“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” Interview with Jim Algie: Author of The Phantom Lover
JA: It’s all the myriad paradoxes and extreme juxtapositions. You’ve got these ancient sites like Angkor Wat and the Temple of Dawn, as well as hyper modern malls; there’s incredible hospitality jostling with every sort of barbarity; you’ve got arcane superstitions counterbalanced by a whole new wave of thinkers and artists; some of the most colourful festivals I have ever seen in stunning contrast to the shabbiest urban blight. And then there’s the hotpot of ethnicities and all sorts of eccentric expats. So you’re never short of stories, backdrops and characters.
TF: What books and or music influenced you growing up?
JA: My first writing influences were Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London. My taste in tunes also strayed towards the darker side of the spectrum, with Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and the New York Dolls leading the savage wolf pack. Even today I still revere those bands and authors.
TF: What’s the last record you can remember listening to?
JA: I’ve been listening to Wilco again, and their scandal-plagued magnum opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s one of those rare instances when a group actually took no shit from the corporate rectums of the music business. Their label dropped them because they thought the album was anti-commercial, then the band sold it back to a different subsidiary of the same company for even more money and it became the biggest-selling album of their career. To my ears, Wilco is the best American band of the past 20 years, and Jeff Tweedy is America’s greatest singer and songwriter since the late Kurt Cobain and Paul Westerberg of The Replacements.
TF: Tell our readers about the musical chapters of your life. Your ability allowed you to travel a bit. Where did you go? What did you experience that stays with you from that time?
JA: For the first out-of-town shows we played with a surf-punk band called the Malibu Kens, we had to drive 200 miles to the city of Calgary in western Canada, to play four sets a night for seven nights in a row at a skidrow tavern called The Calgarian to largely hostile or indifferent crowds of truckers, junkies, alkies, wretched-looking prostitutes and a few punks who also hung out there. All four of us stayed in a small, mildew-smelling room, full of silverfish and other vermin, in the hotel. During one gig, a guy got stabbed to death in the bathroom and his bloody handprints could be seen on the walls for months afterwards. Another night there was a 20-men-and-4-whores brawl in the bar with people smacking each other over the head with chairs and tables while we played. For a bunch of middle-class boys, still only 18 and 19, that was our indoctrination – our baptism of hellfire – and real life on the dark side of the street.
Jim Algie (far right) during his Blake Cheetah days
TF: Is there a book laying around your home that you haven’t gotten around to reading?
JA: Many, but the new biography of China’s Great Reformer, Deng Xiaping, is especially huge and daunting.
TF: Complete this sentence. I write to…
JA: … communicate something to the world and myself that cannot be communicated in any other way or through any other medium.
TF: Make the case for fiction over non-fiction in 207 words or less.
JA: What’s missing from so much journalism and non-fiction is a sense of humanism and heart. When journalists strain for superlatives they resort to the same geriatric clichés about “triumphs of the human spirit” or “tragic demises” or “losing battles against cancer” while labeling serial murderers as “monsters.” Dead language does not elicit any lively reactions. One of my favorite parts of Timothy Hallinan’s Breathing Water, a superbly suspenseful Bangkok thriller in his Poke Rafferty series, is how the Thai cop and his wife deal with her terminal illness. In journalism these days, human-interest stories are disappearing in place of celebrity gossip and business stories. By contrast all great works of fiction put people first and human concerns at their core.
To borrow another example from Breathing Water, Tim has a great paragraph about how the light in Bangkok around dusk, which is the protagonist’s favorite time of day and mine too, changes about five different times. I sensed that was true, but it really opened my eyes to something that I hadn’t seen before. In this way, fiction and poetry enrich our lives and perceptions. By contrast, in most non-fiction – except for maybe memoirs – the editor would cut all those descriptive details as irrelevant.
TF: Tell us about your latest collection of stories, The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand, and why book lovers should read it?
