I met Mithran Somasundrum via the Internet Writing Workshop. I enjoyed his debut novel, The Mask Under My Face, which I’ve reviewed here. Mithran kindly agreed to do an interview about this novel, his writing life, and his day job. He also offers advice and resources for writers.
Two excerpts from this well-observed novel: First, wealthy Thai man-child Surapat on his first visit to London:
“There is something pleasantly controlled about being introduced to an alien city from the back seat of a car. The streets and the people are a theatre offered up to his window. He can choose to sample them or move on. If only, Surapat thinks, there was more happening.
“And then there is. They come out of the suburbs into the city. More cars, wider roads, more people. And high stone buildings that look like the architectural equivalents of the dark suits he sees on the pavements. At one point he can’t stop himself from reading the words he sees hugely spaced above glass doors. ‘Harrods.’”
And here’s how another main character, Den, approaches women:
“Den, who wants so very much to get her into bed, nods his head and says, ‘Yeah, you’ve probably got a point.’ He’s discovered his best chance with office girls is to become one of their projects. He can’t offer money or security, but he can suggest that his slightly illegal but not completely bad self is open to improvement. And it’s amazing how many women want to take him up on that. Bel, for starters. Perfect skin, fair complexion, kissable red lips.”
Here’s our interview:
How long have you been writing? What do you find most challenging about writing? What comes easiest to you?
I was writing off and on since around 1990, while I was a student. Then when I came to Thailand in 1994 I started to write to a proper daily discipline. I think the great flaw in my writing is that a certain glibness enters it. I have this need to quickly fill the page so I can feel I’ve accomplished a lot, but what results isn’t very honest or insightful. It just becomes a list of events: this happened, that happened, something else happened. As for what comes easiest, I enjoy writing dialogue, though it’s one of those things where you shouldn’t over-indulge.
Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked that the fiction he most enjoyed reading was the realist, low-key novels of Anthony Trollope, but that he found himself writing very differently. Are the kinds of writing you enjoy reading vs. writing close together? If not, then what do you think explains this discrepancy? Who are your writing role models? Do you think it’s more important for writers to read extensively in their genre, or just to read good writing in general?
They’re certainly not always close together. For instance, I’m a great fan of a strong, vivid first-person voice. Say, George MacDonald Fraser in the Flashman books, or Martin Amis in something like Money. But my own writing voice is much quieter. As for why that discrepancy exists, it’s a very good question. I think your own writing voice is a product of your personality and your experiences and your mood, it’s who you are and everything that happened to you, up to the point at which you sat down at the table that morning. But we can form friendships with, and have admiration for, people who are very unlike ourselves.
As for role models, I love the way Graham Greene could go between serious novels like Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory, to entertainments like Stamboul Train and The Confidential Agent. He was a serious literary writer, but he also took spy stories and thrillers seriously, and wrote good ones. I don’t think he believed good writing was bounded by genre (he was a great admirer of Eric Ambler, for instance). So following on from that to your final question, I think it’s definitely better to read good writing in general than to stick to the genre you’re working in.
The Mask Under My Face is your debut novel. How was the process of writing and editing it? How long did it take you? Are you an outliner or a ‘pantser’? Do you schedule regular hours for your writing? Did you seek support from your employer/colleagues & family/social circle?
While it’s the first novel I’ve published, it’s actually the fourth I’ve written. (The first three are best forgotten!) I think the first draft took around 8 months. That got me the basic story, the plot never really changed afterwards, but there was a great deal of rewriting and a great deal of cutting. The first draft was around 156,000 words, but the final version is 98,000 words. So I practically cut a small novel out of it. As far as the degree of outlining goes, it’s changed from work to work. For this one, the closest thing I got to an outline was writing down Surapat and Den’s initial ages in a notebook.
