Archive December 2008
|Wrapping up 2008 in Bangkok
This year has brought many things,
good and bad. I had books published in New York and London, and a film option
deal for a crime fiction series, and foreign rights deals. In November I was in
New York City to attend the National Book Foundation Awards where my friend
Barney Rossett received a lifetime achievement award. It was a time to reflect,
look back at the publishing world that Barney and others like him created in the
1950s and think about what is left of that world in 2008. The transformation has
been beyond what anyone would have imagined.
I also had a chance to meet my
publisher, editor, head of publicity and foreign rights at Grove/Atlantic while
in New York. As one of the last independent publishers in New York,
Grove/Atlantic continues Barney Rossett’s tradition of giving voice to the
outsider, of publishing books that are literary, books that are about the larger
world. Next Autumn Grove/Atlantic will bring out Paying Back
As 2008 ends I am writing an
article titled Literary Bangkok for Writers & Poets Magazine. I spent
a few days at the Oriental Hotel researching the article. Looking into the
archives of writers from the past who came to Bangkok: Joseph Conrad, Somerset
Maugham, Graham Greene, George Orwell and others. Like the trip to New York, the
time at the Oriental Hotel has stimulated my thinking about what we owe to the
great authors and publishers of the past, and as we walk into the future, what
part of their legacy do we take along with us and what parts are shed like the
skin of snake.
2008 has also brought to Thailand
and many other parts of the world equal measures of violence, uncertainty, and
chaos. Political events in Thailand overshadowed the news for months.
Demonstrations, occupations of the government house and closure of the airports,
with new governments coming and going in rapid successions. The tourism business
crashed. People were staying closer to home. Foreigners are less certain about
the future, have less money, and with travel warnings, they put off that
discretionary purchase—whether it is an air ticket to Thailand, a hardback book,
or dinner at a posh restaurant. Stock markets
crashed everywhere, entire industries dissolving before our eyes, a crisis in
publishing. Newspapers dropping print editions, home delivery, going into
Perhaps the world has always looked
like it was unraveling. Economic collapse, the climate fundamentally changing,
the balance of power in the world up for grabs, and the feeling that something
we can’t quite imagine looms over the horizon. In better days, we assumed
something good would be found over the horizon. Now people aren’t so sure. And
that in a nutshell is our existential angst. We want to believe things will get
better, but have largely given in to the feeling we are about to slip into a
void and no one around us has the capability, the resources, or the intelligence
to break the fall.
A tugboat of gloom is pulling the
world through the dark waters of noir. There aren’t enough lifejackets for
everyone. People are getting thrown over the side.
The challenge for us
who write books is to chart that journey. If the world has become one vast
criminal investigation scene, we will be spending much of 2009 sorting out the
victims from the criminals, evaluating the evidence, considering the motives,
reflecting on the special pleas of ignorance, negligence, or special
circumstances. Some will go to jail, some will go mad, others to the streets,
and others to gather weapons for revenge. The drama of who we are and what we
want and how we mediate between our identity and what we possess will absorb our
attention. Crime fiction will grow in this environment as authors are stretched
to find context and voice to describe and explain a world where clues to the big
crimes are traced to the delusions of those elected to protect.
|Mark Twain: Talking and Writing from the Heart
soon depart from the world of 2008 and enter the new world of 2009, the question
for writers around the world is: how much truth will the people and authorities
tolerate? Are modern times less tolerant than before, or have we always lived
side by side with the forces of intolerance circling thinkers and writers,
banishing writs and decrees, threatening punishments, exile and disappearance
from words that speak of things that are decreed to be unspeakable.
On Maud Newton’s literary
blog, I came across the excerpts from
Mark Twain’s “The Privilege
of the Grave”
which can be found in the New Yorker archives.
Its occupant has one privilege
which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not
really without this privilege — strictly speaking — but as he possesses it
merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot
be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks
with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to
take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech
is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are
crimes, and are held in deep odium by civilized peoples.
* * *
Sometimes my feelings are so hot
that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from
setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are waste, because I can’t
print the result…. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire
the trouble it would make for my family.
Mark Twain would fully
understand that free speech in many parts of the world during our times has not
advanced beyond the speech restriction he lived with inside his own world.
Indeed an argument might be advanced that Mark Twain’s pre-technological world,
had more tolerance for dissenting views than our own. But an argument can be
made that with the Internet the floodgates to carry expression of all sorts have
opened and to contain the roaring rage of words swirling around the earth can no
longer be successfully tamed. But for every technological tool that increases
the reach of speech, there are new tools to restrict, control, monitor and
censor. It is unclear how the tension between the freedom to discuss and dissent
and the urge to restrict the scope of discussion and stifle dissent will play
out. Like any cat and mouse scenario, we will likely find that the mice continue
to take more than their share of causalities.
|Dinning with Peter and Susan Straub
In November when I was in
New York, I was invited to dinner by Peter and Susan Straub. Peter Straub is one of the most literate,
well-read, witty authors one ever have the pleasure of meeting. Over dinner on
West 81st Street we dissected the meaning of our dinner. The discussion of our
main course was captured on video and can now be seen on YouTube.
