Writing a Novel is Just Like Searching for Ecstasy in Cambodia
Patrick Hoffman on Doing Deep Research in the Cardamom Mountains
One morning a few years ago I was in bed in Upstate New York texting with a private investigator friend of mine. I’d just sold my first novel as part of a two-book deal, a surprise for both of us. Six months earlier we’d been co-workers at the San Francisco Public Defenders Office. He responded to my good news with a strange question: “Did you know that ecstasy comes from a tree in Cambodia?”
I stopped texting, and called him right then. “Yeah,” he said. “They get safrole oil from a tree in the jungle. Distill it, do some chemistry to it—you end up with Molly. You could write a book about that.”
I wasn’t searching for ideas at the time. I was already in the middle of writing a second novel. It had nothing to do with MDMA or Cambodia. But I found myself thinking about what he said now and again.
A few weeks later, I drove down to New York to meet my editor for the first time. We ate lunch in what felt like a very glamorous Manhattan restaurant. Midway through the meal, he asked if I had any ideas for the second book.
“I’ve been working on this thing that takes place in a prison in California,” I said. “It’s about this character who gets caught between these two rival factions of the Aryan Brotherhood and . . . ”
A look passed over his face; it made me trail off mid-sentence. It wasn’t the kind of look you want to see when you are talking about a new novel. It was just a micro-gesture, but it showed concern. I wanted to explain that I didn’t set out to write about the Aryan Brotherhood. My only thought at the outset had been to set the book in prison. I couldn’t help it if my main character happened to fall in with the wrong crowd.
“Do you have any other ideas?” He asked.
I licked my lips. “Well–” I said, leaning forward across the table… “a friend just told me that the drug Molly comes from a tree in Cambodia. I was thinking of doing a story about the people who harvest the chemical over there, and maybe, track the people who move the drugs from Southeast Asia, to the US—maybe some Israelis, or something—and then you have the people in San Francisco that sell it.” The words came out of my mouth easily. A mixture of thought and improvisation.
The editor’s face softened. He said, “You can write whatever you want. I’m not going to insist on anything. But I think you should do the second one.” He pointed at me, nodded his head. I found myself nodding, too.
On the drive back to Upstate New York I had the horrible realization that I’d just somehow agreed to write a book featuring Cambodian characters. A feeling of dread filled my stomach. What was I thinking? I didn’t know anything about how Cambodians lived. I didn’t know what their beds looked like, what their houses looked like, their roads, anything. And Israelis? I’m half-Jewish, but I may have known even less about Israelis than I did about Cambodians. Suddenly the Aryan Brotherhood seemed easy.
It didn’t matter. I’d agreed to it.
Two months later, in the middle of winter, I took a train back down to New York. I was jumping on a plane the next day to fly to Bangkok. From there, I planned to make my way to Cambodia. I hadn’t put together any kind of itinerary. I was going to spend the next month learning how Cambodians lived. Trust me, I know how stupid this sounds.
After buying some anti-diarrheal medicine, some Vitamin C, and some sunscreen, I settled into my friends’ apartment in Brooklyn for the night. We talked about the trip. At some point, my friend Sarah said, “Oh, you should rent a scooter in Bangkok.” We went online and looked at scooter rentals and then it hit me: I could rent a motorcycle for the entire trip. That would change everything. I would have total freedom of movement. I wouldn’t be restricted by bus and plane schedules.
The idea of renting a motorcycle was a daunting one. The few moto-taxis I took did nothing to ease my fear. It had been fifteen years since I’d driven a motorcycle. Now I was in a rental shop in Bangkok looking at one. It was a neon green, 250 cc dirt bike. I told the owner that I needed another day to think about it.
The next day, back at the shop, I tried to set up the GPS unit that came with the bike. It wasn’t working. I called an 800 number and spoke to an operator, who told me that the unit wouldn’t function in Cambodia anyway. I frantically began trying to print out paper maps from the shop owner’s computer. I must have looked like a crazy person.
“Use your iPhone!” the owner said.
“It’s too expensive.” I imagined a thousand dollar phone bill when I got home.
“Get a new sim card it’s easy!” she said.
After being guided to a nearby mall and taught how to swap out a sim card, I was technically ready to go. Emotionally, I was as scared as I could remember feeling. I felt so scared I wanted to cry.
Left Side. Left Side. Left Side. Left Side: That’s what I chanted in my mind as I drove the motorcycle away from the rental place. You drive on the other side of the street in Thailand. I needed to remember that. Of course, I’d have to switch back when I got to Cambodia, but that would be natural.
The ride out of Bangkok was insane. I was swept up in a sea of taxis, buses, cars, and scooters. It was 90 degrees out. Sweat was pouring down my face, my back, my butt, my hands. Even though my motorcycle was small, it was bigger than all the scooters around me. Within seconds there would be ten scooters backed up behind me. My adrenalin, my blood pressure, my heart—everything was out of control.
