Hard Stories, Heart Talk
Christopher G. Moore, Canadian author living in Bangkok, about Thailand, the Thai mentality and his Vincent Calvino P.I. Series
Krimi-Couch: Mr. Moore, you are Canadian and now living for more than 10 years in Thailand´s capital Bangkok. Would you please explain to your German reader´s why you have gone this exceptional way?
Christopher G. Moore: I have lived in Bangkok for over 14 years. That is a considerable time. Some people think it´s exceptional that I left a tenured university professorship to try my hand at writing fiction. This happened after my first novel was published in New York City and before I relocated to Thailand in 1988. It was always my dream to write fiction.
If I had stayed a professor, I could have written books about university life or fantasy or science fiction. But, for me, the best, most rewarding and enduring fiction is based in the hard reality of real experience: inside urban landscapes. A place occupied by a multi-national ad hoc assortment of artists, journalists, travelers, drop-outs, diplomats, businessmen, and gangsters, a place where there are sharp edges and uneven surfaces and making the wrong turn can be threatening if not fatal. Trying to make sense from cultural differences, the different way that people approach and understand their life, family, friends, and work is the heart of the creative process for me. There are few better places than Bangkok to write fiction.
Krimi-Couch: So after 14 years living in Bangkok you probably know the Thai mentality better than any other farang. Where are the main differences between Thai-thinking and thinking of Americans and European? Did you adopt any ways of thinking?
Christopher G. Moore: The way a person thinks is largely shaped by the language and culture. In Thailand, the core of the language are the »jai« words. The translation is »heart«. Unlike most romance languages that 500 years ago separated the way we feel from the more objective way of observing the universe, the Thai language continues to fuse feeling, emotion, and objective or logical thought. This fusion of heart and mind intrigued about a dozen years ago when I was studying the Thai language. As I studied Thai, I was drawn more into the language of the heart, and ended up writing the first book ever published about this aspect of the Thai language. »Heart Talk« has been two editions since 1992 and many reprints. A lot of foreigners tell me that it has made learning Thai easier and that can connect more readily with this vocabulary.
Krimi-Couch: Your Calvino-Series – even being classic P.I. »hardboiled« novels – also show a detailed knowledge of Thai mentality. Most notably you write about places and people the ordinary traveller never sees when visiting Bangkok (e.g. the slums of Klong Toey). How did you come up with the idea of a Jewish-Italian former lawyer in Brooklyn to investigate now in Bangkok and the incorrupt Colonel »Pratt« being his best friend? Are there any real role models for your protagonists?
Christopher G. Moore: One of the premises of »harboiled« novels is that the novelist is able to capture the city where the private eye, police, victims, and others mix. Most tourists to Thailand rarely see the back alley or the slums. These places act as the rice cooker for scams, crime, and the general sorrow and misery suffered by the poor. Of course, most locals rarely go to these places as well. Why would they? Such hidden away places are the breeding crowd for crime the world over.
»It was the first time
I was shot at«
The inspiration for Vincent Calvino emerged from my four years in New York City. During this time I had the opportunity to ride with the NYPD as a civilian observer. This took me into the highrise projects, slums, and dangerous neighborhoods of New York City. Brooklyn was one of the memorable places. It was the first time I had ever been shot at. I was with the police at the time. Someone from one of the projects opened up with a shotgun. Everyone hit the pavement, sheltering under the police car. But that is, as they say, another story. My loft was between Canal and Grand Street in SoHo. This was close to both China town and Little Italy. (Tokyo Joe and Saint Anne, two non-Calvino novels are, in part, set on Worcester Street where I lived) Out of this experience, Vincent Calvino was born.
Over my many years in Thailand, I have met a number of Thais who have inspired Colonel Pratt. There are honest, decent, educated members of the military and police officers who fight the day-to-day battle of crime. Cops who take pride in their work. I wanted to Colonel Pratt to be one of these heroes.
Part of the dynamic between Calvino and Pratt is that both are bi-cultural people, can have learned to understand and appreciate anoother person’s point of view. Calvino remains, at least on the surface, very American; while Pratt, being very Thai, underneath displays a universal wisdom and insight. They are also friends. And in the enviroment that Calvino works, he needs a friend/patron for protection and Pratt provides that role. This is how the system works, and Calvino though is lives outside the system has found a way from the margins to shelter under Pratt’s authority. During their student days in New York City (see Spirit House), Calvino pulled the stops to prevent drug dealers from carrying out a Chinese mob contract on Pratt. Ever since that rescue in New York City Pratt has been repaying that debt to Calvino.
Krimi-Couch: You said you have been shot at while researching in Brooklyn. Is your research always that dangerous?