Peter has received many
awards over the years and a few of his well-known books include: Ghost
Story, Shadowlands, Koko, Mystery, The
Throat. And there are also a couple of novels that Peter co-authored
with Stephen King: The
Talisman and Black
Peter also stayed in the
Somerset Maugham Suite at the Oriental Hotel in 1983. His Bangkok connection
factors into his novel Koko. If you haven’t read him, you’re missing out on
superb story-telling from a master of the craft.
|Looking At Bangkok Through A Noir Lens
The artist Chris Coles has an
intriguing article on Absolutely Bangkok
titled Looking At Bangkok through a Noir Lens. Chris writes about his
experience of Bangkok and the inspiration behind the art that he has
“Whether in a Raymond Chandler
story set in 1930’s Los Angeles or a Christopher G. Moore Calvino novel set in
Bangkok 2008, no matter how nihilistically Noir the setting and story, there is
an immense and guilty pleasure to be found in the world of Noir, a world in
which we are free to surrender our ideals, hopes and dreams and come to grips
with the “true” nature of life and the world as a gigantic and colorful sewer,
populated by charismatic bugs, rats, reptiles and serpents, who ceaselessly try
to do each other in as they float along on the infinite river of fecal waste
matter created by humanity.”
Coles: Thai Police Colonel
Many of you who follow this blog
will have also followed the upheaval in Thai politics that started with the
military coup in 19th September 2006. One side of the political
equation has been referred to as including a segment of Thai businessmen (mostly
Thai-Chinese ), joining the traditional old elites and a smattering of new
“liberal” democrats. These groups are united in their nearly universal aversion
to the former prime minister (and the individuals who succeeded him in rapid
What has received less attention is
the underlying dynamic of origin and nature of the economic and political
interest and how they’ve remained fairly consistent in Thailand for many decades
despite the fact that governments and constitutions have regularly changed. This
partnership of convenience has an enduring quality.
The perception that Thaksin
policies threatened to upset this partnership with its existing players, caused
a sense of panic, followed by determination to do what was necessary to
eliminate the threat.
To understand the working
relationship between the business community (overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese) and
the other big political players such as the bureaucrats, the “old-money” class
and men in uniforms, you would do well to read Joe Studwell’s Asian Godfathers.
Studwell does an excellent job of revealing how the Godfathers
succeeded in Southeast Asia, including the Thai godfathers contingent. In any
Southeast Asia patronage system where concessions, licenses, cartels and other
monopoly practices have had a long history, the Chinese were skillful in
cultivating the right political connections and exploited them to create a herd
of rich cash cows. Whether it was ports, banks, telecommunications, mining,
rubber, or timber, having an exclusive right to a monopoly coupled with the
guarantee to exclude competition was a surefire way to rake in a large amount of
money. The other factor that Studwell identifies as significant to the rise of
billionaire Asian Godfathers was access to easy and cheap credit. This allowed
them to expand their business interests.
As the global financial recession
continues accelerate, it will likely eliminate the easy and cheap credit that
Asian godfathers have grown accustomed to tapping. How many of the Asian
Godfathers have been over-leveraged? As this is a secretive group, probably no
one really knows the answer to this question. The same is true of another
question— whether the cash flow from the Asian godfathers’ traditional
concessions and licenses will see them through this financial crisis.
Local economies in Southeast
Asia are contracting as well. Less of everything is selling. Having a monopoly
over resources or services will be a cushion but will it prevent injury when the
fall this time is from such a great height? No one, again, can predict how much
of a haircut the Asian Godfathers will be in for this time. The likelihood is,
once the dust settles, and the accounts are reconciled, we will discover some
heads that have been shaved clean.
One of the best selling English novelists is Stephen Leather.
His Spider Shepard series published by one of the top tier publisher in the UK:
Hodder and Stoughton. The Spider Shepard series is a huge popular success worldwide.
Leather also lives for half the
year in Bangkok. He speaks and reads Thai and is someone with a good knowledge
of the language, culture and history.
Stephen’s blog is a welcome
addition to the Bangkok literary scene. You will also find a long passage from a
novel in progress.
Check it out: http://www.stephenleather.blogspot.com/
Get a copy of his latest Spider
Shepard novel titled Dead Men.
