A life in Letters

The winner of Thailand's most prestigious literary award, the SEA Write, will be announced on Wednesday. The category is the novel, and to warm up for the big day we talked to seven finalists on the heavy and light aspects of their literary lives

Vipas Srithong

After disappearing from the scene for four years, Vipas Srithong is back with his latest novel, Kon Krae (The Dwarf). Cut him some slack though _ two of those years were spent writing this novel. His past works include a collection of short stories called Maew Kao Cheewit (2002), a collection of poems in English, Graffiti (2002) and short stories called Wela Luang Pan Umong (2008). When he is not writing novels, he creates art pieces, travels the world and runs a business.

His comeback after a four-year hiatus is a strong one. The very book manifests that too, at the very least, in its appearance. The size and cover alone tell you Kon Krae is nothing short, nor light. The dark, creative direction, with its dreary cover and black-rimmed pages, makes it different from other books on the shelves. The black sides of the pages seem to reflect the dystopian content: a heavy and dark read awaits. After all, it's about three men who have kidnapped a dwarf and are holed up in a deserted house in the fields in the middle of nowhere.

_ Parisa Pichitmarn

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

Franz Kafka's Selected Short Stories, Nabokov's Lolita and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Name a classic you feel ashamed about not having read.

Don Quixote.

What is your writing routine?

It has to be when I have free time, which is usually not fixed. But mostly in the evening.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

Everything on my table is related to writing, anything else would make it more cluttered.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

I wasn't proud because I felt that there were many things that could've been improved. It's an anxiety that comes with your first book getting published.

What do you use as a bookmark?

Leaves or small twigs. If there aren't any, I just fold the page.

If your book were to be made into a film, which film-maker would you want to direct the adaptation?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

What's your opinion about e-books?

They're good, because they've made the prices go down since there is no need for a middleman and the distribution is also better.

What is your favourite SEA Write-winning book of all time?

Taling Soong Sung Nak (High Banks, Heavy Log) by Nikom Rayava.

Dan-aran Saengthong

He's a heavyweight, a writer who believes, just like Nietzsche did, that literature is a battle fought with blood. Dan-aran's famous book Ngao Si Khao (White Shadow) has been translated into English, French, Spanish and other European languages, and his SEA-Write contender Diew Dai Tai Fah Klang (Alone Under the Riotous Sky) is being translated and slated for a European release. He is the only Thai writer to have been awarded the Chevalier du Arts et Lettres by the French government.

And yet, curiously, this is the first time that one of Dan-aran's works has been shortlisted for the SEA Write. Diew Dai Tai Fah Klang is the story of a bhikkuni in the time of Lord Buddha who's consumed with rage after the loss of her son. Brimming with Dan-aran's signature lava of words, a forest of formal elegance and astringent energy, the book contains passages of darkness and light that delight and disturb, mostly in the same sentences.

Dan-aran is now writing his new novel which he says is about "mercy killing". He still writes with pen and paper _ "the ancient weaponry" _ and in his free time, he still "has a conversation with Flaubert, Borges and Marquez".

_ Kong Rithdee

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

Three books about three guru monks: Prawat Luang Pu Jia Janto (The Biography of Jia Janto Bhikku); Prawat Luang Pu Man Puritatta Tera (The Biography of Man Puritatta Bhikku); and Pati-pada Phra Tudong Kammatan Sai Phra Acharn Mun (Patipada-Venerable Acriya Mun's Path of Practices). Could I bring four or five? I could throw away some canned tuna to trade place for more books.

Name a classic you feel ashamed about not having read.

An Invincible Memory by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro.

What is your writing routine?

The night is the time for poets and murderers, so I used to work at night, from 10pm to 5am. Now my eyes aren't as good and I have to work during the day.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

Other books I use as references, because most books I write have starting points in other books.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

I wasn't overjoyed. I had been an editor of several other books, and I knew how hard it was before one book gets published, and how a book always contains so many flaws.

What do you use as a bookmark?

I never use a bookmark. I memorise the page. If the book is good, that's never a problem.

If your book were to be made into a film, which film-maker would you want to direct the adaptation?

The Coen brothers _ would they do that for me? Or maybe Francis Ford Coppola. Or Akira Kurosawa. Definitely not Steven Spielberg.

What's your opinion about e-books?

I'm an old-fashioned man. I don't mind if e-books are becoming more popular, but not for my books. I prefer paper. I even prefer books with inserted correction sheets. It means we all make mistakes.

What is your favourite SEA Write-winning book of all time?

Luk Isan (Son of the Northeast) by Kampoon Boontawee.

Umpai Sungsuk

Umpai Sungsuk, also known by her nom de plume Ngaochan, is a woman of literary and natural interests. The English major graduate from Silpakorn University took a job as an English teacher in her hometown in Phetchaburi province before embarking on her literary route.

Her first published work was a collection of short stories titled Hua Jai Dok Mai (Heart of Flower), which won an award at the 2005 Bangkok International Book Fair. Umpai's strength is her language and portrait of nature. Her Nai Roob Ngao (In the Shadow), which won the Annual Naiin Award in 2011, is the author's quest to find why we regret things we have done in the past, yet give in to new temptations, especially when it comes to lust, and once again get punished by the same bitterness of regret over and over again.

Ngaochan's first nomination for the SEA Write Award was for her debut novel, Chewit Muan Fun Un Adoon (Life is Like a Sad Dream), which was among the 15 titles chosen to pass the semi-final round. In 2007, her collection of short stories, Pratana Haeng Saengchan (Desire of the Moonlight), was also in the final round. Nai Roob Ngao is the third time she has been nominated for this award.

_ Napamon Roongwitoo

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Buddha's Four Noble Truths by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Name a classic that you feel ashamed about not having read.

I don't think there is one I have not read, only ones that I have not finished reading, such as Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

What is your writing routine?

For this book, I only had two weeks so I was in a hurry. Usually I write from 4am to 6am, go to work, come home at 4pm and write until 6pm. On weekends I write all day.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

Dictionaries and an encyclopaedia on plants and flowers.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

I couldn't believe it was possible, but there it was, in front of my eyes. It was very exciting.

What do you use as a bookmark?

Leaves, flowers and grass. I collect them on my walks and and use them.

If your book were to be made into a film, who would you want to direct the adaptation?

Steven Spielberg, because I like all of his films. He can make award-winning movies and he can make top-grossing ones, as well.

What's your opinion about e-books?

They are an advancement in terms of technology, but since my sight is not very good, I can't stare at the screen for too long. I always prefer traditional books because they are something I can fall asleep with.

What is your favourite SEA Write-winning book of all time?

I can't pick just one, but some of my favourites are Chart Kobchitti's Kam Pipaksa (The Judgment), Kanokpong Songsompane's Pan Din Uen (The Other Land) and Binla Sankalakiri's Jao Ngin (The Princess).

Sakorn Pulsuk

Of course we're not judging any book by its cover, but if a writer is to be judged by the name of his books, Sakorn Pulsuk could easily fall into the school of 19th century realism _ especially one whose oeuvre shines through the depiction of the tragic destiny of characters who live and accept whatever fate befalls them with zero self-pity. Take, for example, titles like Rung Leud (Blood Nest) and Roi Plae Khong Saipin (Saipin's Scar), the latter earning the Nakhon Si Thammarat-born writer his first SEA Write nomination, all thanks to the realistic portrayal of a society going through changes, told through the decline of a well-off family in parallel to the dying art of nang talung, the unique shadow play of southern Thailand.

A full-time writer working in the northern province of Nan, Sakorn's striking realism is an outcome of his close observations of reality. In fact, you could say his work is in fact a fictionalised version of a certain reality that really took place at certain time and place, observed by, or told to the writer by someone else.

_ Samila Wenin

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Luis Sepulveda's The Old Man Who Read Love Stories and The Outsider by Albert Camus.

Name a classic that you feel ashamed about not having read.

It's not that I've never read it. I've read the book, but with sloth and I feel guilty whenever I have to talk about the book in conversation. It's Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

What is your writing routine?

I have a full-time job so I usually write at night, from 9pm until 2am. I write during the daytime on weekends and spend the evening watching movies.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

A teapot with vodka in it just to activate my blood circulation.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

It's like I'm having another body and soul and it's not something you can easily have. I feel I have the responsibility to sustain this other body and soul, which was born through a miracle, discipline and perseverance.

