Detective Sam Long, Lowell, Massachusetts police officer, has worked hard to put his tormented past behind him and fit in with his American colleagues. But when a murder in Lowell’s Asian community brings back visions of the Killing Fields, Sambath Long, Cambodian refugee and naturalized U.S. citizen, upholds the law he has sworn to enforce, despite his private belief that maybe the murderer deserves a medal. As voices from his past begin to haunt his waking dreams, Sam finds comfort in the love of his American English-teacher wife, Julie, and their daughter Trish. But he has not burdened them with the horrors he left behind in Cambodia. And when he comes too close to solving the case, Sam is faced, once again, with being unable to protect the family he loves.
Bob Sanchez has written a convincing murder mystery, Little Mountain, set in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the midst of a community of Asian immigrants and refugees that respects, fears, and deeply distrusts authority. Much as I enjoy a good murder mystery, I prefer character-driven drama, and Sanchez hooked me from the start with a combination of smooth, engaging writing and believable characters I cared to know better. I particularly liked Detective Sambath Long and his wife Julie, the irrepressible Pheary and her mom, and Fitchie, the devoted husband and partner. By contrast, I despised young Viseth Kim, but wanted to know what made him the contemptible young man he’d become. I ached for his mother.
I recently had the chance to interview Bob for TheNextGoal:
“Bob, I’ve just finished reading Little Mountain,” I said. In fact, the first thing I did while recovering from the Surviving the Blog Contest and a nasty cold was to load it onto my Nook and curl up with it under the covers. “It wasn’t hard to get into, and once I did, it was very difficult to put down. There are a few things I’m curious about – first, how did the story occur to you – what inspired it?”
“In early 1980,” Bob said, “my family sponsored one of the first Cambodian refugee families to arrive in Lowell, Massachusetts from the camps in Thailand. We bonded with them while thousands of other Cambodians arrived in the city, so to a certain extent our lives intertwined. The inspiration was all around me. I wrote a mainstream novel that wasn’t much good, but I learned a lot from it. Since I love mysteries, it seemed fitting to use much of my material in a mystery format.”
“It takes courage and respect to write credibly about people whose nationality and culture are very different from our own.” I know; I’ve tried. I always wonder if the people I’m writing about would laugh, or roll their eyes, at my mistakes. “It’s also important, as a writer, to do it honestly and interestingly. Did you have any concerns, in writing about the Cambodian-American community portrayed in Little Mountain? What were they?”
“I was concerned that I would get facts wrong and that the story wouldn’t delve deeply enough into the culture. One specific example concerned a Khmer phrase I heard often from one person. It was an expression of surprise, and I wanted to use it in the book.” Bob smiled and looked a little sheepish. “When I asked around, I learned it was a pretty vile profanity. Also, the idea that some refugees would be former Khmer Rouge was at first a guess on my part and was key to the story. That assumption turned out to be correct, or at least never disputed.”
That gave me pause, and sent a small chill down my spine. “Bob, what practical advice would you give a writer dealing with characters who are very foreign to him or her?”
“It depends on the nature of the story and the characters, but it helps if you can go to their country, which I didn’t have the resources to do.” Bob continued, “Barring that, talk to a variety of people from that country, and then do plenty of library research. Don’t get all your information from just one or two sources. For example, one Cambodian told me that wife-beating was customary in his country. Other Cambodians vehemently denied it.”
“Your story touches on a theme that I think crosses cultures – one that’s very much worth exploring. What happens to us when we seek revenge, even when it’s “righteous” revenge and no one would really fault us for it. I get that – but I wonder what really makes someone like Bin Chea tick?”
“A theme I wanted to explore was the interaction of two completely different cultures, and there may not have been a better place to explore that than in Lowell. The hero, Sam Long, embraces the American culture completely, while others hang on to their Asian culture and view America with a mix of gratitude and trepidation. He and Bin Chea are both figments of my imagination. Comrade Bin also wants to leave his past behind. He made a lot of enemies in Cambodia, and he doesn’t want his past to catch up with him. As for the acts he committed in service of the Khmer Rouge, who can really explain them? There is a dark strain in human nature, and Bin Chea represents that.”
I can’t help but think “dark stain” is a tame euphemism for the maggots lurking in Comrade Bin’s soul. But of course Bob’s right, and Bin is not alone in history. “Did any Cambodians read your story? If so, how did they react? How did you feel, waiting for their reaction?”
“I don’t know of any Cambodians who have read Little Mountain, but a few had read an earlier story I had written, and they said I had it right. Of course, I had gotten a lot of specifics from them in the first place. My goal in any case is to tell a good story to American readers.”
“That you did. You prompted me to want to learn more about Cambodian history, the more I came to care what happened to Sam – I wanted to understand, even better, what drove him and turned him into the person he was – and how that same history could create creatures like Bin Chea and Viseth Kim. Speaking of Kim, there’s usually a great deal of respect, in the Asian community, for one’s elders – or so it seems, to outsiders. The sort of disrespect the Battboys – especially Viseth – showed the older generation, what do you think that stems from?”
“Respect for age is an important part of Asian culture, and by the way I don’t claim to be nearly expert on the subject. But I think that the Khmer Rouge horribly damaged the entire social structure of their country from 1975 to 1979, splitting and destroying countless families. They stripped parents, teachers, police of all authority and took it for themselves, so it’s little wonder that many survivors came to be leery of authority even in the United States. So I think a generation of children has come out of the refugee camps with some of the family traditions badly shaken–but hardly destroyed.
The Battboys, by the way, are a fiction. Since Battambang is the name of a Cambodian province, Battboys struck me as a good gang name.”
“Do you have any more novels in the works, Bob?”
“Yes, I have two others published already, all available at http://tinyurl.com/bobsanchezauthor. A fourth and fifth are in the works, and no two are alike.”
So, Bob, what do you do when you’re not writing novels?” I asked.
“I am active in the El Paso Writers’ League and write book reviews for Kirkus and for the Internet Review of Books. In the good weather, my wife and I like to explore the West in our RV.”
“That sounds like fun! When did you first know that you wanted to write?”
“The bug has been in my blood forever, but it didn’t really become a full-blown affliction until I became a technical writer in the mid-’80s.” I smiled – I, too, became a technical writer in the mid-1980s, and know what it’s like to meld the discipline of tech writing with a burning need to write fiction. Bob said, “I squirmed at the need to fit corporate writing styles, so in the evenings creative writing became my outlet. However, technical writing taught me a tremendous amount about craft.”
“Seems we have more than a few things in common, Bob. Your books are self-published, and you’ve said that you’re not actively pursuing publication through a traditional, royalty-paying publisher – though of course you’d consider it.
“Did I mention I had three agents over the years? They just never found publishers. In time, it just seemed that life is too short to spend months and years begging strangers to allow my work to be published.”
“What is your primary goal, as a novelist? Do you think you’ve achieved that?” I asked.
“My primary goal is to tell entertaining stories. I’d love to reach a critical mass of readers, whatever that is, so that my novels sell by word of mouth. I’m not there yet.”
“What is your NEXT goal?”
“To finish a novel about a priest who struggles with a moral dilemma.”
“You don’t tackle the easy ones, do you? I’ll look forward to reading that – and your other novels, now that I’ve had a taste in Little Mountain. Thanks, Bob!”
To learn more about author Bob Sanchez and his writing, please visit: