You live half the year in Cali and half in Southeast Asia. Is there much of a cultural shock jumping between the two?
Not any more. I've been splitting my time since 1981, so that's almost three decades. I sort of live permanently over the middle of the Pacific, both in terms of culture and time zones. And my apartments in Bangkok and Phnom Penh are a lot like my house in Santa Monica – books, more books, DVD player, flat-screen, couch, and bed. I can wander around all of them in the dark without bumping into things. Kitchens are pretty crappy over there – they're not air conditioned, for one thing, because why air condition a room where you'll be making so much heat? But I never eat at home anyway.
Culturally, I feel more Thai when I'm in the US and more American when I'm in Thailand. I often experience the thing Poke (my protagonist) talks about in A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, about feeling that the culture is on the other side of a thick plate glass window and he's pressed up against it. He can get this close but no closer. Took me 25 years to work up the nerve to write about it because I didn't feel (and still don't feel) that I've been actually immersed in it. That's why Poke's a travel writer, because it requires him to attain a certain level of expertise, but never to forget that he's a foreigner. His adopted daughter, Miaow, says to his wife, Rose, in THE FOURTH WATCHER, “He wants so much to be Thai.” Then they both laugh, although there's some compassion in the laughter. As Miaow says, he wants steak every night but he eats what they do.
The real shock comes with the recent riots, which have brought all the divisions in Thai culture to the surface. For years the Thai self-image has been that the Kingdom is run by consensus, when in fact it's been run since the 1760s by a tiny, very exclusive, very rich elite of pale-skinned Thai-Chinese, almost all of whom live in Bangkok, who have imposed their will on a very large number of generally darker-skinned, less Chinese Thais who live everywhere else. The elite has now thrown out the results of four popular elections in order to keep one of their own in power, and the people have had enough. The trouble is that the candidates the people want to elect are probably worse than the current elite.
As a musician, many of your songs were recorded by top musical groups including Bread. Do you still write and record?
It isn't often that a creative person is in a position to do something that actually benefits an entire art form, but that's what I did when I quit music. I had no real talent. I didn't even play an instrument. I could write okay lyrics, but the guy who was writing most of the melodies, Robb Royer, went on to win an Oscar and sell a trillion records by writing much better ones. I faked the singing back when we were making our own records, whereas David Gates and Jimmy Griffin in Bread could actually sing. So, no. The music industry and I went straight to a divorce, without a trial separation. I'm so divorced from it that I haven't even gone after any of the royalties I haven't been paid in the last, say, 25 years. Somebody's got that money, but it's not in my account.
On the other hand, I had a great time and there were women everywhere, and back in the 1960s and 70s you were still allowed to enjoy women without signing on for monogamy. And I did, although, of course, I've evolved culturally since then.
You must be pleased that Kirkus has given your latest high praise.
I'm happy any time Kirkus doesn't skin me alive. It's the most acerbic of the trades, and I've read reviews there (not of my books, thank God) that would have stopped me from ever writing another word. Writers are always eager to know what Publisher's Weekly and Booklist said, but they're worried about Kirkus. But THE QUEEN OF PATPONG got a starred review, which is as good as it can get, and a couple of days later, Booklist, another major trade, also gave it a starred review. So at the moment, we're two for two, and I learned this morning that BookPage, a print publication, has named QUEEN its Mystery of the Month for August, making me the first thriller writer ever to win that honor for three consecutive years.
I'd be delighted to get this kind of attention for anything I wrote, but this is the book that almost killed me, and when I submitted it to William Morrow, I half expected them to reject it. There's hardly a rule of thriller-writing it doesn't break. For people who haven't read any of my books, the lead male character is a travel writer named Philip “Poke” Rafferty, who went to Thailand to write a book, fell in love with it (as I did) and stayed. He's married to a Thai woman who calls herself Rose, who used to be a dancer (yes, that's a euphemism) on Patpong Road, Bangkok's most lurid red-light district. The two of them have an adopted daughter, Miaow, who was a street child when Rafferty first met her. The family is the most important thing in Rafferty's life – in all their lives, actually. It represents a second and possibly final chance for happiness, for three damaged people.
So, I set up a thriller in about 30,000 words: Poke, Rose, and Miaow are eating in a restaurant when they're suddenly accosted by a big, military-looking American who obviously knows Rose very well and who obviously means all of them harm. They manage to escape that confrontation, and then things accelerate until it's obvious that the family is under threat not only physically, but also emotionally: there are a lot of secrets in Rose's past. At the moment the emotional bonds are on the verge of fracturing, Rose gives up and begins to tell the story.
And then we're in a new section of the book – the longest section by far – in which we go back twelve years to meet Rose as a 17-year-old village teenager named Kwan, which means “spirit,” but who is nicknamed “Stork” because of her extraordinary height. In one day, her entire world falls apart and she finds herself bound for Bangkok, in the company of an untrustworthy companion, to enter the world of the bars. And we stay with her for 45,000 words as she is transformed into the woman Poke met in the King's Castle Bar on Patpong. For I don't know how many pages, the nominal hero of the book isn't even in sight. It's like a novella squeezed between the beginning and the end of a thriller, because when Rose's interlude is over, the thriller is back with a bang.
I'd originally envisioned Rose's history as 3-4 chapters, maybe 6000 words total, possibly woven throughout the book. But the material wouldn't let go of me, so I went with it, although with an enormous amount of anxiety. So these reviews are especially good news this time, and it knocks me out that the section that's getting the most praise is Rose's story.
