Lya Badgley has led a fascinating life, and talking to her about the role books have played in her life was a fantastic conversation. She introduced me to the atmospheric thrillers of Lawrence Osborne, who we’ll be hearing a lot more from in the near future – all of his books have been optioned for movies. Lya and I also discussed writers who communicate an immersive sense of place, and how she hung on to her humanity while documenting some of the worst atrocities humans have ever committed. And, she was a rock star.
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Discussed in this episode:
Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne
The Foreigner’s Confession by Lya Badgely (releases Feb 1, 2022; available for pre-order now)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Has anyone else noticed how often my guests refer to this book? It’s one of my all-time favorites, too!)
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey by Lawrence Osborne
In the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel by Vaddey Ratner
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and holy moly, do I have an interesting guest for you today. Lya Badgley was born in Southeast Asia, returned to Seattle to become a rockstar, and – do you know what? I’m going to let her tell you the rest. It is a life packed full of adventure. The book she chose to talk to me about today is set in Cambodia, a country that Leah knows well, and it’s an atmospheric thriller with hints of Hemingway and Patricia Highsmith. I know you’re going to love hearing about why Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Lya, welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Lya Badgley: Thank you, Julie. Happy to be here.
JS: I’m happy to have you! Lya, as we discussed in our early messages, I think you have led possibly the most interesting life of anyone I’ve ever met. Which is a sort of a vague thing to say, but in your case, it’s really true. As I read through your bio, every sentence was more interesting than the last. Will you tell my listeners about your entire life? No, I’m just kidding.
LB: Well, do you have a couple of hours?
JS: Since we are talking specifically about Southeast Asia today with this book, will you tell my listeners about all of your connections to Southeast Asia?
LB: Yes, I’m happy to. I was born in a country called Burma. It’s now referred to as its original name, Myanmar. Back in the fifties my father was there as an academic, doing research, and my mother was there as an artist. She was seven months pregnant and very brave to go to the other side of the world. They’re from Montana, and they had me there. So, that’s sort of started things, due to my father’s background as a political scientist specializing in Southeast Asia. I returned back to Burma as an adult and discovered sort of a deep and profound connection that had been missing from my life. I’ve characterized it in the past as a missing puzzle piece that I didn’t even know were missing. But when I walked off that plane and felt that hug of the humidity and the heat and the smells and the tastes and the sounds and the language in my ear, because I grew up with that as a young child, we lived there until I was four, and then we left and then I hadn’t returned. And then I did return and it was like, ah, this is what I’ve been missing. So in the meantime, between the time that I, while that was all happening, I was involved in the Seattle music scene. Sort of the pre-grunge people are familiar with; that era of music in Seattle. Right before that all exploded, I was doing the music and put out an album and a video and blah, blah. And then I became very ill and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And so that’s sort of shifted everything, and I was coping with that. The performing that I had been doing was curtailed. And so I really began to focus on writing words versus music. And so it went from song lyrics to poetry to fiction. And that was sort of how that all happened. Back to the timeline and everything, then I was offered an opportunity to go with my then-boyfriend, in the early nineties, to live in Cambodia. And at that point, I had returned to Burma once, and so I was kind of knew what I was getting into. But surprise, surprise, Cambodia and Burma are different countries. So I lived there for a year. I had this amazing opportunity to be the director of Cornell University’s Archival project at Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Basically, what I did was oversee a local staff and worked closely with them to microfilm the confessions, and other documents, that were created under this horrific Khmer Rouge prison, during the Khmer Rouge era. And so I learned a lot about things nobody should really know about, but needed to be documented for posterity. And subsequently those documents were used in the Crimes Against Humanity trials for some of the high-ranking Khmer leaders. After that I moved back to Burma and opened a restaurant. When one is an aspiring, musician/rockstar, what does one do? One works in a restaurant. So, I had a lot of restaurant background and so I took that with me to Burma. So I did that. Oh my God. Where are we in this story? So then, I met my now husband, there who was working as a diplomat for former Yugoslavia and, we married and, I was, we were going to have a baby and I was like time to come back to Seattle area. And so, I did that. And anyway, I have always been encouraged to consider writing my memoir, just because I’ve had this wild and crazy life. And I didn’t go into all the details because seriously, we would be here a really long time. But, so instead of doing that, I decided to, pick up on the fiction that I had started way back when. So, I have been writing novels.
