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Blog Archive August 2011

No Need to Remove Your Shoes

Red light means stop; green light means go; and yellow light is proceed with caution. Except Thai drivers have a way of blurring the meaning of traffic lights. Signaling what is expected, what is wanted, or what one can get away with are mentally built from the cultural bricks of education, family, friends and neighbors. Simple signals such as yes, and no, like traffic signals aren’t always to be relied upon.

In Thai culture, it is a well-established tradition that before you enter the house of a Thai, you first remove your shoes. The feet, according to local custom, are the lowest part of the body. Walking on streets and pavements makes for dirty shoes. There are a couple of levels at work. First, your feet (and everybody else’s) occupy the lowest realm (pointing with your foot at someone is a major cultural gaff). Second, there are some practical health issues packaged with living in the tropics. Dog shit is one. Along with various parasites and bacteria which have been known to hitch a ride on people’s shoes and into their houses.

Even though this ‘shoe’ feature of Thai culture (it’s more like a fetish) can be found in every travel guide ever written about Thailand, it is not uncommon to find a foreigner walking straight into a Thai house as the horrified Thai hosts watch the clump, clump of shoes leaving the equivalent of CSI chalk lines outlining a dead body.

I have a good Thai friend who tells the story of his mother, one of those well-educated, well-read, articulate women I’ve met. A couple of foreigners were taken by my Thai friend to visit his mother. At the door, the foreigners (obviously having read a guidebook) had begun to remove their shoes. The mother insisted that wasn’t necessary. They looked at each other, they looked at the mother, and she repeated that they were welcome to keep on their shoes. So inside the house they went wearing their shoes.

An hour later the foreigners left, and mother and son closed the door. The mother sighed, shaking her head.

“What’s wrong, mother?” my Thai friend asked.

“You know what’s wrong,” she said.

He had an idea what she was getting at but at the same time didn’t want to guess.

“I don’t understand, mother.”

“Your friends walked through my house in their shoes. Why are foreigners so rude? Don’t they understand the most simple thing about Thai culture?”

“But you told them not to remove their shoes. I heard you, mother.”

She looked at him, slowly shaking her head, as if the foreigners had infected his mind.

“Aren’t they aware in Thai culture, that you always remove your shoes? I thought you said these foreigners knew Thailand.”

“They thought you’d made an exception,” he said.

“There are no exceptions. Shoes off. Always.”

He had to admit that she was right. His mother had, as an act of graciousness and courtesy had made a concession to their foreign ways, which she understood to be different. Westerners had no problem trampling over the floors of others with their shoes on leaving a trail of dirt and disease. But they, if they knew Thailand, then these foreigners would also understand that his mother’s concession was not to be acted upon. In her mind, the situation was perfectly clear. The foreigners should have known that in reality her “yes, please keep your shoes on,” should have been translated by the foreigners as, “yes, let me remove my shoes.”

As the son later told me, his mother had assumed the foreigners could “read her mind” and instead they merely heard her words and took them at face value. In a culture where face does have a high value, a mind reading an essential element in social relationships, a foreigner should understand that it is often necessary to go behind the words and into the interior desire and real intention of the person. No one should expect a Thai to spell out her true wish when the rules are plainly, obviously clear and without ambiguity.

This story isn’t just about shoes. It is about the intentions of people communicating in a public space where political and social relationships demand everyone is working from the same cultural rulebook. Paying a restaurant bill is another variation on this theme. Mind reading is a definite plus in Thailand (and most places) but foreigners can rest assured that often Thais are no better than reading each others minds than someone from Kansas fresh from the airport racing into Bangkok to find the real Thailand.

Orginally published 30 July 2010 as Christopher is traveling abroad.

Posted: 8/25/2011 9:09:34 PM 

 

WHEN TO STOP WRITING AND DO SOMETHING ELSE IN LIFE

I am trying to wrap my mind around the almost hysterical, obsessive need for people to become a published author. Mostly, I suspect, it is like one of those twist off caps on a cheap bottle of wine where the threads don’t quite catch right. There is a concentrated effort to get the cap off. More simply, getting into the publishing racket is another example of our need for acceptance in the crowd of strangers. We live in age where many people wish to stand out apart from the crowd as an accomplished worthy, special word genius. The problem is the number of people who want to stand out by writing books has become larger than the crowd that read and buy books.