Is it true that 98% of all books started are never finished?
I state this with absolute certainty at the beginning of the very long section of my website called FINISH YOUR NOVEL, but I have no way in the world of knowing whether it's true. I think it's certainly true that the vast majority of people who have spent their lives saying, “I could write a novel,” and who finally sit down and try to do it, find that it's much harder than they'd expected, and most of them quit. I think they're unprepared for all the things that happen to all of us: blind alleys and ideas that go rancid and characters that don't work and flat dialogue and problems with handling time (one of the biggies) and the chorus of internal voices that continually sing, “You can't do this” in four-part harmony. And I think they're unprepared for the sheer scope of the commitment: sitting down regularly – daily, if possible – and shepherding their daydream for a year or however it takes to turn it into a coherent novel-length story. An interesting, coherent novel-length story.
While it's undoubtedly true that everyone has a book inside him/her, it doesn't necessarily follow that he/she is going to be able to get it out. Writing a novel is like running a marathon: it takes a long-term commitment, regular exercise, and the ability to postpone gratification – because, guess what? It's going to take as long as it takes, and that's almost certainly going to be longer than the novice writer expects. On the other hand, I don't actually think that writing a novel is harder than any other kind of creative enterprise; it just takes longer.
That's why I wrote that almost book-length section of my site – to help people get through the first one. And a lot of people have used it, including Helen Simonson, whose COLONEL PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND was one of this year's best-sellers. She even thanked me in the acknowledgments. Oh, and the Seattle Examiner has just asked for permission to print the whole section, one piece per week, for however long it takes to get it all out there. That's pretty rewarding.
Will we see the return of private eye Simeon Grist?
In at least one way – by the time this goes up, the first two titles in the series, The Four Last Things and Everything But the Squeal, will be up on Amazon as e-books at the astonishingly low price of $1.99. Think of it, people – a year of my life for $1.99. Twelve long months of me sitting all by myself, banging my head against the keyboard, drinking far too many bottles of Singha Thai beer. (I had to learn how to write all over again after I quit drinking. Beer kept the fear of the blank page at bay.)
$1.99 people. That's almost cheaper than free.
I actually dreaded going back into the books to prepare them for upload, so it was a real treat to learn that I actually like them. Some places are overwritten (what else is new?), but most of the dialogue holds up just fine and there's some stuff that made me laugh out loud.
And I found a great kid online to design the covers, because even after the rights to your books revert to you, the publisher still owns the jacket art. So the kid made new ones. He's 17 years old, and look at this:
The four last things, in Catholicism, are death, judgment, heaven and hell. Got two of them up there.
If anyone buys these things ($1.99!!!!!) I'll put up the other four.
I'm also working on a new book about Simeon called Pulped. The basic idea is that there's a kind of limbo to which series characters go when they're finally out of print. So I get to write all these kinds of detectives – hard-boiled, cozy, clairvoyants, cats, vampires, little kids – all thrown together and bored stiff. They only time they can make contact with the real world is when someone down here reads one of their books, and then they can look out through the page as though it were a window. And in the first chapter, Simeon's watching one of his few remaining fans reading Everything But the Squeal when a pair of hands circle the fan's neck and strangle him. Simeon and all these wildly different detectives have a new murder at last.
So far, it's pretty funny, and I doubt anyone will figure out what's going on, since I myself don't have the slightest idea.
Explain Charles Dickens' influence on you.
That's a rough one. I could go on for pages. I think the primary thing I learned from Dickens is always to think in terms of characters first and story second. He had a prodigious, operatic talent, and he's continually inventing some character who's in danger of walking away with the story, although he or she usually doesn't. And Dickens worked at really substantial length – these novels are three volumes long – so he could always make room for a Miss Havisham or a Mr. Micawber or Vincent Crummels and his endearingly wretched theater troupe. Dickens could play with these characters, have his fun with them, and move along.
So another thing I learned from Dickens is that writing can (should) be fun.
The third thing is that he was one of literature's supreme pantsers, by which I mean he wrote those sprawling, densely populated novels entirely by the seat of his pants, without any concept of where he was going – and he published them in monthly installments, as he wrote them, meaning he couldn't go back and change things when he finally figured out what the book was about. He had to live with what he'd written a year ago – he couldn't bring Little Nell back to life (thank God) or decide that Great Expectations would have been better if Estella were sympathetic. She was a bitch and he was stuck with it. He freed me, on my much tinier scale, to make it all up as I go along without first building the framework of an outline.
So he gets a medal for inventiveness and sheer bulk courage.
Well, of course, there's The Queen of Patpong coming out on August 17. I have to confess that I like it a lot, and this is the time when I'm usually regretting every word in the book. This one feels different.
Then there are Pulped and maybe a standalone thriller that I don't want to say anything about because it would be too easy to steal. But if I can write it, it'll be cool.
The next Poke may (or may not) be called The Fear Artist. It begins in the Bangkok riots we saw earlier this year, when a Western man who's been shot staggers into Poke and dies in his arms as news photographers and a TV crew shoot the scene. All of a sudden every really scary organization in the world want to know what was said between them. The story, assuming it goes the way I think it will, does something I like in other people's books: it starts small and then gets bigger and bigger. And it's going to give me an opportunity to write all the used-up old spies who now call Bangkok home – guys who would have shot each other on sight 40 years ago, now getting drunk together and re-fighting battles from the 60s and 70s. I'm going to try to keep Rose and Miaow out of trouble in this one. I think they've endured peril enough in the first four.