Tom's latest book - The Monsoon Ghost Image was featured on the blog yesterday - here.
Can you give us a quick biography of yourself?
From what I little I know, you’re a German national, with a strong connection to Asia. You run a well-respected indie publishing house – Crime Wave Press – you write fiction and non-fiction in the form of travel guides and more. What don’t you do?
Ah, yes, that is my quick bio, thanks, Col. You saved me all the heavy lifting. To add to that briefly… I have walked across the Himalayas, had the opportunity to dive with hundreds of sharks in the Philippines, and witnessed the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the world. I have travelled with sea gypsies and nomads, pilgrims, sex workers, serial killers, rebels and soldiers, politicians and secret agents, artists, pirates, hippies, gangsters, policemen and prophets. Some of them have become close friends. Others appear in the articles and books I write.
I am a journalist specialising in South and Southeast Asia. I’ve also written a bunch of non-fiction books including bestsellers like Sacred Skin (www.sacredskinthailand.com) and several feature documentaries. That’s the day job which I love. But I got into all this because I wanted to write fiction. I wrote my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, just as I was starting off in journalism.
I don’t jump out of planes, I don’t eat sea food. I don’t take my hat off.
With your author hat on….
What’s your typical writing schedule?
I generally get up late morning, do some sports, go shopping, get home before 3pm and start working. I tend to work through to 2am with a dinner break when needed. Then I wind down for an hour or two before crashing out. I can go for weeks like this. But I also often go on assignments – this year I have worked in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India and Nepal – when I am on the road I tend to get up earlier – the world does not wait on mid-day writers.
When you have an idea and you sit down to construct your story – do you know what the end result is roughly going to look like? Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go along?
Both. I write an outline, some character details of the main protagonists. I rewrite the outline, refine it, etc. Then, when I start writing the text I do everything possible to stick as close to the outline as I can but the characters often revolt, the story changes direction and once it does it’s like a set of falling dominoes, a journey to another place.
Maybe writing is a bit like war. As soon as the first shot is fired, carefully made plans go to shit – savagery and survival are everything.
Are there any subjects off limits? (From reading your latest, I guess not.)
The Detective Maier series looks at our recent history through the eyes of a German detective and former conflict journalist in Asia. That’s not nearly as obscure as it sounds. Asia has been repeatedly destroyed by European and American diplomacy and politics – from the British and French colonial occupations to the Americans’ absurd mass slaughter in Vietnam and Maier gets to dissect our collective deeds out East. Asia provides an opportunity to put the western claim to humane exceptionalism to the test. So obviously history and geopolitics is what I have been interested in. The white man in Asia thing. I also try increasingly to take the gap between the rich and the poor on board in my novels as it determines so much of our behaviour. My characters come from diverse countries and sexual orientations. Seems normal to me. I use swear words, not too much, just a little. I suppose outright comedy has been off limits so far… you know Germans go to the basement to laugh…
I’ve enjoyed your latest The Monsoon Ghost Image recently. How long from conception to completion did it take?
The Monsoon Ghost Image took a couple of years to put together.
Was it a smooth process or were there many bumps in the road along the way?
I wanted to bring Maier forward into our most recent history. The first book in the series, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, dealt with the Cambodian genocide, through the eyes of a German (as I recently read that a significant number of Europeans and Americans don’t know what the Germans did in WWII, I emphasize here that the latter is significant). The second book, The Man with the Golden Mind, looked at the CIA’s largest operation to date, the secret war in Laos, which the Americans lost, along with every other war they have started and fought since WWII. Kissinger makes an appearance in that one. Both those books were first published by Exhibit A and sold pretty well. When Exhibit A went under, I went into a depressive funk and concentrated on my day job for a couple of years before tackling The Monsoon Ghost Image properly.
What was the spark of imagination that got you started on TMGI?