Christopher G. Moore: No writer would be foolish enough to court danger. Sometimes, though, being in the right place at the wrong time can increases the risk that something dangerous can turn fatal. I was in Cambodia in 1993 and there was still fighting going on. Every night there was gunfire in Phnom Penh. Sometimes one could see the muzzle flash at night about fifty meters away. I lay in my bed in a rundown hotel and listened to the small arm fire as I went to sleep. I wrote »Cut Out« during this period, and a number of the brushes against the sharp points of that time and place appear in the novel.
»The key is to choose
the time of travel well«
One can be unlucky. Buses on the road to Luang Prabang are sometimes ambushed, killing a dozen or more people. One can stay close to home and on a winter’s day, slip and fall, crack open the skull and die. In writing crime fiction, ultimately the writer must go into places that can be unsafe. Because that is where the story is found. People in such situations are living to survive to the next day, and in such a life a writer finds the full beauty and terror of life. The key is to choose the time of travel well and make certain there is someone at the other end you can trust and is trusted in the community. This isn’t a 100 percent guarantee (there is no such thing) but it increases the odds in your favour.
Krimi-Couch: That means you go to the same places Calvino does, visit the same lubricious bars, the down-and-out slums? How much time do you spend on researching in comparison to writing?
Christopher G. Moore: I might put it slightly different: Calvino goes wherever I go during time I am working on a new Vincent Calvino novel. What keeps the series fresh has been to vary the location. Often that means another country. The books have been set in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. And Burma if one counts Waiting for the Lady which isn’t part of the Calvino series but carries on the same tradition of observation and examination of place. At heart, a novel must deliver a sense of realism about a place, precise details about people and culture and in a larger context that allows the reader to feel part of the story.
The details must be absolutely correct because there will be readers who know these places and will track you down like a dog if you get them wrong (and rightfully so because you have cheated the reader – no writer should ever do that to a reader; he or she will never forgive you). Part of the enjoyment (and the challenge) is to naturally bring the details of a place into the narrative so a reader feels he or she are actually standing in that spot, smelling those smells, and participating in something that while larger than life is indeed real.
Krimi-Couch: In »Cut out« the depiction of T-3 prison is as oppressive as it seems realistic. Have you been there? And what were your own impressions and feelings?
Christopher G. Moore: While I was covering the UNTAC story in 1993, an Irish police officer managed to avoid the rules and smuggle me inside T-3. What you read in »Cut out« is a relatively accurate account of what happened as I was escorted through T-3 prison, and what I saw. After a couple of well-placed bribes to prison warders, I was allowed to take photographs. I came away with graphic, terrible images of inhumanity. I sometimes have nightmares about what I saw. It was very difficult not to be personally effect as a witness to such appalling conditions, the suffering, the hopelessness of the situation. The heat, the flies, the rats, and the disease were out of the what I imagine the hell of the 14th century must have been in a feudal lord’s dungeon.
What was disturbing was the random way that people had been rounded up and locked away. The spirit of Pol Pot survived in that place. What I had come to face to face with was true evil. Such evil does exist; only the face associated with the evil changes from time-to-time. Part of a writer’s task is to describe that face, remove the mask and let readers see what is inside. After I returned to Bangkok, I submitted the T-3 photos through a photo agency in New York to Newsweek, Time, etc. No one in America was interested...
Krimi-Couch: Calvino and you, you both are farangs but living in Thailand for a long time. Are there any more similarities? Or would you even call him a kind of alter ego?
Christopher G. Moore: Any time a writer creates a series with a main character there is an obvious affinity between the author and that character. It is a kind of literary marriage. And like in any marriage, both parties understand no matter how much we feel we know another, we only partially know that other. And this always creates some degree of distance. Calvino lives in a much darker, unfriendly world than I do. His business takes him to the fountainhead of evil in each book and he must find a way to survive that encounter, with his dignity and life. Calvino also has much more of the mean streets of New York City in him than I do. He has street smarts and survival instincts that allow him an edge in an alien environment where the usual rules don’t apply.
»I write about a world
most people will never see«
The desire to understand and make our way in a world where the culture, traditions and language are so different from what we possess in the west is the main bond I share with Calvino. I write about a world most people will never see. Calvino is the perfect kind of person to step into that world as their surrogate and to lead them through the alley ways and bring them home safe. While he’s battle hard, he has a kind of decency and fundamental fairness that is constantly tested by events that unfold in ways incomprehensible to most westerners. I have taken him down muddy third world roads unchartered in modern crime fiction. So far he seems no worse for wear!
Krimi-Couch: In »Cold Hit«, Calvino reflects on getting older and worries about not being able to keep up with those criminal youngsters. How long do you plan him to be a Private Eye in Bangkok? Or in other words: How will Calvinos future look like, what are your ideas with him?