Like most people I admired perseverance as a noble attribute. People who don’t easily give and roll over with the first wall in life they hit. People who pick themselves up and keep on going. That’s my kind of people. Pull up a chair, I raise a glass of OJ to your grit.

But there is a limit. I think I may have found where that fence is. There is a writer who blogs at Literary Rejection Display and he’s blogged about his 11,000 rejections on the way to getting 82 stories published. One publishing industry insider called this record of rejection “inspirational.”

Remember we are talking about rejection. That haunting word that has shadowed every kid from 11 years on. Who in defeat, looks back at the bully and says, “Yeah, I’ll show you.”

Let’s test this theory of what is inspirational inside the world of rejection. Forget about writing stories for a moment. Let’s say the person wishes more than anything to be a world-class marksman and reap the honor of that status with the larger world. He goes to the shooting range. Pulls out his rifle and goes through 11,000 rounds of ammo. He hits the target 82 times. Not a candidate for sniper’s school. But he doesn’t give up. He slaps in another clip and blasts away.

Or assume he’s a trainee pilot and manages to crash land a plane (let’s make that a different plane) 11,000 times but has 82 confirmed landings where the plane safely landed. The air force would likely not give him a set of wings. United Airlines might hire him. But do you seriously want him flying the plane you are in?

Or assume he builds custom cars on spec. His brochure says he personally built spec cars, which were rejected by 11,000 buyers but 82 cars he managed to sell. Do you want to buy or ride in one of his cars?

Or he bakes cakes which are rejected by the 11,000 cake tasters, who spit them out, drink water to wash away the bad taste and ultimately shopped for cakes elsewhere. Still 82 other cake buyers are bought one of his cakes, saying they were yummy. Would you eat the cake?

Would we find the marksman, trainee pilot, car builder and cake maker inspirational in light of their rejections? Or would we wonder how a person can take that kind of beating, wake up the next morning and knowing he had a .007 percent chance of success but still manages to pull out the rifle, get into the cockpit of the plane, go to the garage and assemble another spec car, or to kitchen to bake a cake, firing up the process of almost near certain rejection all over again?

It seems writing stories and books is a special areas of human activity that attracts so many people who willingly continue to persist despite the clear message that rejection delivers: you should devote your talents and energies to something with at least lottery type odds of success. I don’t have the answer to the question of why the continued effort to write when such a clear signal of rejection of a writer’s work indicates that he shouldn’t bother is inspirational? Other than one: It is difficult to let go of a dream. Especially if you believe that in time, with enough effort, the dream can come true.

The harsh reality is that not everyone can play the violin, swim, run, shoot, cook, sing, dance or tell jokes at a professional level. There is a certain level that defines success. It is where a commercial enterprise that depends on turning a profit will pay money in order to support the talent. A big talent brings in a lot of money. Sponsors will pay money to be associated with the skill and talent. Perhaps in sports it is easier to know who has won and who has lost. It is objective. There are cameras at the finish line. Sensors at the end of the pool pick up the first touch. There is no arguing the toss. No bellyaching that a winner is made a loser because the gatekeepers don’t recognize talent. Losing 11,000 times isn’t professional talent. It is by definition not professional. The pitcher who throws 82 strikes is a hero, and can play for the Yankees. But if he throws 11,000 balls into the dirt in order to get 82 strikes, no one is going to write an inspirational movie about that player’s devotion to the game and how the Yankees were damn fools to overlook him.

In writing, the general feeling is that, well, it is all feeling, subjective, and if you tunnel away long enough, you can burrow under the gatekeepers wall and moat, breach the inner walls, and do a victory dance, holding up the published story or book, showing the world you are a winner after all.

No one likes rejection. The reality of the world is that truly talented people with unique abilities and rare talents and skills are a small percentage of the total population. The rest of us admire such people. We watch them perform. We benefit from such performances in many different ways. The problem emerges when we delude ourselves into telling ourselves, “Hey, I can write cozy novels just like Cakes Copeland.” Or “I can tell jokes better than David Letterman.” Or “I can write a novel better than Dan Brown.”