JS: How did you protect your heart in those years that you were doing the microfilm of the war crimes, because you are, you seem like such a gentle person. You seem very happy.
LB: I am.
JS: How did you protect the good in yourself when you were exposed to the absolute worst that we’re capable of?
LB: Well, Julie, how could I not be authentic and human in that environment? I went there, it was the first project that I had done that wasn’t just about me. I don’t come from a religious background. I don’t come from a background of service, with a big “S”, if that makes sort of any sense. I went as a self-occupied young woman, like many of us. It was the first time that I had done anything that wasn’t self-serving, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. I’m being completely honest here. Right? So being there, people would come and ask me, how can I do this work? Exactly what you asked me? How can I do that? How can I go to my office every day, which was stained with blood on the floor? I mean, how could I look at these documents that were someone’s last words and extracted under horrible conditions. My answer to them was, how could I not do that? Because I had this opportunity to witness, and to share my witnessing for the future of civilization, of which, fingers crossed… so, how could I not do that? Yeah, it messed with my head in a big way. And the book that I’ve just finished writing is not autobiographical, but it does draw on that experience, to come to terms with it. Even though I did that, gosh, 30 years ago, it’s still is affecting who I am today. I wrote the novel to just sort of figure out how do I feel about it? You know? And what is evil? And I basically came to the conclusion that to know evil, we just have to look in a mirror, because any human being is capable of evil under the right or wrong set of circumstances. And that was like this huge, big thing for my silly little rock and roll girl that I was. That influences a lot of who I am definitely as a, as a human being and as a hopefully compassionate human being and as a writer.
JS: It’s really fascinating to me that you went from that job to a restaurant. I’m always interested in how food is sometimes the only source of…
JS: It’s always my instinct. I always feel like when someone’s going through something terrible, I cannot fix this, but can I bring you dinner? And the dinner’s not going to be a filet mignon. You know what I’m saying? I just want to nourish you. And that instinct of nourishing. I understand it was a restaurant. It wasn’t a charity. But it’s kind of interesting on a spiritual sense that you went from that to turning around him and nourishing others.
LB: I hadn’t really considered that connection in that way, but yeah. I’ll have to ponder that. Thank you for that insight.
JS: There’s another book.
JS: So tell us about the book that you just wrote.
LB: The one that I just wrote is called The Foreigner’s Confession. Surprise, surprise, “confession” is in the title. My husband is from what is now Serbia and he learned about, and did some writing about a celebrity from the capital of Belgrade, from the fifties. This really interesting woman who inspired novels written about her. And she became involved with, married, and had children with a Cambodian Royal. One of the princes. And this is all in real life. And because he knew my background with Cambodia, we always just sort of speculated what happened to her because they don’t know. She went back to Cambodia during the seventies and disappeared. She and her children disappeared. So, I took that real thing, and sort of opened that up and, speculated that she became a prisoner at this prison where I had done my research. So, her point of view is one of two main point of views. And it is her actual, well, not her actual, not her real, but in my book, her real confession that she is writing to explain her commitment to wanting to using communism, to make the world better. And how she and the other communists of that time got it so very wrong. An exploration of putting heart into, we as Americans, we generally don’t think of Communism as necessarily a good thing.So I’m exploring that. So that’s, that’s one sort of timeline perspective set in 1977. And then the American woman protagonist, it set in 1993, when the United Nations went to Cambodia to ensure so-called free and fair elections. And that’s the era when I lived there, though this character is not based on me. I actually wrote myself in as the director, but as a secondary character. But the main protagonist is this American woman who has had this horrific car accident that kills her husband and her unborn child and leaves her with an amputation. This woman goes to Cambodia to help landmine victims. And whilst there she sees a painting of this Yugoslav woman and there’s this weird sort of time overlapping where she wonders, why does she look like this Western woman who was tortured and killed in a Cambodian Khmer Rouge interrogation center in the seventies and she is in the nineties? What’s going on? And so their lives twist and intertwine. It’s a happy story, even though none of that sounds happy. But happy is subjective. Right?
JS: I cannot wait to read this. A dual timeline, historical fiction is my absolute sweet spot. Tell me about your reading life. I usually ask people how they become readers, but for you, you’re interested in words and so many different iterations with your songwriting and your lyrics.