'He explores complex
contemporary issues while keeping the action fast and bloody. In DEAD MEN
Stephen Leather poses tough questions about the morality of the fight against
terrorism and whether the means justifies the end.' -- The
|The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon
An Essay by John Banville on the life and times of Georges
Simenon contains this passage:
“Most crime fiction, no matter how
“hard-boiled” or bloodily forensic, is essentially sentimental, for most crime
writers are disappointed romantics. William T. Vollmann, in an afterword to the
NYRB edition of Simenon’s greatest masterpiece, Dirty Snow,
contrasts him with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels, despite their
elegance, wit and polished metaphors, seem now distinctly soft-boiled.
“Chandler’s novels,” Vollmann writes, “are noir shot through with wistful
luminescence; Simenon has concentrated noir into a darkness as solid and heavy
as the interior of a dwarf star.” Only Patricia Highsmith approaches Simenon’s
ability — indeed, his compulsion — to show the world as it really is, in all its
squalor, excitement and contingent cruelty, yet Highsmith’s characters are
paper-thin compared to the French master’s vividly multidimensional men and
Dirty Snow is one of my
favourite Simeon novels. I wrote about the novel in Friday’s Forgotten novels.
|Barney Rosset: The most dangerous man in publishing
Newsweek has an article on the
legendary Barney Rosset:
“The story of Rosset's life is
essentially one of creative destruction. He found writers who wanted to break
new paths, and then he picked up a sledgehammer to help them whale away at the
existing order. ‘He opened the door to freedom of expression,’ said Ira
Silverberg, a literary agent who began his career in publishing at Grove. ‘He
published a generation of outsiders who probably said more about American
culture than any voice in the dominant culture ever could.’ A Grove book, said
Robert Gottlieb, who served as editor of Simon & Schuster and then Knopf
during the years Rosset ran Grove, ‘made a statement. It was avant-garde.
Whether European or American, it had very special qualities; it was definitely
worth paying attention to.’ ”
Barney is an old friend and
mentor. I went to New York in November to attend the National Book Awards
ceremony where Barney was given a life time achievement award for his
contribution to literature. If you want to understand the importance of
publishing in the collective development of a society, then the Newsweek article
about Barney Rosset is a good place to start.
|Speaking and signing in Thailand
Pattaya Expat Club: Pattaya
On Sunday 7th December 2008 I was the featured speaker at the Pattaya Expat Club. I talked about the new Calvino novel Paying Back Jack before about 200 club members. They are always a good audience with questions after the talk. Richard Ravensdale, the club organizer, performed his magic in putting together the program. He had hitchhiked from Nepal (at the time of the airport occupation and closure) in order to get back to Thailand in time for the talk. That is what I call dedication. The club president Niels Colov interviewed me for People TV.
Texxas Lonestar: Washington Square, Bangkok
I will be signing copies of Paying Back Jack at the annual Christmas lunch at the Texxas Lonestar Bar in Washington Square, Bangkok. The event takes place on 24th December 2008, starting at 2.30 p.m. The Christmas lunch is always a special occasion at the Lonestar. This is the first year without George Pipas to entertain the guest. The lunch is turkey, ham, stuffing and all of the trimmings. And it is free. If you are in Bangkok, please stop passed to have some turkey and say hello.
|Two Books = 112 happy children
I’ve previously mentioned on this
blog that Bruce Comstock and Terry Fitzgerald bought copies of the special
edition of A Killing Smile. The proceeds of both sales have been used to buy
clothing and supplies for the children who live at Home Hak. In the photograph
below you can see the fifty sweaters, other clothing, lotion, soap, skin cream,
etc. which we bought with the money. The shipment will go out this week by
overnight bus. Thanks once more to Bruce and Terry.
Here’s more information about the
people who operate Home Hak. Suthasinee Noiin has been the driving force,
working as an independent social worker for over 30 years. She's established her
Home Hak (which means "Love Center" in Isan) over 20 years ago. It received
support from Japanese Embassy (to build the building for the kids) 7 years ago
(the support has long finished). The lady is known as Mae Tiew. She is not doing
so well now. In fact, she’s dying of cancer.
The Suthasinee Foundation
now has 17 social workers. She remains the chairman but after she has passed on,
the same set of people will continue to work there and the kids will remain
there with the center (but they will leave when they turn 18). The foundation
relies solely on private donations.
The foundation relies on private
donations. Their expenses are so large that they don't have enough money. Now
that Suthasinee Noiin’s dying, how well the center will continue to be run,
given they don't have a sympathetic figure like her to draw public sympathy, is
an open question.
You don’t have to buy a book to
help. You can do so directly.
Cash donations can be made to one of the
foundation accounts (for my record):
Siam Commercial Bank, Yasothorn Branch
A/C Name: Suthasinee Noiin Foundation for Children and Youth
Thai Military Bank, Yasothorn Branch
Suthasinee Noiin Foundation for Children and Youth
A/C No.: 437-2-13090-8
Any transfer made should be notified by fax: +66-(0)45-722-241.