It took nearly two hours to make it out of Bangkok. And then I was in some kind of industrial zone that didn’t feel any more relaxed: the scooters around me had been replaced by hulking semi-trucks. I ended up in Chachoengsao, an industrial town. While I was walking around looking for food, I stumbled upon some kind of a party. Too shy to approach, I just lurked in the shadows and watched. In the morning I went to a Buddhist Temple and prayed to Buddha to show me how to write this novel. I was desperate.
I spent the next day making my way to the Poi Pet border crossing. The drive meandered through beautiful farmland. There was no sign of tourists anywhere. I ate Pad Thai at a country gas station and rode by farmers and water buffaloes.
I was most nervous about whether I’d be allowed to enter Cambodia. The woman who rented me the bike had given me some paperwork, but I wasn’t really sure it would work. The border crossing itself was hectic—it was hot, crowded, and windy that day. People were hand carrying huge trailers stacked impossibly high with merchandise.
I was directed from one person to the next, and finally ended up in the small windowless office of a Cambodian government official. I’d been reading Elizabeth Becker’s book about the Khmer Rouge, When the War Was Over, which added to my general sense of unease. The official’s desk was stacked with files. He didn’t seem to be in a good mood. He looked over my paperwork, and then gravely said, “I’m sorry, with these papers you are not allowed to enter with your motorcycle.” I figured this was when he would ask for a little payment. Instead, he asked a straightforward but confusing question. “Do you want to drive the motorcycle into our country?”
I tried to look friendly. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
The man seemed to take pity on me. “If you do it, you are on your own,” he said. “If you get stopped by the police you are on your own. You didn’t come through this crossing. Do you understand?”
I told him I did. He let me in.
Poi Pet, on the Cambodian side of the border, felt different than Thailand. It was—if I’m being totally honest—even scarier. Trucks, cars, and tractors, were driving in all directions. The air itself seemed more polluted. Within the first few minutes, I saw a man jump off his scooter in front of me and run back a few yards. I thought he’d dropped his wallet, but instead of picking something up, he raised a billy club and began beating what looked like a live eel flopping on the ground. I drove away from the border and into Cambodia as fast as I could. There were fires burning in the fields on both sides of the highway. There was trash all along the road. It felt post-apocalyptic.
For the next few weeks I drove around Cambodia on the bike. I met incredibly generous locals who took me into their homes and introduced me to their families. They were wonderful. They showed me how they lived, what they ate, where they went to school. They talked to me about their religious beliefs. They talked to me about believing in ghosts. In that short time, I’d gone up from zero percent ready to write about Cambodian characters to maybe one or two percent ready.
I made it through Siem Reap, Battambang, and Krakor. I sat on corners and watched people. I ate Cambodian food and drank Cambodian beer. I read an Alan Furst book.
There is nothing that can prepare you for driving in Cambodia. On a two-lane highway, if a bus is coming at you, and another bus passes that one, you are expected to somehow get off the road. It doesn’t matter if you are driving 50 miles per hour. If you don’t get off, you will die. This would happen approximately every forty-five minutes, or so. I saw people driving scooters with huge live pigs tied down on the back of their bike. It is a cliche about Cambodia, but you really do see as many as six people sometimes on one scooter. The major highways turn from concrete to dirt without notice. There are craters on the sides of the roads.
It is, of course, grossly privileged to complain about the condition of Cambodian roads, let alone the craters you see from the road. Before I went there, I didn’t understand my own country’s involvement in creating today’s Cambodia. I didn’t know that in the 1960s and 1970s the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia—a neutral country—than had ever been dropped on any nation in the history of the world. A common way of understanding the scale of this is to point out that more bombs were dropped than the Allied Forces dropped in all of World War II. According to one study, we dropped 2,756,941 tons of ordinance.
There is a convincing argument that these bombings contributed to the creation of the Khmer Rouge. The number of deaths from these bombing raids is disputed, but it could have been in the hundreds of thousands. We know that the American bombing campaign drove a rural population into the cities. This effectively cut off the supply of food. People began to starve. A large segment of the population became radicalized and what had been a small insurgency gained strength. The Cambodian genocide followed. A quarter of the country’s population was either killed or died of starvation. It is one of the great dark marks in human history. So yes, the roads are not good, and there is a trash collection problem. That’s the fallout when you bomb a country.
By the time I made it to Phnom Penh, the capital, I was feeling pretty confident on the bike. I spent a week there talking to journalists, NGO workers, and Cambodian students about everyday things like politics, religion, food, education. We talked about the problems of the country, too: corruption, drugs, illegal logging, smuggling, prostitution, and violence. I didn’t know if I was getting closer to being able to write the book, but I was definitely meeting some incredible people.