What do you use as bookmark?

My memory, which relies again on the content of the book. Some books need no bookmark.

If your book were to be made into a film, who would you want to direct the adaptation?

Giuseppe Tornatore, who made Cinema Paradiso.

What's your opinion about e-books?

They are not frightening. Some talk about them with anxiety but I think if they come, let them come. There's no need to fight or anything. They're frivolous and many people like them but at the end of the day, there's not much we can do. It might be the same with those people in the era when we used clay tablets who feared paper.

What is your favourite SEA Write book?

Chart Kobjitti's Kam Pipaksa (The Judgment). There are some that I don't like, too. At least, four or five.

Pishedsak Popayak

Pishedsak Popayak speaks like he writes _ slow paced, careful, firm. He has gone through a myriad of jobs from being an NGO worker to a restaurateur, but writing is his final calling, his life's destination.

''Write every book as if it were your last,'' he once said. ''Besides dealing with daily life, I spend the majority of my time writing.''

That shows in his SEA Write-nominated Ruang Lao Nai Loke Luang Ta (Story in an Illusory World). A swift reading won't crack the book's contemplative nature as the protagonist wanders dreamily around the landscape as well as his own mindscape. Consumed by love and revenge, the journey in the book ends in his realisation. The narrative is detailed, and verbal mastermind expertly describes all senses as mankind involuntarily teeters on the verge of insanity.

Pishedsak mostly spends his time in Tung Kula Ronghai in the Northeast. This year is the third time Pishedsak has been nominated for the SEA Write.

_ Onsiri Pravattiyagul

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

The Tripitaka, The Brothers Karamazov and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Name a classic that you feel ashamed about not having read.

Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra.

What is your writing routine?

I try to have both quality and quantity when I write, but in reality, it doesn't always go the way I want. Every day when I finish my daily routines, I sit down at my desk, and keep on writing until I reach the saturation point. Then I stop to read, or watch movies.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

I have about 30 books on my desk and also around 30 CDs. Miscellaneous things like multi-purpose spray, car keys, a mobile phone and a small lute.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

Just like heaven.

What do you use as a bookmark?

Anything that won't ruin the pages, but my favourite is leaves.

If your book were to be made into a film, which director would you want to direct it?

MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, Jira Maligool, Nonzee Nimibutr, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Wisit Sasanatieng. Or Akira Kurosawa.

What's your opinion about e-books?

They are a good thing. The readers will decide. Things change over time, and it depends on us how we adapt.

What is your favourite SEA Write-winning book?

Chart Kobjitti's Kam Pipaksa (The Judgment). Kumpoon Boontawee's Luk Isan (Son of the Northeast) had a strong influence on me. When I first started writing, my favourites were Angkarn Kulayanapong's Panitankawee, Jiranan Pitpreecha's Bai Mai Tee Hai Pai, Paiwarin Khoangam's Ma Kan Kluay, Paitoon Thanya's Khor Kong Sai, Komtuan Kuntanoo's Nattakum Bon Larn Kwang and Saksiri Meesomsueb's Mue Nan See Khao.

Uthis Haemamool

Uthis Haemamool's literature education began with Dostoyevsky. ''The portraits of humanity in his novels are vast and complete,'' says the Thai writer. ''But no, we don't have to follow that model, as long as the weight of the narrative is strong.''

Uthis, a former DJ, book and film critic, won the SEA Write in 2009 with his previous novel, Lab Lae Kaeng Khoi _ the English translation has just come out under the title The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi _ and while it would be an exaggeration and misguided analysis to say that his prize-winning book yearns for the same vast portrait of humanity as the Russian maestro, the sparkles of classical sweep and human dynamics give his book an apparent, lasting weight.

His new volume, Lak Alai, has more or less the same cast of characters and the same setting in Kaeng Khoi. The narrator is called Uthis, a book editor who returns home for his father's funeral. At 386 pages, Lak Alai is a deft sleight-of-hand that mixes fiction, memory and a retelling of history through a new voice, all rooted in a sense of loss and reflection.