I know. The first and last example is what gives all that false hope. No one truly believes the network should dump Letterman and hire him as the replacement. Being funny is more than just hard work. Like writing a story or book.

I don’t know what the magic number is before a writer should move on. But I’d say it isn’t the 11,000 elevation, the K2 of rejection. A heavy weight boxer that takes 11,000 body punches while throwing 82 deserves a place in Guinness Book of World Records for continuing to stand in the ring. But inspiration isn’t the word that comes to mind when you look at the boxer who has taken that beating. Sadness is closer to the mark, a sadness that comes from understanding that we occupy a world where no one has the balls to tell the boxer that the fight is over. We tell him that because he’s still standing on his feet after such punishment that he is inspirational. Instead we should be telling him throw in the towel, take a shower, go home, devote what precious time he has left on this earth for and with family, friends, and community. Inside that place, he is more likely to make a difference, have more impact and a life with more meaning. There are things in life other than writing stories, books and films from which self-worth and accomplishment can be achieved. And just maybe those are things that, in the long run, should be valued more, seen as more significant than a published book with one’s name on the spine and front cover.

But wait one moment. Rejection has a certain meaning in the old world of publishing. Will that change as publishing migrates online and ebooks multiply like fireflies around the porch light? No question about it, change is already here. We are entering an new digital age where the old notion of rejection of book will radically alter. No one will have the patience to accumulate 11,000 rejections. They won’t need to wait for one rejection from a traditional publisher. Here’s why. Everyone now has access to make their books available to the whole world by simply uploading it. Others will be invited to read, download, buy or share it. In this new age of publishing, rejection will gather a new meaning. But it won’t be rejection at the gateway to readers.

It will be inside the beltway of readers that rejection will bite like a pit bull.

In this new world where everyone can claim to be an author, rejection will come as “authors” realize that only 82 of every 11,000 online authors are worth reading and indeed are read. The book with a few hits will become the new measurement of rejection. There will be sly ways sold to online authors to pump up their number of readers. That will soon be exposed as fraud. Rejection will be coded in new ways. Don’t think technology will abolish it. That won’t happen. People will still complain and wail of the unfairness of it all. In the end, old age, new age publishing, the bottom line is pretty much the same. There are only a small number of authors worth reading. Making it easier to be “published” doesn’t make it any easier to attract an audience.

Great or even good writing is rare. If you are an avid reader, finding an author you want to read has always been like panning for gold. In the future, readers will miss the old publishing system, imperfect as it was, when editors and agents waded into the murky waters, panning for gold. They published stuff that wasn’t gold. But that is only human. Readers have great expectations when they read a story or book or poem and most of them hate going through tons of gravel looking for a few specs of gold. Instead of those polite, meaningless form letters from traditional publishers, readers may not be so kind when their anger and disappointment of reading an inferior work causes them to shout insults. If I had to make a prediction, rejection is set to become much nastier, personal, and demoralizing. The new crop of authors will look back with longing at how civilized the old world of rejection really was.

Orginally published 26 February 2010 as Christopher is traveling abroad.

Posted: 8/19/2011 9:00:00 AM 

 

IN WHAT ASIAN CITY SHOULD I SET MY CRIME NOVEL?

Like most writers, I receive emails from readers. Often they are comments about a particular book. Others write with suggestions and ideas for books. Still a few are people who seek advice about writing crime fiction.

I received an email from a reader who wrote:

“I’m working on a crime novel and recently completed my first draft. My dilemma is that I have no idea which city to set it in. The story’s current setting in Los Angeles, but I’m thinking of changing and starting over. Conventional wisdom and research into past bestseller lists suggests setting the story in either the U.S. or a European capital city and have it involve western characters and values. But the recent shift of power and money to Asia, particularly China, and the fast-growing sales of novels in countries like China and India, is changing everything. Not to mention the huge tourism numbers in places like Thailand and Malaysia nowadays.

So I’m thinking of doing the opposite of most and setting my novels in Asia and finding a niche market there like you do, Christopher. ‘The fishing is best where the fewest go’, as my grandfather used to say. For example, I’m thinking of the capitals of Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia or Malaysia as a setting as no other western author is writing crime fiction there, to the best of my knowledge.

