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Inspiration from Cambodia

Sometimes you meet people who have so many interesting stories to tell, having experienced interviewing celebrities like Cliff Richard, Spike Milligan and others, to unearthing stories of real lives in Cambodia. One such person is Gabrielle (Gabi) Yetter, my guest on my blog today.

Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written. I was first inspired to write about people when I worked as a journalist in Johannesburg. While I started off writing hard news, I was soon given my own column then a job on the entertainment pages doing personality profiles. I met and interviewed a number of celebrities (Cliff Richard, the Osmonds, David Carradine, Spike Milligan, among them) and discovered a love of peeking below the surface, learning what makes people tick, and listening to their life stories. Many years later, inspiration struck hard when I moved to Cambodia with my husband, Skip, as I found myself surrounded by stories that had to be told: a doctor who ran a clinic in a rural province, an English dancer who created a ballet school, a Khmer Rouge survivor who'd returned to Phnom Penh to provide education for children. I wrote about those individuals and others as a freelance contributor to several publications and I was also hired to write two non-fiction books: The Definitive Guide to Living in Southeast Asia: Cambodia, and The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia (about traditional Cambodian desserts and provincial travel). While living in Phnom Penh, I also unearthed a couple of children's stories that I'd written many years ago and decided (finally) to make them into books. I worked with two wonderful young Cambodian artists and produced Ogden, the Fish Who Couldn't Swim Straight, and Martha the Blue Sheep. And that's when I realised I had to write my own novel. About Cambodia.

Whisper of the Lotus is my first novel and it was inspired by my years living in Cambodia. I felt compelled to chronicle the sights, smells, and tastes of the country I'd grown to love and to share them with readers who'd never experienced them as well as telling a story woven around those experiences. Whisper of the Lotus is a tale of self-discovery (somewhat autobiographical) about a young woman who travelled across the world and encountered situations she had never anticipated. It's about the strange and wonderful people she met -- all of whom taught her something about herself -- and about a mystery that unfolds through a chance encounter with a stranger on a plane. There are some real-life characters in the book (such as SomOn, our tuk-tuk driver who became a friend) and sojourns into places I know well (the Russian market, Genocide Museum, Wat Ounalom, the riverside town of Kampot). And now that I no longer live there, these descriptions take me back and make me miss Cambodia and the crazy, exotic, chaotic, tender, beautiful experiences I had there.

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? I think it chose me. Writing a novel had never been on my bucket list -- in fact, I'd always resisted it. I didn't have any ideas, wasn't good enough, couldn't compete with all the good authors out there. Then my husband suggested I give it some thought and the seed was planted. One day, I was in an airport and looked around. Who were these travellers? Where were they going? Why? My musings turned into a germ of an idea which blossomed into a concept for a novel. What if one of those travellers had something to share? Something that would impact the life of another person? And so it began.

What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning this book? My research was already done when I began to write. Living in Cambodia had equipped me with all the tools in describing places, people, and situations so it was easy for me to relive them in my mind when I started writing. There were times I found myself searching for a way to describe places so I'd bring up images online and observe the way things looked and felt until it felt real enough for me to write about them.

How do you select the names of your characters? Some of them were real people in Cambodia (SomOn, Saran, Nara) and the names of the western characters were selected merely because they sounded like the type of characters I pictured. At first, my two main characters were Alex and Roxy until someone pointed out the names could be confused (two names with 'x's in them), so Alex became Charlotte.

How do you like to collect and organise your ideas? A lot of the time, I just sit down and the story writes itself. I don't have a specific formula but I do find myself spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about my characters, looking for quirks or habits they can have, studying other people for physical descriptions, and letting my imagination flow when I'm doing something other than writing. For example, I decided one of my main characters would have a habit of counting steps when I was out on a walk in Massachusetts and found myself doing exactly that. And I decided to include a character who had survived the Khmer Rouge while I was on a golf course. I also keep stacks of notes - on my phone if I'm out or in a Word document if I'm home. I've even woken up in the night with ideas which I've scribbled on a scrap of paper in the dark then struggled to read it in the morning.

How long did it take you to write this book?

How does one quantify what feels like an eternity? I started writing Whisper of the Lotus when I was in Cambodia seven years ago. Sometimes I wrote every day, sometimes once a month, sometimes I didn't write at all. A couple of years ago, I attended a writer's retreat in France and wrote for hours and hours every day which was wonderful as I could immerse myself in nothing other than writing, thinking, eating and more writing. Then, of course, was editing. Which took another million hours. But we won't go into that!

What's next for you as a writer? There's another children's book I would like to complete. It was inspired by a dog in Ireland and is called Square Dog Gets Around. As with all my childrens' stories, it imparts a message of inspiration and hope for children who may have challenges fitting in.



I am a writer who loves to travel, and a traveller who loves to write. 

I've lived in India, Bahrain, South Africa, England, USA, and Mexico. I've worked as a journalist in South Africa, owned a dining guide in San Diego, performed in a waterski show in Cancun, written a book about traditional Cambodian desserts, and freelanced for publications and online sites in the U.S., The Netherlands, South Africa and Southeast Asia. 

In 2010, my husband, Skip, and I sold our home in Massachusetts, quit our jobs, gave away most of our stuff, and bought one-way tickets to Cambodia.

For the next three years, I volunteered with an NGO, wrote two books (The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia, and The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia) and, in June 2015, co-authored Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure with Skip, writing about our experiences in stepping off the proverbial treadmill and beginning new lives in Southeast Asia. While living in Cambodia I also published two children's books (Martha the Blue Sheep, and Ogden The Fish Who Couldn't Swim Straight) with the artistic assistance of two wonderful young Cambodian artists.

For the next five years we travelled the world house-sitting and caring for from Italy to Greece to New Zealand to Nicaragua, until we finally landed in Eastbourne, England, in 2018 where we now live.

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