Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I Write about the Past

JANICE:  My passion is to make the past come alive for young readers. I am not interested in writing about the present except in my journal. I don't understand the present - indeed, I often feel like an alien because I spend so much time researching and writing about the past. As David McCullough said after completing his biography of John Quincy Adams, "I've been living in the 18th century for a long time and I'm not coming back."

It all started when I read Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels as a child. He traveled around the world alone and wrote about his adventures. One place he described fascinated me more than all the others, the ancient city of Angkor deep in the jungle of Cambodia. A magical place of sculpted temples built by god-kings to insure their immortality, now being devoured by the eternal jungle - a place I yearned to see with my own eyes.
South Gate to Angkor Thom

When, years later, Tom and I visited the ruins of Angkor, I found myself visually reconstructing the crumbling walls, adding color to the bas reliefs, and peopling the streets. I wanted the place to come alive again. Who, I wondered,  carved this surreal gateway into the city of Angkor Thom? The sculptors' names are lost, and all we have left is the name of the god-king, Jayavarman VII, whose image gazes out in the four directions. Thus he became immortal, but I wanted to know the sculptors who made it possible. The first sparks of an idea kindled in my mind, the story of Surya, a lame boy of noble birth, and his quest to become a sculptor despite his father's fierce opposition. For quite some time now I have been living in 13th century Cambodia, and I'm not coming back until Gift of the Gods is revised and finds a home.

Tom was inspired to paint a wraparound cover scene showing Surya on the Avenue of the South. Notice his lion crutches which he carved from koki wood. He longs to be a sculptor's apprentice and carve stone which will last forever, but his father, King Jayavarman's librarian, forbids it. "No son of mine will dirty his hands with stone dust." What can Surya do?