I am based in Thailand. In the early 2000s, the US tortured several Muslim terror suspects here. Water boarding, rectal feeding tubes, the whole works. For me, that was and is the end of the end of the end of America’s foreign policy. It is time the US went home and cleaned up its own house, stop killing innocents abroad, starving millions of kids to death as they do in Yemen right now. So that provided a great hook. I also felt the need to finally write a novel set in Thailand, to kind of make peace with my home, to take the opportunity to reflect on how some foreigners live in this country.
Did the final result mirror the book you were striving for at the start of the journey?
Yes, it is bleak and reflects my political philosophy quite well – that we are completely screwed by corporations and rich people, that the poor always get fucked and killed and that democracy and human rights are fig leaves to hide our moral turpitude.
In the book we have dual locations of Thailand and Germany. Is it important for you to have a connection to the settings that you write about?
Incredibly important. I used to refuse on principle to write any scene set somewhere I have not been. I am not that dogmatic anymore. I recently published my first crime fiction story in French, with French co-author Laure Siegel, in the magazine Ecoute. Troubled Waters is a story about shark attacks killing the tourist business in La Reunion, a French island near Madagascar. I have never been to La Reunion. But I do know how to put a story together, know a little bit about sharks, and Laure had been to the location and made sure we got the local colour just right. But generally I have been to all the locations featured in my fiction at some point in my life.
At the end of TMGI you seem to indicate that Detective Maier’s race is run. I felt a certain ambiguity about the ending. Are you sure you can’t tempt him out of retirement for a 4th outing?
Well, well. I did start writing the beginning of a short story which had Maier waking up in some remote Asian location, not knowing how he got there or even why he was still alive…
Can you tell us a bit about your two earlier books in the series – The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man with The Golden Mind?
The Cambodian Book of the Dead:
I’ve spent a lot of time in Cambodia, especially in the early 2000s, observing a country re-emerging from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse.
In the novel, German Detective Maier travels to Phnom Penh, the Asian kingdom’s ramshackle capital, to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire. As soon as the private eye and former war reporter arrives in Cambodia, his search for the young coffee magnate leads into the darkest corners of the country’s history and back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia. Maier, captured and imprisoned, is forced into the worst job of his life – he is to write the biography of the White Spider, a tale of mass murder that reaches from the Cambodian Killing Fields back to Europe’s concentration camps – or die.
By looking at the tragedy and cruelty of 70s Cambodia, I also was able to look at my own country’s past crimes against humanity, to put the history of my country in some sort of focus. This idea is quite controversial in Germany but because I left more than thirty years ago, I like to think that I have freed myself from some opinions or attitudes that Germans who live in Germany today might not be able to question. In any case, with the Internet, time is moving so fast and the meaning of history and the past is changing so quickly, that the opinions of a German of my generation who left his country a long time ago, may not be easily understandable for my country women and men.
The Man with the Golden Mind:
The second book came about because I co-wrote a documentary called The Most Secret Place on Earth, about the CIA’s covert campaign in Laos in the 60s and 70s, the largest CIA campaign to date as far as we know. The agency tried to contain communist forces by supporting opposing reactionary forces in Laos, by recruiting a secret army of illiterate ethnic minority people, including many children, most of whom got killed, by carpet bombing the country for nine years and finally by losing it all to the communists who were better motivated, more intelligent and who were fighting for their homeland, not some place 8000 miles away. America has this amazing knack to go to poor countries, kill everyone, still lose the conflict they started, cease to remember why they started it, and then go home and sell it as a victory to its people. And all of us in the West grew up with this.
In The Man with the Golden Mind, Julia Rendel asks Detective Maier to investigate the twenty-five year old murder of her father, an East German cultural attaché who was killed near a fabled CIA airbase in central Laos in 1976.
But before the detective can set off, his client is kidnapped right out of his arms.
Maier follows Julia’s trail to the Laotian capital Vientiane, where he learns different parties, including his missing client, are searching for a legendary CIA file crammed with Cold War secrets.
Maier follows Julia’s trail to the Laotian capital Vientiane, where he learns different parties, including his missing client, are searching for a legendary CIA file crammed with Cold War secrets.