The Home Hak orphanage address:
Suthasinee Noiin Foundation for
Children and Youth (Baan Home Hak)
No. 3 Moo 12, Baan Pracha Sawan
Tadthong District, Muang, Yasothorn 35000
|Spirit House sightings in London and Vancouver
Peter Green launched out to find copies of Spirit House in
London and Vancouver. He reported that he found a prominently displayed copy at
Foyle’s. That was the good news. There was, however, only one copy. The clerk at
Foyle’s was confused by his request to take his picture holding the UK edition
of Spirit House.
Next Peter checked out Chapters on Broadway and Granville
in Vancouver and found 7 copies of Spirit House (the American edition). Again
his request for staff to photograph holding Spirit House was met with some
I don’t know if Peter may
have started a trend – mysterious appearances at bookstores and enlisting the
staff to photograph him holding up a book.
|112 kids at Baan Home Hak Update
Yesterday, Terry Fitzgerald, a long-time fan who has become a good friend, ordered a Special edition of A Killing Smile. Terry’s contribution will make a difference to the lives of the 112 kids who shelter at Suthasinee Noi-in upcountry shelter at Baan Home Hak.
This week we will go out and buy sweaters and other clothes for the kids with the money that Terry Fitzgerald and Bruce Comstock’s order have brought in. The nearly Baht 18,000 from these two orders of A Killing Smile will buy a lot at the wholesale market in Bangkok. We will box them and ship them upcountry over the weekend.
Terry and Bruce are a couple of true heroes for 112 children. It may be a largely noir world, but there are enough good people to give a person the most valuable of all things: hope. Thanks guys.
|112 Reasons to read Crime Fiction
The morning started with a grenade
attack at the international airport in Bangkok, leaving one person dead and
dozens wounded. This afternoon the Constitutional Court has dissolved the main
political party and banned their executives from public office for five years.
Close to where I live, over the past week two bombs have been tossed from the
flyover onto Rama IV below near Klong Toey market. I heard the explosion. Both
times. Police are guarding the flyover this morning.
But this isn’t one of the reasons
to read crime fiction.
It is easy in these circumstances
to feel scared, helpless and hopeless about what has happened and may happen
next. People are numb with fear. I was at the Emporium, an upscale shopping
Mall, and the ground floor is decorated with Christmas trees and White Christmas
is playing on the sound system. Some people walking around dazed, staring at the
Christmas trees, trying to make sense of what is happening. Bangkok and its
people occupy a zone of immense contradictions.
But this isn’t one of the reasons
to read crime fiction.
Smiles and sadness. Friendship and
hatred. Hope and despair. You have a choice in life. You can choose to give into
the fear or you can find a way to make a difference.
Again this isn’t the
The chance of anyone in Bangkok
being killed or injured by a grenade or bullet is small. Of course, if it
happens to you, then that is little comfort. What has placed the current chaos
in perspective was a call my wife received from a woman upcountry in Thailand.
This woman several years ago started taking in abandoned or abused children.
Things like this always start in a small way. Someone hears about a kid who has
nowhere to go. She took him in. Housed him. Fed him. Saw he went to school.
Another child found her, then another. For the last twenty years, Suthasinee
Noi-in has sunk her life saving into Baan Home Hak (Love Center), which has
become a place to feed and shelter 112 children between ages of newborn to 19
years old. She lives in Yasothorn Province. The kids include AIDS orphans,
abandoned kids, kids with AIDS, and kids who are victims of domestic
The thing is, she’s run out of
money. It gets worse. Suthasinee Noi-in has intestinal cancer and is dying.
She’s got six months left. Maybe. And upcountry it has turned cold. As
everything is upside down in Thailand, she doesn’t really have anyone to help
Today I received an order for a
copy of the Special Edition of A Killing Smile from Bruce Comstock. The limited
edition cost $275.00. The money from Bruce’s order has been used to buy 112
sweaters that will be shipped upcountry this week. There are crimes and then
there are true crimes. Not helping in a case like this would be, for me, a
crime. Money has to have some meaning in life, and part of that meaning is
finding a way to see that it gets to the right people and the right time. Bruce,
in my eyes, is a hero and my wife and I will let the kids upcountry know that
there is one Canadian out there whose money made a difference to their life.
During this season, if
anyone else wants to offer some help, I will personally see more clothes,
medicine, school fees, and supplies reach the 112 children. Think of this as 112
good reasons to read crime fiction. Buy a book. Send a greeting to them for me
to pass along. Once long ago someone did something for me, refused any
compensation and said, pay me back by doing something to help someone else.
In a small way, I am paying him back.