What do you think? Does the rise of China and Asia mean that it’s better for new authors to write stories set in Asia? And which city in S.E Asia do you think would be a good place to write crime fiction?”

I have been thinking over the best way to reply. In the past, when I’ve spoken before various groups about the Vincent Calvino series, I tell the story of how almost twenty years ago when after Spirit House had been published that my literary agent at the time wrote (we didn’t have email then) about a US publisher who liked the novel and wondered if I could change the setting from Bangkok to Boston. I wrote her back, “Is it okay if I leave everything else the same?” Apparently the answer was ‘no’ as the publisher failed to press ahead.

If you examine the authors who write on this blog, you’ll find a common thread. We all have lived for many years or spent many years in the culture and place where we set our fiction. I think of Matt Rees’s Omar Yussef mysteries, Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri’s mysteries, Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Ikman’s mysteries, Quentin Bate’s Iceland mysteries, Margie Orford’s South African mysteries, and Conor Fitzgerald’s Commissioner Alec Blume series set in Italy—the common thread is each of these writers has been immersed in the culture, the history, the language and the psychology of the place where they’ve set their fiction.

It would be difficult to imagine substituting another city or country in books written by my colleagues on this blog. The reality is that their finely developed characters and actions of the police, courts and other parts of the criminal justice system wouldn’t connect with the underlying values, morals, sentiments, or experience of the people who live, work, and are the victims of crimes in another place.

My advice is not to write the novel first and then decide which city is ‘hot’ or ‘trendy’ and rewrite the book, setting it in that place. The book I’d recommend you read is David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. No, it’s not a crime novel. No, it’s not on The New York Times bestseller’s list. It is out of copyright. You can download it free from the Internet. I urge you to do so. What Hume teaches is the way to understanding is in experience and observation. The testimony of men and women, the reports of witnesses and spectators, and we apply our observations to the veracity of human testimony. It is one of the best guides to interpreting your world, and any new world you wish to move to.

After you finish with Hume, go to Peter Rozovsky’s Detectives Beyond Borders and work your way through the excellent archives, and discover first hand the crime writers who are setting novels in foreign cities. You will learn a lot about how these authors have successfully used a foreign country in a crime novel.

There are no shortcuts. No writing course, no how-to book, no mystery or crime convention that can deliver the material that you will require to set the second draft of your crime novel in a foreign culture.

There are a couple of things that may be helpful and that you might want to keep in mind. Without the experience of ‘place’ no matter how much you try to evolve the character and the crime, your efforts will likely fail. You will have wasted your time and your creative effort will have hit a brick wall. It’s not because you don’t have talent or can’t write; it will be because you aren’t able to deliver a meaningful sense of what it is to experience the place where your novel is set.

Our blog is written by crime writers who have done a reality check on their own work and the books written by others. Each of us (I am presuming to speak for the others and welcome them to jump in on the comments) writes from our personal experience of the place where we’ve placed our series. In my view, a writer who hasn’t spent a significant time in a place won’t be able to hide the ignorance and no amount of time on Google, YouTube, or GoogleMaps will substitute for your actual experience in the place where your book is set.

Our readers buy our books because they have faith that we can deliver a sense of ‘place’ that can’t be found elsewhere. Not in magazines, newspapers, blogs, articles by the bushel basket on the Internet. If there is a secret to why our books have a following, it is a combination of our experience of place, our passion for the culture, language and people, and our attention to the telling details that deliver a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are in a foreign city.

The authors of this blog aren’t tourists who’ve visited a place for a couple of weeks, made some notes, returned “home” and worked them into a second draft of a book that was written before we left. We speak the language of our respective cities. We dream in that language. That’s not to say, everyone who picks up a novel cares about whether the novel has any connection with the reality of a city, and peppering the story with second-hand information wouldn’t be enough to satisfy many readers. In that case, I’d ask if you’d be proud to have your name on the cover of such a passing off?

You might say, “I am not writing for people who know these cities well. I writing a great story and exotic locations will add an element to the atmosphere. And Asia is hot, and people like exotic cities.”

