Wednesday 10 August 2011

The Life of a novelist in Bangkok is not what you think!!

Jake Needham is our guest blogger. Jake has published four contemporary crime novels set in Asia and his fifth will be published this fall. Jake's books have appeared in more than a dozen separate editions in four languages as well as optioned for motion pictures.

Two of Jake's titles, THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE and THE BIG MANGO, are now available in the UK from Marshall Cavendish International. Two other titles, KILLING PLATO and LAUNDRY MAN, will be available by the end of this year.

About twenty years ago, I was living in Los Angeles and earning an embarrassingly substantial living writing and producing crap movies for American cable television. Then, to my complete surprise, HBO offered a deal on a far classier feature film script I had written a couple of years earlier, a political thriller set in Asia, and abruptly my life spun off in an entirely unanticipated direction. It was that deal which led directly to me living for the last two decades in what is surely the world's most notorious city.

This is how that happened. The production company thought it would be cool to shoot the film in Bangkok and they wanted a producer on the project who had at least a remote idea of where Bangkok actually is. I put up my hand. Looking back, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. If I had, I think I would have kept my hands in my pockets.

The good news here is that while we were in production in Bangkok I was lucky enough to meet the lovely and long-suffering woman who is now my wife. She was born in Thailand, but had gone to boarding school in the UK from the age of twelve and graduated from Oxford. After that she returned to Thailand and signed on as the editor of the Thai edition of Tatler Magazine. After all, other than becoming prime minister, which almost everyone avoids, what else can you do in Thailand after graduating from Oxford?

Anyway, she came out to the set one day while we were shooting in order to interview the writer of the film for a Tatler article. I modestly made my appearance. A year later, to the complete horror of her very prominent and highly respected Thai parents, we were married. We have lived in Bangkok ever since.

I am now a novelist and occasional newspaper columnist, having come to the realization a dozen or so years ago that I don't particularly like movies. Over the past ten years I've published four contemporary crime novels set in Asia. The fifth will be published this fall and the sixth early in 2012. And here is what I have learned as a result of that. Living and writing in ASia requires coping with that two-edge sword you here so much about these days. Yes, the place is a cornucopia of inspiration and a fountain of material for the crime novelist, but the asumptions many peoplemake about who you are when you live in a place like Bangkok can be very heavy baggage indeed.

My first clue as to what I was up against came from the puzzled looks and hostile stares I attracted back in the States when I first told people I was taking up residence in Bangkok. Years later, in a novel of mine called LAUNDRY MAN which became the first in the Jack Shepherd series, the main character related a similar experience. Jack Shepherd was a lawyer in Washington DC who, on a whim, decided to take a job teaching international business at a Thai university. This is how he described what happened to him then:

When people in Washington first began to hear that I was leaving to live in Bangkok and teach at Chulalongkorn University, a few of them jumped to the conclusion I was making a point of some kind, abandoning the land of my birth for reasons that were probably political and no doubt wacky. Others who heard what I was doing—and I noticed this group seemed to be composed mainly of women—attributed my change of address to middle-aged male angst fueled by overly moist fantasies of slim, submissive Thai women serving me brightly colored tropical drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Most people, of course, fell into neither of those categories. Most people just assumed I had lost my damned mind.

Part of the problem was that the whole idea of living in a foreign country was just so strange to most Americans, particularly since very few of them had ever seriously entertained the thought, however fleetingly, themselves. After all, everyone wanted to come to America, didn't they? Half the population of the earth was fighting to live in Orange County and work in a 7-Eleven, wasn't it? Why in God's name would an American even think of living anywhere else?

When the subject of my residence in Bangkok comes up with people back in the States these days, everyone I know talks of one of two things. The first of those things is food. Everyone I meet claims to love Thai food. Sending out for Chinese is cheap. Sending out for Thai is cheap, too, but is seems a lot more exotic. Most Westerners have no real idea what they are actually eating in either case, but Thai food is both cheap and exotic and how can you beat that.

The second is, of course, sex. Bangkok is inexorably linked in most people's mind with stories they have heard somewhere, although few will admit to remembering exactly where, of an unabashedly dissolute life and the easy availability of free sex. Well, perhaps not exactly free, but certainly pretty inexpensive. Thai sex is generally thought of as a little like Thai food. Cheap but with an exotic flare to it. Can't beat that combination in any context, can you?

With all that going for it, you would think that the idea of living in Bangkok would be pretty interesting to a lot of people, wouldn't you? You might think so, but you'd be wrong.

A couple of times I tried defusing the scowls that generally appeared at the mere mention of my residential status by joking that, well, a man could sure make a worse choice than taking up residence in a city internationally famed for food and sex but when I saw the solem expressions that quip provoked in most Americans, I quickly eliminated it from my repertoire. Maybe the suggestion that food ands sex are actually an interesting part of life makes Americans uncomfortable. Maybe I ought to have more friends from France.

Anyway, the reaction I typically got when people found out I was living in Bangkok inevitably went like this. Oh, the place is no doubt exotic and interesting, people murmured, but…it's a city where a lot of people go who aren't particularly nice, isn't it?

Sadly, I never found a way to deny that with a straight face. Even the New York Times just a few days ago said more or less the same thing about Thailand, making the observation that "the world's wretched refuse seems to show up there in droves" (their story is here); and heck, who can argue with the New York Times?

