“Magical.” That is the word that award-winning author Camron Wright used to describe his first meeting with Sang Ly, the real person who inspired the main character in his fictional novel “The Rent Collector” (Shadow Mountain, $22.99).
Sang Ly and her husband Ki Lim live in Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia. “The Rent Collector” is the fictional story based on this real family as they desperately try to find a cure for their chronically ill son, Nisay. His hollow gaze, protruding belly and constant diarrhea make Sang Ly weep, but she knows that it is only in the dump that money can be made to heal her son. Sopeap Sin is the unforgiving rent collector. She holds a deep secret that comes to light through the magic of literature and the power of hope.
“People are the same everywhere,” said Wright, who added that when he first saw the documentary “River of Victory” — about the people who live in a Cambodian landfill — he did not think he would have much in common with the people who lived there. His son Trevor served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cambodia. As a film major, Trevor returned to that land four years ago and documented Sang Ly and her family. The more Wright watched of the documentary, the more he associated with the family he would write about. The film became the inspiration for the story.
While preparing the novel, Wright recalled many instances where characters would take over and write themselves. One such character was the rent collector. Wright recalled a real-life, angry Cambodian woman who would collect rent, on whom he based his character, Sopeap Sin. Wright admits that Sopeap is a flawed character, but that is why he loves her.
“She needs redemption and she understands that,” Wright said during an interview. “That is how we all are, and I kind of appreciate that.”
Sopeap Sin’s first words in the story are: “You have my money?” Her demands, coupled with her angry, often drunken fits, are enough to make one hate her immediately. But here is just another lesson that comes from this beautiful, touching and thought-provoking novel.
“So often we meet somebody and we draw a first impression,” Wright said. “Then once we kind of wear their shoes for a bit or come to know them, we realize, 'OK, I can understand. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes.'”
In "The Rent Collector," every day Ki Lim shifts through the garbage at Stung Meanchey looking for items that can be recycled for money. Sang Ly also helps and cares for their son. Then one day her life takes a turn as she finds out that the lady who she despises has a secret. Sang Ly hopes that secret can be the means to help save her son from a life at Stung Meanchey. As Sang Ly comes to better understand Sopeap Sin, she sees her goodness and trusts in her as a teacher and eventually as a friend.
Sang Ly's quest to save her son leads her back to the village she grew up in to find a healer for her son. While the countryside is beautiful and could provide healthy living conditions for her son, there is no way to make a living. That is the irony of the dump: The very conditions that cause Nisay's sickness provide the only means of helping him.
After Wright watched his son’s documentary, he had the idea for a book and began to pen the story. Then, about a year later, he hit a wall in his writing. It was after that time that his good friend suddenly died. Wright then decided to take a vacation with the intent of coming home with a novel or calling it quits. After two weeks of waking at 6 in the morning with ideas coming so quick that he could not type fast enough and retiring to bed at 11 at night, Wright came home with the novel almost completed.
In April, Wright went to Cambodia with his son and others to find Sang Ly. It had been four years since his son had been there to film the documentary. Since that time the government had closed the dump and the group did not know where the family was located. They were found still living at the dump.
The day before Wright left for Cambodia, he had been rushed an advance reading copy of “The Rent Collector.” He recalled presenting it to Sang Ly, who only knew of the "white guys" who had filmed her family.
“When she took that book and she opened up the cover, she saw her picture and she just laughed out loud,” recalled Wright with a laugh of his own.
Throughout the novel, Wright references several sub-stories which serve as learning and growing experiences for Sang Ly as she reads them. One of them is a Cinderella-like story.
“We all want to have a happy ending,” said Wright. “A lot of times in life, sometimes you do and sometimes it feels like you don’t. But you could argue if it is not a happy ending yet, maybe you are just in the middle of your story.”
Life in Stung Meanchey is often in the middle of a story. Issues such as death, theft and child prostitution have come to be part of the Cambodian existence. Though he does not go in to detail in the book, Wright wanted to include these events to bring awareness to problems that people in Cambodia face daily.
“If you can bring it to light, it is more likely that you can do something about it,” Wright said. In his own effort to help, a portion of the proceeds of the book will go to Sang Ly and her family and also to the Cambodian Children’s Fund.
“I think every writer hopes that their writing makes a difference,” said Wright.
This is his second published book. His first book, "Letters for Emily," was a “Readers Choice” award winner and also a selection of the Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild. Like “Letters for Emily,” Wright’s new book “The Rent Collector” is an inspirational story.
“I think that hope is sort of an innate thing that we come down here with,” Wright said. “Things get terrible and things get bad, but we always look to better times, and I think that is how we live.”
The kick-off party for “The Rent Collector” will be 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. Later that week, Wright will make appearances at Deseret Book locations. For information visit www.therentcollectorbook.com.
If you go ...
What: Camron Wright book signings
When: Tuesday, Sept. 4, 7 p.m.
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
When: Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
Where: Deseret Book, University Village, 1079 S. 750 East, Orem
When: Friday, Sept. 7, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Where: Deseret Book, City Creek Downtown, 45 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
When: Saturday, Oct. 6, noon
Where: Deseret Book, Fort Union, 1110 E. Fort Union Blvd, Midvale
When: Saturday, Oct. 6, 4 p.m.
Where: Deseret Book, Bountiful, 135 N. 454 West, Bountiful