My reply would be, “There’s a place for all kinds of stories and ways of telling a story. One factor to keep in mind: an author’s credibility as a storyteller depends on whether the world he or she is creating is solely a product of imagination, or whether he or she is asking the reader to believe the ‘place’ is a real, authentic place. If it is the former, then write that second draft as science fiction or fantasy. If it is the latter, find a city where you have the passion for the food, people, weather, culture and history. Move there. Live there for a year or two. Learn the language. Experience the culture. Then take out that first draft and see how much of it makes sense when set in this new place that you live.”

By the way, best of luck on that “fishing trip.” You have a chance to catch a trophy fish once you learn from the locals who live in that Asian city the art of baiting the hook.

Posted: 8/11/2011 7:15:12 PM 

 

DEATH IN A REMOTE PLACE

Murders happen everywhere people live. No country is spared. For those left behind, a murder is a tragedy and one that remains in their memories for a lifetime. The reality is most murders are domestic affairs. They often occur in the country where the killer and victim were born, educated, worked, and played. The killer and victim often shared in a common culture and language. They likely watched the same TV shows and movies. They recognized the same celebrities who outside that culture moved anonymously among others who did not recognize them. In other words, they consider themselves as belonging to the same ‘tribe.’

When the murder victim dies violently in a foreign place and the killer or killers are natives to that foreign land, the killing ignites the interest of the media. Ever since Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice we have the suspicion that someone murdered in a foreign country is something we ought to pay special attention to the tribal affiliations of the victim and killer. Though, in Death in Venice the killer was cholera, and not someone with a knife or gun. The point is death on holiday attracts attention.

First, we all take or dream of taking holidays to foreign lands. The attraction of such a holiday is to sit on a pristine white sand beach with tall drink with one of those little umbrellas. This is a time to sit back and relax, enjoy the breeze off the sea. If someone just like you—a respectable, hardworking middle-class person—opens a newspaper and reads about someone who resembles the details of your own life who was found with a knife in his back, you take that death more personally. That could have been you on the beach in France, Italy, Greece, Thailand or India. The kind of places you may have been to or intend to visit.

Second, like Mann’s Death in Venice foretells, the police and government officials in countries, which promote the ‘tourist dream holiday’ may be less than forthcoming when a foreigner is violently assaulted or killed. Such governments have a conflict of interest. They wish to be seen as a country that administers a system of criminal justice that is worthy of respect internationally. No country’s police force or judicial system is happy to suddenly have an international spotlight placed on an investigation into the death or severe beating of a foreigner. The relevant embassy makes phone calls to important officials, the victim’s relatives and local MPs to make certain that the embassy follows up on request for information and evidence. Journalists from the victim’s country show up and ask questions. Internet social sites buzz with fear and loathing.

In May, tourists arrivals were up 66% compared with a year ago, and Thailand has the greatest gain in tourists of any country in Southeast Asia. John Koldowski, PATA’s managing director of strategic intelligence said, “In May, more than 1.3 million foreign tourists visited the kingdom, compared with 826,000 a year ago.”

It all threatens to go slightly out of control. Not to mention that the government of the place where the murder takes place has other worries. Their officials (like in Death in Venice) worry about a dip in the tourist numbers and the impact that would have on jobs, hotel vacancies, along with the general knock on effect as less revenue circulates in the holiday centers. Tourist centers are full of voters. The heat from abroad is hot but never so hot as the blast of heat that comes from disgruntled voters.

I raise the issue as resort centers such as Pattaya and Phuket have recently been in the news for locales where foreigners have been mugged, raped, assaulted or murdered. The foreign press doesn’t always distinguish between the case of the tourists and expats.  Perhaps they shouldn’t. Though a case can be made that an expat who lives in another country (as opposed to someone visiting on a short holiday) ought to have better information and more experience with local people, customs, and culture and are able to steer clear of trouble with greater ease. Anyone who has known a cross-section of expats will find a number who go out of their way to expose themselves to risk of assault or murder because of their own involvement in criminal activity. In such a case, the heat dies down as the murder victim tumbles from the innocent mirror image of you going on that holiday to Thailand to someone likely involved in criminal activity. Of course tourists get themselves into trouble, too.