But the real prize is the file’s author, a man codenamed Weltmeister, a former US and Vietnamese spy and assassin no one has seen for a quarter century.
And as I mentioned earlier, the novel features a cameo by Henry Kissinger, one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century.
And your non-series fiction novel – The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu?
I’ve just been back to Kathmandu. Time waits for no one and the city, post-earthquake and civil war, is barely recognizable. But the novel is still in print, in English and in Spanish, and I occasionally get readers’ letters about how much they loved it. It lacks the heavy historical dimension of the Maier novels. It is, for the most part, a boys’ adventure romp set in exotic locales, which, I am told, are brought to life in expert fashion.
The plot is straightforward enough. In 1976, four friends, Dan, Fred, Tim and Thierry, drive a bus along the hippie trail from London to Kathmandu. En Route in Pakistan, a drug deal goes badly wrong, yet the boys escape with their lives and the narcotics. Thousands of kilometers, numerous acid trips, accidents, nightclubs and a pair of beautiful Siamese twins later, as they finally reach the counter-culture capital of the world, Kathmandu, Fred disappears with the drug money. A quarter century later, after receiving mysterious emails inviting them to pick up their share of the money, Dan, Tim and Thierry are back in Kathmandu. The Nepalese capital is not the blissful mountain backwater they remember. Soon a trail of kidnapping and murder leads across the Roof of the World. With the help of Dan’s backpacking son, a tattooed lady and a Buddhist angel, the ageing hippies try to solve a 25-year old mystery that leads them amongst Himalayan peaks for a dramatic showdown with their past. The Bangkok Post called it “a better backpacker read than The Beach.” Ahem.
Do you favour one of your books over the other? Which would you press into the hands of a new reader?
I am pretty happy to have written all four of the novels. When I meet new potential readers I always recommend my most recent book. If I think they might not be able to stomach that, then it is The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, I suppose, though the commissioning editor at Harper Collins India told me many years ago when I tried to pitch the book to them, that my story was too immoral to be considered for publication. I guess some folks might say that about The Monsoon Ghost Image, as well.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your writing career so far?
Waking up this morning, with a roof over my head, the bills paid, and time to fill this here page. It’s been a great, infuriating, frustrating, illuminating, wonderful ride so far.
Any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
I’ve just finished a short story called To Kill an Arab which will be out in February in a crime/horror fiction anthology edited by Chris Roy and Andy Rausch in the US, which will also feature several well-known American authors. And I am working on a second French language novella with Laure Siegel, set in 1940s French-occupied Cambodia.
Any advice for prospective authors out there?
The fiction market is declining, it’s hard to sell a book. Only old people still read. If you have a story to tell, then don’t be discouraged, but do look which platform suits your idea the best. If there is another way to put it out there, to find an audience for it, then that might be worth considering – perhaps as a movie, TV series, a youtube channel, a play or a radio show, who knows?
What’s the best thing about writing?
It’s my job but often it doesn’t feel like a job, more like something that gives meaning to my life and the world. It’s both so very serious and so totally ridiculous. I mean, sitting in a room alone for months on end. Who does that?
Not having a regular income as a professional and lifestyle choice has been a challenge from time to time, especially when I first started writing.
What are the last five books you’ve read?
Just finished Megan Abbot’s You Will Know Me which I found intriguing but also curiously devoid of relevance beyond its immediate narrative. Before that I raced through A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif, a comedic novel about the absurdities of Pakistani military life. I’ve read several Lee Child novels this year while on the road, can’t remember the titles to any of them, they were all pretty similar, great distractions from airport dead time. Right now I am reading a novella by Joseph Conrad set in The Philippines called Freya of the Seven Isles.
Who do you read and enjoy?
For style, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Henry Miller, Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Andy Rausch.
For plot, Katherine Dunn, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Elka Ray, Patricia Highsmith.
For message, David Goodis, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski, Katherine Dunn, Massimo Carlotto, Ross MacDonald, Graham Greene, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas McGuane, Mikhail Bulgakov, Brian Stoddart.
For being ‘out there’, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson, Jim Thompson, Michel Houellebecq.