I do have regular hours for writing. My routine is to wake up at 6, make a coffee, eat some fruit and ideally start by 6.30. I usually write for between an hour to an hour and a half, and then begin getting ready to go to work. The necessity of leaving for work is what gets me started. Also, the mornings are a good time for me. My mind’s fresh, I don’t have distractions and it’s the coolest part of the day. In terms of support, my wife’s Thai, so I often check things with her, or ask her about cultural details that I’m not sure of.
The novel is set mostly in Thailand. The book spans fifteen years, & in its second half we see how Thailand has changed between 1995 and 2010. Tell us about your personal relationship with the country.
I came to Thailand in 1994. Basically, in the lab where I was doing my PhD there was a Thai student, and his boss came out to visit him and told us about the possibility of working in Thailand. My initial thought was just that I wanted to work outside of the UK for a bit. In the end I stayed for four years, then went to work in the Department of Applied Physics at Fukui University in Japan (mainly because there was a really good electrochemist working there). The contract at Fukui was for 3 years, and after it was finished I came back to Thailand. That was in 2001. I met my wife working in the lab I returned to, settled down, and I’ve been here ever since.
Two periods of social upheaval bookend the novel. The cast of Mask spans the socioeconomic spectrum, and we see the fortunes of Surapat’s family rise and fall during this period. Can you talk about how the social backdrop informs the plot?
To start with, there’s never really been any ideology in the Thai political system. There isn’t a specific right-wing or left-wing party. As a good political commentator called Chris Baker once wrote, “Thailand evolved a parliamentary system that represented money rather than people.” What went on in parliament was mostly different unstable business coalitions vying for power, and that made the system quite unstable. In the first four years I was in Thailand the Prime Minister changed four times.
The economic crash (which affects the fortunes of Surapat’s family) led to people re-thinking how the system was structured. In 1997 the constitution was re-written to try and create a parliament that would be more stable, by introducing a number of measures to reduce the influence of smaller parties. The result of all that was ultimately Thaksin winning the 2001 election and becoming the first Thai prime minister to complete his four-year term.
He appealed directly to the rural population, especially in the North and Northeast, and came up with some ideas (such as health care reform) that were genuinely popular. At the same time, there was concern that he was undermining the system’s checks and balances, and also that he had massive conflicts of interests, given that he was a billionaire, still running a huge business empire. In particular, the middle-class in Bangkok didn’t like him and hated the fact that they couldn’t remove him via the ballot box.
The conversation that Den has with Bel in Mask is more or less the kind of thinking that was present. Bel’s description of democracy as a “dictatorship of the majority” is a phrase that you’d actually hear at that time. This frustration led to protests by the “Yellow Shirts”, the occupation of Don Muang airport and, ultimately, Thaksin’s removal via a military coup. This then led to the “Red Shirt” protests two years later, by people who felt the coup had stolen their democratic rights. The Red Shirt protest ended with the army moving in on their protest site (ninety-nine people were killed). Mask ends as the end-game of the protest begins. I feel that the foot soldiers in the conflict, for both the Red and Yellow Shirts, looked at the other side as representing a certain kind of impunity (Thaksin on one side and the stolen election on the other), and I think the existence of this impunity still underlies a great of social unrest here. Den is non-political, but when Suwalee tells him how people like Surapat mustn’t get away with their crimes any more, he says, “Just look at the news, Suwalee. They get away free all the time.”
What was the genesis of the novel? Did you start with an image / character / the title?
There was honestly no real-life event that inspired this book. I realise it’s going to sound strange saying that, given there’s been a high-profile case here about the son of the billionaire owner of Red Bull killing a policeman with his Ferrari. He fled the country, is still abroad, and will probably never come to trial. But the thing is, all of that happened after I’d written the first draft. The genesis of Mask was really just the idea of impunity. I imagined these two sons, one the child of privilege, and one the son of a poor man who was murdered by the other son, for whatever reason. I thought the book would follow their lives and then, somehow, they would meet. But when I started writing, Den’s mother, Attiya, forced her way in. She didn’t give me any choice. It was as though she’d turned up and said, “You can’t put Den in this if I’m not there.”
