Where'd In the Fabled East come from?

I first travelled to Southeast Asia with my wife in 1996-97, and a visit to Changi Jail in Singapore inspired me to do the work that became my novel Empress of Asia. I went back to Thailand in 2001 to explore some areas that I hadn't seen on that first trip and which the novel would have to cover, and I became intrigued with Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos-all comprising the former French Indochina-which I'd never set foot in though they were just across the border to the east. They loomed as this delicious mystery, but a mystery without a story.
    Then on a 2003 reading tour of the BC interior with writers Steven Galloway, Nancy Lee and Laisha Rosnau, I had a sudden and vivid vision in Kamloops-while Steve's poor car was in the shop-of a European woman in hoop skirts stumbling around a muddy thatch-hut village somewhere in Asia. I had no idea why was she there. But the next year my wife and I moved from Vancouver to Penticton BC, home of one of the world's great used bookstores, where I bought a paperback translation of Wu Ch'eng-en's Monkey: Folk Novel of China. Just from the title it sounded great. On page 14, the morbidly-obsessing Monkey King announces to his subjects, "Tomorrow I shall go down the mountain, wander like a cloud to the corners of the sea, far away to the end of the world, till I learn how to be young forever and escape the doom of death." My woman in hoop-skirts was clearly far from home-had she travelled to the ends of the earth to be young forever and escape the doom of death? It seemed as likely a scenario as any. Her story began to spool out in my mind, various plot-lines took shape, and I spent August 2007 in Laos and Vietnam collecting material, hordes of material, for In the Fabled East. Six weeks later my wife gave birth to our second child. It was a very fraught time.
    So in tackling an Indochina book I wanted to explore the nature of that initial mystery, if such a thing could ever be pinned down.

There's a passage about a third of the way through In the Fabled East where Pierre Lazarie, the ruddy-cheeked Orientalist, ruminates on the nature of the exotic; he's steaming up the Mekong from Cambodia into Laos, which seems the most outrageously wonderful thing that's ever happened to him, until he realizes how relative the nature of the exotic is-he grew up in Paris and associates the usually-romantic Notre Dame Cathedral with stalled buses and soggy shoes, for instance, whereas to that Lao boy paddling a log along the riverbank the Mekong must be the most mundane place on earth. Pierre realizes that by definition the mysterious, the exotic, have to vanish the moment you're near enough to grab them. I certainly did a lot of research in Vietnam and Laos before writing the novel, but because its inception was so caught up in exploring this mystery, fable and myth and immaterial forces came to play a much larger role in this book than in either of my first two, which were set in places I'd been to before I considered writing about them. And the mystery is reflected in the two French protagonists, Pierre and Adelie, who each spend years dreaming of going east before they ever do. And though some very dark things happen in the book, my most pervasive thought about In the Fabled East is that it's a love letter to these countries that are still pulling themselves upright after decades of being kicked around by any Western power that happened to be passing.
    But what got me started in Southeast Asia in the first place? I grew up in Vernon BC; there's no obvious connection. After high school my wife was an exchange student in Indonesia, and we travelled there for a year, in '96 and '97, after I'd been studying Creative Writing at UBC for five years and was hungrier for stories than ever before. The timing couldn't have been better; I found that my cultural distance from the world we were moving through meant that suddenly everything looked like a story. Going through these salt flats in the south of Sulawesi, I remember seeing a man and a woman down on their knees putting salt into sacks, their head-scarves blowing everywhere, while another man stood with his hands on his hips.