A local newspaper in Phuket reported the death of a Russian with Swedish nationality whose throat had been cut in front of his luxury condo, provides a roundup of recent murders of foreigners:

“On March 15, Phuket and Phi Phi resident Italian Luciano Butti was allegedly murdered by Thais at the behest of his partner, Denis Cavatassi, who is now in Phuket Prison awaiting trial.

”On August 14 last year, Englishman Lee Aldhouse allegedly knifed to death American Dashawn Longfellow in southern Phuket. Aldhouse is currently being held in Britain, awaiting the outcome of an extradition hearing.

”A Thai man who killed German expat resident Wolf-Dieter Kesselheim outside a 7-Eleven store on January 27 last year was caught and tried and sentenced to 13 years and four months jail on December 16.

”The previous year, a Canadian property developer was shot dead outside his Phuket house and a Scotsman was battered to death in his Phuket City apartment in the same week.”

The pressure of bad publicity is deflected when the suspected killers are themselves foreigners.  There’s evidence that Swedish man killed in Phuket on Monday was murdered by two Swedish nationals who have been arrested by the authorities in connection with the killing, according to news accounts.

In other words, if someone is killed in an exotic land by someone from their own country, it has a different emotional impact on potential tourists considering their holiday plans It seems that the real fear isn’t just being murdered by being killed by a foreigner in a distant land. Being killed by your own citizen seems business as usual. Being killed by someone else’s nationals, well, that is bad for business. Especially if they are locals as these are the happy people in the travel brochure who convinced you that this holiday location was an ideal place to relax (as opposed to getting yourself killed). Why we mentally categories the killings on whether they are within the tribe or by someone outside the tribe is one of those evolutionary questions scientist may figure out one day. Until then, tourists continue to have a greater reaction and feel more fear when the killing of a foreigner, especially a tourist, in a foreign land by a local.

The tragedies that governments are more likely to avoid calling attention to often involve issues of lack of training, inattentiveness, shoddy maintenance, lax health standards, lack of control on how food or domestic animals are brought to market, and generally reckless behavior. These categories cover the ferryboats that sink, the planes that crash, the trains that derail, car crashes, epidemics, virus infections, extreme weather and pollution related diseases.

Unlike a murder, death from these non-murder type causes also make the headlines around the world and, if the scale is sufficient, will also disturb the tourism business. When the tsunami struck Thailand in 2005 thousands of people were killed. Thousands of foreign tourists were killed by that tsunami but the tourism business did not spend years in decline as a consequence.

The reason the tsunami, far more powerful and damaging, than an isolated murder, is less disruptive is simple. Foreigners don’t blame the locals for the death of their loved ones, especially if as a result of natural disasters. If anything, the foreigners felt admiration for the efforts launched by the Thai government to recover bodies, inform loved ones, and provide information and comfort to the survivors. But one murder is enough to cause a potential tourist to sit back and have that moment of doubt.

Should I change that trip to Thailand or Mexico or Sri Lanka because I read a tourist was shot and the police and government don’t seem all that keen on doing anything about it? What hardly matters is whether the police or local officials are working around the clock on the case, it is the perception that someone from their country has been murdered and the police haven’t arrested anyone.

Putting international pressure on local police in exotic location can also backfire. They pick out a scapegoat and pin the murder on him or her. The suspect is videoed re-enacting the crime. It all looks so real. But real or not, it will have the desired effect—it reassures the foreigners about the efficiency and diligence of the authorities to deal with such cases. That gives a feeling of deterrence, and that is enough to erase that tiny bit of doubt about your holiday plans. What is good for your psyche isn’t necessarily good for the poor cut out who is frog marched off to prison.

Next time you read about a tourist murdered in a remote, exotic place, ask yourself not whether I should cancel my holiday to that place but whether, on balance, I am genuinely at any greater risk of being murdered on holiday than I am in being killed in a car crash on the way to the airport. If you do the math, in most places the most dangerous part of your holiday will be on the road to and from your airport. Also, if you run the math on the relationship between murder victim and killer, in the majority of cases they know each other. They are members of the same tribe. On that next holiday, it would be wise to watch the road to the airport carefully, and when you check into that hotel in an exotic land, keep an eye on members of your fellow tribe. Because statistically that’s where your greatest danger of being murdered lies.

Posted: 8/4/2011 10:21:29 PM 

 

 

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