LB: Well, as far as reading, I mean, I have a marvelous memory of, we traveled around a lot. I was always the weird girl. And so libraries and librarians were my safe place. And I will never forget I was sitting on the floor and crying and I must have been the second grade or third grade. And this librarian woman handing me From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. That was my first memory of a book, that sort of stayed with me even though I can’t remember how to pronounce it. So thank you for that. That was the arguably the beginning, as far as wordsmithing, I think, other than what I’ve told you. I remember first sitting down to write historical fiction based on the life of Joan of Arc. I have, probably 20 or 30 books written by everybody about Joan of Arc. I mean, from the 18,00s up until contemporary times. And so I researched, I read it all. I started doing the research and I remember sitting down to begin to write it, and this was pre-computer, so I’m writing by hand. And then I went blind with the onset of multiple sclerosis. So, I couldn’t do it. That stopped that. But then I recovered and though for all of us who experience multiple sclerosis, every day is a new day.
JS: How did you come across this book that we’re talking about today? Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osbourne.
LB: I love libraries, and I think I was just searching on my local library’s search engine for books set in Southeast Asia or books set in Cambodia, because I was at that time writing this book set in Cambodia, and his name came up. Hunters in the Dark was written in 2015. He has a book that came out in either 2019 or 2020, that’s not set in Cambodia, but it’s set in Bangkok. And so I think I read that one first. But Hunters in the Dark really appealed to me, because it is set in Cambodia, and so his much of the imagery was so familiar to, my personal experience. So plop right down and slap at the mosquitoes, and pat away the sweat and all of that.
JS: It’s funny that you just said that because this is one of those books that I I’ll be going about my day and I’ll think, oh yeah, I was in Cambodia, I remember that time. And then I have to stop and go, Julie! you have not been to Cambodia. You just read a really descriptive book about it! But it has that effect. It’s a very physical sensation.
LB: It’s immersive. It’s an immersion to read that book. Isn’t that what is so magic about fiction?
JS: It is magic. Can you tell my listeners what this book is about?
LB: Well, super briefly. It’s not historic, and it’s not exactly contemporary, but close. A lot of people know Cambodia because of Pol Pot, and the proximity of Cambodia to Vietnam during the Vietnam war. This doesn’t have that geopolitical backdrop that many books set in the region often have. This is a story of a young man who is living a very dry – he’s British. He’s a school teacher. He has a really sort of dreary life; he’s not at all ambitious or wanting to change anything in particular, other than the location of where he’s at. So he ends up, almost by mistake, in Cambodia and he, basically gets caught up with the wrong people, and on that journey of being caught up with the wrong people, he discovers, he’s one of them. And so where we go on this journey, just like floating down, the muddy Mekong river with how these currents meanders. What I like about Osborne as a writer is you have to surrender a little bit to his writing at the beginning, because it can seem a little bit slow and almost frustrating, because it’s like, what’s the point? What’s the plot? What’s happening? Okay, so things are happening, but who cares? Right? Why should I care about these characters? Maybe that’s a better description. These characters are so flawed and, and this particular character is so deeply human that it’s almost painful to enter into his experience of his life. That said, once you get past that, you are on this journey that is quite remarkable and quite astonishing, where he ends up and what happens to him on the trip. He starts in one part of Cambodia and ends up in Phnom Penh, the capital, and he meets a Cambodian woman and he meets a corrupt police officer and he’s threatened and bad things happen to them. But he sort of moves through that with this kind of, like this sort of lazy river, like, oh, well, what will happen? So even though it’s horrible, I found it a little bit kind of like amusing, in a strange way.
JS: I know exactly what you mean. I saw it compared to The Talented Mr. Ripley. By coincidence, I re-read that this year, and it reminded me a lot of that. These are objectively really terrible people, most of them, and yet you can’t help, but be a little bit amused. How are you all doing this? And the other part of that is I felt very off-balanced through the entire thing. I had no idea who to trust. And I started thinking that, I guess that is something I always look for in a book is you’re with the main character, and you’re trying to figure out who you can rely on and knowing who you can’t. And in this one, by the end, I did not trust a soul. I was convinced everyone was after him and that Robert was after everyone else.
LB: And you know what, that’s what I like. All of the fiction and nonfiction that I’ve read from this author, Lawrence Osborne, that’s a theme. And I believe that that is so honest, and so human I think he’s an intelligent writer. I would love to sit and have a drink with him, or have a meal and just like talk about stuff. He’s just one of those people that are not consumed with the everyday trends and fads. I would love to talk politics with him. I would love to talk big issues with him. All of his books have been optioned for movies. He suddenly become big. He’s been around her a long time. And now suddenly he’s everwhere; people have discovered him.
