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Bangkok Post, February 10, 2014

Universal truths

When other people are watching television, Win Lyovarin is writing his next best-selling novel. When they are drinking in bars, he's reading scientific research about the Big Bang and weaving a sci-fi tale. When he reads the news, he's plotting his next detective fiction. When he was still working in advertising, he wrote while eating lunch.

Over the past two decades or so, Win has produced more than 40 books. His first books Aphet Kamsuan and Samut Pok Dam Kab Baimai Si Daeng were published in 1994. His eminence as a writer of multiple genres has long been recognised by critics and awards winning the SEA Write Award for Prachathipatai Bon Sen Kanan (Democracy, Shaken & Stirred), and Sing Mee Cheewit Tee Riak Wa Khon (That Living Thing Called Man) among many others.

The prolific writer has just been named a National Artist in literature, along with writers Mala Kamjan and Sopark Suwarn. But regardless of all the fame and recognition, Win persists in his exacting ways, ever cautiously, producing a remarkable average of four books a year since he left his day job and began writing full-time in 2003. "I write every day, 365 days a year," says Win, sipping from a cup of green tea. "When I get bored I garden or go see a movie. In between those things, I'm always writing. "When I get bored I garden or go see a movie. In between those things, I'm always writing. When I'm sitting in a car, I'm thinking of a plot."

His garden is well-groomed, with a few little nooks tucked in shady areas, where the whispers of cascading water can be heard. "If you want to survive on writing, you have to [publish consistently]. The books sales in Thailand aren't high. If I could sell as many books as a well-known foreign writer, I wouldn't have to write four books a year," Win says.

Because of the stamp of the SEA Write Award, Prachathipatai Bon Sen Kanan essentially a history book of Thailand between 1932 and 1992 with an additional two fictional characters on opposing sides, for fairness' sake has been selling exceptionally well. But usually for the Thai book market, "a literary novel in Thai sells only 5,000 copies on average. Maybe almost 10,000 for a general fiction book", Win says.

After 16 years of writing on the side while working in advertising, he has built a name for himself and is able to live on the income from selling books alone. But that comes with necessary discipline "if you can't produce, if you don't write, you'll starve".

This is where his versatility and boundless creativity comes in handy. He works on several projects at the same time, moving on to the next when he's stuck or bored with one, jumping from a detective story to a love story, then back again. He can write anywhere, anytime, and he's used to working with deadlines from his days in advertising.

"I don't write the first page till I have a solid framework. Sometimes I write the ending first. I guess it stems from my training in architecture," says Win, who studied architecture before spending a few years in New York working in a design firm. "I have to know what kind of house I'm going to build. I make an outline, a sketch. I might start with the second floor before the first, or I might start with the slanted roof," Win explains. He seems to have analysed himself and his own work process thoroughly.

Through his books, Win interests people in facts through works of fiction. He has a vast knowledge in science and history, the history of science and the science of history. His stories, across genres, explore the mechanism of humans through our heritage, culturally and scientifically.

He spends much of his time reading non-fiction texts on the universe and black holes, on physics and metaphysics, rather than general fiction novels whose plots, he claims, are contrived and predictable after the massive amount he's read. These science books are for entertainment, with the benefits of research. Reading keeps him questioning, he says.

On his interest in astrophysics, Win explains: "It's something to investigate, something very interesting that they don't teach in school. It seems so far removed from daily life. But how can you say that you know about human nature if you don't understand the universe and how we came about? How can we begin to explain human behaviour if we don't know that our atoms ultimately transpired from the Big Bang?  We'd only be able to look at society from one angle, from the narrow perspective we have, from how we were raised."

Sing Mee Cheewit contains a collection of short stories that reflect on human conduct "through the origins of the universe", as Win describes. Through the lens of science, he brings up questions of nature versus nurture, proposes the influence of biology in determining moral codes and virtues a person lives by. Metaphysical and philosophical queries are ever present in his works.

He is working on a ghost novel, Prataid Pee Sing (A Possessed Nation), a novel that uses the devices of a ghost story even though the "ghosts" in there are not really supernatural. In fact, it's a return to the start: when Win was 16, he wrote graphic pulp-novels with such titles as Haunted Mansion. He actually pitched science fiction, but the publishers said no and told him that the market demanded ghost stories. That was then, and maybe they still do now, though the meaning of ghosts might be different.

"I feel like it's an unfinished business. After 40 years, I'm writing a ghost story again, from a different perspective, with all my accumulated knowledge and experience." In the new novel, he uses elements of a ghost story to communicate deeper issues, like politics here as apparent in the title.

Achieving the title of a National Artist means Win will be receiving a modest monthly income, and it might boost sales momentarily, but the dismal state of readership in Thailand still won't afford him the time to write a long heavy novel, one like The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera, or works by Herman Hesse, which Win loves and admires. He is pragmatic and critical.

Writing, while a delightful creative expression, is also a business, a source of income. And Thailand is not the best place for it.

"Here, it's not just that people don't read, but sometimes people read terrible books that are available in libraries all over the country. Like these sin absolution books. It's like planting poisonous seeds. People in Thailand are taught that reading is good reading makes you smart. But then there are all these books misleading people, books by professors and doctors, which people read without discerning the credibility or the value," says the best-selling author.

"If you read bad books, I think you shouldn't read at all."

What books are on your bedside table?

Books on dharma by Bhudadassa Bhikku and other monks.

What are you reading now?

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, along with non-fiction books on science.

What are some books you've always wanted to read but haven't done so?

Lots of Haruki Murakami, like Norwegian Wood.

What are your favourite science fiction books?

Mostly books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Especially 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke and The Foundation Series by Asimov. I also like Robert Anson Heinlein.

- Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana

Bangkok Post, Monday, February 10, 2014
(The Bangkok Post’s lifestyle, arts and culture section)