Interview with Richard Arthur – Debut Novelist

Richard Arthur is the author of I of the Sun. Born in Cambridge and brought up in rural East Anglia, he graduated in Management Studies and Philosophy from the University of Leeds. At 22 he explored Southeast Asia and eventually settled in Bangkok Thailand where he taught English. His debut novel I of the Sun, born of his travels and experiences, “tells the epic story of a young man’s philosophical journey into Southeast Asia and the heart of human consciousness.”

i of the sun

Writer George Salis talks to debut novelist Richard Arthur about his travel novel 'I of the Sun'. Image Credit: Maria Rosaria Sannino via Flickr Creative Commons.

What was the genesis of the book? How did the idea of writing it come about?

I always loved writing and travel as a teenager and dreamed of putting the two together one day in the mold of my favorite writers of old. After graduating from my university, I saved a bit of money, got a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia and hit the road. I wrote a pen and paper diary as I went along and spent a year travelling and doing bar work in the region. A few years later, I dug the diary out to help me write the first draft of a book, which would eventually become my first novel, I of the Sun.

What does travelling mean to you? What are the benefits and drives behind the act of travelling?

I always get a simple little joy from the act of moving, even it's just down the street. Maybe that's just me, I don't know! Maybe it's the feeling of freedom it gives, or just watching the world go by and the thoughts it inspires. But going further afield, I would always recommend people to do some foreign travel at some time in their lives. Getting outside the box of your home nation and seeing the world from another perspective is invaluable in appreciating the world.

I of the Sun is called a travel novel. Can you talk about what that means specifically, would you consider this a genre in and of itself?

I wasn't really thinking of the genre as I wrote it, but it's obviously a travel book, as 90% of the book follows my journey around the region—mostly Thailand, but also Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. But then only half the book's emphasis is on the locations, so it doesn't really fit neatly into the travelogue genre. There's a lot of action and stories in the book, and being about a 22-year-old, a lot of it involves drinking, partying, and sex. And there's a lot of 'I' too—the psychological ups and downs of my trip. When I wrote it I wanted the question of the content’s truth to be open to interpretation, but it seems most readers have thought of it as pure autobiography, which is indeed correct! So it's technically nonfiction, but often written in a very stylized way, so I like to call it a novel.

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How does your education in philosophy inform the novel?

The other 10% of the novel is mostly philosophical, as well as drawing upon the lessons of science and history, as I explore the debate between free will and determinism in some detail. The premise linking this to the novel is that the narrator is travelling alone with no plan, and so he is in a position of complete freedom—his every move and decision is his own to make. So as the book progresses he looks back on his decisions (usually the dumb ones) and wonders who was really in control. If you're into philosophy, the book explores causality in the world and its application to human consciousness, before exploring human action, emotions, values, and finally meta-ethics. I was a philosophy major and so it draws upon what I was into back then.

In general, what do you hope readers will take away from the novel?

I guess that's up to them. I've had a whole range of positive and negatives reviews, which often focus on completely different aspects of the book. It's an honor to be read and reviewed, and very interesting to see what sticks with people. I hope at the very least that people enjoy the narrative as they read it, and hopefully find it inspiring in some way, and maybe even get a sense of self-empowerment by the end of the book, too.

Can you give some insight into the writing process?

I procrastinated over writing the book for a long time. It seemed so ambitious and daunting that I couldn't bring myself to even begin it. But once you do, if you stick at it, even if it's only for 30 minutes at a time, you'll be surprised at how quickly the writing adds up. When I told strangers I was writing or have written a book, many open up to me about their own ambitions or unfinished projects, so it's obviously a desire that a lot of people harbor. The countless hours staring at a screen can definitely be tough. During my first draft, I found it helped to get a few drinks in me and get in the zone with my old diary, maybe some appropriate music and images, and then just hammer away at the keyboard without rereading any of it. The first draft took over a year, but by the time I went over it for the second draft, I was basically reading it for the first time, and I already had a book of sorts, which made it easier to carry on and hone it closer to perfection.

What are some of the influences in your writing, any particular authors or novels, etc.?

I'd say the biggest three influences on I of the Sun are: On the Road by Jack Kerouac, stylistically, I like to think. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, mostly the way he merges the narrative with in-depth philosophical investigation, and The Beach by Alex Garland, for the subject matter and location, as about half the book is set on the beaches and crazy islands of South Thailand.

What, if anything, are you working on now? Any details you can share about an upcoming novel?

Book-wise, I've mostly been writing a lot of media outreach emails for the last few months, as well as updating my website. Check it out for lots more information on the book. I have more old writing in the pipeline I'd like to turn into novels. One covers my adventures around Europe with friends, and the other will be the sequel to I of the Sun, which takes place in another part of Asia.

This might be a simple question for you or it might be a loaded question: why write?

To move on from sleeping in caves and chucking spears I guess! There are a million ways I could answer this. From a personal point of view it's the best way to channel and express your thoughts, and grow as an independently-minded person. And beyond that, despite the proliferation of endless forms of new media, I don't think anyone has yet come up with anything that beats the ability of the written word to transmit the detailed thoughts of one person to another. And for that, writing is invaluable.

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