A Conversation with John Burdett
Author of BANGKOK 8
Q: When did you start spending time in Bangkok and what first brought you there? There are characters in your novel who come to Bangkok for work and fall in love with the city–some decide they never want to leave. Did you have a similar experience?
A: I worked in Hong Kong for twelve years during a period when it was said to be second only to Beirut in terms of stress (Beirut was in a civil war at the time). Thailand was the only place to really relax and I went about four times a year for most of those twelve years. The hospitality and good nature of the people is legendary and very seductive, so I guess the answer is yes.
Q: Where did you get the idea for BANGKOK 8 and the inspiration for its diverse characters?
A: I wanted to write about a Third World country and started out with Morocco in mind – one of my favorites. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that Bangkok had the greater allure and as soon as I decided to write about Bangkok I realized that the sex industry possessed that combination of intrigue, human interest and inversion of values which make a novel worth reading.
Q: This novel is rich in detail–from the (often corrupt) workings of the police force to the drug-trade; from the sex industry to the mining of rare gems; from Buddhism to sex change operations–What kind of research went into this novel?
A: I became an almost fanatical fan of the Bangkok Post which in its electronic edition gives free access to archives going back to 1996. Use the key word ‘Police’ and you get about five thousand articles. I also studied a number of academic works including the ground-breaking Guns Girls Gambling and Ganja which (believe it or not) is a very serious investigation into Thailand’s black economy by two highly respected Thai academics.
Q: Sonchai is very much a product of Bangkok’s sex industry—his mother a successful prostitute and the father he has never met an American soldier. Many of the characters are in some way part of the industry and find themselves having to defend the merits of prostitution. Was this an issue you set out to engage? Or can one not write about Bangkok without it?
A: I am somewhat embarrassed to give the impression that Bangkok is all about prostitution, which is not at all the case and I hope to redress the balance with a suitably humble Author’s Note. On the other hand, the sex industry is huge and once I started to investigate, mostly by interviewing the girls who work in it (tough research project), I began to admire them more and more. They frequently live on a pittance, practice Buddhist compassion by helping each other out with cash flow problems, send a huge proportion of their money home to support children, parents, brothers, sisters, often live as many as ten or twelve to one room, manage to dress better than most Western women and keep their spirits and sense of humor. It might not be respectable but in my view it is definitely heroic.
Q: Your novel opens with a very imaginative murder—involving multiple snakes—where did that idea come from?
A: From a short story by Truman Capote called Hand Carved Coffins.
Q: At one point Sonchai says of his country, “it begins to look as if 61 million people are engaged in a successful criminal enterprise of one sort or another. No wonder my people smile a lot.” Is the kind of corruption you portray reflective of the real Bangkok? And do people smile a lot?
A: Thais are famous for smiling a lot and Thailand is sometimes called the Land of Smiles – but the smile is not without its ambiguity. Thais are a non-confrontational people who set great store by personal dignity so the smile can hide just about anything. Thailand is still a poor country, though it seems to get richer by the month, and it is invariably the case with poor countries that people prefer to bend or ignore the law rather than suffer too much hardship. Police corruption— so-called according to Western values— may turn out to be the expression of compassion by cops who themselves come from very poor backgrounds and are not about to punish people for relatively harmless survival strategies, although one should not exaggerate. A lot of cops are very rich. I do not have any direct experience of police corruption— the cops have always treated me with more honesty and respect than one has come to expect from their counterparts in the west— but the data set out in Guns Girls Gambling and Ganja is pretty impressive, as are the stories in the Bangkok Post.
Q: The idea of karma and past lives is central to Sonchai and to much of what happens in this novel. Is that important to you as well?
A: I am frankly fascinated by Buddhism and therefore also intrigued by the possibility of previous lives, but one has to draw a distinction between Buddhist doctrine and the way it is popularly interpreted in a country like Thailand which still has a pre-Buddhist tradition of Hinduism and animism (India was very influential in the region in the past and is said to have first introduced prostitution to Thailand in 17th century— and that the Thais took to it like ducks to water). In strict Buddhist doctrine there is no reincarnation which implies a soul migrating from one body to another, but simply a kind of continuum caused by karma, usually referred to as re-birth. Needless to say the average Thai is not concerned with such a fine distinction and there is a rather impressive body of evidence corroborating claims of previous incarnations.
Q: You were a partner in a leading law firm in Hong Kong—how does your legal background inform this novel?
A: Well, in my opinion a good lawyer knows where law stops and life begins, but the discipline does induce a healthy respect for detail. I started out as a barefoot lawyer in a law center, went from there to being a government lawyer in Hong Kong, then went into private commercial practice. I guess I can claim that like a cop I’ve had professional experience in many strata of society and have a good idea of the extent to which peoples’ lives are shaped by law and the extent to which law needs to be customized for survival purposes.
Q: At the heart of this novel, and in the heart of Sonchai as well, is the tension between East and West. One of your American characters, FBI agent Kimberly Jones, says of Bangkok, “This is a magic ravaged land, you now that? Coming here has made me appreciate who ever invented logic, because before logic I think the whole world was like this.” When cultures clash, do you think it’s possible to find that balance between magic and logic?
A: I don’t think it’s a question of balance but evolution. Although we are all too politically correct to say so, I have the impression that the West looks on the people of the developing world as having terrific potential as human beings once they dump those aspects of their culture, including God, which conflict with market forces. The Third World, on the other hand, is usually too polite to say so but often look on us as living weirdly fragmented lives which provide no real satisfaction, of the needs of heart, soul, stomach, libido or blood ties. The difference is that a country like Thailand is addressing its problems and changing with amazing speed. Whether we are doing anything about our underlying alienation from our own humanity is a different question. At the end of the day though I think there does need to be an evolution of value structures on both sides.
Q: Okay I have to ask: Is there actually a place that resembles the Old Man’s Club?
A: No but I would refer you to a conversation between Kimberly and Sonchai where Sonchai reflects on how accommodating the sex industry can be to Western misfits including the aged. The fact is that the East really does not have the cult of youth (except in Japan) and Viagra is on sale over the counter in every pharmacy in Bangkok— you could say that every bar is a de facto old man’s club, though not exclusively so.
Q: Sonchai mentions that he is a fan of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe. Does he share his literary taste with his creator? Which writers do you most admire?
A: I like Chandler’s wit. I admire Martin Cruz Smith whose Gorky Park for me is still a benchmark for really polished thrillers, and I admire John Le Carre and Truman Capote, but my true hero— the man who for me mastered plot, human interest, Third Word insight and brilliant economy of language is Graham Green (I’ve read The Quiet American about 12 times). I’m trying not to inflict my ridiculous eclecticism on you— I’m the sort of person who can keep Dante and Len Deighton as bedside reading and dip into both in the space of an hour.
Q: So, what is next for you? Will we be seeing Sonchai again?
A: Yes, I’ve sort of fallen in love with his mother (platonic of course).