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Blog Archive April 2008


There have been a number of authors whose travels through Southeast Asia have enriched their fiction and non-fiction. From the previous generation of English writers such as Conrad, Maugham, Orwell and Burgess to the current generation of Paul Theroux and Pico Iver, these writers have been mobile. These writers were not the kind to stay at home worrying about how best to promote their books, experiencing anxiety attacks over their writing career, obsessed at their Amazon rankings or who received what award. None of that truly matters and at the end of the day only gets in the way of writing. The heart of fiction is connected, at least in part for these writers, with their wide-ranging travel experiences gathered along the back streets of the big cities and dusty roads of rural Asia.

Writers often talk and write about the writing or publishing experience. But there is far less about the experiences that a writer draws upon to fuel his or her imagination. Like fossil fuel experiences can run out. New, fresh experiences are the basis for feeding the imagination. Or one can recycle from information in newspapers, TV, the Internet on the basis that the writer can bring a new angle to old information. Sometimes that works. Travel is proactive. You’re not reading about someone else having an adventure. It is happening to you; it is in your face, not on screen. You must deal with it.

By travel I don’t mean modern tourism. A packaged group experience is not the kind of travel that is likely to provide insight in the life of people living in another culture. Such travel is designed to shield the tourist from the locals. The writers mentioned above mingled with the people they wrote about. Talk with them, had lunch and dinner with them, drank and laughed and cried with them. They entered inside their world and found a way to take these new experience, ideas and ways of living as a basis for constructing a novel in which these people came alive for the reader.

I am about to leave for Yunnan Province. I will be on the road for a couple of weeks. I leave without a preconception as to what I will find: the people and experiences that lay ahead of me. One of the continuing characters in the Vincent Calvino series is Thai-Chinese, and I have the feeling that somewhere along the way, a temple, a house, a shop, a restaurant or on the street, I will meet people who will teach me ways of thinking and living that will enrich my life and the characters I write about in the series.

Writing about others and their culture requires a large amount of humility. How close to the essence of any life can we really know? If all we see are the shadows, then we must look deeper. Somewhere along the road to Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang, I will enter another world. One that is strange to meet. One that I wish to embrace. When I come out the other end, something will have changed in me. The way I think about China, its history, people, and culture. Two weeks is a very short time. When I think of how much someone coming to Thailand for two-weeks would discover without speaking the language or knowing the culture and history, I know that I shouldn’t expect to go away with profound insights. But if there is one person, in one place that opens the window to another world, one that I would otherwise have missed, then that will have been enough.

I am back in mid-May. I have a book to finish and a new one to start. I’ll let you know what crossed my path in Yunnan and whether at the end of my exploration I came to know the place where I started.

Posted: 4/28/2008 2:04:10 AM 


Interview about Vincent Calvino

I recently gave an interview to Radio Singapore International. I talk about the original idea of a private eye series set in Southeast Asia, along with my research into the culture and history of the settings.

They introduce the interview with a quote from one of the Vincent Calvino novels, "I have no attachments. Next life I will make a perfect Buddhist. But in this life I am paying off the karma of a last life. I am an ex-lawyer from New York City. No one gets himself born in New York City without having made some major mistake in the last life. Whatever that mistake was it was bad enough to cause me to abandon New York City for Bangkok. Flipped from the wok straight into the fire. For the past dozen years, I've been solving crimes in Southeast Asia, keeping and trying not to get burnt."

You can listen to podcast of the interview on mp3.

Posted: 4/23/2008 12:49:49 AM 



There was never any golden era in publishing. It’s always been tough. Let’s get that straight. But once upon a time long ago there were a few publishers who looked beyond the bottom line, who fought for authors, struggled to bring books to light when the authorities would have put the publisher in jail. Barney Rosset,* perhaps more than any other living person, represents the very best of this kind of publisher in America. He is a legend and in any other country would be given the designation of Living Artistic Treasure. But truly literary people are rarely so honored in America in 2008.

We live in an era of the bottom line and MBAs with sharp pencils whose vision is the next quarterly earning report. Barney wasn’t that kind of publisher. He sought quality and settled for nothing less. If the book sold fine, if it didn’t that was fine, too.

In a recent interview of literary agent Nat Sobel in Poets and Writers, Sobel, who had worked from Barney at Grove Press as a sales rep, said:

“I'll tell you about a moment in my life with Barney that had a major influence on the things that attract me as an agent, especially these last few years. At some point I noticed that on the upcoming list was a book of poetry, a fairly substantially sized book of poetry by a Mexican poet I had never heard of, and it was going to be in a bilingual edition, Spanish and English. I went to Barney and said, "You know, Barney, I don't think I can sell this book. I've never heard of this guy." Barney said to me, "I didn't buy it because I thought you could sell it. I bought it because I liked it and because I thought it was important." And the book was the first publication in English of the poetry of Octavio Paz. It's sold hundreds of thousands of copies, it's still in the Grove Press backlist, and it was a book he wanted to publish because he loved it. You couldn't help loving a guy who had that philosophy.”

Barney fought legal battles in America against the censorship of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. When the heat got intense, Barney simply doubled up like a great poker player, and bet he would win. And win he did. That win is something no one in publishing should ever forget. He built Grove Press into the leading literary publishing house in America, with a backlist that includes Pinter, Miller, Paz, Stoppard, and Beckett. Barney’s love was fiction. Always has been. And film.