Lak Alai is Uthis's fourth novel, and it's the second time he's been nominated for the prize.

_ Kong Rithdee

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

First, a notebook [to write]. Second, The Brothers Karamazov _ it's a long book and we wouldn't know how long we'd be drifting. And third, a pornographic cartoon.

Name a classic that you feel ashamed about not having read.

James Joyce's Ulysses.

What is your writing routine?

I write from Monday to Friday, from 7.30am to 9.30am.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

Books I'm reading and haven't finished. Cigarettes, an ashtray, a lighter, a coffee cup.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

I felt like I was worth something. I was also very happy.

What do you use as a bookmark?

A lighter.

If your book were to be made into a film, who would you want to direct the adaptation?

Nuri Bilge Ceylan [Turkish director of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia] or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu [Mexican director of Babel].

What's your opinion about e-books?

They are one of the tools that help people access reading materials.

What is your favourite SEA Write-winning book of all time?

Taling Soong Sung Nak (High Banks, Heavy Log) by Nikom Rayava.

Siriworn Kaewkarn

Siriworn Kaewkarn, 44, is a writer and poet. Since his first poetry compilation was published in 1994, he has churned out 16 books including short stories and novels. His latest work, Loke Pralard Nai Prawatsart Kwam Sao (A Weird World in the History of Sadness), presents two separate events alternately in different sections, and they later come together.

The novel is about a writer searching for a way to cure his broken heart by travelling to a small town on the Thailand-Myanmar border to find new materials for his book. Running parallel to this is the story of the plight of an ethnic group fleeing Myanmar. Some of them cross the border into a small town in Thailand. However, along the way the people have to cope with a mysterious disease.

Based on a true location, Siriworn paints pictures of the suffering of the ethnic minority affected by the political unrest in Myanmar. The 516-page work is his third novel and this is the seventh time he's been nominated for the award.

_ Karnjana Karnjanatawee

There's a Biblical flood. You can take three books along on the Ark, what would you bring?

I would bring as much paper as I could carry. If such a thing ever happens, I would like to record it in my notes rather than bring any books with me.

Name a classic that you feel ashamed about not having read.

I cannot think of any at the moment. I have already read a lot of classic books.

What is your writing routine?

I am a freelancer. I do not have fixed working hours, but I have principles to draw the line when it comes to the responsibility of writing.

Apart from writing tools, what else is on your writing desk?

Historical books, academic research papers, novels, classic books and my favourite literature, which can inspire me or encourage me while I am writing.

How did you feel when your first book was published?

It was magnificent. I felt overwhelmed. It was unbelievable to see my name on the book printed exactly as on my ID card.

What do you use as a bookmark?

I always have a bookmark or else I will use a pen or another book, which is thinner than the one I read as a bookmark.

If your book were to be made into a film, who would you want to direct the adaptation?

I would like to have the new generation of directors. Perhaps Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Nonzee Nimibutr or Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

What's your opinion about e-books?

They are an interesting global trend. As I am a writer and also own a publishing house, I should know how to follow the trend. At least e-books can help cultivate a reading culture. It is an undeniable revolution. We used to write on slate, then palm leaves, then paper and now we have e-books.

What is your favourite SEA Write-winning book of all time?

Taling Soong Sung Nak (High Banks, Heavy Log) by Nikom Rayava and Nawarat Pongpaibul's compilation of poetry, Piang Kwam Kluen Wai (Mere Movement).

THE SEVEN FINALISTS ARE:

- Kon Krae (The Dwarf) by Vipas Srithong

- Diew Dai Tai Fah Klang (Alone Under the Riotous Sky) by Dan-aran Saengthong

- Nai Roob Ngao (In the Shadow) by Ngaochan

- Roi Plae Khong Saipin (Saipin’s Scar) by Sakorn Pulsuk

- Ruang Lao Nai Loke Luang Ta (Story in an Illusory World) by Pishedsak Popayak

- Lak Alai (The Mourning of a Scribe) by Uthis Haemamool

- Loke Pralard Nai Prawatsart Kwam Sao (A Weird World in the History of Sadness) by Siriworn Kaewkarn

* Please note that the English titles are a rough translation, not official titles.