You’ve made Surapat a twisted yet sympathetic character. He’s committed multiple homicides, but the reader is not able to just dismiss him as a sociopath. To me he seems more like a spoiled child, doing what he wants and bewildered when he feels cast aside and out of his depth. How did you conceive him, and how would you describe him? Does he typify a class, & is this class specifically Thai?
A spoiled child is a good description of him. I would agree with that. I’ve always thought of him as the product of a life of protection. When you don’t have to face the consequences of your actions it must warp your sense of reality, I think. And if you’re living a life where you can always slate your desires, one way or the other, then you end up controlled by them. I suppose that’s the “class” he typifies. I definitely don’t think the class is only present in Thailand. I think it exists all over the world. Although the actions of that class in Thailand can be quite blatant.
In London, Surapat feels lost and alone, no longer the cock of the walk. You’ve moved around a bit in your own life. How has that informed your writing? Where do you most feel at home? Is it important for writers to feel like outsiders – or at least to move around and maybe occasionally discombobulate themselves in other ways?
In terms of informing my writing about Surapat – definitely! His reactions to London are basically mine, after having lived in Thailand for so long. Before Covid I used to go back once a year to visit my parents, and on that first day of arrival, suburban London always seemed so tranquilised. You’d get the sudden drama of spotting someone walking down an empty street. Having said that, after about a week I’d feel completely at home again. I still feel more at home in London than anywhere else. As for whether it’s good to discombobulate yourself, I’m hesitant to say yes as a general rule, as I don’t think there are any general rules for writing. But it’s been good for me. When you’re in a new land, that initial feeling of insecurity makes you more observant, and you see your own country differently.
How did you go about navigating the plethora of publication options available to writers today? Are you happy with your choice of Kitaab Press? How do you feel about the publicity an author must do?
I spent a lot of time querying agents – over a hundred – but none of them wanted Mask. So the book went into a drawer and I got on with writing the next one. Then a friend who I’d got to know from the Internet Writer’s Workshop, Monideepa Sahu, told me the owner of Kitaab was looking for novels, and so I queried them. I’m happy with how things have gone. Kitaab are a small press but they have a distributor for Singapore, and I think they are starting to make a name for themselves, particularly through their anothologies. As far as authors publicising themselves, I think you’re already doing a much better job of that than I am, what with your website and book reviews. So far I’m only on Facebook and have just started to try and make a website (https://mithransomasundrum.wixsite.com/mithran). As far as how much you should do, I think that’s down to each individual and depends on how much time you’ve got and how much of a distraction your social media involvement is going to be. I think at a certain point, becoming a social media “presence” runs against the internal life you need for your writing.
You’ve published short fiction before this in a range of top-notch journals. (Mithran’s short story “The View From Here” in The Sun magazine.) Was it a deliberate decision to develop your skills in short fiction before embarking on a novel? Was there a moment when you felt it would be a rational decision to attempt a longer work, or was it a more spontaneous decision? Did having those publication credits help you to feel more confident of your own skills, and/or to find a publisher? How important is it for aspiring novelists to build a portfolio of shorter works?
Taking the last question first, honestly, I don’t think it’s necessary at all for a novelist to start out with shorter works. I don’t think short stories function as a stepping-stone to novels, as they are two different forms. The best way to learn novel writing is to write one. Also, unless your portfolio actually contains something like The New Yorker or The Paris Review, I doubt the publishing world will care much about your credits. The important things are your query letter (especially the short para where you blurb the novel), and then the work itself. Having said that, it can take a long time to get a novel published. So getting a short story accepted, either in print or on a website, can be good for a sense of validation, and for giving you the confidence you need to keep going with a novel.
You work as a full-time researcher in genetic engineering. Can you give us a glimpse into that world? How does your job interact with your writing?