At its most benign, Bangkok is part Miami and part Beirut, but most of the time Bangkok is anything other than benign. I have always thought there must be some kind of international network devoted to coaxing social misfits and dropout cases worldwide into coming to Bangkok, because come they do by the thousands. They walk away from third-shift jobs in places like Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Berlin, and Toronto, buy a cheap airline ticket, and make their way to the Land of Smiles.

Some are looking for a cheap tropical paradise. Others think they've found Sodom and Gomorrah. And almost every one of them is hoping in some way or another to make a fresh start on a life that probably had until then very little to recommend it. Many of these refugees from reality probably couldn't have located the city on a map before they decided it was the place for them. Maybe they still can't, but now Bangkok is their last, perhaps their only hope.

Deep in the empty hours, it is this army of the socially dispossessed and the downright criminal that takes control of the small part of the city that is friendly to foreigners. Tuk-tuks, little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, fly back and forth most of the night ferrying carousers between the two clumps of go-go bars that anchor the neighborhood: Nana Plaza on the west, and Soi Cowboy about a mile to the east.

They are all there. The lonely, the frightened, the guilty, the depressed, and the psychotic. Soaked with sweat, they rush from one bar to another, reeking of that peculiarly sour, metallic odor habitually given off by the emotionally overmatched and underachieving. After midnight, it is this floodtide of the lost and abandoned that owns Bangkok.

The problem with being a novelist who lives in Bangkok is that a lot of people assume you're there because you one of those guys; and that you're writing books, probably very bad ones, only because you're on the lam from another life and can't get a real job. Even worse from my point of view, they assume your novels are tales about the ocean of cheap hookers and crappy beer in which most people are absolutely certain all foreign men living in Bangkok are perennially adrift.

I had a literary agent once who told me that more than half of the American editors to whom he submitted my novels refused to read them at all. We have no interest in that kind of material, they sniffed, and returned my manuscripts to him unread.

Hey, my agent shouted back, Needham doesn't write those kinds of books, but he found that no matter how loudly he shouted he was still facing a formidable wall of presumption based solely on my personal geography. One editor even asked my agent if I was a pedophile, because why the hell else would anyone live in Bangkok?

Seriously. I am not making that up.

So, please, allow me to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

I write crime novels that are set largely in modern Asian cities. My books are about the people who ride the margins and work the netherworld of contemporary Asia. They aren't about Thai prostitutes and western sex tourists.

Happily, Marshall Cavendish International, a very fine publisher owned by a major Singapore media group, now publishes my novels. They distribute the print editions of my books throughout Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and -- beginning this month with THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE and THE BIG MANGO -- in the UK and Europe as well. In addition to that, by the end of this year e-book editions of all my novels will be available internationally in every popular format.

So now hear this. I no longer give a damn what American publishers think about my place of residence or what my choice of it might say about me.

My Jack Shepherd Series - LAUNDRY MAN, KILLING PLATO, and LAWYERS, GUNS, AND MONEY coming this fall - is about a high-flying international lawyer who has swapped the fierce intrigues of Washington for the lethargic backwater of Bangkok where he is now just an unremarkable professor at an unknown university in an unimportant city. Or is he? A lawyer among people who laugh at the law, a friend in a land where today's allies are tomorrow'a fugitives, Jack Shepherd is a man perpetually tantalized by the moral labryrinth that bedevils all western expatriates in Asia.

My Inspector Samuel Tay series – THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE and, coming next spring, BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA – is about a police inspector in the Singapore CID who is something of a reluctant detective. He is a little overweight, a little lonely, a little cranky, and he smokes way too much. When he thinks back, he can't even remember why he became a detective in the first place. All he knows is that he is very, very good at what he does, and probably not much good at anything else.

Sorry, but there's neither a Thai hooker nor a western sex tourist to be found in either series.

I just hope you're not too disappointed.

More information about Jake and his novels can be found on his website


Paul Salvette said...

My stepson is Thai (6 yo), and when I walk around alone with him I occasionally get some odd looks like I'm the bicycle shop owner from Different Strokes. We have a bad reputation here, but at times it seems warranted.

Unknown said...

Hmmmm, I must confess, I have not read any of his books, and don't think that I will anytime soon. They just sound tired............. and tiring!

Anonymous said...

I've read plenty of his books and enjoyed them all... I've even got a signed copy of Killing Plato.

I'm about 3/4 of the way through writing my own first novel (which is also bereft of Thai hookers and sexpats).

Hopefully in a few years, my books will be alongside Jake's...

MVChester said...

I have read all of Jake's books and they are well written. They convey the flavors of Bangkok and Singapore as well as the characters who inhabit them. I look forward to reading Jake's new books.

Anonymous said...

Please consider asking your publisher to release audio editions of your novels through

Concerned Fan said...

Why does your website state "I do not permit my books to be sold in North America nor do I allow my publisher to offer them in any e-book format." while above you write "by the end of this year e-book editions of all my novels will be available internationally in every popular format"?

kurt taylor said...

Jake's evocative novels are stylish, gritty and true. Congratulations on the increased distribution. I'm looking forward to the new books.

Tom Rolling Stone said...

Insightful article, but not many will believe it.
Isaan is a lot like Bangkok without the money or congestion