JS: I had never heard of him before you recommended this book. And it was really fun to go on a deep dive of his work in the past week, because he almost seems like he’s from another age. Like this sort of Hemingway-esque manly man, hard drinking, traveling everywhere.
LB: He wrote a travelogue book, traveling through Muslim countries about where to find a drink in a Muslim country, it’s called The Wet and the Dry. So a guy of handmade shoes and tailored linen suits and, and he has been compared to Graham Greene from a different generation. I don’t know that I would say exactly that, but he was influenced by that era. And the pictures of him, what few there are, he’s definitely a really, really interesting, like you say, man’s man kind of handsome, big guy. He lives in Bangkok. A lot of those guys do end up living in Bangkok. Whether he’s married or anything, I don’t know.
JS: But unlike someone like Hemingway, he doesn’t seem like, or his characters, I should say, don’t barrel into a country, cause destruction, think everybody there is dumb, and then leave. The white characters who are in Cambodia are harmed by their lack of knowledge, and suffer for what they don’t know and what they don’t respect.
LB: Yes. And he respects the culture. So I think that’s, that’s the difference of what you’re talking about right now, Hemingway going up Mount Kilimanjaro to hunt or whatever. But that was a different era, right? I think that we’re, we’re all more global now or many of us are, or should be. I think that he reflects that in his writing.
JS: One of the really sort of sinister aspects of the book is what a small place Cambodia is. There are several things that happen to the main character, Robert…
LB: Grieves, which is a great name.
JS: But in the opening scenes of the book, he wins quite a bit of money gambling and everybody he meets along his trip knows this. And you get this very claustrophobic sense of everybody knows everything about this foreigner. And I wanted to ask, was that your sense? Because I looked it up and I read that there are 16 million people in Cambodia. So it can’t possibly be true. What was your sense of that when you lived there personally?
LB: Well, mind you, it was 30 years ago. There were only maybe seven or eight million then. I mean, so there’s been this huge population explosion, after the civil war. I think that for the purposes of Osborne’s books, he uses that and expands on it and amplifies, for exactly the purpose that you mentioned, which is this claustrophobic sort of oppression. So he creates this thick tapestry physical environment, but the physical environment reflects the interiority of his characters. And, and there is this, claustrophobia for sure.
JS: As I was reading this, I was realizing I have absolutely no knowledge of Cambodian authors. Can you recommend some? Or any, honestly, any Southeast Asian authors?
LB: In the Shadow of the Banyan would be a really good one. That is set during the Khmer Rouge time, but it’s written by a woman, and from her perspective and is really very powerful. That is by Vaddey Ratner.
JS: This looks lovely.
LB: That’s a marvelous, marvelous book. And again, I hope that more and more writers from the region will start writing books about their lives, independent of the war. But we can’t begin to understand the trauma that that region experienced in the seventies, eighties into nineties actually. And arguably the United States was the perpetuator of much of that trauma, but that’s another story.
JS: What are you reading right now?
LB: Right now I am reading The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly. It’s, a story about a young woman, contemporary, and she is working in a publishing house, a literary agency, in New York. And she is the only person of color in the agency and it’s what her life is like. I’m halfway through it. It’s almost like a coming of age story in a way. So I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop because I know it will. She’s setting it up for something ominous to happen, and let’s face it. Ominous really drives plot.
JS: Do you read both fiction and nonfiction?
LB: I read mainly fiction. I like imagination. Nonfiction has to be really well-written. Like Lawrence Osbourne’s The Wet and the Dry.
JS: Will you share with my listeners where they can find you and your work?
LB: Well the book that I just finished is almost published. It should be available through the normal networks in February, late February, it will be available for ebook preorder maybe while they’re hearing this. I don’t know.
JS: I’ll link to it in the show notes, listeners.
LB: Thank you. But I encourage people to go to my website, which is LyaBadgley.com and check out me and feel free to request a newsletter. They come out quarterly, so it’s not a spammy type thing. I have an Instagram account and an author Facebook page.
JS: This has been a delight chatting with you, and I hope you will come back anytime you have a book you want to talk to me about. I would love to hear what you’re reading.
LB: Thank you, Julie, his has been a pleasure.
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