Even though the people paying my salary are The National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, I’m actually an electrochemist, weirdly enough. The research I do is on electrochemical sensors. When a chemical reacts at an electrode (i.e. is oxidised or reduced) a current flows into or out of the electrode, and that current will be proportional to the concentration of the reacting species. So if you can react a species in a selective manner, you can develop a sensor to detect it. Most of the work in our lab has been academic, aimed at scientific journals, though lately there has been a strong push here to produce patentable work that we can spin off to private companies. As for how it interacts with writing, well I think it’s given me an aversion to doing research for my stories. I tend to think, I’m writing to get away from research! And sometimes I find myself obsessing far too much about word choice when I’m writing papers, because I’m in fiction writing mode.
What support structures or resources do you rely on for your writing? Have you studied writing formally? Do you benefit from critique groups / workshops / seminars / mentors?
I haven’t studied writing formally. The education system in the UK specialises at quite an early stage, and I went down the science route. After a period of about four years of serious writing, during which I never showed my stories to anyone, I joined the Internet Writers’ Workshop. It was really useful, and suddenly I could see all kinds of problems in my work that I’d previously been blind to. But at the same time, I found it difficult to write new things. The idea of producing stories for a workshop was something very different to the way I’d written before, and when I sat down to work it suddenly felt as though there were a couple of hundred people looking over my shoulder. It’s the closest I’ve been to writer’s block. So to get myself out of that I started writing a story I knew I would never show to anyone. It was a thriller-type thing about spies in Bangkok, written just for fun. The exercise worked, and after a while I started to enjoy myself and could produce short stories again. And then at some point I thought, why not finish it? Just for the achievement of having written a novel. So that was the first. I did query a few agents… before coming to my senses! But having reached that stage, knowing I could finish a novel, I started thinking about writing others. I’ve got a few writer friends in Bangkok who I share things with for feedback and some of them are in the Acknowledgements of this one.
What’s the biggest mistake you see young writers making? What is something you wish you yourself had known when you began writing?
I doubt there is one “biggest”, as all writers are different. But one important thing is to learn to trust your own material. I think that failure of trust can be a beginner’s mistake. When trust fails you get lots of active verbs peppering the text. A character’s eyes spring open, they leap out of bed, charge downstairs, storm into the kitchen, and so on, and still nothing interesting has happened. It’s the same as when you’re talking to someone. Good raconteurs have the relaxed confidence of people who know they will be listened to, and that confidence is part of what makes them compelling story-tellers. The listener, or reader, wants to believe the story-teller is in control of their material. As for what I would change about myself when I began, I wish I had been less self-conscious and self-critical and let go a bit more. And then I would have found my voice sooner. I spent too long trying to write like the authors I admired.
Top ten resources for fiction writers? And the best ways to use each resource?
I honestly don’t think I can come up with ten. Manuscript Wishlist (https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/) is a good place to search for agents, as it tells you which agents are currently looking for what types of writing. Although it does seem to be used more by US agents than British ones. Agent query is also useful, as you can search under different genres (https://www.agentquery.com/). The Paris Review interviews were great, back when they were available on the Paris Review website, but sadly they are not up anymore, as TPR are now publishing them as paperbacks. Lit Hub is a nice site with some interesting essays (https://lithub.com/). That’s honestly all I can think of. The best resource is library full of great work.
What’s in the works?
A private detective novel of mine is going to be brought out by a digital first publisher in the UK called Joffe Books. The title is Bangkok Phantoms. Here’s the blurb:
Bangkok, Chinatown: Vijay, a perennially broke translator-cum-private eye, is juggling two different cases. For Khun Pleum, a ruthless ex-gangster, he’s investigating the strange shooting of a novelist. Meanwhile, for Khun Pleum’s wife he’s trying to discover the name of Khun Pleum’s mistress. Vijay knows he shouldn’t have taken both jobs, but he’s got a debt collector with a claw hammer threatening to turn his ankles all the way around.
Buy The Mask Under My Face:
A short story set in the same world as Mask, published by Storgy