Ask the Author: Robert Carmichael

“Ask me a question.” Robert Carmichael

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Robert Carmichael I had returned to Cambodia to cover the 2009 war crimes trial of Comrade Duch, the former head of the Khmer Rouge's secret prison S-21, where more than 12,000 so-called enemies of the revolution were taken to be tortured and then executed.

I met Neary - the daughter of one man imprisoned at S-21 in 1977 - quite by accident in Phnom Penh in early 2009. Neary and her mother, Martine, had come to Cambodia to see the start of Duch's trial.

They returned several times that year, including to testify against him, and as the year went by it became apparent that their family's story (they are French) could provide a bridge between a Western audience and a crime of extraordinary magnitude - what happened to the people of Cambodian was one of the crimes of the 20th century, yet its causes and consequences remain little known or misunderstood.
Robert Carmichael An idea that grips me and that tells a story that I feel HAS to be written.

That was the case with my first book, the true story of a daughter searching for her father in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's catastrophic 1975-79 rule of Cambodia in which 2 million people died, one in four of the population.

Having the story of the daughter - her name is Neary - allowed me to frame the book through that family's search for answers and for justice, and at the same time recount what had happened to Cambodia and how the country is recovering.

In this case, I felt it was also important to use the story of one of the Khmer Rouge's many victims, to make people aware of one person's life from that mass of 2 million anonymous dead. In many ways the story of Ket and his French family stands for the stories of millions of other Cambodians.
Robert Carmichael Read a lot. Write a lot. Keep pushing no matter what.

And when you write your first book, avoid Mistake 101, the curse of the aspiring author. What is it? Writing three or four chapters, and then going back to them and rewriting them over and over again until they are "perfect". Forget perfection - it's not going to happen. Completion is key, and perfection is the enemy of completion. The solution: write the first draft. All the way through. To the end. And ONLY THEN go back and start revising. That way you have a first draft of your book, which is better than having three awesome chapters and no energy/money/time to go any further.

Also, use Scrivener. It's a great piece of software that I used for my book, and it's cheap ($40 or thereabouts).
Robert Carmichael Not answering to anyone else.

The freedom that writing brings is wonderful. Scary, sometimes, given that we all have to eat and of course to meet our other responsibilities. But being my own boss (whether as a freelance journalist or as an author) is a true privilege.

When I think of all the jobs I've done in the past (and that's an eclectic mix, I can assure you), I can honestly say that writing my first book was the most productive, satisfying and worthwhile work I've ever done. And that on its own is gold.
Robert Carmichael The best advice I ever read about writing was in a Paris Review article - it was an interview with Ray Bradbury (it's a great interview, btw, and free to read online). In that interview, Bradbury wasn't replying to a question about writer's block, but his answer surely applies to it. Given that I can't possibly do better than him, I'll just post his answer here:

"Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year."

In other words, just write. Write your way through it. Other solutions include going for a walk or - for the Hemingway types - hitting the bottle.

I'm more of a fan of the Bradbury approach. Just keep writing. Even if it's terrible you can always rework it during the editing process.
Robert Carmichael Right now it's back to journalism for me, although I'm hoping that later in the year I can take a month off to write the first draft of my next project.

What will that be? Fiction - as opposed to my first book - and there is one key reason I'm looking forward to that: there will be no facts that require checking. More on the second book later in the year.

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