Michael Kohn – Lama of the Gobi

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

The title of my book is Lama of the Gobi. It’s a biography about a Buddhist monk name Danzan Ravjaa who lived in the Gobi Desert in the early 19th century. Danzan Ravjaa lived a fairly unconventional life; he was a poet and a playwright, he traveled widely across Asia to stage his operas. He was a social critic who fought local Manchu rule so that his fellow Mongols could enjoy more social freedoms. He was also said to be a mystic drunkard with 108 wives and an uncontrollable temper. My book describes the life and times of this most interesting historical figure. It also includes selections of his poetry and a summary of his most famous opera, the ‘Story of the Moon Cuckoo.’

Tell us something about yourself.

I grew up in San Mateo county, California and attended UC Santa Barbara. I got bit by the travel but at a young age and after university I set off for Asia. After teaching English in Japan and traveling around South East Asia I ended up in Mongolia where I began a career as a journalist. I learned the Mongolian language and became interested in Mongolian history and culture. I am now married to a Mongolian woman and we have a two-year old daughter. We still spend about six to eight months a year in Mongolia where I continue to work as a journalist for the BBC and other news organizations.

What inspired you to write this book?

I learned about Danzan Ravjaa while working in Mongolia. Although the Mongols considered him to be one of their greatest poets he was virtually unknown in the Western world. I became fascinated with his life story and started to collect as much information as I could about him. Besides the life of Danzan Ravjaa I found another interesting twist to the tale. In 1937 the Mongolian communists destroyed Danzan Ravjaa’s monastery but one monk there managed to save many of his belongings. He hid them in crates and buried them in the desert. Then in 1990 that monks grandson went out to the desert and recovered the crates. He opened a museum about Danzan Ravjaa and promoted his legacy. I visited the Gobi Desert and met the grandson. It was the grandson and all his stories that set me on the path to writing this book.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle in writing this book was the sheer lack of reliable information about the life of Danzan Ravjaa. Most of the information I gathered about Danzan Ravjaa was just though oral literature passed on by the locals in the Gobi. But there were many different versions of his exploits and it was a real challenge to sort through them all and come up with the most reliable version of any particular story. Of course, there are difficulties with any type of research in Mongolia, there are language barriers, poorly organized libraries, limited access to records etc.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I started writing at a very young age. I wrote for the newspaper at my middle school and was an editor on my high school newspaper and my college newspaper. I even wrote for my hometown newspaper. I always got a kick out of seeing my work in print and still do.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

Absolutely. Originally this book had a textbook feel but later I realized that would not appeal to a general audience. I had to do a lot of tweaking and re-writing during the editing stage to make more readable. From my point of view everything I included seemed worthy to stay in the book but during the self-editing stage I pretended to be a reader who knew nothing about the subject. I learned to cast a real critical eye on my own book and I ended up chucking a lot of so-so material out.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

There is a formula to writing and packaging a book. It’s not always obvious but its there. Find books in the same genre as your book and look at how that author packaged his story. How did it begin and end? How does the preface read? How do the chapters flow? Stick with a tried and true method of book writing and you have a better chance of getting an editor to look at it.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

People who are interested in Buddhism and Asian cultures.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

See my website: www.michaelkohn.us