Nat Sobel’s interview paints a bleak picture for fiction writers. With 90% of the deal for non-fiction books, fiction, especially literary fiction, may have hit an evolutionary dead end in America. There are a few writers who still have an audience for literary works; but they’d likely fit in the first class section of Thai International flights from New York to Bangkok with seats left over crew members flying for free.

*I’ve known Barney and his wife Astrid for many years. Barney’s was an early supporter of my novels and I’ve had the privilege of being the Thailand correspondent for Evergreen Review.

Posted: 4/22/2008 12:39:06 AM 


Death March on Bacon and Eggs

The Times Food Critic Giles Coren had an interesting piece on how the British kill themselves by eating an English breakfast. Have a look at the amusing attack on Coren following the article. All very British.

“I'll tell you what's holding us back from finally getting rid of the fried English breakfast for ever: lack of education. You never see a person with a degree eating a fry-up, do you? Certainly not someone with a 2:1 or better in a humanities subject from a university founded before the invention of the iPod. That's because they are smart enough to know better.”

Coren’s conclusion:

“Churchill himself might as well be playing Elgar in his Union Jack underpants as we read that: “A good English breakfast never lets you down.” No, it kills you. That's what an English breakfast does.”

Posted: 4/21/2008 1:14:30 AM 



Copyright law is complex. That is a sentence that few would wish to contradict. The current lawsuit involving Harry Potter author and a fan writing an lexicon of Harry Potter terms is a good example of the struggle between those wishing to expand copyright protection against those who wish to see limits placed on authors’ rights.

As a general rule, a copyright extends for the length of the author’s life and expires 70 years after his or her death. The difficulty arises because each country has its own copyright laws and they are not always consistent. Further, the length of copyright duration has been increasing over time. The time expansion is no surprise in the United States where large vested corporate industry (e.g., Disney) have successfully lobbied to extend the length of copyright to the current 70-year period.

I came across a blog which addressed the issue of Zane Grey’s heirs who apparently sought to expand protection after the expiration of the copyright period by taking out a trademark on the name “Zane Grey” on the assumption (so it seems) the trademarked name would equip them with a legal basis to stop anyone from publishing Zane Grey’s books that fell into the public domain.

The public domain is that wide-open space where anyone can tread without fear of paying a toll. Once a copyright ends, the book, article, or other written expression is said to fall in the public domain. No one publishing Charles Dickens needs to track down his heirs and pay a royalty for publishing and profiting from a new edition of Great Expectations. Zane Grey’s books are about to fall into public domain (if indeed some of them may already have done so).

In most cases, an author’s heirs may have inherited rights to the copyrighted work of the deceased author, but in the vast majority of cases those rights are like Monopoly Money. The rights have no more value than monopoly money and can’t be used to purchase anything in the real world. The commercial value of the overwhelming majority of books will have succumbed to market forces long before the author’s death. The author is often at the graveside of his or her book. It’s called a remainder bin. Many bookshops have them. Think of the remainder bin as the publisher’s funeral for books that have died (in fact there are many reason why books are remaindered and doesn’t necessarily mean it has become extinct but most of the time that is a safe bet). Thus most author’s have ample time during their lifetime to mourn the commercial death of their work. They live to see their little Nell entombed. It is only the rare author whose work will have commercial value after his or her death. Zane Grey is one such author.

His heirs now wish to continue the payments from publishers. No one can blame them for trying. Who wouldn’t like receiving a nice cheque for a publisher every six months for a substantial sum? Time to call in some creative lawyers to see if they can keep the milk train running. One of these bright bulbs must have said, “Let’s trademark the author’s name. That will give us the stick to beat back publishers who bring out new editions of the work.”

So why doesn’t the trade marking of Zane Grey’s name work the magic of extending legal protection to the underlining rights to his books?

After reading about this case on a RichardsWheeler’s blog I asked my friend Professor David Vaver, one of the world’s foremost legal authorities on intellectual property (and the recently retired Oxford IT professor) about the Zane Grey case. He’s replied at length. Here is Professor Vaver’s first reply. You can go to RichardsWheeler’s blog to find additional (and enlightening) material on this subject from Professor Vaver.

“This is an old wheeze and it doesn’t work. I do not say that the heirs may not try to use it in the way you describe, but the greatest expectations of the heirs of Charles Dickens could not stop your publishing Great Expectations as “by Charles Dickens” even if they have somehow managed to get the CD name registered (wrongly) for books by CD. Britain’s highest court said in 2003 that, for example, you can (if that is your thing) label a genuine record of songs by Bon Jovi as “by Bon Jovi” because it truly describes the performer of the contents, even if Bon Jovi is registered as a mark. A trade mark owner can stop only the use of the mark to refer to the trade origin of the goods - i.e., if you use “Zane Grey” without the mark owner’s authority to refer to the trade origin of books in the same way as one uses Penguin or Random House to refer to the trade source of books that emanate from those houses. See R v Johnstone, especially at paras. 35 ff. (www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2003/28.html).”

Posted: 4/17/2008 6:58:36 AM 



The Nation’s Daily Xpress section ran a profile under the title: Hollywood beckons Moore today (Wednesday 9 April 2008). Jim Pollard’s article focuses on the film option deal for the Calvino series and background on the series set in Thailand.

Posted: 4/8/2008 10:07:39 PM 



I delivered the 10th novel in the Vincent Calvino series to my agent and publisher on Sunday 6th April 2008. PAYING BACK JACK, which is set in Bangkok (with some scenes in Pattaya) is scheduled for publication at the end of 2008.

Posted: 4/8/2008 10:07:03 PM 



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