people well aware that there's a rational historical explanation for everything. I've tried to write a vivid historical novel, much like my dark fantasies.

''I'm writing a book right now which I can't get anybody to publish. I'm right in the middle of that midlist, in the perfect demographic to be on the street! And in fact, for the last year I have been. I have no books under contract right now, except small-press books. There's a short story collection The Pavilion of Frozen Women, which came out only in England, was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Stoker Award, but never came out in America. Which just shows you how hard it is to get published now.

''Why do I have so much trouble getting published? Because I won't write the same book over and over. Of course, I could have done that, and many people have done that, but God, I get so bored, writing the same book over and over! I just cannot do it! I've tried. I mean, I have written ''V'' novels, as well as three 'Jimmy Valentine' books. But in each of those, I tried to do something new, which is probably why they didn't sell as well. ...

''In the last couple of months, I have two films in development with two different producers, based on Vampire Junction and Jasmine Nights. They're both films in which I've been guaranteed a certain amount of artistic control. I'm hoping that if those are made and you can never tell this may cause the kind of breakthrough that would get my books back on the shelves. ...

''As a greedy kind of person, I've always wanted to do something that had as many of the arts as I was capable of doing. I'm going to combine them all, but I'm trying to figure out the best way to do it. What I really want to do, my ultimate ambition, is to do an opera. I wrote some operas when I was a kid, but I could never get them performed. Now the opera keeps popping into my head again. What would it be? An operatic adaptation of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick? God, I'd want to do that!

''Or maybe what I should do is write an opera about Dracula, for the year 2000, when the World Horror Convention is going to be in Denver. There's been a ballet about Dracula, recently. And Stoker did a play version I could adapt. In opera, what you do if you're adapting a play is take most of it out, because the music has to say it all. But the play can be a useful skeleton to hang that on. A work based on Dracula would be a good sort of millennial thing to have. Another idea would be to write an opera about Vlad the Impaler.

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.