Eventually I rode the motorcycle down to Koh Kong. In a lawless country, Koh Kong may be the most lawless province. With its access to the sea, and Thailand, it’s a smuggler’s paradise. The Cardamom Mountains make it rugged and difficult to police. There were parts of the area that even in the 1990s were still controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
The tree I was interested in, the one that produced safrole oil—the Meah Prew Phnom—grew in those mountains. This was the culmination of my trip. So far, the closest I’d come to seeing one of these trees was in a market, where I’d been shown a Buddhist statue made of its wood. The statue smelled like licorice, or more accurately, like sassafras.
People in Phnom Penh had put me in touch with a man who worked for an NGO tasked with stopping illegal loggers. His group had been known to make busts on large safrole oil operations in the middle of the jungle. I found articles about them blowing up distilleries with explosives. They were the exact people I needed to talk to. During a spotty cell phone conversation, one of them told me he’d meet me in Koh Kong City.
We met, incongruously, at an ice cream shop. He wasn’t what I expected. I thought he’d be some kind of left-wing nature lover. In reality, he looked more like a gangster than an environmentalist. His looks were deceiving. Over the next week, I’d come to see that his group was incredibly smart and hardworking. Their job was as dangerous as it gets. They’d often get shot at by poachers and loggers. He told me he’d survived one assassination attempt only because a dog had alerted him to an intruder.
It was daytime when we met, but he ordered a whiskey (they served whiskey in this ice cream shop). He’d been on an all night patrol, so this was his nighttime. I ordered a beer. Before we started talking he took a picture of my driver’s license. He told me he’d send someone to kill me if I wrote his name or where he was from. Stumbling for questions, I asked him what his qualifications were. He said he came from a certain neighborhood in a certain city and these were all the qualifications he needed.
I loved him right away.
He immediately started mentoring me on my motorcycle riding: “Why do you park your bike facing in, it looks much cooler if you back into the spot.” I will never not back into a spot again.
After a few days of hanging in the city he took me on a patrol in the jungle. He was just one member of the patrol group, the others were Cambodian soldiers—four of them. They had machine guns on their backs. Just a few short months earlier I hadn’t been thinking about Cambodia at all. Now, I was riding into the jungle with machine-gun carrying Cambodian soldiers.
While we set off, I yelled at my new friend, “This is crazy!” He shook his head and looked at me with confusion. “Nothing’s even happened yet!” he yelled.
Soon though, we were stopping cars and searching them. Well, they were. I was standing by watching. I found these searches a little disturbing. I’m a criminal defense investigator; warrantless searches rub me the wrong way. But I wanted to see reality, and this was it.
Around nightfall, we arrived in a small village in the middle of the Cardamom Mountains. After cleaning up, we ate a feast and drank toast after toast: “Jul mouy,” the soldiers would say, and we’d drink our whiskey.
We didn’t end up arresting any illegal poachers or loggers on that trip. And I never did get to see an actual Meah Prew Phnom tree. Still, I felt a little bit closer to being ready to write about the jungle.
By the time I made it back to Bangkok, I was a veritable motorcycle racer. I zipped through traffic, leading the packs of bikes, winding through buses. It felt amazing. I flew back to the US a few days later, and began working on the book. I wrote the San Francisco section first. Then I wrote about some Israelis living in Miami who handle the drug’s shipping. And then, I wrote my story of the Cambodian loggers who harvested the safrole oil to make the drugs.
When I was done with a draft, I thought the Cambodian section was the strongest. In my mind, the whole book existed for it.
I shared it with six trusted readers and five of them—without consulting each other—told me they loved the book but didn’t think the Cambodian section worked. They may have been lying to protect my feelings, but they said it wasn’t that I didn’t create believable Cambodian (and Vietnamese) characters, it was that that part of the story didn’t fit with the rest of the book. It was only connected by the drugs. The Cambodians never interacted with any of the other characters in the book. It felt disconnected.
In the end, I came to realize they were right.
It was around that time that I entered the beautiful stage of novel writing known as Spectacular Panic. I remember one freezing walk, surrounded by dirty snow and leafless trees, where I felt absolutely sure I would never find a way to write the thing. I had a deadline approaching, and I didn’t know how to deal with the loss of nearly 33 percent of the book.
For a month, I remained blocked. I asked a friend for advice and he told me to exercise. I went to a yoga class and started to write the new ending that same day. It went pretty smoothly from there. I’d go to yoga, then march to my writing space and work. I don’t need to break down how I changed the book, but it became much better. The readers were right. I was trying to fit a story onto an idea, instead of allowing the story to follow its natural course. In the end, I took the Cambodian section, what was a third of the book, and boiled it down and distilled it, like safrole oil, into three pages.
A month in Cambodia for three pages. But those three pages, in my humble and biased opinion, are the heart and core of the book.