JA: If they don’t read it I can’t say their lives will be greatly impoverished or they will come down with any loathsome diseases, but those who are interested in Thailand and SE Asia will find a different set of stories and characters, often with Thai protagonists, that deliver some different insights into the lives of young high-society women, ancient folklore with modern twists, the rural downtrodden, and what will probably remain the biggest natural disaster of our lifetimes, the 2004 Asian tsunami.
TF: Please tell me about your current favorite dead author.
JA: Raymond Carver. I just reread a kind of greatest hits’ collection of his short fiction called Where I’m Calling From. He was the most heralded short fiction author when I was studying Creative Writing in the late 80s. So I wanted to revisit those stories to see how he achieved those incredible effects with the most unadorned prose and lack of sensationalism combined with very ordinary characters caught up in entirely plausible situations. “Errand,” his story about the death of Anton Chekhov, whom was the writer he was most often compared to, and which he wrote while dying of a similar disease, is one of the great masterpieces of contemporary literature. It’s most likely way beyond anything I could ever achieve, but there’s no point in aspiring to mediocrity. There’s already enough of that on TV as it is.
TF: What is your approach for a book launch? You’ve had two now – for Bizarre Thailand and The Phantom Lover. Were they similar or different?
JA: I am not an orator. I don’t do readings or impersonations. So my approach is similar. I present a slide show of travel pics, book covers, personal shots, “Hell Money Banknotes” from the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, and talk about all sorts of influences that were melded together to form some of the stories, from serial slayers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, to lesbian erotica, European artworks, snake-handling shows in Thailand and black magic from the time of Angkor Wat.
Jim Algie and shadow at The Phantom Lover Book Launch at WTF Bar
TF: Let’s talk about shadows and demons. Just because they are fun to discuss. How important are they to a writer? Are they one and the same thing? Should a writer have demons of his own in order to create fictional ones? If a writer hasn’t struggled with his shadows or demons is he/she in denial?
JA: Everyone has their own shadows and demons. Since we can’t talk about them in polite company we have to find other outlets like books, music, TV shows and films. From any artist’s perspective the demons are slippery and the shadows immaterial, so they are not easy to write or sing about. Either it comes off like macho bravado or like self-pitying whining. Ultimately, you need to strike a balance between the two and not give any easy solutions or sermons about conquering them. For the most part, I try to stay away from those first-person confessional sorts of stories, though I did write one long novella, “Obituary for the Khaosan Road Outlaws and Imposters,” in the last book that features some demon wrestling and shadow hunting.
TF: You were a drinking buddy of Thailand’s last executioner, Chavoret Jaruboon and attended his funeral in 2012 after he died of cancer. Chavoret was personally responsible for executing 55 inmates. I understand a movie about his life has just been released; can you tell me about it?
JA: I just reviewed the film for the Bangkok Post. (Biopic Takes No Prisoners) It’s a pretty accurate depiction of his life from being a teenage rock ‘n’ roller to becoming a prison guard, so he could take care of his family, and then working his way up to executioner. As I mentioned in the review, “conflicted characters make the best protagonists and hinges for dramatic tension,” so that’s why I’ve written about him in Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic, as well as the Phantom Lover collection. He was a fascinating man, deeply tormented by guilt and karma, but in Thailand, and this is not mentioned in either the film or in my books, the executioner can be seen as an heroic figure, too, freeing prisoners from their bad karma to be reborn again. Tellingly, the death chamber at Bang Kwang Central Prison is referred to in Buddhist terms as the “room to end all suffering.”
TF: Any plans for the Year of the Horse?
JA: As with every previous year I am trying really hard not to die, and to finish some new books and a bunch of stories. Here it is July already and I’m still breathing, making toast and typing words on a keyboard, so I take these gifts as good omens.
TF: I’ll toast to all that. Thanks, Jim.
An inquisitive Jim Algie
For more information about Jim Algie and his writings go to: www.jimalgie.club
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