Burma Diary – Part 1

Today I leave for Burma. I am excited and anxious and very curious.

I have travelled to Burma more than a dozen times. It is a country where I have close friends, where I feel very comfortable. There is almost a sense of belonging.

My last trip was a year and a half ago. For Burma, that didn’t used to be a long time. Time didn’t matter much. Things used to change very slowly, if they changed at all. Kalaw, the town where my novel The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is set, looks more or less the same as it did seventeen years ago, when I first travelled there: the same old and run down buildings, the same potholes in the streets. In my hotel I was the only guest, like always, in my room there was still the same fridge. It didn’t work on my fist visit. It didn’t work on my last visit.

But it could be different now. All of the sudden Burma is in the headlines. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest; she is even running for a parliamentary seat in April. Hillary Clinton visited her recently and they gave a press conference together.  Unthinkable just a few months ago.

I hear there is more freedom of the press now, people are less scared and the new Burmese government promises even more reforms.

When I asked a friend to make a hotel reservation for me he replied two days later that all the hotels in Yangon, the former capital, are booked for the next several weeks. I thought he was kidding. It is the beginning of the hot season, not exactly the best time for tourists. The hotels used to be empty. I used to walk the streets for days without noticing a foreigner. Who is occupying all the hotel rooms now? Why are these people travelling to Burma?

I wonder if the signs for political and economic change are real or artifice, a well-staged play to convince the West to lift their sanctions. Are the military and their cronies prepared to give up at least some of their power and privileges? And if things have started to change for real, how will it affect the people? Who will benefit? Who will suffer even more? Who will be able to adjust and take advantage of new opportunities, and who will be left behind? I cannot imagine a place less prepared for the influx of money, whether it is investment or aid.

What about my friends and their families? Will they be busy all of the sudden? Will they chase a dream of progress for the first time in their lives? My best friend had to send two of his three children abroad because he thought they had no future in their home country. They haven’t seen each other in many years. Will they be tempted to come back, at least to visit their father?

I am about to find out and will keep you posted.

Today I leave for Burma. I am excited and anxious and very curious.

Photo from Page & Palette Bookstore

Photo from Page & Palette Bookstore
A photo from Page & Palette Bookstore.

Page & Palette Bookstore in Fairhope, AL, posted this lovely photo with the note, "We really like this book if you can't tell."

The day has arrived…

It has been two weeks since The Art of Hearing Heartbeats came out in America. The first few days and weeks after the publication of a novel is always a strange phase for me: very sensitive and extremely exciting at the same time.

Exciting, because it usually takes me two or more years to write a novel. Two years in which I sit at my desk just by myself, thinking, dreaming, listening. Writing is a lonely business. Nobody reads what I type into my computer except my wife. Then my publisher, my editor. And finally the moment I have worked for so long arrives…

Sensitive and difficult, because up to that day, the characters belong to me. Only to me. From the moment I invent them, we live in a very close relationship, undisturbed by the outside world. I shelter and nurture them; they teach me many things. It is very intimate. But from the day the book is published, I have to let go. They are not mine anymore. I send them out in to the world. They belong to anyone who is willing to discover them. I can’t protect them from people who don’t like them, who think they are boring, or stupid, or shallow. They are on their own now.

Letting go is not easy and is sometimes painful.

In the first few days and weeks after publication, I feel happy and depressed—it changes from day to day, hour to hour.

I remember when the book came out in Germany. On the day of its publication I went to a big store in Berlin to see if they carried it. When I came home I told my wife I had good news and bad news regarding my novel.

“What is the good news?” she wanted to know.
“I checked a big book store and they had ten copies of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats,” I said.
“That is great. What is the bad news than?” she wondered.
“They also had some other books. Lots of other books, actually…”

It sounds silly but is true: I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many other books.

When I write a novel I don’t read other novels. I even try to forget that they exist. I am so much in my own story, in the little world I create, into the characters who live in it, that I am totally absorbed by them. When I emerge I am surprised, shocked, and sometimes scared that there are other magical worlds besides mine.

In between novels, there are moments when I look at shelves full of books and hear a nagging voice inside my head: Do I really need to add to this? Aren’t there enough books out there already? Do I really need to write another novel?

This voice lingers on until an idea comes to me. I never know where it comes from. It is like a seed planted in my heart, in my fantasy. It starts to grow. I sit down and write and the story develops its own magical power. The voice subsides; the story wants to be told, and writing becomes a necessity again.

Photos from Burma

Life in Burma’s country side hasn’t changed much for the last few hundred years.
A woman fishing on the Inle lake, the same way her ancestors did.
Burma_TransportationTransporting goods or traveling in Burma is never easy.

The Perks of Being a Novelist

There are many marvelous things about being a novelist. You can daydream all day long and call it a profession. You only need a pen and a piece of paper to work. You can do it wherever you want: in bed, on the beach, in a bar (in my case: mostly in my office at home).

For me, though, one of the best things about being a novelist has been the opportunity to meet some of the most wonderful and interesting people I have ever encountered. These people, like novelists, are dreamers―because they believe in the magical power of the written word.

They are people who work very long hours. People who work very long hours and never complain. People who work very long hours, never complain, and don’t make much money. They have various reasons for being in their line of business. Becoming rich is not one of them.

They are salespeople who care so much about what they sell that they don’t sell everything to everybody. They are salespeople who have a healthy distrust toward things that sell too well.

They travel a lot and rarely leave their hometown. They can talk for hours about characters and places, which only exist in their minds. They can get lost in letters. In letters!

They are booksellers.

I am a writer who does a lot of reading tours in Germany and Switzerland; therefore I have had the privilege of meeting a lot of independent booksellers who have kindly invited me to their stores.

Usually we have wonderful evenings together. They spread the word and thanks to their work, dozens―and sometimes hundreds―of customers come and listen to me instead of staying home. Sometimes the booksellers get caught up in a book so much that they organize a reading during vacation time and wonder why only a few people show up. Or they stage an event on the night of a major soccer game and are surprised and utterly disappointed when they spend the evening alone with the author. It has all happened to me―and I loved it. I have spent so many evenings in their company, had so many after-reading dinners and bottles of wine and enjoyed every second of it, because it doesn’t happen too often that you meet people who are humble but also so passionate about what they do.

As a reader and a book buyer myself, I find that there is something old fashioned and at the same time very reassuring about booksellers: they want you to come to their store, when you could stay home and order online. They want you to talk to them, when you could just press a button instead. They want you to pay the price a book is worth, when you could go and hunt for the deepest discount.

It is said that they are a dying breed. Threatened by extinction.

I don’t think so. Call me a romantic. Call me a dreamer. But I believe in the power of their passion and in the loyalty of their customers. I have met too many independent booksellers who are surviving, even thriving, in a niche they toiled to carve out and sustain.

Now that my book is being published in America, I must count my blessings once again. I look forward to meeting some very interesting people there.

That is one of the wonderful things about being a novelist.