Christopher G. Moore: I am not quite certain how other author’s construct and sustain a long-term series. In my case, it was only after a couple of novels with Vincent Calvino as the central character did it occur that the private eye might appear in other books, and that those books would become an established series. Once that happened, I as the author have had to make some important: for instance, does Vincent Calvino like Philip Marlowe stay the same age throughout the series or does he gradually age like the rest of us.
The reality of private eye work in this part of the world means the lead character must stay within a certain age range. That translates as Vincent Calvino will likely stop getting older as will the other central characters such as Colonel Pratt, Ratana, and McPhail. As a result, you likely won’t be hearing Calvino turning 60 or 70 years old. He will stay late 40s.
Krimi-Couch: Your novels are translated into Thai, Japanese, Chinese and German, in Southeast Asia you are very successful. But what about North America and especially Canada?
Christopher G. Moore: My first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal was published in hardback and paperback editions by New York City publishers. A new edition of His Lordship’s Arsenal and the latest novel, Waiting for the Lady, are published by Vancouver based publisher Subway Books.
In the era of the internet, it may be less important to have a New York publisher. I’ve had a chance to have more recent books published in New York but have declined. The old mentality that New York is the center of the publishing universe is not one that benefits all writers. I have the distinct advantage of having a fairly large base of fans developed over many years. This has been done without a US based publisher. If one writes books that others wish to buy and read, then the author can be more creative in the publishing and distribution of the books. In other words, creativity doesn’t start and stop with the writing of a book; it continues on through the marketing, distribution and promotion phase.
I’ve been fortunate to have a solid fan base in Thailand, and those people who have an affinity with Thailand living in Europe and North America. If I had done all of this through conventional means, I would have lost all TV and film rights, foreign rights, reprint rights, and the marketing and publicity would have been left to an overworked marketing department which would have been ordered by the big boss to devote 95% of its efforts to marketing and promoting 5% of the authors. The odds in other words would not have been good.
Europeans have far more interest in other countries and cultures and this makes them more receptive to fiction set in Asia. I once had a literary agent in New York report a publisher wanted to publish Spirit House and wondered if I could change »Bangkok” to «Boston” as if doing a search and replace with those two city names would have been enough to attract a US readership. I replied that Vincent Calvino and his world might not quite fit into Boston.
Also, at one point, with a library of titles, what an author presents to a publisher is different than a first-time novelist. With sixteen published novels, it becomes closer to a corporate buyout rather than selling the rights to a book. I am in no hurry to return to the New York publishing world. At the moment, Czech, Bulgarian and Swedish rights are in the works for the Calvino series. I have serious doubts as to whether any New York based publisher would have staff who could find these places on a map.
Krimi-Couch: Sixteen novels and very successful series – you must be a very busy man. How does a day in the life of Christopher G. Moore look like? And what do you do to relax?
first thing in the morning
as this sets the mood«
Christopher G. Moore: Most days I begin with a light breakfast – fresh fruit and orange juice, the Bangkok Post, and afterwards I check my email. That is the routine when I am in Bangkok. Often I am on the road. Last weekend Chiang Rai, and two weeks before that I was in Pattaya. June I will spend time in England, and October to Vancouver to promote Waiting for the Lady.
My core work time is divided between research, reading and writing. I am working on a new book. Calvino Number 8 which doesn’t have a working title (I always come up with the title after the book is finished). Some writers have set hours for writing. I try and start writing first thing in the morning as this sets the mood. Having entered the world of words and the world of Vincent Calvino early in the day, it is much easier to then return to the writing again and again through the day. I try to finish around 1,500 words a day on a first draft. In the evening, I often meet with friends.
Last evening a lawyer friend fresh from the States met me in Soi Cowboy and told me stories of huge Chinese buffet price wars and hugely fat diners battling for position over the noodles. This happened in an obscure town in Missouri. I moved on to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to listen to a quite boring program of terrorism. The panel was comprised of three tough looking business men in suits trying to convince the audience their company should be hired to protect them against terrorist attacks. If it had been how to protect your business from the local motorcycle taxis driver running into the side of your car, it would have been interesting. I had a chance to catch up with a number of journalist and writer friends -one had finished a screenplay, another trying to get his first novel published. I ended up at the Thermae Coffee shop to meet a group of fans.
By midnight I was back at the computer screen, checking in on Calvino and working on the next scene in the book. Having finished my 1,500 words, I read half an hour and was asleep by 2.30 a.m. Up again at 9.00 a.m., and the cycle starts again. Three times a week I go for a workout at the health club near where I live. That is what I would call by relaxing time.
Krimi-Couch: Mr. Moore, thank you very much!
Interview by Lars Schafft