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
I guess I wish I had written or will write a book like The Quiet American by Graham Greene – it knows its location, tells a universal story and is prophetic at the same time. And it’s bloody well written.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
Travel to the four corners of the world, swimming, walking, playing guitar, silence, cleaning the house (the latter three largely for therapeutic reasons).
With your publishing hat on…..
Is it difficult juggling your time between the publishing and your own writing?
Given that I am on the road a lot and that my schedule can be hectic, my ability to focus on CWP is not regular as clockwork, but it is consistent. I read a lot of manuscripts (mostly parts thereof), answer mails, talk about design, submissions and promotions with my partner Hans Kemp and about PR with our PR manager extraordinaire Chris Roy.
We have published 32 titles to date. We publish in ebook and POD format and have noticed that despite our authors getting more publicity than ever, that ebook sales are not increasing. That is kind of frustrating. There are just too many books out there, especially self-published ones that no one buys but that sort of clog up the system. CWP was started to offer writers who were unlikely to be signed by the big six publishing conglomerates a modest alternative to obscurity and self-publishing.
We now publish an average of two books a year. That way we can promote them to the best of our abilities while still giving some attention to our signed authors.
To publish great crime fiction on a new platform. Turns out the new platform, as mentioned above, is problematic. Amazon, which sells most of our books, is a monolithic greedy business empire that abuses its workers and doesn’t pay enough tax. Ironically, we pay inordinate amounts of tax in the US. It’s not a happy situation. But it is the world we live in and the only practical way we can get our books to readers.
Do you feel satisfied that you have achieved those goals?
Given the aforementioned challenges, the fact that we have published 32 really diverse novels feels pretty cool. We have a happy and constructive relationship with many of our writers, readers and reviewers, we attend literary festivals and the company pays for itself.
Any hints on what CWP has lined up for 2019?
A new and gritty novel by British Noir writer Ben Jones in the spring. Currently juggling two titles and a bunch of unread manuscripts for the fall release.
Do you anticipate CWP still being around in another five or six years’ time?
Bloody hope so. Be great to publish 50 crime fiction novels from around the world. As long as Hans is game and we break even, the next thriller from Crime Wave Press is just a few months away! Incidentally, we would like to publish more female authors. Submissions guidelines on the website – www.crimewavepress.com
Thanks Col, for giving me the opportunity to answer a great, incisive set of questions.
Many thanks to Tom for his time and Henry Roi for connecting us.
Tom Vater has written non-fiction and fiction books, travel guides, documentary screenplays, and countless feature articles investigating cultural and political trends and oddities in Asia.
His stories have appeared in publications such as The Asia Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, Marie Claire, Penthouse and The Daily Telegraph.
He co-wrote The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature documentary on the CIA’s secret war in Laos which has been broadcast in 25 countries. His bestselling book Sacred Skin (https://t.co/sMe3M6dUMp), the first English language title on Thailand’s sacred tattoos, has received more than 30 reviews.
You can find Tom on Twitter @tomvater.
Interesting interview, for which thanks, both. It's fascinating to see life through the eyes of someone who does publishing as well as writing. And you've had some real adventures, too!ReplyDelete
Margot, it was interesting to get an insight into Tom's experiences as both an author and publisher, in addition to his fascinating life adventures.Delete
Fascinating stuff -- a big thankyou to both.ReplyDelete
I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.Delete
Sounds like he has had some wild experiences. Thanks for the interview, Col.ReplyDelete
Elgin, I'm glad you enjoyed it.Delete
A fascinating and exhaustive interview, Col. I believe travelling widely broadens the mind and provides great fodder — as well as ideas and perspective — for one's writing, as evident from Tom Vater's rather adventurous writing life. I have never been to the Maha Kumbh Mela (I shun crowded places), which is held every 12 years at a few locations in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, but I was intrigued that Vater had been there. I hope he writes about his experience. I'd also like to read the Detective Maier series, in 2019.ReplyDelete
Prashant he has lived quite the life hasn't he?Delete
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