May 8th, 2020
I asked Debra where she would like to interview:
We’ll meet at the Foreign Correspondents Club. It’s a French-colonial yellow building on the waterfront of Phnom Penh. Come upstairs. It’s open-air, and they have plantation fans pushing a breeze around. We can play pool later but let’s meet at the balcony seats so we can watch the traffic on the riverfront. I’ll be in a white sun dress and flip flops, smoking a clove cigarette. Follow your nose. You’ll find me.
|Laura Mae: What inspired you to enter the world of writing?|
Debra Harman: I began writing my memoir “Love and Loss in Cambodia” in 2016, but prior to that, I’d been writing for years.I was an English major at university, and then as a high school English Language Arts teacher, I always wrote with my students.
L: How long have you been writing for?
D: I’ve been writing for decades, but I’ve been publishing my work in a more serious way since 2017. An editor I worked with suggested I publish short stories and creative nonfiction to get my name and writing out there. About 25% of my submissions were accepted for publication, which was promising. I also won some awards for my writing fairly early on.
L: What are you currently working on?
D: I’m working on wrapping up my audiobook, and next, I plan to begin another writing project.
L: Are there any books or authors who inspire your work?
D: Annie Proulx inspires me, and I also like Anthony Doerr and Junot Diaz. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake is a favorite. All of those authors have a gift with taking you inside characters’ minds, while also engaging well with settings, domestic here to the USA and overseas.
L: What has been the most challenging for you so far?
D: Pitching can be frustrating. Learning patience while awaiting a response can be a challenge.
L: What is your favorite writing trope? Least favorite?
D: As a teacher, I always disliked the trope “and then I woke up,” rendering the story a dream!
L: Besides writing, what is it you like to do?
D: I love to play music, and am in a five-piece band.
L: In a brief statement, have you self-published or traditionally published? What was your experience?
D: I’ve done a combination of both. My memoir was published as a cooperative agreement with an overseas publishing company that my ex and I established in the 1990s, and that has been a good experience. When I was initially pitching, I found agencies were interested in my story, but I needed to fine-tune it. A very seasoned writer, professor, and published author—Susan Shapiro—gave me some strong advice after looking at my manuscript, and pointed me in the direction of an amazing editor. As soon as I had a really experienced set of eyes on my words, my memoir improved tremendously and I was able to cut about 20% of it. My book has been on Amazon bestseller lists since it came out in July.
L: What are you currently reading?
D: Currently, I was plowing through Karl Marlantes’ “Deep River,” but I’ve stalled on it. I’m switching over to “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” by Heather Morris.
L: What genre do you read?
D: I love historical fiction of the 1940s era, particularly if it places the characters in France or Germany during WW II. Graham Greene’s classic “The Quiet American” is a favorite, set in Saigon during the turbulent late ‘50s. A stressful setting, combined with a complicated “inner life” of the protagonist, spins my wheels. “Eye of the Needle” is Ken Follet’s best work, and garnered an Edgar Award. As it was one of my father’s favorites, I read it when I was young and loved the stress and suspense. Harry Farthing’s novel “Summit” is gripping, as is Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.” Put me someplace fresh and scare me, and I’m a happy reader!
L: What does a typical day of writing look like for you? Any rituals or ‘must-haves’?
D: If I’m writing, put me on my couch with my laptop and a cup of coffee. My charcoal lab and yellow lab will lie down and squeeze me into the corner, but that’s where I like to write.
L: Any songs or type of music you need to listen to when you write?
D: I have an upright piano, a bass, a violin, and a ukele in my living room. I like to take breaks and run through songs.
L: What’s a word or phrase that people say that always irritates you?
D: “You only live once” has always annoyed me. YOLO became popular about a decade ago, and I heard it constantly for a year.
L: Where would you say you get most of your inspiration?
D: Other people’s conflicts, let alone my own, are treasure troves waiting to be mined.
L: For aspiring writers out there, what would be the best advice you want them to know?
D: Write every day, and once you’ve got a book, get a good editor. If an editor is beating you up or giving advice aimed at cutting you to shreds, get a new editor. You need several sets of eyes on a manuscript, and while you need criticism, some editors can be cruel. Don’t tolerate it. Write with a conscience, but if your book is set in a different era, you don’t need to apply revisionist history and language to it. Write honestly, and create tension. Show the situation—the classic advice “show don’t tell” is good. Be honest, be creative, be original. Also, write that ugly first draft! Make sure you can read everything you can get your eyes on in the genre you write. Reading makes better writers.
Debra Groves Harman is a musician, farmer, and writer who lives in rural Oregon. Deb taught ESL and also secondary English Language Arts for a number of years, along with launching a publishing company with a partner overseas. She spent nearly a decade of her life in Southeast Asia, and has recently published “Love and Loss in Cambodia: a memoir.” It’s been on bestseller lists since it was released, and has received five-star reviews. Deb lives with her husband, two dogs, and three cats, and walks the Camino in Spain every few years. Right now, she’s preoccupied with her book.
Love and Loss in Cambodia: A Memoir – As a teenager, Groves Harman carried a heavy burden of grief and responsibility. First, her closest person died. Next, her father was critically injured in a traumatic car accident. Maybe that explains why she’s willing to leave the USA and go to parts unknown–Thailand and Vietnam at first, but ending up in Cambodia. In fact, she’s following the college sweetheart she married in 1993, although he’s got an agenda he’s not sharing with her.
While Cambodian politics play out, the author’s personal life deteriorates. Memories are drawn from the ’90s when the young woman lived in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. That decade was considered dangerous, with Khmer Rouge active on Route 4. When she first arrived in 1994, three Westerners had recently been killed by KR bandits, and three more Westerners had been kidnapped and were being held on Phnom Vour.
She and her teacher friends at ACE can’t predict what will happen next. In 1997, political opponents take the battle to the streets of Phnom Penh. Though many people fled the violence of the fighting, she and her husband stayed. This is her story, one of courage, fortitude, and resilience. “Love and Loss in Cambodia” is a story of adventures, travel, and the history of Cambodia, as well as the author’s childhood growing up in rural Oregon in the Vietnam War era of the ’60’s and ’70’s. It’s also about finding friends, not only the Cambodian people who become family, but others from all over the world. Ultimately, it’s a story about facing the truth, about loss—and about resilience.
Buy it here!