Interview with Rattawut Lapcharoensap

‹ Back to blog

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, born in Chicago but raised in Bangkok, was just named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Sightseeing, his collection of short stories, won the Asian American Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. In our recent conversation, we discussed the best Thai writers, how tourism is a form of imperialism, and his novel in progress.

First, congratulations on being named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. How did you react to the news?

I felt happy, honored, bemused, and skeptical all at once. I’ve never successfully written a novel and so the news came as a bit of a surprise. As a writer, it’s always reassuring to be recognized—not so much in the sense of receiving honors and accolades (though those have their charms, I suppose) but more in the sense of knowing that somebody has read the work and responded to it, despite all its imperfections. It’s strange to be rewarded for something I’ve never done (a novel), something I didn’t really work at (youth), and something I’ve never comfortably identified myself as (American). And all writers should probably meet that first adjective with a certain amount of skepticism. There’s a bizarre compulsion in the culture to name the “best” of this thing or that thing. These kinds of lists can seem lifted from the world of advertising and consumer reports. That said, I suppose that they also seem designed to incite dialogue about literature and literary culture. The editors and judges at Granta must have recognized this tension when they chose the cover for the issue.

What can you tell us about the novel you’re working on?

The novel is set in western Thailand, on the Burmese border, and involves a young man, an old woman, a Field Marshal, some peacocks, and a very big house on a hill.

When I backpacked through Thailand last summer, all my fellow travelers were reading The Beach by Alex Garland. And, unfortunately, I expect that would be the only book about Thailand many people could name. What Thai writers or writing about Thailand do you admire?

Thai writing doesn’t get translated into English enough. Years ago, Benedict Anderson edited an anthology called “In the Mirror,” which compiled the work of Thai writers during the era of American involvement in the region. It’s a lovely anthology, and a good place to start for those interested in Thai literature.

Kukrit Pramot’s work seems unimpeachable both as literature and social document—“Four Reigns” in particular is Dickensian in scope and method. Sri Burapha, Wanit Charungkitanan, Suchit Wongthes, Lao Khamhom, and Sulak Sivaraksa—these people all wrote books I really admire. I also love the poems and linguistic studies of Chit Phumisak, though the power of his work seems inextricable from the way it resonated for a previous generation of leftist writers and thinkers.

I can go on and on. But these days the work of Prabda Yoon and Mukhom Wongthes are second to none.

It’s been said that tourism can be another form of imperialism – exactly how exploitative do you find the relationship between tourists and native Thais?

The complaints against tourism are familiar and well-documented. It’s a corrupt thing in a corrupt world, as everybody knows (though everybody has a different way of naming that corruption). The genealogy you indicate is a kind of popular truism by now—first the missionaries, then the colonizing armies, then the tourists. These last are either oblivious to the genealogy or, more often than not, they’re painfully aware of it, and so they end up wringing their hands and feeling bad about having a vacation. Nobody calls themselves a tourist—the finger’s always pointed at somebody else. Nevertheless, as a fiction writer, tourism is only interesting because it seems an institutionalized way of bringing disparate people together, each with their own myopic sense of who the other might be. It’s a form of the “stranger comes to town” story, which seems one of the oldest stories around. Tourism also requires people to devote their livelihoods to generating pleasure and comfort for others. It can be a ritualized way of sharpening people’s awareness of vast incongruities and inequalities. When this happens—as it does in so many places in the world, in so many other industries as well—one is filled with a curious mixture of envy and rage, and any form of ambivalence is always interesting for a fiction writer. Others have much more interesting things to say about this—Jamaica Kincaid in “A Small Place” and Dean MacCannell in “The Tourist” in particular—but I should also say that although tourism seems ever-present in a country like Thailand, it is still entirely possible for Thai people to live their lives without ever coming into contact with a white person.

Now your collection of short stories – Sightseeing – was published before two huge events in Thailand – the tsunami and the recent political upheaval. How do you think Thailand has changed because of that, and will those changes appear in your writing?

I’m not sure that I can answer the first part of your question—the drama, alas, is still unfolding and will keep unfolding forever more. There are people who know far more about it than me. I have no particular desire to write directly about the tsunami or the coup or the recent atrocities in the south. It’s fiction, after all—not reportage or anthropology or sociology—though it would be disingenuous for me to say that recent events, insofar as they exert a kind of physical and imaginative pressure on the country’s citizens, don’t have an effect on me. My family lives with those particular pressures every day.

The last story in your collection, “Cockfighting,” was novella length. Did you aim to write a story that long, or was it a kind of natural progression from your short stories into the novel-length fiction you’re currently writing?

I never meant to write a novella. I meant to write a short story, but then the story wouldn’t end. It kept going and going despite my complaints against it. For the longest time, I simply thought that I had an over-written draft—early incarnations clocked in at 140 pages—but then I realized that the demands of the story required me to use another form entirely. Then I got scared, because I’d never written a novella before.

Do you want to write any more novellas?

I do, but only so long as the form fits the content. I never really sit down and say, “Okay, now: a novella!” It’s simply a matter of writing each day, feeling one’s way in the dark (as James once said), and then learning through more writing and more revision and more darkness the kind of room that one has found oneself in.

So many of your stories are extremely sad. How do you channel such sorrow in your writing, and do you find it easier to channel some emotions more than others?

I always tell my students, when they complain that the stories I assign are “too depressing,” that writing doesn’t want to be sad or depressing, it just wants to be writing. It just wants to be art. That said, I don’t find any emotion particularly easy to channel, whether it be sorrow or joy. We’re talking about language, after all—small and silent marks on a page. If those marks can evoke any recognizable human feeling or emotion then that’s a small victory.

In light of the on-going debate about the advantages and disadvantages of MFA programs, how valuable did you find your MFA experience at Michigan?

Valuable in ways that I did and did not expect. I’d arrived at the Michigan MFA program thinking that I was entering a kind of utopian literary community, or at least a convincing facsimile of one. This didn’t turn out to be the case. I also thought that I was going to learn how to write—instead I seemed to learn, day-by-day, how not to write, which I suppose can be just as useful. That said, the MFA provided me with time, money, mentorship, and a few lasting friendships, all of which I’m grateful for, since these were not small, bad things for a small, bad writer.

Follow me on Social Media:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. This guy is a heavy hitter. I was taken by the range of subject and tone in his collection. You do a valuable service, John, by including this interview with him on your blog (just one of many reasons to keep tuning in at bookfox).

  2. Really solid, compelling interview. Although I haven’t read his stories yet, I am very interested. The bit about the stranger comes to town story being like tourism was insightful. Nice work.

  3. Thanks for posting a fine interview. I have heard a lot about Lapcharoensap but failed to grab a copy of Sightseeing when it first came out.
    Do you have any idea when the novel will be published in the U.S.?